On Critical Theory and the Christian

My Response to Tim Keller

In the previous post, I explored Tim Keller’s understanding of a “foundation” for justice in his recent article (here) on justice? I asked, do we understand ‘Biblical Justice’ as a foundation in terms of A.) an objective truth to be argued for over against the other versions of justice? or B.) a tradition of justice to be worked out in the lives of Christians as a church under Jesus’ Lordship, lived before the world (alongside other justices) as a witness?

This issue is important to me because I believe it shapes the posture by which Christians live justice in the world. The first approach A.) can lead to a coercive posture in which Christians presume a superior position on justice in the world, while the second approach B.) asks us to live justice as a people working out what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ among us first. Living this justice as a people then makes it possible to share this justice with the world.

The first posture works (in a manner of speaking) in Christendom where Christians can presume we are in charge. The second posture is that of a minority people capable of mission in post-Christendom sharing the gospel and the justice of God in Christ with the world (who doesn’t believe) in a noncoercive way. I was querying in the previous post whether Dr. Keller is A.) or B.). I’m not entirely sure. For me however I am firmly in the second camp.

This gets me to the topic of ‘Critical Theory,’ a topic Dr. Keller also addresses in his article. Critical Theory, I believe, can be too quickly written off by people in camp A.), but be a very helpful tool for Christians in the second camp B.). Allow me to explore this theme a bit using pastor Keller’s article.

Keller’s View on Critical Theory and Justice

Dr. Keller labels ‘postmodern Critical Theory’ as his 4th view of justice on his spectrum of justice theories. Critical theory is a wide and vast field (that includes post-structuralism). Depending on who you include in this group (labeling it ‘postmodern critical theory’ makes it even broader), it’s is hard to pin down a theory of social justice on critical theorists. Derrida famously describes justice as always being deferred. Just when you think you’ve nailed justice down, at that moment, it escapes us. It must be deconstructed all over again. Because the minute we ensconce it in a language, voices are excluded, violence is made manifest and so we must deconstruct all over again. For Derrida, it could be said that true justice (or truth, or meaning) never arrives. For Foucault, narrating genealogies (one of his preferred methods) is famous for never really making a judgement on what was right/ just or wrong/unjust in these histories. For Foucault, it seems to be enough to just expose the power at work in these systems. This revealing is an advance for Foucault. Surely these are generalizations of Derrida and Foucault but they illustrate why on the whole it’s problematic to try to construe a theory of justice around them.

Instead I view post-structuralism, critical theory, and critical race theory as tools of diagnosis. They can be extremely helpful in clarifying the issues of power, antagonism, cultural frameworks and subjectivity at work in various issues in race, sexuality, gender, inequality, economics, politics. At their best, these cultural theorists teach us how to ask good questions, make astute observations, locate voices. It can open space for the work of God in Christ to reconcile, heal, make bodies whole, put into place various attractions, reactions, and other formations.

Good psychotherapy can unwind an individual’s story, unwind the dynamics he/she is reacting to, the abuses, the things that have formed us, understand how I might be reacting to something, which then makes space for God to work, seek forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, confession, etc. I view Critical Theory/poststructuralism/Critical Race Theory as good cultural psychotherapy. It can unwind what’s going on in our social constructs of gender, sexuality, race, economics that can then open space for God to work in these social spaces. I don’t believe psychotherapy can somehow lead me to a more primordial experience of God and neither do I believe post-structuralism can lead us to what true justice is. But it can clear space so we can hear God anew from Scripture, exposes abuses and other sins, seek repentance, mutuality, and be led to His work in these spaces in new and powerful ways.

Here’s a few comments on Tim’s take on critical theory to illumine how critical theory can help us make space for God to work in an antagonistic broken world.

Keller on “Discourse”

Keller says that, for critical theory, “the main way power is exercised is through language—through “dominant discourses” … Language does not merely describe reality—it constructs or creates it.” I think Dr. Keller is accurate as much as a generalization can be. But whereas Keller sees this aspect of critical theory as detracting from a theory of justice, I see it as a tool for helping us to see things we are blind to. I find discourse analysis as useful in unfolding both the contingency and the formative effects of a sociological discourse. In other words, it helps us see how the way we talk, use words, behave in certain ways embodies learned and unspoken assumptions in matters such as racism, sexuality, gender, socio-economics, etc.

