Gender, Race, Oppression, and Critical Theory (Shenvi/Sawyer)

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Hearing about many recent cultural issues and happenings has left me somewhat confused. I am wondering why some people today think it’s ok for a person to condemn violence by engaging in violent acts himself. I’m wondering how someone can think an entire group of people is guilty if only some members of the group have done evil. I’m also wondering why one group will absolutely not listen to or dialogue with a group it opposes.

Here’s a short booklet that has answered a lot of my questions: Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. (As a side, having studied postmodernity in seminary, it’s fascinating to me to see how critical theory’s epistemology seems to be a child of postmodernism.) Here’s an excerpt I marked up:

Because contemporary critical theory divides society into oppressed groups and oppressor groups, many critical theorists insist that our identity as individuals is inextricably bound to our group identity. From the perspective of contemporary critical theory, our experience of reality, our evaluation of evidence, our access to truth, our moral status, and our moral obligations are all largely determined by our membership in either a dominant oppressor group or a subordinate oppressed 􏰙􏰆􏰂􏰔􏰚 group. It’s important to note that the definition of “oppression” in critical theory differs markedly from the definition one finds in the dictionary, where “oppression” refers to “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power.” According to critical theory, “oppression” should additionally or even primarily be understood in terms of “hegemonic power,” the ability of a particular group to impose its norms, values, and expectations on the rest of society: “In any relationship between groups that define one another (men/women, able-bodied/disabled, young/old), the dominant group is the group that is valued more highly. Dominant groups set the norms by which the minoritiized group is judged.”

Given this definition, contemporary critical theorists view racism, sexism, classism, ableism, capitalism, heteronormativity, and cisgender privilege as forms of oppression: “People [in the U.S.] are commonly defined as other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosex- ism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively.”  In saying that a particular man is an “oppressor” the critical theorist is not saying that the man has personally ever abused his power or, for instance, mistreated women in ways that are traditionally understood as unjust. Rather, the critical theorist is asserting that the group to which the man belongs (men) has imposed its views on society regarding what is normal, expected, and valuable, thus making the man an oppressor. By establishing hegemonic norms, dominant groups conversely characterize the “Other” as abnormal, unusual, deviant, or worthless. Of course, a particular individual can participate in both oppressed and oppressor groups simultaneously, but this overlap does not reverse or overturn the respective social position of the groups to which she belongs. For example, a white woman is oppressed in terms of her gender but is still privileged in terms of her race.

One of the most important implications of contemporary critical theory’s emphasis on group identity is the moral asymmetry it assumes between different groups. Because of its collectivist outlook, members of oppressor groups are not seen as morally neutral, even if their individual behavior has been unimpeachable….

I’ll come back to this book later, but for now if you’re interested you can find it online in several places as a PDF: Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. I also appreciate how this book shows some positives of critical theory but then contrasts it with the Christian worldview and apologetics.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

We Can Know! (Carson)

Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism [15th Anniversary Edition]

The Gagging of God by Don Carson is one of those books I read some years ago that I still think about and appreciate. I’m sure many of you have books like this: you read them, really enjoyed them, and you go back to them from time to time because they were super helpful in your Christian walk. This book – The Gagging of God – is that for me. Here’s a part I recently re-read that I believe is still applicable today even though we’re probably past postmodernism and into post-postmodernism:

…I have tried to show that, whatever the genuine insights that can be gleaned from postmodern epistemology, it is finally unsuccessful in its attempt to deny the existence both of objective truth and human access to it. We may readily concur that human knowing is partial, but not that it is therefore necessarily objectively untrue; that our cultural baggage shapes our perceptions and categories, but not that no one from the culture may transcend these categories; that individuals belong to interpretive communities, but not that the individual in such a community, or even the entire community itself, cannot be reformed by information coming from outside.

In some ways, Christians go farther than postmodernists: we insist on the noetic effects of sin. But on the other hand we insist equally on the power of grace and the work of the Spirit through the heralded word of God to transform our understanding. Above all, because the God who has so graciously disclosed himself knows all things truly and exhaustively, we perceive that it is possible for his image-bearers to enjoy knowledge that is a subset of his. Moreover, we perceive that the strongest arguments of postmodernism in general and of deconstruction in particular are not securely based, and in many instances can be shown to be inconsistent at their core and finally self-destructive.

