No doubt, my answer is the latter, but I will let the discussion below explain why…
I was planning on writing a blog post about “critical race theory,” “intersectionality,” and the “social justice warrior” movement, but I just got bogged down thinking about it. If you do not know what those terms mean, then you are not alone. The vocabulary is complex and elusive. Additional terms like “identity politics” and “wokeness” abound. But allow me a few paragraphs to set up the story, as to why this topic is so important….. A lot of hysteria surrounds this topic. But some of the craziness is surprisingly far too true.
In September, 2018, a group of conservative evangelical pastors drafted and published “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel,” discussed here on Veracity. As many as perhaps 9,000 Christian pastors have signed the document, claiming that the modern trend towards “Social Justice” is incompatible with Christianity.
Nevertheless, a number of Christian leaders, ranging from Al Mohler, to Tim Keller, to Francis Chan, have rejected the document, believing that “Social Justice,” rightly understood, is perfectly compatible with orthodox evangelical faith. As Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, the flagship seminary for the Southern Baptist Convention, explains, some forms of “Social Justice” are consistent with Christianity, while others are not.
To complicate matters, in the summer of 2019, a resolution at the Southern Baptist Convention addressed the controversy over “Critical Race Theory” and “Intersectionality.” Some were in favor of the resolution, whereas others believe that it did not go far enough in condemning the “Social Justice Movement.” Some fear that the controversy will split Evangelicalism as a movement, within just a few years.
So, what is this whole controversy about?
Get your thinking cap on. You will need it.
The Rise of “Social Justice” in Post-Modernity, and Its Impact on the Church
This can get a bit heavy, so some background might help frame what is going on: Just in case you did not know, we are living in an increasingly post-modern, even post-Christian, society.
To be post-modern is in contrast with the idea of modernity. Modernity is the project of the Enlightenment come to fruition. Philosophers tell us that in pre-modern times, people lived in an age of faith. Whereas in modern times, we live in an age of reason. With modernity, religious faith has been marginalized to the preferences of the individual. What really remains supreme in modernity is reason, guided by the all-knowing hand of scientific progress. The so-called subjective talk of God has been pushed aside in favor the human ability to solve all problems, and come to the knowledge of absolute Truth, through reason alone.
The problem with modernity, however, is that the application of universal human reason has not actually delivered what was promised. Post-modernity, in contrast, has a more pessimistic take on human reason, as the pathway to true enlightenment. Two broad approaches to post-modernity are felt in today’s culture.
One approach is simply to say, “Yes, there is an absolute Truth, but we simply can not know it completely. We can only do the best that we can to approximate what that Truth is, but the limitations of reason prevent us from fully apprehending absolute Truth, in its fullness. So while absolute Truth is hypothetically there, we must simply settle for the notion of relative Truth in practice.” One application of this approach is to say that the various competing claims of absolute truth must be adjudicated through conversation and dialogue, at least in the public sphere. At a pragmatic level, this is an acknowledgement that we live in a pluralistic society. We will not all agree with one another, but we must learn how to live alongside one another.
The second post-modern approach takes a more activist form. “There is no absolute Truth. All claims to absolute Truth are, in reality, merely the exercise of power. The key to living in a post-modern world is then to equalize the power structures that articulate competing narratives of truth.”
It is this second approach to post-modernity that has fueled the contemporary interest in themes such as “Intersectionality,” “Critical Theory,” and being a “Social Justice Warrior.” Perhaps the easiest to explain is “Intersectionality.”
By “intersectionality,” a term coined in 1989 by legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, many scholars in the humanities say that different groups of people, who do not have lives marked by privilege, live their lives from the perspective of being oppressed. For example, many persons of color, such as African Americans, experience oppression. Likewise, many women experience oppression, at the hands of men. But when the experiences of being African American overlap with being female, the intersectionality of those experiences produces yet another complex form of marginalization within society.
Those who have lives marked by privilege, who empathize with the marginalized, are said to “ally” with the marginalized. Those who “ally” are encouraged to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who lack privilege, in order to correct social injustices.
Many social theorists find the category of “intersectionality” a helpful tool for understanding how social structures work. Many evangelical Christian thinkers would agree. After all, the Bible talks a lot about “Blessed are the poor,” and how all of us are created equal, within God’s perspective. So far, so good.
However, we must be exceedingly careful here. What might be seen as a helpful intellectual tool for some, could be carried on by others to mean something radically different.
The pursuit for “social justice” can become the basis for building a worldview, predicated on the same intellectual foundation as Marxism. It is as though being a “social justice warrior” takes on the trappings of a religion. As Christian apologist Neil Shenvi puts it, in his explanation of the related concept of “critical theory,” “it views reality through the singular lens of power, dividing people into oppressed groups and oppressor groups along various axes like race, class, gender, sexuality orientation, physical ability and age.”
This may all seem like foreign territory for the average church-going Christian. But in a university setting, the quasi-religious character of being a “social justice warrior,” in the ideological sense, can be quite evident. It can get really bizarre.
For example, in 2017, a group of students sought to shout-down a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who came to speak at the campus where I work. Many conservative Christians have a less than positive image of the ACLU. But when a group of activist college students protest the mere presence of the ACLU on a secular college campus, then you begin to wonder if something else is going on. In a “social-justice-warrior” as-an-ideology worldview, the only way to respond to oppressive sounding voices on campus is to silence free speech. To my knowledge, aside from a rebuke by our then college president, no disciplinary action was taken against this group of students. Other attempts to shut-down conversations, and deny free speech, instigated by ideologically-minded professors, and/or aggressive school administrators, and propelled by organized groups of student followers, have been growing across college campuses, nationwide.
