Each of these recent, formidable movements—and numerous others—draws from the older, more established philosophical well of critical theory in one fashion or another. Whether or not we are familiar with these concepts, they are very much becoming a part of the air we breathe. They are taught in college courses, and the morality and narratives that these theories promote are found even in children’s shows. Workplace diversity training, whether military or civilian, now advocates many of these perspectives. The narrative often portrayed is that white, Christian, heterosexual males are oppressors. Christianity is often viewed as the ideological root of many of society’s contemporary social ills.
Defining and Describing Critical Theory
Intellectual movements are often easier to describe than they are to specifically define. This is certainly true of critical theory, a twentieth-century philosophical ideology that has birthed the numerous previously mentioned critical movements (and others) that stand against established institutions, whether secular or sacred, that are perceived as using power as a means of oppression. At its core, critical theory perpetually challenges the notion of institutional authority and the idea that true freedom can be identified with any one system of thought—whether that be a particular religion, a stream of political thought, or an overarching view of the world. At its core, critical theory attempts to analyze authority relationships from both a philosophical and practical point of view by searching for hidden biases and ulterior motives with an interest in replacing power structures with new ones that promise greater autonomy and material benefits.
Rather than beginning at a single moment in time, critical theory began as a confluence of several intellectual streams that came together to form a larger body of thought. The first of these streams is often referred to as the Frankfurt school (or the International School for Social Research) that originated in Goethe, Germany, during the 1920s and ’30s. Men such as Theodor Adorno, Eric Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer, working in different disciplines, were some of the early architects of the movement, with Jürgen Habermas becoming one of the better-known, later luminaries. This school was something of a multi-disciplinary think-tank focusing on contemporary social issues such as power, oppression, wealth, identity, and politics. The school was eventually forced to relocate due to pressures from the Nazi party, which perceived it as a threat to its political agenda. The overlapping timelines of Nazi ideology and the Frankfurt school are important to note, as the latter sat in stark contrast with the former. One was an ideology of oppression through totalitarianism; the other sought liberation for the oppressed through philosophical reflection on power structures and how change comes about. Both movements were highly political and were a threat to one another in different ways.
Another significant influence on critical theory was, and is, Marxism. “Critical Theory was conceived and birthed within the intellectual crucible of Marxism.” But critical theory should not be equated with Marxism or reduced to it. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that early architects of critical theory had something of a love-hate relationship with Marxism, sometimes drawing from Marxist ideology and sometimes forcefully rejecting it. Marxism is well known for its portrayal of the tensions that exist between various economic classes that are collapsed into the categories of “oppressors” and the “oppressed,” with capitalism being one of the main causes of oppression. At the same time, critical theorists saw in Marxism yet another system of thought that proved unsuccessful in its attempt to bring equity to the world.
One of the great, idealistic hopes of the Enlightenment was that man would finally be free from God and the various biblical, pre-Enlightenment ideas that held man captive. Many envisioned a secular utopia. The French Revolution is just one example of such a hope. Instead, man was unable to liberate himself. The French Revolution gave birth to “the reign of terror,” and the twentieth century witnessed world wars and many other tragedies. Looking back at this history, critical theorists see little more than alternatives to the biblical worldview that failed, including Marxism, socialism, and even modern liberalism. As a result, critical theorists believe that moral autonomy is the last possible alternative to all these failures. Liberating anyone who claims to be oppressed remains the one transcendent virtue. The practical reality of such a view, however, is that a form of secular materialism is wedded with moral anarchy. Within this framework, the only god is power.
Is critical theory’s worldview compatible with Christianity? This is an important question. While it may be possible to find Christians who endorse critical theory, it is nearly impossible to find critical theorists who endorse Christianity. This is because Christianity is an overarching system of thought that seeks to define reality and posits objective moral values. According to critical theory, Christianity fosters unsafe ideologies and institutions that perpetuate anti-scientific thought, intolerance for certain sexual behaviors, parochialism, patriarchy, and a punishing authoritarianism for any who do not conform. Pre-Enlightenment Christianity is seen as stuck in the dark ages of intellectual barbarism, and the post-Enlightenment church is viewed as perpetuating colonialism, racism, sexism, chauvinism, and homophobia. Critical theory is critical of virtually all worldviews, including Christianity. Its goal is human autonomy from any objective authority whatsoever.