Critical Theory as a Hermeneutic

By Kevin Watson


August 20, 2020

In December of 2019, I graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from a secular university.  At this secular university, I was immersed in ideas such as critical theory and Marxism, since these views dominated the Philosophy Department.  Having become fascinated in philosophy through a crisis of faith that led me to Christian apologetics in high school, I found these views confusing and troubling at first.  Seemingly everyone around me (who was not a Christian) bought into these views, and one was heavily looked down upon for disagreeing, if not outright silenced.  At times, this discouraged me.  Though, in many ways, I loved the university, practically no class that I took in philosophy fit my interests.

In spite of that, I’ve come to appreciate my experience there and to believe that, though I didn’t necessarily plan to attend the school, God’s plans were to lead me there, and bless me there.  One way in which my experience at this secular university uniquely prepared me as an apologist is that I got to see critical theory and Marxism from the lens of those who believed it passionately.  My classmates were active members of the LGBTQ community, people who supported everything that the Black Lives Matter organization stood for, and self-identified radical third-wave feminists.  Many of these classmates believed that Christianity was the religion of the oppressor.  As a white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied Christian man, I found myself in a bit of a lion’s den.  My experience with these classmates, who I still loved and desired to come to know Jesus as their Savior, taught me a vital lesson.  This lesson concerns how critical theory operates in the belief system of the one who adopts it.

Critical Theory and Epistemology 

One of my main interest areas in philosophy is epistemology.  Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, or how we come to know the truth.  One of my favorite Christian philosophers is the famous epistemologist Alvin Plantinga.  Plantinga teaches us that our systems of beliefs are built in structures, in which certain beliefs are built on top of (or on the basis of) other beliefs.  If we were to work our way down, we’d find our foundational beliefs, or what he calls “properly basic beliefs.”  These are the beliefs at the core of our entire system of beliefs, on the basis of which all of our other beliefs are built, but which are not themselves built on any prior beliefs.  Typically, these include beliefs such as the belief in the reality of the external world, the belief in minds independently of our own, etc.

If we extend these ideas further, we realize that beliefs are often assumed in connection with beliefs built upon them.  There’s nothing irrational about this; in fact, we’d expect that rational people would accept beliefs consistent with their prior beliefs.  These prior beliefs (or beliefs lower in the structures of our systems of beliefs) can be called “background knowledge” (or background beliefs).  Whenever we consider the truth of a new proposition, we consider it in light of our background knowledge.

Let’s consider an example.  Let’s say that a man in Egypt, at the age of 20, experiences what he believes to be the presence of God.  This profound experience transforms him, persuading him to convert to Islam, even though he had never been particularly religious.  Let’s also assume that this profound experience doesn’t occur in a particularly religious context (i.e., at a Christian church or a mosque); let’s say that it occurs on a mountain with a scenic view.  Experiences must be interpreted.  Let’s grant that this man has experienced the presence of God.  What leads him to conclude that he has experienced the presence of Allah, in the way that Allah is presented in the Quran?  How does this man conclude from this experience that Allah is God, and Muhammad is his prophet?  The answer here, I think, lies in this man’s background beliefs.  Once we understand more of this man’s system of beliefs, then it will make sense why, for him, it seemed rational to convert to Islam.  For instance, let’s say that this man grew up in a devout Muslim family and that he believes such propositions as “Christianity is false” or “Jesus is not the Son of God.”  Because of these beliefs, he would be inclined to incorrectly interpret this experience as confirming of Islam, rather than of Christianity.  This is the way in which background beliefs often operate in our interpretation of our experiences.

Critical theory, though not monolithic, can be summed up in 7 points, which come from the apologist Neil Shenvi.  They are as follows:

  1. Individual identity is inseparable from group identity as “oppressed” or “oppressor.”

  2. Oppressor groups subjugate oppressed groups through the exercise of hegemonic power.

  3. Different oppressed groups find solidarity in the experience of oppression.

  4. Our fundamental moral duty is freeing groups from oppression.

  5. “Lived experience” is more important than objective evidence in understanding oppression.

