Critical Theory Is Not Critical Enough

I argue that if Christians are to respond fully and properly to Critical Theory, such a response must be rooted in a truly Christian biblical-theological framework. Such a Christian response will recognize that Critical Theory is in effect an alternative theology or religion, and that it is helpful to understand Critical Theory as just such an alternative theology or religion.

A truly Christian response to Critical Theory will show that it is not—ironically—critical enough. Christianity truly gets to the heart of the matter and actually is the most truly “critical,” in that the Christian message offers a true understanding of reality and what is wrong with the world, and likewise offers the true solution to the myriad challenges, problems, and sufferings experienced and seen in the world.

…All roads lead back to the Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923 in Frankfurt, Germany. Hence, this Institute, and its fellow-travelers, are often referred to as the “Frankfurt School.” The early Frankfurt School was composed of Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, and Friedrich Pollock. Other associated persons would be the famous psychoanalyst and social psychologist Erich Fromm, Otto Kirchheimer, Henryk Grossman, as well as Walter Benjamin. Second generation persons who are associated with the Frankfurt School would especially include Jürgen Habermas (born in 1929). The school was unapologetically Marxist, though it also felt free to try and advance, critique, and/or adjust the received Marxism of their day. With the rise of Nazism to increasing power, the Institute for Social Research moved to Geneva in 1934, and to New York City (Columbia University) in 1935.1 Likewise Critical Theory utilizes many insights from Hegel, and at least some members of this school saw Sigmund Freud’s basic paradigm as essential to its work.

Critical Theory was birthed in the aftermath of World War I. It was hoped—by many persons sympathetic to Marxism—that this crisis would precipitate the revolutionary activity for which many Marxists hoped. But such a revolution did not occur after World War I, and this led to something of a crisis for the Critical Theorists in general. Thus, Critical Theory both accepts much of the general Marxist (and Hegelian) paradigm, but is quite happy to re-work, re-think, adjust, extend, and even reject at points, various aspects of the Marxist paradigm. One of the “last” great thinkers of Critical Theory—Jürgen Habermas—has been more explicit about, at least in some senses, moving past Marx.

There are a number of ways one could try to summarize the key themes of critical theory. The movement was (and is) by no means monolithic, and the debates within the movement are not insignificant. In this article it is suggested that the key themes of critical theory can in general be viewed through the lens of traditional Christian insights and themes. That is, it will be argued that what critical theory offers is—in its own way—a kind of alternative theology or religious vision of the world. The various themes of critical theory can be seen or understood as themes, convictions, insights, hunches that all in various ways can be related to traditional Christian themes or doctrines. My contention is that when we read the critical theorists we can see in their various convictions and arguments and theories a kind of echo of various Christian themes—even if in critical theory they are often distorted, twisted, and rejected. But because critical theorists are nonetheless creatures living in God’s world and on God’s terms, their various themes and arguments can be rightly understood through the prism of key Christian themes and truths—even when the arguments, themes, and convictions of critical theory run radically counter to fundamental Christian truth claims. Read More»

Bradley G. Green | “Critical Theory and the Gospel” | July 26, 2022


  1. Some histories place the move to New York in 1934.


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  1. “ The Liberal Project

    Sowell argues that one reason social injustice is over-diagnosed, and social justice remedies over-prescribed, is that the whole concept of discrimination harbors a basic ambiguity. The word “discriminate” derives from the Latin one “discriminare,” which the Oxford English Dictionary translates as “to divide, separate, to distinguish, differentiate.” In English, the term has come to encompass two opposite meanings: to make relevant, justifiable distinctions and, alternatively, to make irrelevant, even invidious, ones. We use the former sense when saying, with approval, that a wine expert has a discriminating palate, or an orchestra conductor a discriminating sense of tempo and dynamics. The second, disapproving sense of the term means, according to Sowell, “treating people negatively, based on arbitrary assumptions or aversions concerning individuals of a particular race or sex, for example.”

    This central ambiguity about discrimination helps explain why those who oppose it routinely equate making distinctions with making unfair distinctions. As Sowell writes, the “implicit assumption that there would be no disparate outcomes unless there were disparate treatment” is “almost impervious to evidence.” To see disparities and immediately see racism (or sexism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, etc.) comes naturally to those who work from the assumption that no disparity ever has an innocent explanation.

    This disposition, in turn, results from sincere zealotry rather than cynical or obtuse misinterpretations of the facts. In a debate with author Sam Harris about whether it is intellectually and morally licit to investigate genetic causes for racial differences, Ezra Klein of said that to entertain this hypothesis would reassure those who have given up on furthering black progress through social policies. If people come to think that problems like high black poverty rates result from causes that are, in Klein’s phrase, “immutable,” then their reaction will be:

    This is not on us, white America, or America broadly, and we don’t have to kind of feel so bad. We can embrace the politics of difference. We can begin removing some of these social supports. Don’t need to have as much affirmative action. Don’t need this employment nondiscrimination stuff. We can cut the size of the social welfare state.

    This assertion is different from saying that decent people cannot consider the questions raised by books like Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994), or the recently published Who We Are and How We Got Here by geneticist David Reich, lest doing so legitimize the beliefs of scientific racists and eugenicists. That is, in itself, a dubious epistemological rule: evidence in support of proposition x might make bad people feel vindicated; therefore, x is false. A 1973 academic conference asserted, for example, that the possibility that heredity accounts for some portion of the differences between races is, in the New York Times’s summary, “unfit to discuss.” One speaker, historian Garland Allen, “said he believed in academic freedom, but only in conjunction with the ideas of the local community. ‘It should be like what goes on in China,’ he said”—at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

    Klein’s point, rather, is that the liberal project carried forward since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society must not be undermined. That project was to use activist government’s entire toolkit to help all Americans, but especially those who had been excluded or deprived prior to the civil rights movement and the other great egalitarian crusades of the 1960s. This quest for what historian Samuel Moyn calls “a fully inclusive social compact” will be undermined if people come to believe that the inequalities we see today result from cosmic injustices, which would mean that the story culminating in our present circumstances has no villains. And if no one’s actions caused today’s disparities, then it’s unlikely that anyone’s actions can cure them.

    Klein fears that if people come to view the disparities the liberal project exists to reduce as the consequences of anything other than past and present discrimination (of the invidious kind), people’s feelings of guilt and moral responsibility will diminish. As they do, the liberal project’s political support will come to rest heavily, and precariously, on motives of altruism and enlightened self-interest. It’s imperative, then, that whites not be “let off the hook” for disparities disadvantageous to blacks, which is the effect of considering causes other than discrimination as the source of those disparities. By extension, straight white males must not be let off the hook for disparities disadvantageous to any American outside their diminishing ranks. This, the entirety of America’s inequalities, is on them, all of it, and they must be made to feel very, very bad.

    All or Nothing

    As an African-American, Sowell has a basis to resent theories about blacks’ innate cognitive shortcomings, virtually all of whose proponents are European-Americans. But his review, published in the American Spectator in February 1995, called The Bell Curve “very sober, very thorough, and very honest.” Sowell accepts Herrnstein and Murray’s presentation of data supporting and opposing the idea of a genetic basis for black-white I.Q. differences, and subsequent declaration that they are “agnostic” on the question.

    Sowell is more skeptical than agnostic. He treats the question of innate differences between groups as far from answered, and possibly not answerable, given the analytical tools presently available. It is, nonetheless, askable. His review emphasized that I.Q. scores have increased significantly over the past several decades, too brief a period for genetic changes to account for the phenomenon. As The Bell Curve points out, the 15-point I.Q. gap between whites and blacks is comparable to the gap between whites today and those tested two generations ago. For Sowell, the fact that “the average level of mental test performance has changed very significantly for whole populations over time,” along with evidence that “particular ethnic groups within the population have changed their relative position” on the ranking of test score results, “undermines the case for a genetic explanation of interracial I.Q. differences.”

    Sowell clearly believes that culture, as it affects the development of human capital, is a better candidate for explaining inter-group differences than either discrimination or genetics. The “high correlation between the amount of work that different groups put into their education and the quality of their outcomes does not bode well for theories of genetic determinism,” he writes in Discrimination and Disparities. “When we find some race whose lazy students get educational results superior to the results of hard-working students in other races, this would be evidence supporting that hypothesis, but such evidence does not seem to be available.” Asians’ over-representation in New York’s specialized high schools would come as no surprise to Sowell, especially given the proliferation of test preparation centers in the city’s Asian neighborhoods. The Asian American Achievement Paradox (2015), by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, points out that the culture of academic achievement among Asian-Americans is so vigorous that a student who brings home a report card with an A-minus is said to have received “the Asian F.”