The entailment of such a stance is that however much we may defend the right of people to articulate their views, we must equally insist that some views are in error….

D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God, p. 348-349.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Our Finite Knowledge (Van Til)

Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. One aspect of being a human, a created being, is that our knowledge is limited and finite. For example, in Job 38ff God’s rhetorical questions show that Job is neither omnipotent (do you give the horse its might? 39:19) nor omniscient (do you know the ordinances of the heavens? 38:33).  In fact, after God’s rebuke, Job admits the finitude of his knowledge: I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (41:3).

I appreciate how Cornelius Van Til explained this in Christian Apologetics:

“…We must stress the point that man must always be different from God.  Man was created in God’s image.  Man can never in any sense outgrow his creaturehood.  This puts a definite connotation into the expression that man is like God.  He is ‘like’ God, to be sure, but always on a creaturely scale.  For that reason, the church has embedded into the heart of its confessions the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God.  God’s being and knowledge are absolutely original; such being and knowledge is too wonderful for man; he cannot attain unto it.

Man was created finite and his finitude was originally not felt to be a burden to him.  Man could never expect to have comprehensive knowledge even in heaven.  It is true that much will be revealed to us that is now a mystery to us, but in the nature of the case God cannot reveal to us that which as creatures we cannot comprehend; we should have to be God ourselves in order to understand God in the depth of his being.  Man can understand God’s revelation only ‘promensura humana’ (according to human measure, that is, within the limits of our creaturely capacity to understand).

The significance of this point will appear more fully when we contrast this conception of mystery with the non-Christian conception of mystery….  The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian conception of mystery may be expressed in a word by saying that Christians hold that there is mystery for man but not for God, while non-Christians hold that there is either no mystery for God or man or that there is mystery for both God and man.

Cornelius Van Till, Christian Apologetics (Philipsburg: P&R, 2003). 40-41.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Wisdom and Worldview (Goldsworthy)

Here’s a nice section from Graeme Goldsworthy’s book Gospel and Wisdom:

“The Christian rejects this [naturalistic] assumption of a universe which is shut up against the God of the Bible.  He accepts rather that God is self-sufficient, personal, and in complete control.  While the atheist view of reality is a closed system of cause and effect, the Christian view is a universe in which cause and effect are established by God and open to his sovereign intervention.  We need the revelation of God in order to know that the universe is in fact like this.  We do not know all the answers yet.  We never will know all the answers because some can be known by God alone. Because God has revealed that the ultimate meaning of reality lies beyond the ability of man to discover for himself, we know that empirical knowledge is always in that sense defective.  What man discovers by himself, and what he reasons from it, will never bring him to understand God and to know him.  Thus, we have returned to Paul’s assertion that worldly wisdom cannot know God (1 Cor. 1:21, compare 2:12).

The Bible characteristically looks at reality in terms of relationships.  Because God is the creator of all things, these relationships must begin with God.  To understand what it means to be human we must know man as image of God.  The non-Christian can describe many things about man in a way that is useful within a restricted framework.  But while we can look at man purely in terms of structure, chemistry, anatomy and so on, none of these approaches can show us the real nature of man.  They do not provide a satisfactory explanation of the uniqueness of man in the purposes of God.  They can never discover and pin-point the exclusive trait of humanity created in the image of God.  From a biblical point of view, then, the definition of man is primarily a definition of his relationship to God….”

This quote is taken from The Goldsworthy Trilogy, pages 367-8.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Tension of Unbelief (Guinness)

Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion Fool’s Talk by Os Guinness is an excellent resource for thoughtful Christian apologetics.  I’ve mentioned it here before so I won’t go into details.  But there is a section I was recently reading again – a section which is well worth posting here.  It’s based on Romans 1:18ff:

“At the core of unbelief is ceaseless, unremitting and inescapable tension and conflict.  Unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness, but it is still always the truth, so they can never completely get away from it.  An unbeliever’s view of the world without God may contain many deep truths and have all sorts of genuine merits.  But that view of the world can never be completely true, because the unbeliever will not accept God, without whom it will always be finally false at some points.  Yet at the same time, the unbelievers’ views of the world are never completely false, because they can never get away completely from God and his truth.  Unbelief is therefore always an inherently in tension, and it can never escape this conflict.  Whatever view of the world unbelief espouses, it is always partly true but twisted, and it is always twisted, though never other than still partly true.”

Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 93-4.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI