Many people become suspicious at the mention of critical theory, especially as it applies to controversial matters of race, gender, law, and public policy. Some see the ideologies traveling under that banner as abstruse frameworks only minimally related to real-world affairs. Others see critical theory as a ruse meant to confer unearned scholarly legitimacy on highly debatable political and cultural opinions.
Christopher Watkin, an Australian scholar on religion and philosophy, wants to reorient discussions of critical theory around Scripture’s grand narrative of redemption. In Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture, he shows how God’s Word furnishes the tools for a better, more compelling critical theory—one that harmonizes the fragmentary truths advanced by its secular alternatives. Mark Talbot, professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, spoke with Watkin about his book.
Let’s begin with a basic question: How do you define critical theory?
There’s more than one answer to that question. There’s a narrow sense and a broad sense. The narrow sense is probably the one that most people come across first today. People have heard of things like critical race theory that involve very particular ways of critiquing society through a specific lens. But critical theory, more broadly conceived, is a way of engaging with society that points out what’s wrong with the world on a deep level and then suggests what needs to change to make it better.
As I’ve studied critical theories over the years, I’ve noticed that almost all of them do three things. First, critical theories make certain things viable so that you begin to think those things are possible—like Marxist revolution, for example. Second, they make things visible, like the unequal treatment of women in society that many people ignored or simply didn’t see for a long time. Third, they make things valuable. They catechize us about what to desire and what to condemn.
You mention critical race theory, which has become a flash point for some Christians and a big reason why critical theory has a bad name among them. Where do we tend to go wrong in our attitudes toward critical theory?
Critical theory does have a particularly bad name among certain groups of Christians. It also has an unusually good name among others. Both responses are problematic because Christians should not expect worldly ideology to represent either a perfect ideal for the church or the Devil incarnate.
There are very important theological reasons for that. First, only God is good, and so we should expect everything in the world to be a mixture—a shadow of God’s good creation but also somehow twisted, misunderstood, and distorted because sin has pulled it out of shape. That’s true of critical theory and other ideologies as well. There are some things that critical theory seeks to do that I think Christians should also want to do—upholding justice and fairness, for example. Yet the ways critical theory goes about doing those things are different from biblical ways, and that’s part of how critical theory has taken biblical principles and distorted them and misunderstood them to some extent.
But the problem for the church is when Christians see critical theory as the only thing that must be opposed, as if everything else is either neutral or positive. It becomes the single thing that Christians must fight tooth and nail. There’s a naiveté in thinking, If we just get rid of this one thing, then society will be wonderful. So that’s how I think some Christians have gotten unsettled about critical theory, by either utterly embracing it or utterly rejecting it.
How do you see the biblical narrative functioning as a kind of critical theory?
Starting with those categories I’ve already laid out, a critical theory makes things viable, visible, and valuable. The Bible is of course the Word of God, the sword of the Spirit that makes us wise for salvation. But it also makes certain things viable. Many today would laugh at the idea of trusting God’s promises. But when you read enough of the Bible, you begin to see what it would be like to trust this sort of God. Trusting him then becomes viable.
The Bible also makes things visible. You may have seen many sunsets, for instance, but as you read from Psalm 19:1 that the heavens declare the glory of God, you learn to see that glory in beautiful sunsets. His glory is made visible for you.
And the Bible also makes things valuable. Here’s an example from my own life. Before I was a Christian, I would have looked at you very quizzically if you had told me that I should seek to serve other people. It would have made no sense to my 14-year-old self. But you can’t read far in the Bible without coming across exhortations to serve others, especially from Jesus’ lips. So service becomes something you value if you’re seeking to conform your view of the world to the biblical view.
In all these ways, then, the Bible is acting like a critical theory, in that it makes things viable, visible, and valuable.
What is the relationship between your project and Augustine’s project in his great City of God?
Augustine’s book provides the pattern that I, very falteringly, have sought to follow. What I found in City of God was a breathtaking example of someone surveying the whole of the culture in which he lived. Augustine leaves no stone unturned. In the first half of the book, he overviews the whole of Roman society, which is incredibly important because cultures are ecosystems and you can’t understand one part in isolation from the whole.