This is yet a glimpse into a crisis in academia, as the ideological tendency of this “social justice warrior” movement has threatened to compromise the very integrity of the intellectual viability of certain strands of humanities studies. This is not merely a concern of Christians. It also bothers more secular minded thinkers, those who lean towards the more progressive side of culture. If you want to be entertained and horrified, all at the same time, you can learn about the “Grievance Studies Affair,” exposed by left-wing academics James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose, in 2018. Following the YouTube playlist for this is mind-blowing.
In a postmodern world, where the premodern categories of religious faith have been deemed obsolete, and the modernistic hope for a view of scientific progress, that can solve all of humanity’s problems, is seen to be elusive, the postmodernist can see the world as merely the realm for power struggles. Orthodox Christian faith is left off to the side, for those who advocate an ideological commitment to “critical theory” and “intersectionality.”
But not only is historically orthodox Christian faith rejected, as being a form of privilege, the practice of science, as generally understood, is also under threat, due to an idealogical embrace of Marxist-inspired “critical theory.” As a result, evangelical Christian thinkers and secularized atheists are finding some common ground, with their concerns, about the idealogical application of “intersectionality,” and the like. It might seem strange that evangelical Christians might have something in common with atheists, in working against a growing intellectual trend, but keep reading….
The War Against Biology: The “Social Justice Movement” as Becoming an Ideology for Some
Take for example, the case of evolutionary biologist, Brett Weinstein, when he taught as a professor at Evergreen State College, in 2017. When a group of students, invigorated by ideas taught by certain other professors of the humanities, sought to ask white faculty and students (particularly those who were male) to leave campus for a day, Professor Weinstein objected to the planned event as ill-conceived. In response, a group of student protestors interrupted his class, sparking a national conversation. WARNING: OBJECTIONABLE LANGUAGE IN THE VIDEO BELOW:
Professor Weinsten, and his wife, also an evolutionary biologist, and both who are not professing Christians, resigned from Evergreen State College, as they felt that their lives were being threatened by this student movement, and the school administration did little to intervene. This sets us up to get to the reason as to why this blog post is so important.
Brett Weinstein is now a public intellectual, a member of what some call the “Intellectual Dark Web,” populated by other public intellectual figures, such as Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson and orthodox Jewish commentator, Ben Shapiro. Weinstein’s experience at Evergreen State helped him to see that there are intellectuals, within the humanities, who advocate for a more ideological approach to intersectionality, such as in the case of what constitutes “gender” in a post-modern world. Such intellectuals have been convincing a new generation of students to think that the category of “gender” is merely a social construct. Weinstein sees this as an attack on the very foundations of biology, as a scientific discipline, where the distinction between male and female is a fundamentally biological description, not merely a social construct.
Weinstein suggests that the modern approach to evolutionary biology has failed, as evidenced by his own experience at Evergreen State. He is still an evolutionary biologist, but he believes the current secular hostility towards “religion,” including Christianity, has created a cultural crisis. The postmodern rejection of absolute truth, being promoted by certain disciplines in the humanities, has led to the development of distorted forms of traditional religiosity. For Weinstein, this new situation requires that scientists need to rethink how to approach evolutionary biology.
Secular, Atheistic Thinking That Wishes to Revive Christianity/Religion as a “Useful Fiction”
In his mind, Professor Weinstein contends that “religion,” which would include Christianity, still serves as a “useful fiction,” necessary for the survival of the human race. So while Weinstein rejects Christianity as an ultimate truth claim, it is nevertheless an invaluable aid that should be tapped to help secular society transcend the current cultural crisis, marked by the rise of ideologically-driven “critical theory” and “intersectionality.”
At the recent Unbelievable? conference in London, podcaster Justin Brierley sat down with Brett Weinstein and theologian Alister McGrath to discuss Weinstein’s ideas, as part of Brierley’s Big Conversation program. Given the background of Weinstein’s academic experience, the discussion is pretty amazing.
Brett Weinstein rejects the New Atheism of a Richard Dawkins, that negatively views Christianity as a disease or “virus of the mind.” (If you do not understand what Dawkins is talking about, view the following video. Otherwise, skip it, and move on to what I have written below):
Brett Weinstein believes that Dawkin’s approach to religion deserves a much better explanation. Ironically, for Christian listeners, Brett Weinstein thinks that Neo-Darwinian evolution holds the key for understanding and accepting “something” like Christianity, as a positive force for good for humanity. In that sense, something like Christian faith can be a “useful fiction,” to help humanity survive. This is the same type of message being propagated by those like Jordan Peterson. It is just that Peterson and Weinstein seem unable to make that jump of seeing Christianity as actually being true, in and of itself. This is a massive topic, and this blog post merely reveals the tip of a really, really big iceberg.
What interested me the most about the conversation below was the lack of enthusiasm for Alister McGrath’s response to Brett Weinstein, among a number of Christian listeners. But since McGrath does NOT subscribe to the “conflict thesis”; that is, the idea that evolutionary science and biblical faith are in direct opposition with one another, there was not a whole lot to disagree with, aside from Weinstein’s wishful thinking for something like Christian faith, but not exactly Christian faith, to emerge, to address our current problems, as a human race. McGrath’s answer was straight-forward enough, suggesting that historic orthodox Christian faith is sufficient to address the challenges that Weinstein brings up….(plus Christianity is true, and not merely a “useful fiction”).
Two hours, yes, but worth the intellectual workout. Enjoy.
For a similar discussion/debate that Alister McGrath had with skeptic Michael Shermer, please view it here.