Good evening, and welcome to this special event by World opinions. I'm Albert Mohler, the editor of world opinions where we seek to help Christians to think through the issues of the day. And sometimes that means talking about some things get rather complicated. And I am joined tonight by two very special people. And that includes Andrew Walker, who is professor of Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and managing editor of world opinions. And Dr. Carl Truman, well-known Evan Jellicle, thinker, author, public intellectual professor of biblical and Christian studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
ALBERT MOHLER: Let me just set the stage and then we're gonna get into the thick of it. So we're talking about critical theory and how Christians should think about critical theory and understand the challenge of critical theory. But that requires a little bit of introduction, and I am going to give just a little bit to get us in, if you go back to the enlightenment and a figure like Immanuel Kant, critique was brought into the Western tradition of thought in such a way that Kant actually believed that the human rationality was capable of using critique to arrive at truth. And so there was this enlightenment dream of the process of intellectual critique, leading to a rationally determined truth. Now, the 19th century was, was filled with all kinds of optimism after the enlightenment that that can be possible, didn't end so well, even in the 19th century. And yet, in the middle of the 19th century, along came Karl Marx, to argue that Immanuel Kant's idea of rational critique wasn't enough. So Marx, joined by Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto called for what he referred to as the rigorous critique of all that exists. So Marx wanted to take enlightenment criticism further. And even in critiquing all the structures of society, what he saw was the oppression famously of the worker by the bourgeoisie. It was not enough for Karl Marx, that that critique bring about economic reform. He was absolutely convinced that his his form of critique this ruthless critique of all that exists, and he meant that just as radically as it sound, that it would lead to an uprising of workers and eventually a communist revolution and the arrival of the new communist man. By the end of the 19th century, in the early 20th century was clear that wasn't going to happen. And so what's really interesting is that the energies of Marxism were increasingly directed towards what we would now call critical theory, and especially when 1929 and the establishment of what we would call a think tank at Frankfurt, Germany and the Gurkha university there, you have the development of what has become now known as the Frankfurt School. And the Frankfurt School basically introduced a new thing, which they call critical theory, which would channel Marx's ruthless criticism of all that exists. Not expecting that on the other side of this kind of critique would be necessarily a worker revolution, but rather a transformation of culture. Now, just a quick bio biographical word. When I was 18, and a first-year college student, I came face to face with a professor who was a critical theorists. And I want to admit to you that I did not think it could possibly work. I did not think it could possibly become a plausible argument in popular culture. And you know what I was right? Until I was wrong. Because all of a sudden, critical theory is now in the headlines. It is very much in the intellectual discussion of our age is very much underneath many of the headlines that grab our attention. And that's why we're having a conversation about it right now. And I can't think of two men with whom I'd rather have this conversation than Andrew Walker and Carl Truman, Carl, you're working on a project right now on the history of early critical theory. So why give your time to that? What makes this so interesting to you right here right now?
CARL TRUEMAN: Well, a couple of things. There's the personal, just a personal interest like yourself, I came across Marxism or theoretical Marxism when I was an undergraduate and I've always had a kind of side hustle interest in it just out of intellectual curiosity. But in recent years, of course, critical theory has pretty much hit the headlines, particularly in terms of critical race theory. But also in terms of things like gender theory and post-colonialism. So many of the impulses within humanities departments in higher education at the moment fall under the broad rubric of critical theory. And what I want to do in the book that I'm working on is, is give students an introduction to the origins of this, I think that we tend often to focus on the present, we just read the books that have been published in the last few years. But critical theory really has a very interesting genealogy. And I think if you trace that genealogy back and you look at the work of the early critical theorists to realize that what's being done is something that is, is dramatic, and an all-encompassing one of the attractions if you like, and critical theory to too many in the present, including Christians is it uses rhetoric that resonates with people, it uses the rhetoric of justice, it uses the rhetoric of the overthrowing of oppression, emancipation, yes, emancipation, it makes the victims into the heroes of the story. So there's a lot that attracts people from the contemporary cultural moment, what people don't realize, of course, is that critical theory is not, you're certainly in the eyes of those who are formulating it in the 20s and 30s. It's not a tool that can be used as part of a broader toolkit for getting at reality and adjusting the system or adjusting society. Its ambition is the overthrow of the system, Max Horkheimer, in a very important essay, traditional Critical Theory written in the late 1930s makes it very clear that he says your critical theory is not about critiquing and reforming parts of the system. It's about overthrowing the system. And it's about changing the very terms of debate. He says, we're not we're not refining the meaning of social concept here. We want to overthrow the social concepts that are used as the foundation of society in order to bring about something new, something remarkable something, presumably utopia. And I think it's important that Christians realize that because that will help us handle the seductive aesthetics and seductive rhetoric that comes out of contemporary iterations of critical theory.
