Contemporary critical theory may be a postmodern phenomenon, but its roots in older forms of modernism are often overlooked. It essentially distills the “methodological doubt” of Descartes into something less watered down—a “cask-strength” edition, if you will, complete with a new label: the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Failure to recognize this intellectual genealogy may cause one to overlook helpful resources that pre-date our recent cultural upheavals.
One such resource is a figure rarely mentioned, someone who has done more for my understanding of the challenges of Critical Theory than any other, even though he didn’t write directly about it. Eric Voegelin was a political scientist who finished his career at Louisiana State University. Prior to that, in 1951, he received an appointment at the University of Munich. At his inauguration, he delivered two lectures that are now published as a little book titled Science, Politics & Gnosticism.
Providentially, I first encountered this book some twenty years ago while walking through the stacks at the Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary. The title randomly caught my eye, so I pulled it from the shelf, sat down, and read the whole thing straight through in one sitting. What a title! Science, politics, and . . . Gnosticism? In his introduction to the book, Ellis Sandoz addresses that last, jarring term:
Does Voegelin really contend that modern mass ideological movements and dominant ‘philosophical’ schools in the modern world are vitiated by being in some sense continuations of the various anti-Christian sects denominated and discredited as heretical because ‘gnostic’ in antiquity—for instance, the Manicheans and Valentinians? Yes, he does.
Voegelin had in mind the mass ideological movements of the 20th century: communism, fascism, and national socialism. But there is connective tissue between those movements and those of our day that might illumine our understanding. By Voegelin’s analysis, Critical Theory is a new mass ideological movement and, more importantly, a species of Gnosticism.
Here are three salient features of Voegelin’s critique:
First, gnostics are at war with what he calls the “order of being.” In the parlance of Christian theology (of which, by the way, he was keenly appreciative), they are at war with creation ordinances; they are at war with being creatures. The order of being, creation itself, is intrinsically corrupt, and mankind, “true” man, must liberate himself by taking control and re-weaving the very fabric of reality. And that can only be done, he observed, through deicide. He writes:
In order, therefore, that the attempt to create a new world may seemto make sense, the givenness of the order of being must be obliterated;the order of being must be interpreted, rather, as essentially underman’s control. And taking control of being further requires that thetranscendent origin of being be obliterated; it requires the decapita-tion of being—the murder of God.
This is the primal root of Nietzsche’s “Death of God”philosophy, and it also animates Marx’s own critique of religion. In his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Marx puts it this way:
To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.
The demand here is a fundamental reversal of the “state of affairs”—the “order of being”—to liberate man into a world having no need of illusions, the chief of which is God. What makes this peculiarly gnostic is that Marx’s critique of injustice is not a critique of fallenness—which is what we ought to mean by “injustice”—but a war against even the notion of createdness, or givenness itself. Just as for the gnostics of old, the “Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” is at best a demon who made a foul and polluted world, and it is with Him and his world that they are at war.
Does this war on the “order of being” sound familiar? It is no longer about the “New Soviet Man,” to be sure, but what else is the current erasure of the sexes, the invention of “birthing persons,” the rejection of any connection between one’s basic biology and one’s would-be completely autonomous state of mind, or the notion that the nuclear family is a harmful institution that must be transcended? For Marx and his followers, the critique of religion is not just a rejection of grace; it is the repudiation of nature, as well.
Second, this criticism is what Voegelin calls an “intellectual swindle.” It pretends to engage in reason and argument, but at the end of the day it feels no need to establish or defend its premises. Questioning is out of bounds for the revolutionary, who, after all, has not arrived at his position by questioning. Criticism is not fundamentally about intellectual inquiry; it is a means to an end, and that end is the complete overturning of power structures. What irony! When the Critical Theorist derisively calls all propositions or arguments or truth claims mere linguistic power plays, it is psychological projection, for that is precisely what he or she is engaged in. Listen again to Marx:
Criticism does not need to make things clear to itself as regards this subject-matter, for it has already dealt with it. Criticism appears no longer as an end in itself, but only as a means. Its essential sentiment is indignation, its essential activity is denunciation.
Criticism “does not need to make things clear to itself.” It is, in a word, self-authenticating; the acid of radical skepticism, applied so thoroughly to the objects of its malice (in Marx’s case, bourgeois capitalism), miraculously leaves the critic himself untouched! As a friend recently quipped to me, “The hermeneutics of suspicion never suspects itself.” Voegelin ably exposes how Critical Theory excuses itself from its own enterprise and hopes that we will not notice.
Note also Marx’s description of criticism’s essential sentiment as indignation and its essential activity as denunciation. Why does it seem to only know “How dare you?” (indignation) and “You are a bigot” (denunciation)? Because that is the only point. Let us avoid naiveté: what we might view as “bugs” in this worldview—its unwillingness to be questioned, to engage in real debate, readiness to resort to the ad hominem—are, in the minds of its adherents, features.