  6. Oppressor groups hide their oppression under the guise of objectivity.

  7. Individuals at the intersection of different oppressed groups experience oppression in a unique way (i.e., intersectionality).

Let’s think of these seven points as core beliefs of critical theory.  Critical theory, although not technically a worldview, functions like a worldview.  It colors our view of the world.  Worldviews work like a lens through which we see, experience, and interpret the world.  What does it mean to look at the world through a lens such as this?  In light of the murder of George Floyd, does it, perhaps, look like protests and riots for some concept of racial reconciliation?  When the beliefs central to critical theory are applied to race, then doesn’t this result in a wholly new way of looking at race relations in the United States?

I think that critical theory supplies its adherents with a particular lens through which to see the world.  When applied to race, this results in what I call the “colored lens” of critical race theory.  This lens provides the adherents of critical theory with an alternative hermeneutic, or way of interpreting, events in our society.

A Global Hermeneutical Perspective

A recent paper in the journal Philosophia Christi shed light on this for me.  The paper is called The Revolt Against Accountability to God: A Global Hermeneutical Perspective on Contemporary Moral Philosophy.  In this paper, the Christian philosopher C. Stephen Evans defends a notion of what he calls a “global hermeneutical perspective” from a Christian perspective.  Global hermeneutical perspectives (hereafter GHP’s) seek to show that human behavior can be explained in terms of deeper motivating factors that are universal (i.e., global) to mankind and by which human behavior can be understood (i.e., hermeneutic).  Examples of GHP’s can be seen in Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.  In his article, Evans seeks to show that the claims of the Christian worldview provide a distinct GHP, which he calls the “no-neutrality thesis.”  The no-neutrality thesis claims that humans were created to serve God and be in relationship with Him and that every action that one undertakes is either in line with this design for humanity or not.  In other words, every person is either a friend of God or a rebel; no one is neutral with respect to God.

After reading this paper by Evans, it occurred to me that critical theory could be best understood as a GHP.  Indeed, it makes a similar claim concerning human behavior and motivation in that all human beings in a society fall into one of two categories: oppressor or oppressed.  Critical theorists commonly claim that actions taken by the oppressor class, including the claims that they make in public, are nothing more than attempts at maintaining their hegemonic power.  Similarly, they will claim that actions taken by the oppressed class, such as protesting and at times rioting, are an expression of their opposition to oppression.  These types of claims truly abound among those who subscribe to critical theory.  Let me provide three examples.

First, consider the issue of abortion in the United States.  If you spend some time on social media or listening to the debates concerning abortion, you will quickly notice that, to the pro-choice advocates, men are not allowed into this debate.  Very often, pro-life men are dismissed as misogynists who want to control women’s bodies.  This, however, doesn’t evidently motivate all pro-life men in their adoption of the pro-life perspective.  I’ve met plenty of men who are pro-life (and I’m one of them), and I’ve never met a man who was pro-life because he was a misogynist.  This common response to pro-life men seems to be a result of the GHP at the heart of critical theory, which implies that, deep down, the man who is pro-life simply wants to maintain his power over women.

Second, a post circulated by Antiracist Education Now called “Racial Gaslighting 101” showed types of responses one might get if one were to claim that systemic racism exists and is a problem in the United States.  Under such banners as “The Intellectual” or “The Exotic and Rare ‘Christian’ Pro-Life Anti-Vaxxer,” readers are given pointers as to how to respond to those who would dare disagree with critical race theory.  This is, I think, another example of critical theory as GHP because posts like these entail that those would disagree with critical race theory are really just different types of racists, and their retorts can be understood as such under these categories.  The post also makes no attempt whatsoever to respond to these retorts with arguments or evidence for critical race theory and systemic racism (an important point for later).