Various theorists use different terms to describe what Dr. Keller calls “discourse” such as cultural construct, symbolic order, discourse and then there is my favorite: ideological frame. Exposing how frameworks shape the way see people, roles and social dynamics has been enormously helpful for me in the areas of sexuality and race. We are always being formed into frameworks. And yes, language has a way of shaping and creating realities, normative orders that seem like reality that perhaps we need to acquire some distance from. Critical theory helps us acquire that distance.

In my (not so) humble opinion, evangelicals in general, conservative and progressive, have a habit of getting caught in the frame. We argue for or against an issue within the given frame never examining the frame itself. A good example is the way we argue for affirming/not affirming of LGBTQ sexuality and marriage, all the while never actually getting to examining the frame. Instead we assume the frame. For example, we never look at whether “attraction,” and its multitudinous formations in our culture, is something we should base anything on (never mind marriage). We just argue for or against whether those with a given attraction should be allowed to marry or not according to Christian tradition (or Scripture). When we delve deeper into the notion of “attraction” (via “the male gaze” – a third wave feminist discovery in the 90’s or other deconstructive work), we see layers at work we did not see before. We see perhaps that the very things we assume shape the culture responsible for the abuse the #MeToo movement has exposed. We never get to any of these questions unless we ask the question of “discourse” and how we are being shaped into these power structures.

Critical Race Theory does a lot of this work in the area of race. It helps us look at “the frame,” how the normative gaze, say of white supremacy, is something culturally constructed over many years and that I was raised up into (unintentionally). I’m able to release my own personal guilt feelings for a minute, and see the way this frame operates to shape me, make me feel, and desire, and even act unconsciously. Then as a people of Jesus, we can do the work of following him, by piece by piece dismantling it, holding on to anything good and righteous, and opening a space for a new and reconciled social reality of his Lordship.

Discourse analysis does not provide a basis for justice, but it does, in my words, open space for us to ask the questions that make a new justice possible in Jesus Christ. But I fully agree with Dr. Keller that, by themselves, these texts do not provide the basis for a substantive concept of justice.

Keller on “Power”

Dr. Keller says that critical theory asserts that “reality is at bottom nothing but power. And if that is the case, then to see reality, power must be mapped through the means of “intersectionality” … Only powerlessness and oppression bring moral high ground and true knowledge. Therefore, those with more privilege must not enter into any debate— … they simply must give up their power.”

Keller is oversimplifying a complex idea that runs through critical theory, post-structuralism, post Marxism etc., and I know he knows that. And again, Keller sees this aspect of critical theory as detracting from a theory of justice. But once again I see this aspect of critical theory as a tool for helping us see things we are blind to.

As an Anabaptist type, worldly power is defined by coercion or some form of violence. In other words, power is when person a. or system a. exercises power over (the key word here being “over”) person b. against the will of person b. or in a way that person b. has little/no say in the resulting consequences. This doesn’t have to be physically violent to be coercive. I see the whole Bible as revealing the negative effects, the sin involved, the often brutal consequences of such power. God himself may, in his sovereignty, indirectly use worldly power toward his purposes, but God ultimately wants to work in the world through the power of His presence to heal redeem and restore the world. This power, God’s power, is a completely different kind of power.

What critical theory does, beginning with Marx and Foucault (following Nietzsche) is help expose how worldly power is at work in various frameworks that shape how we live in society. Money, government, institutions like hospitals, etc. all narrate reality (give us a framework) so that its constituents trust and participate in these social systems. These constructs help us enter a hospital, pay our taxes, participate in racism, etc. all the while covering over the abuse of power with a moral justification.

This may seem cynical? But again, I don’t see the work of critical theory as providing me a foundation for what justice is. Rather uncovering the power at work in the frame enables one to see the hierarchies, the abuse and the resulting antagonisms at work in a construct. When applied to race (critical race theory), gender (some queer theory), sexuality, politics and economics, it gives one the skill to unwind the antagonism, relieve the anger, and allow Jesus to reconcile, heal the division within gender constructs. It makes space for God in Christ to work and make things whole.

In the last line of Dr. Keller’s piece, he says this about power: “So the Bible does not presume an end to the “binary” of power. Rule and authority are not intrinsically wrong. Indeed, they are necessary in any society. But while not ending the binary, neither does Christianity simply reverse it. It does not merely fill the top rungs of authority with new parties who will use power in the same oppressive way that is the way of the world.”