In an essay that might well have been written yesterday, C.S. Lewis explained the art of not refuting an opponent, but rather explaining why your opponent is self-evidently wrong. As in, “Let me explain to you all the socially constructed factors that molded you into the evil oppressor you are.” He called this fallacy “Bulverism,” and you hear it incessantly in these common maneuvers: “You only say that because...” You are a capitalist pig. You are white. Male. Cisgender. Heterosexual. Fundamentalist. Bigot. And so on.
Lewis sharply observed:
Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, Are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, Does the taint invalidate the tainted thought—in the sense of making it untrue—or not? If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and the Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.
But I don’t believe Lewis quite appreciated just how serious the Critical Theorists were. They exempt themselves from this logic, nowadays dismissing logic itself as an artifact of “white supremacy.” Moreover, Marx himself stated openly that ad hominem—which is, of course, what “Bulverism” is—is absolutely necessary for his revolutionary program:
[...] material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical.
Most importantly, Lewis failed to grasp that these people do not view themselves as being in the same boat with the rest of humanity. They are gnostics, the “knowing ones,” those initiated into the secrets of the cosmos and the souls of men. They have the secret insight, the vision, and the techniques to tear down the order of reality and bring into existence the parousia, the arrival, of a new utopian paradise. Gnosis, or secret knowledge and insight, is the key to achieving this, and it is no accident that in our day these practitioners call themselves “woke.” They are self-appointed, god-like emissaries, liberators of the elect and judge, jury, and executioner of the reprobate. In the case of Marx’s own political program, I mean that quite literally. As a matter of historical record, gulags, firing squads, and mass starvation are the fruits of this rotten tree.
And that is the third observation I wish to draw from Voegelin. Read this chilling passage:
The nature of a thing cannot be changed; whoever tries to ‘alter’ its nature destroys the thing. Man cannot transform himself into a superman; the attempt to create a superman is an attempt to murder man. Historically, the murder of God is not followed by the superman, but by the murder of man: the deicide of the gnostic theoreticians is followed by the homicide of the revolutionary practitioners.
God cannot be touched. So, this endeavor inevitably turns to the next-best thing: the slaying or disfigurement of his image, the imago Dei. Attempted deicide has, and will, lead to homicide.
To be clear, I am speaking about the past and not current events. I do not much like or approve of the hysterical catastrophism of our contemporary politics. But wise is the adage that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it. Still more sobering is the postscript to that adage provided by a cartoon I watched recently: a wizened old professor added, “And those who do learn from history are destined to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”
Here I ought to point out clearly that I am calling a certain worldview, a set of ideas and practices, a movement, potentially deadly. That is not at all the same thing as calling Aunt Matilda, who proudly displays her Black Lives Matter sign in her front yard, a murderer. Maybe Aunt Matilda is right, and we really are just talking about equal rights and opportunity under the law and police brutality and structural disadvantages for minorities, all topics which can and should be discussed and debated in any humane society.
But I will ask: could Aunt Matilda—good-natured, compassionate, and well-intentioned Aunt Matilda—be mistaken? Should we just ignore that the Black Lives Matter organization’s official mission statement (lately scrubbed from the Internet) was a full-throated endorsement of Marxist revolution and the aims of the LGBTQ+ community, along with a clear call for the eradication of the nuclear, biological family? Is it out of bounds to peer behind the curtain like a good critic (ahem) to see if there’s some ulterior motive? No, not peer behind: they have told us openly their mission statement. And it is, on Voegelin’s terms, a new gnostic mass ideological movement. There are dogmas, creeds, confessions, catechisms, orthodoxies, heresies, and excommunications. As many commentators have noted, it is a pagan religion of its own. It is gnostic, and Gnosticism is by definition outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.
To that we must turn. It is one thing to talk at a distance about the young Jacobin interns running Twitter or holding hostage the editors of The New York Times. It is one thing to realize that many who espouse elements of Critical Theory are, like my (fictional) Aunt Matilda, professing Christian believers sitting in the pew. It is another thing altogether to realize that some are standing in the pulpit.
In April of 2021 Pastors Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson together published a book entitled Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair. The title speaks for itself. They believe it a Christian duty to support efforts to pay financial restitution to the descendants of African slaves, due to the economic disparities that linger largely, in their view, from America’s past legacy of slavery.
Pastor Kevin DeYoung wrote a thorough and well-received review of the book, and he raised a variety of very deep and thoughtful questions about their proposal. Kwon and Thompson then wrote a lengthy response. Allow me to highlight three aspects of their reply which all come from the Critical Theory playbook. In doing so, I should make clear that by using this particular illustration it is not my intention to revive this debate in the pages of Westminster Magazine (a debate which readers can find online and which Rev. DeYoung put ably enough to bed on his own); I use it rather as an illustration of the likely ways readers are likely to encounter instances of Critical Theory in their church communities. First, their critique of DeYoung is purely ad hominem. Second, its “Criticism” (capitalized to indicate their explicit method of analysis) exempts itself from its own suspicion by presenting itself as self-attesting, non-falsifiable truth. And that will lead me to a final, closing observation.