Third, consider the broad cultural response to the murder of George Floyd.  From the footage, it was clear that Derek Chauvin had abused his power as a police officer.  Yet most of the discussion about his death assumes that it was racially motivated.  Many in our culture seem to have assumed that his death is an example of systemic racism.  They have made this assumption despite the lack of evidence for it.  Again, if critical theory can be understood as a GHP, then it seems reasonable that people would conclude that Derek Chauvin, at least subconsciously, was motivated by racism as a white man in power over this black man.  Thus, no corroborating evidence seems necessary.

Examples such as these, I think, show how critical theory should be understood epistemologically in the adherent to it.  If we want to know why arguments and evidence seems to take a back seat to those who adhere to critical theory, then perhaps we need to recognize that the tenants of critical theory are often assumed, rarely supported.  Just as in the case of the Egyptian man who converts to Islam, the prior beliefs of an adherent to critical theory define such actions as misogynistic or racist actions.  Thus, an entire sector of the population can be impugned for racism because of the color of their skin, since this prior commitment — an assumption — to critical theory entails that this is the case.

What’s the importance of recognizing that critical theory is a GHP?  I think that there are at least three reasons why this is important.  First, it shows us that no particular instance of bigotry is evidence for this universal or global perspective.  Consider, as an example, Nietzsche’s “will to power.”  If Nietzsche could show us a thousand verifiable instances in which the will to power motivated a person’s actions in a certain situation, this would not prove that every human behavior is motivated by the will to power.  Evans recognizes this issue with GHP’s when he writes:

…global hermeneutical perspectives on the human self require a depth psychology, in which the real motives and meanings of human actions are often not directly available to a person consciously.  They all employ a concept of what is subconscious or unconscious, which makes the interpretation of the meaning of human actions much more difficult….Both the global character of the view, its hermeneutical character, and its reliance on depth psychology means that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, definitively to vindicate the view, or to completely disprove it. (291)

Because of this difficulty with verifying a GHP, therefore, the perspective of the critical theorist concerning human behavior cannot be defended by pointing out clear instances of bigotry.  Rather, critical theory tends to assume that any and all supposed instances of bigotry, even claims such as “same-sex sex is against God’s will,” are instances of bigotry, whether or not this seems like the conscious motivation of the people involved.

Second, for the Christian, it should become immediately clear that the Christian worldview removes the critical theorist interpretation as an option for us.  When I watch the horrific video of Derek Chauvin on George Floyd’s neck, I see sin, inherited from Adam, expressed in injustice and rebellion against God, a product of the darkness in his heart, as well the heart of every individual human being who has ever lived.  As long as we do not imbibe a worldview that conflicts with the Christian worldview anyway, we should have no problem properly and biblically interpreting these situations as they arise in our culture and providing a distinctly Christian, and therefore distinctly true, perspective.

Third, I think that this perspective of critical theory should help Christians in defending the gospel against critical theory.  In fact, I think that it frees us to agree where we should and disagree where we should.  Instances of abuse because of racism undeniably exist in our culture, but they cannot logically support the position of the critical race theorist that American culture as a whole is racist.  Recognizing this will enable us to weep with those who experience such abuses as well as properly identify and interpret those abuses, thereby, by God’s grace, maintaining unity in the Church and serving and obeying the Lord.


About the Author

By Kevin Watson

Kevin Watson is an aspiring philosopher whose love for Christ motivates him to bolster the Church and advance the Kingdom of God through a winsome defense of the faith. Kevin became a Christian at the age of 14 after about two years of wrestling with his sin and what it means to follow Christ. This led him to a profound experience of the presence of God on September 2, 2012, that introduced him to the love and grace of God and the gospel. About a year later, a crisis of faith led him to study Christian apologetics. This was almost as transformative as his initial conversion, since it gave him a love for learning and equipped him with a confident faith. Since then, his passion has been to see the gospel defended winsomely and presented persuasively to an increasingly secular culture. Kevin has a B.A. in Philosophy and a B.A. in Liberal Studies from Georgia College & State University. He is currently seeking an M.A. in Philosophy from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the meantime, he writes for his blog, Holistic Apologetics, which can be found at