I don’t know quite how to read this in terms of what I am saying about power. In my (not so humble) opinion, Reformed, Neo-Calvinists and/or Neo-Reformed thinkers have often argued that the idea of power itself cannot be avoided (a very Niebuhrian thing to say). They argue often that rule and authority is not a bad thing, it’s the wrong use of such power that is a bad thing. I don’t know if Tim Keller is arguing this way, but I nonetheless want to point to what I said above about the difference between the worldly power “over,” and the way God’s power works “with” and “among” (Mark 10:42-45) As such, dissecting and unwinding the effects of worldly power is a good thing and makes space for God’s power to work through the church in the world.

Keller on “Subjectivity”

Dr. Keller summarizes Critical Theory’s understanding of the individual is these words: “neither individual rights nor individual identity are primary … it is an illusion to think that, as an individual, you can carve out an identity in any way different or independent of others in your race, ethnicity, gender, and so on. Group identity and rights are the only real ones.”

Again, this is a summary, and it’s even me selecting a summary from Keller’s summary. But I believe what Keller is referring to here is what critical theorists often refer to as “subjectivity.” And again, where Keller sees this aspect of critical theory as detracting from a theory of justice, I see it as a tool for helping us to see things we are blind to.

‘Subjectivity’ acknowledges that all individuals are all shaped by cultural constructs to feel, believe, aspire, desire, play certain roles and be attracted to various ideals, persons and things. Our individual selfhood is woven into a discourse (that indeed births our selfhood) and there are power structures at work in this discourse. When Ta-Nehesi Coates, in Between the World and Me, talks about growing up in a black body and wanting, believing in, feeling and aspiring to the superiority of whiteness, he’s talking black subjectivity. But where did these feelings, perceptions come from? And are they true (is whiteness superior to blackness?). These questions are not only important to ask and dissect when it comes to racism, but also in terms of sexuality, gender, poverty, immigration.

Modern epistemology, and N. American evangelicalism as well, has focused on the person as the individual thinking subject capable of making independent decisions, assessing worldviews, and through personal disciplines becoming a sanctified follower of Christ. I often call this version of the self the “naïve modern subject.” Critical theory undermines the excess confidence modern people have in the naïve modern subject. It shows over and over again how humans are not these autonomous cogitos – self developed personalities - who are free and can make independent decisions. We are subjects formed by discourses, scripts, cultural constructs to think, feel, desire by these ideologies, that ensconce into power relations. What may seem natural to us in our culture (like white privilege or sexual attractions or gender scripts) is indeed scripted and these scripts are shaped by power relations. And we need to gain a little distance and examine how we are being formed. This realization is the genesis of the modern spiritual formation movement. And this kind of critical theory helps us in this process of self-reflection and spiritual formation.

This all has enormous implications for Christian engagement in the world. Let’s take gender relations or sexuality in our culture. Evangelicals and progressives seem to focus on the essential nature inborn into the individual when making discernments of gender or sexuality. It’s either “you were born/created this way” or “you are what you feel/desire – this is who you are as created in the image of God.” But as Hauerwas is prone to say “I don’t trust my subjectivity.” We must first unwind the cultural constructs that our subjectivities have been scripted by. Judith Butler’s notions of performativity and naturalization have really been helpful in both understanding how gender constructs form. She reveals the antagonisms and power differentials at work that distort gender and sexuality.

And so, subjectivity, once we understand how it works, really opens up pathways for unwinding antagonisms, abuse and other factors in our lives that have formed how we inhabit gender and sexuality. It goes the same for socio-economics, racism, politics and many other realms where all of us Christians are called to go, be present, unwind the pain, and open space for God to work by His Spirit to heal, renew, save and transform.


In summary, I agree with Tim Keller. Critical Theory doesn’t provide an adequate basis for justice theory. But it can be helpful in giving us tools to humbly enter our culture, deconstruct what is happening in the upheaval of sexuality, gender, racism, politics, economics, and immigration. It gives us the wherewithal to enter spaces and cultures in N America and listen, ask good questions, and allow the power abuses of our culture and the lies of various discourses to be unwound, by which the reconciliation, forgiveness, healing and transformation of Jesus Christ can be received and transform then world. (We study this stuff at Northern Seminary’s MA Theology and Mission if anyone is interested)

I applaud Dr. Keller’s work in provoking us to thinking through the issues of justice in this way. His push to evangelicals to think more carefully about how we talk about, articulate and carry out “justice” is so needed at this time. I hope my interaction with ‘foundations” for justice, a posture for entering the world to work for justice, and critical theory as a helpful tool for such work will further the conversation. I think Scot’s blog would be glad to publish a response from Dr. Keller!

Let me know (and let Tim know) what you think?