ALBERT MOHLER: Yeah, that's very, very helpful. And I'm looking forward to seeing your good work on this, as in your recent book, The Rise and Fall of the modern self. What you're about is, is really helping Christians in this age to understand, you know, where these ideas come from. And, of course, where they're going. Andrew Walker, you know, here you are, your professor, Christian ethics, you are deeply involved in all the cultural controversies of the age and helping young Christians and theology students and readers and world opinions to figure this out. So why in the world, should we be talking about critical theory? I mean, where does the water actually hit the wheel?
ANDREW WALKER: Sure. So I mean, I think the reason we have to speak about this is, I think that critical theory whether individuals are conscious of it or not, it's the air that we breathe. It's the lingua franca of the age, I think we can look back at moments, particularly in the summer of 2020, where ideas that had been percolating in the academy for several decades, really exploded. And you saw especially 2020 Onward, the mainstreaming of voices like Robyn D'Angelo, Abram Kennedy, who are obviously talking about critical race theory, and we can have the conversation about CRT, but CRT is merely a permutation of this notion of critical theory itself. And the reason I think we as Christians have to have this conversation is, however, we want to parse the language, if you can find potentially redeeming aspects within critical theory, what we what you want to say at the forefront is the overall stew or system of critical theory is incredibly hostile to Christian orthodoxy. It renders the project of Christian ethics virtually impossible. You can't have a worldview of where objectivity, divine revelation and transcendence are seen as the meta narrative. When critical theory itself is hostile to the very notion of meta-narratives, that all narratives, all meta-narratives for that matter are powerplays. It's all in an imposition of hegemonic power. You know, refracted through oppression through various degrees of identity politics.
So I mean, as a Christian ethicist, the idea of me being an ethics professor, is you have to render judgment on things being right or wrong. When you have ideas like critical queer theory, enter into the equation, and critical queer theory would make pronouncements along the lines of saying that because you've not lived in my experience, as a queer individual, you could not understand my experience, you couldn't know my experiences, therefore, you can't speak definitively to it. Again, that renders Christian judgment absolutely moot. I do have one question for you all, kind of just shut the conversation out more, among the three of us is, I'd love to hear both of you kind of discuss, how would you define the overall comprehensive superstructure of critical theory and critical theory is a verse from describing itself as a worldview. That's what they would say about critical theory themselves, or critical theorists would say about critical theory. I think all of us as Christian theologians would recognize critical theory as a worldview. And I'd love to have you to kind of parse out what you think the various ligaments are the critical theory worldview itself.
CARL TRUEMAN: I think at the heart of critical theory is is really an attempt to destabilize all categories. One of the basic truisms of critical theory is there's no place from nowhere, there's no historical model that you can apply in order to judge reality that you can't stand outside of the historical process. And the way that's applied in critical theory is that it's used as a way of destabilizing all categories. Again, going back to that essay of Horkheimer. Horkheimer is very clear there. That he's he's not talking about traditional theory, traditional theory, attempts to establish truth, in the traditional sense of the word by which reality can then be judged, provides a lens through which all reality can be seen. And Horkheimer says, No, it's, we're not in the game of truth, we're in the game of critique. And I think what he means by critique is we're in the game of challenging and destabilizing any category that might claim some sort of reified or transcendent status. So if you want to probe back and say, Well, what worldview underlies that, I think that the two things one would say, one, it's a utopian view, they're trying to destabilize, because if they think if they can bring everything down, Utopia will emerge from it. The problem is laissez Kerlikowske points out in his essay on Marcuse is, you can't, you know, if you can't define Utopia you can't lean towards. It's a kind of desperate hope that Utopia will emerge. And the second thing that you're really assuming that truth is something to be realized in the future. Truth is not something to which the present can be hold held to account. Truth is something that emerges through the historical process at some point in the future. So we'll might say it's a very anti traditional metaphysical mind, kind of system.