In the second half of the book, Augustine then travels through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as a way of engaging with late Roman culture. And he does so with the aim of telling a more convincing and richer story about both God and Rome than Rome could tell about itself. I found that pattern incredibly compelling, and I knew that if I wanted to bring late modern culture into conversation with the Bible, this was the blueprint to follow.
What is the ultimate goal of developing a biblical critical theory?
The ultimate goal must be loving God and neighbor. Now, of course, there are millions of ways to do that, so that doesn’t tell you anything very specific about the ultimate goal of biblical critical theory. But unless that’s your highest goal, you have to ask as a Christian whether what you’re doing is really worthwhile.
More specifically, this project helps us love God and neighbor like this: It’s hard to love God well in a culture that’s catechizing you in ways you aren’t aware of or don’t understand. If we don’t realize how contemporary Western society is shaping us, then we won’t know which aspects of that shaping are more or less benign, and which aspects we should resist or transform.
And in leading Christians through the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation, biblical critical theory is also teaching us the wonderful big picture of God’s plans for us. There’s a “wow” that comes from seeing the big sweep of redemptive history and seeing how God’s complex, multilayered story makes sense of our world and our own lives within it.
In your introduction, you describe your experience writing grant proposals. Sometimes, when you figured you had written a slam-dunk proposal, the grant committee would come back with the question, So what? In the context of your book, you explain how asking, So what? is different than asking, say, What is this doctrine? or Why should we believe it? Could you explain that difference more fully?
Take the Bible’s first verse: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” A doctrinal approach would seek to understand things like: Who is this God? And how does this creation account differ from other ancient creation accounts? A traditional apologetic approach would seek to justify the claim in the verse and to demonstrate why this is a reasonable thing to claim and why the alternatives may be less reasonable.
Both of those are great approaches. They’re just not the approach I’m taking in the book. The “So what?” approach to that verse would ask: What difference does the fact that God created the heavens and the earth make to the way we understand reality, our culture, and ourselves? One difference is that, given this universe was made by one God alone, there’s a coherence to it. It’s not the result of a war between different gods or a chance occurrence with no intention behind it. There’s a purposefulness to this world. That shapes the way we engage with other people and understand ourselves and our purpose as well.
Another difference is that it is very clear in the Bible that nothing compelled God to create. He was not following some iron law of necessity; he was not bowing to some greater principle. As far as we can tell from the Scriptures, he made the world because he loves us, as strange as that may seem to modern ears. And that means that right at the heart and origin of the universe is not necessity or law but gift, grace, overflow, and superabundance. And if that’s how our universe began, then it’s a very different place to live in than a place governed by iron necessity and endless chains of causality. It affects the way that we live in modern society in all sorts of ways, some of which I tease out in the book.
You highlight two tools that help you develop a biblical critical theory, the first of which you call diagonalization. In your view, diagonalizing helps us avoid the mistake of treating Christianity and contemporary culture as completely distinct in their patterns and rhythms. Could you say more about how diagonalization works?
The principle begins from the beautiful reality that a biblical view of the world holds together in harmony things that the modern world has wrenched apart from each other and put into conflict. Take the image of God as an example. There are two beautiful, complementary truths held together in this language: a human dignity that comes from being made in the image of God, and a humility that comes from being reminded that we are not God himself. Both our dignity and our humility come from the same source.
But if you then look to the modern world, you’ll see that these two beautiful, harmonic biblical principles have been ripped apart from and opposed to each other. On the one hand, you have the idea that we are nothing more than machines or animals, which very imperfectly captures something of the humility of human beings in Genesis. We were even created on the same day as the other animals.
But then some modern anthropologies also treat us as if we were gods, suggesting that nothing should stand in the way of our will. This comes through in thousands of catch phrases: “Set your heart on whatever you desire, and you can get it.” “You can be whoever you want to be.” “You do you.” And other language in that vein.
Modernity awkwardly gives us these two anthropologies and says, “You’re a machine and you’re also a god; now go and live your life in peace and harmony.” Psychologically, it’s incredibly burdensome to sit on the horns of that dilemma. To diagonalize is to say that both aspects of modern anthropology are actually dismembered limbs of a beautiful biblical whole where they harmonize perfectly. So we need to recover the biblical harmony.