    One might suppose that cultural determinism would be accepted as a more respectful explanation of disparities than genetic determinism. To the contrary. If there is some hereditary basis for disparities disadvantageous to blacks, not only is it futile to devise remedies but also to assign blame…to anyone, white or black. Cultural determinism, however, ascribes agency to disadvantaged American groups, which necessarily recognizes responsibility and the possibility of blame as well. For sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, President Obama’s 2013 address at historically black Morehouse College warned its students “against using racism as an excuse for failure,” and condemned “black pathology, such as absentee fathers.” Such admonitions, Dyson lamented, were seen by white America as “heroic battles against black deficiency.” Another black public intellectual, Ta-Nehisi Coates, dismisses as “lazy” any cultural explanation for disparate outcomes that leave blacks worse off than whites.

    The great problem with the Morehouse speech and the Obama presidency in general, wrote Dyson, was the failure to “speak of race in a way that holds whites even partially responsible for black suffering.” As it is for Ezra Klein, the imperative becomes not to let whites off the hook. By contrast, ascribing every disparity adverse to blacks entirely in terms of discrimination holds whites wholly responsible for black suffering. Necessarily, then, it absolves blacks of any responsibility for such suffering, or any need to pursue changes other than demanding that whites renounce their advantages, as in the jihad against “white privilege” or Coates’s advocacy of huge monetary reparations for slavery and segregation.

    If all disparities are explained by discrimination, and all Americans fit into one of just two categories—victims of discrimination, or perpetrators and beneficiaries of it—this all-or-nothing frame for determining moral responsibility becomes inevitable. Unfortunately, so does a war between republicanism and pluralism. Ibram Kendi urges us to supplant the flawed principle that all men are created equal with the “perfectly egalitarian” declaration that “all human groups are equal.” This, he says, “is the creed of anti-racism. All human groups are biologically and behaviorally equal; they are all on the same level despite their physical and cultural differences.”

    This dictate about group equality, however, nullifies rather than enhances the principle of human equality. A nation dedicated to the proposition that all behaviors and cultures are to be regarded as equal forecloses the prospect of justified pride in order to banish the possibility of self-reproach. If their behaviors and cultures lead some groups to different levels than others, there must be endless, fevered efforts to keep everyone at the same level, as in Mayor de Blasio’s idea that proportional results are the sole criterion defining a fair process. This conception of equality sets it against, and demands that it prevail against, freedom. Constant state interventions will be needed to minimize the consequences, good and bad, of individuals’ choices, habits, and dispositions. For the sake of group equality, the disciplined, responsible, and ambitious will be penalized so that those who can’t or won’t manifest these qualities are rewarded. The result, concludes Thomas Sowell in his series of luminous books, written over the course of a long and very American life, will be an ever less free and democratic nation that will be hard to sustain and impossible to admire.” -William Voegeli

  2. I really do love the idea of seeing CRT as another religion built on a faulty foundation with major presuppositions (CVT!!!) as part of the liberal project. Like Machen noted way back when in C & L. I do think there is a place for classical apologetics as well as a vital compliment to the truths of the Bible.

    This is not conservatism vs liberalism and this should not be framed in a political context, although some wise conservative thinkers are very helpful.

    Christianity is first and foremost a matter of the soul and our greater purpose. We are a Body of believers but first we are individual souls made for eternity. Liberalism has to do with, first and foremost, righting every wrong, but they lack a true moral compass. Obviously, they lack true religion. So they create their own…..

  3. Liberalism is all about righting social wrongs, and it makes that the focus of its efforts. The Christian religion is about the good news of how Christ has made us right with God, so the focus of its efforts ought to be on sharing the gospel with all people, regardless of their social standing, as Christ commanded. Mark 16:15 As Machen has demonstrated, these are two different religions entirely. Christ has made all of God’s elect spiritually equal by virtue of His merits. Liberalism seeks equality in the things of this world. It is a sad confusion and deception, when Liberalism confuses earthly and spiritual equality, and calls itself Christianity.

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