ALBERT MOHLER: Andrew, it's a great question. I think one of the interesting things I'll be fascinated with how Carl deals with, it's in his book, but one of the fascinating things about the early Frankfurt school is that it wasn't as political as the later critical theorists, partly because it was it was exhausted, after the Titanic, you know, conflict to the 19th century, and in particular World War One. And the timing is just very crucial. I mean, you're really looking at the aftermath of World War One in Europe, particularly in Germany. And so you have this entire class of thinkers. And so they began to think that human liberation, if it's going to come, is actually not going to come by just mere enlightenment reason, is not going to be a bunch of philosophers in a coffee shop. It's also not gonna be workers in the streets as as Marx and Engels, who believe. And so they really thought that you had to unthink society in a more basic level. So one things I want to point out is that if you're going to make your reputation on critique, then you have to be more radical than every critic who's come before. And so critical theory really is based upon the premise that Marx didn't go nearly far enough. And that even though Marx called as I said, for that a ruthless critique of all that exists, he actually didn't get that far. And so, you know, Horkheimer Adorno, Marcuse. I mean, Marcuse is dealing with Marx has very little to say about sex market Marx, Karl Marx, but But Marcuse can't shut up about it. And so it's this idea of emancipation. And the idea that economic emancipation didn't come by revolution, because the workers don't adequately understand how oppressed they are. And, and frankly, it's an entire system of oppression that has to be unthought ruthlessly. And so that's why they gave themselves to I mean, I think it's, it's really important to understand that, that the, the classical Marxists believed that their theories would quickly lead to revolution in the streets. The critical theorists believed that it was a much longer and more arduous process of like, onion layer by onion layer, peeling back my critique, and revealing that there's nothing there. And then there'll be some kind of rebuilding Marxist style on the other side.
CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah, I think when you look at Marxism in the late 19th, coming into the early 20th century, there's this tremendous confidence that capitalism will grind on and will generate a worker's revolution. Right? It doesn't happen. It happens in Russia, where of course you don't have a highly developed industrial working class. So it shouldn't happen in Russia. But it does. It should happen in Germany, where you have a most highly developed industrial working class. But guess what? The working class is divided; many of them are marching off in support of nationalist parties. And I think the thing that's often not noted about the Frankfurt School, of course, is that many of the early theorists were Jewish. And so, the rise of Hitler and the failure of the working class to move left, yet to support these very, what they would see as, right-wing reactionary, anti-Semitic parties, that's a real problem in Marx's theory. And that's when Marxist theory takes this kind of cultural or consciousness kind of turn. And that's where a figure like Sigmund Freud gets appropriated for the picture because the interest is less in the blunt economic realities and more in the ways in which consciousness is formed, the way systems and cultural patterns shape the consciousness of the working class. And that connects, of course, to critical race theory. What critical race theorists are interested in is the way that the systems and the culture shaped the way we think about race in ways that we're not even aware of.