Here is their own summary of their lengthy case against DeYoung:
Though we believe that he neither sees it nor intends it, Reverend DeYoung, in his review, methodologically centers whiteness at every turn. Like King’s opponents in 1963, he consistently privileges white theological voices, minimizes white supremacy’s tragic impact on the lives of “non-white” persons, and prioritizes the comfort of white people. And in this respect, while he does not argue for white supremacy, he nevertheless performs its most basic impulses. In so doing, he not only tacitly commends some of the most egregious blindspots and tendencies in our theological tradition, he also inadvertently lends his learned and powerful voice to the tragic work of sanctifying the cultural status quo. Viewed in this light, DeYoung’s review does much more than simply reject our book. It actually perpetuates the very social conditions that our book was written to address.
This is their own summary of what comprises the whole of their critique. They explicitly refuse to engage DeYoung’s questions or respond to his biblical arguments because the more pressing task is to explain, to borrow Lewis’s phrase, why Kevin DeYoung has become so silly. It isn’t DeYoung’s fault. They do not blame him. He is simply captive to certain modes of thinking from which he has not yet been liberated: namely, “whiteness.” He cannot help but “perform the basic impulses of white supremacy” and “sanctify the status quo” and “perpetuate the very social conditions” their book was written to address. This is textbook “Bulverism.” Discredit the man by pointing to the social factors that “make him” say what he does, and the task is complete. It amounts to saying, “Kevin DeYoung only disagrees with us because he has sadly not yet agreed with us.” He is not yet “woke.” He remains asleep to his hidden prejudices.
Second, this method of critique, which claims to probe into the depths of unacknowledged biases and presuppositions, is a one-way street. Only DeYoung is susceptible to being shaped and taken captive by worldly ways of thinking. They are unbothered that they habitually use the arguments and vocabulary of not only the most wildly popular and widely celebrated socio-political movements in the western world, but also one with an explicitly anti-Christian pedigree. We are not allowed to ask why DeYoung can be so badly warped by his social context, but Kwon and Thompson are immune from theirs. Critical Theory does not allow this question. The hermeneutic of suspicion does not suspect itself.
Finally, the fact that Kwon and Thompson explicitly set the Bible aside in their reply, for all intents and purposes declaring it to be a useless, closed book unless and until their interlocutor thoroughly purges himself of his “whiteness,” indicates something important about their view of the scriptures. They are saying, in effect, that you cannot rightly read it and unlock its truth unless you are first liberated to understand it as they do.
Liberated by what, then? If the Word of God is to be held in abeyance, set aside as a chaser or an after-the-fact supplement to some prior, more basic spiritual and intellectual awakening, what brings about the necessary renewal? What do they think will bring DeYoung to his senses? What argument do they actually deploy? What
is it in their response that they deem “living and active”? What is “sharper than any two-edged sword”? What “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow”? What “judges the thoughts and the attitudes of the heart”?
An obvious answer suggests itself: Critical Theory. Only by embracing and acknowledging the critique of Critical Race Theory will Kevin DeYoung or anybody else see the truth of the Word of God. Without it, one remains imprisoned, fated to read the Bible according to one’s distorted, self-serving lenses, to perform the “basic impulses” of “white supremacy” or to “sanctify the status quo.” It is not the Word of God that will liberate Kevin DeYoung; Kwon and Thompson do not even bother trying. Only Critical Race Theory will adequately judge the thoughts and attitudes of his heart to the necessary depths. And then, and only then, will they deign to engage the Scriptures with their critic.
This might be shocking, coming as it does in a confessionally Reformed context. But this is not the first time that what in principle amounted to an anti-Christian worldview cloaked itself in the language of Christian orthodoxy. It is not the first time something was called “gospel” that, in the final analysis, contained no real good news at all. Indeed, it is not even the first time it has happened in a confessionally Reformed context.
In an earlier instance, by God’s grace, a man saw through it all and exposed it not as a legitimate expression of the Christian religion, but as a different religion altogether. That man went on to found an academic institution and built into its very DNA the discipline of discerning these spirits by the Word of God.
The institution remains, the challenge remains, and it takes only resolve to embody J. Gresham Machen’s true “warrior spirit.” Machen did not fight fractious and immature battles over second-order theological hobby horses. Where he held the line he was admired by his opponents for his civility and earnest engagement with their stated beliefs. Rather, Machen stood athwart counterfeit Christianity for the cause of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. May God grant that to be the enduring legacy of Westminster Theological Seminary as it labors to equip Christ’s global church against its many foes.