What we mustn’t do is split the difference and say I’m half machine and half god. That’s ridiculous and not biblical. So to diagonalize doesn’t mean compromising and meeting in the middle. It means showing that the two alternatives are both derivative and partial when compared to the biblical whole.
The second tool is something you call out-narrating. You talk about Scripture “out-narrating its cultural rivals.” And you show, for instance, how Christianity out-narrates the late-modern answer to the question Who am I? which traces back to René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy. How does the Christian understanding of personal identity make more sense than the late modern position?
Of course, it’s not the case that everything was perfect until Descartes. Right from the earliest philosophers, there were problematic ways of thinking about ourselves. It’s just that the particular story that I’m telling begins with Descartes.
What Descartes does with identity is to ground our understanding of ourselves inside ourselves for the first time. This is the upshot of his famous saying Cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am.” The idea then develops and changes, and by the time that you get to John Locke you have this idea that political scientist C. B. Macpherson calls Locke’s “possessive individualism.” It is the odd idea that we own ourselves, we possess ourselves, and therefore we can do with ourselves what we would do with any other possession. In Locke’s thinking, this has various caveats around it, but the Western tradition has tended to drop those caveats as time has gone on, so that we’ve come to see our bodies and our very selves as a possession.
If I possess myself, I can do what I want with myself because I own myself. Therefore, you get an emerging idea that nobody can tell me either who I am or how I should be. Nobody else has a claim on me. Nobody else can legitimately make me do anything that I don’t want to do, in the same way that they can’t just take one of my possessions.
This leads to a view of the self that is incredibly liberating on the surface. There’s something beguiling and attractive about it, especially to people who have lived in societies where they are always told what to do and where they have no autonomy. But one problem with this view of the self is that it inscribes identity into a logic of the market. I buy myself—and this is what we’ve found in recent decades: We construct our identities through our purchases. On one level, it’s the brands that we choose to adorn ourselves with, but it’s also the indie philosopher or theologian we want to be overheard namedropping. What new trend do we want to be out in front of?
From there, it’s not much of a jump to identity being a commodity that is bought and sold. I guess the most vivid place to see that today is online, where we curate particular identities. We market them to gain likes and follows and ultimately financial and reputational rewards.
The biblical view of identity is a profound subversion of that market paradigm, because in order to know who I am biblically, I don’t start within myself. I reach outside myself. Augustine’s Confessions is a beautiful example of this. It’s been called the first autobiography in the Western tradition, but of course it’s not written as a normal autobiography. It’s written as a prayer, in the second person. To find out who he is, Augustine knows that he must reach outside of himself to the God whose he is. The philosopher Michael Hanby, in his book Augustine and Modernity, has a very helpful way of putting this. He says that Christian identity is constructed as what he calls “doxological dispossession.” Doxological in the sense that I find myself as I adopt an attitude of praise to God. Dispossession in the sense that the way to find myself is to lose myself in knowing Christ. In the Gospels, he who seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life, for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the gospel, will find it.
Augustine has a very rich way of putting this in the Confessions. He says, If I look inside myself, what I find is a mess—an impenetrable swirl of different desires and ideas. There’s no coherence, no stable identity there. But then he says that when he reaches outside himself to God, he’s gathered together. He uses this beautiful imagery of being gathered as a self.
This frames Christian identity not as a possession that is bought and sold, but as a gift, a superabundant gift from God. And it makes us fundamentally relational beings as well. I can’t think of myself as an atom isolated from everyone else. There’s something incredibly healthy, both individually and socially, in this view of identity that isn’t subject to the vicissitudes of the market, that sends me outside myself and points me toward God and others.
What is your greatest hope for how developing a biblical critical theory can strengthen our posture and witness as believers?
I think it will, by God’s grace, equip and empower Christians to be shaped by biblical patterns and rhythms in the way we live, think, and engage with the world, rather than unthinkingly being shaped by the patterns and rhythms of late modern society. As Christians, we want to be people of the Book. We want to be people who love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who love our neighbor as ourselves. In the terms of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon, we want to be people who work for the peace and prosperity of the city where God has put us. Yet all those things are incredibly hard if we have no sense of the distinctive patterns and rhythms of the Bible and how they might stand against—or in some cases even sit alongside—the patterns and rhythms of our society.