ALBERT MOHLER: Right. Yeah. And it was such a reliance upon this indictment of the fact that this more rigorous critique is necessary because even the people who feel themselves liberated are lied to and self-delusional. It's one of the reasons why Freud was helpful to them, along with others. And, you know, Marcuse would come along and say, you know, you really can't talk about liberation until you prove it by means of a complete regime of sexual liberation. And, of course, no one actually knows what he meant by that. Oh, it meant a complete overthrow of the Christian moral tradition. You know, I think just before we leave this early part, there's a point I want to make, which is, you know, people latch onto ideas when they believe that other ideas have failed. And, you know, this is a key issue, I think, in Christian apologetics. We understand that when horrible ideas fall, they're often replaced by even more horrible ideas. And, you know, as one person said at the time, you know, what Marx truly believed is that in short order, workers would be in the streets bringing about a comprehensive revolution. Instead, their industries drove forward. And so they really saw this as a failure. And, you know, Horkheimer and Adorno, in particular, pointed to the fact that, and I think of Horkheimer, particularly here, Horkheimer, the founder of the school, actually the Frankfurt School, and arguing that you had the problem is that now we've got to unthink the Ford. And it was, we have to critique everything. You know, Andrew, when I - this is a blank question. When you're in the classroom with students, do you confront students who think they're confronting Critical Theory every day?
ANDREW WALKER: That's a good question. I think that the students that I'm around understand that even in the last three years, something has dramatically changed as far as the lingua franca of society. And I can say that in full awareness that it seems in many ways that 2023 versus 2021 versus 2016 seem like not just different years but different epochs of cultural landscape. And so I do think that when I'm talking with students in the class, you know, I don't know if they're necessarily bringing to the forefront Critical Theory proper. Because again, I think the real perniciousness of critical theory today is that the people who are proponents of it, at least at the popular level, aren't really even aware that they're proponents of it. That's the real insidiousness of this particular ideology, is that it's unfalsifiable, but then too ubiquitous because it's the primary mode of moral analysis in our society. Where I see it happening most frequently with students as they're talking to me about this issue is particularly around things like pronouns that may sound insignificant to bring the pronoun issue into this. But the pronoun issue brings from questions of identity springs from questions of expressive individualism, which Carl has written one of the most historical books on record and on that subject. And so the idea that we can approach society from a vantage point of almost self-declared infallibility, and however I see myself, however, I interpret myself, almost create this forcefield of invincibility. It leaves a lot of students feeling as though they've been caught flat-footed of how do you actually speak to someone whose whole worldview seems to be immune from the idea of critique? What I play a video in my classroom times of this incredible video of Abram Kendi sitting in a church in New York City, with the Great Commission in concrete written behind him on the wall. And he goes on to talk about how Christian theology in a critical theory perspective, it has to abandon what he calls Savior theology. Oh, yeah. Because Savior theology implies that there is someone out there, some class of persons who needs to be rescued or saved from some identity or some fallenness. Yeah, that's absolutely taboo. So what Kendi says here is you have to engage in a theology of liberation. And a liberation is one of self-empowerment. And again, this issue of if the self is supreme, and the assertion of the primacy of the self is all that matters? How do you argue with someone who is unable to even entertain the idea that they could be wrong?
ALBERT MOHLER:Yeah, you know, to take this into the headlines today and common parlance, all the controversies of the day, I think we need to make very clear that the initial game is, is all tied to this. So just to involve all of us in this conversation in a way that makes sense, CRT is just race put between critical theory, and whether it's critical gender theory, critical sexual theory, or, you know, I think in many ways that the most effective the leading edge of this, the battlefront that worked most effectively, was what is called critical legal studies. And so having been involved in so many conversations about the law for so long, I think most people are unaware that critical legal theory or critical legal studies, and Carl, I'm going to turn to you on this, it really emerged hugely in the 1970s, and was basically asleep in law schools until all of a sudden, you know, leapt onto the public's attention. But of course, you have the video of a federal judge at Stanford Law School, just in recent days, you know, shut down from being able to speak and diversity, equity, and inclusion Dean, basically justifying the shutting down of discourse in a law school. And I just want to say, you know, people say, "How does that happen?" And I want to say, "Well, it's because of what's been taught at law schools in the United States for the last 40, if not 50 years."
CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right there, Al. If you are planning to transform culture, then the first thing you're going to want to transform are the means by which power is most obviously deployed in culture. And that's typically the law, legal institutions. And that's actually, you know, that's a correct identification. The law and legal institutions are very, very powerful in shaping how people think and how they live. So you're going to want to transform those. So it's, you know, what we're living with today really is the fruit of several generations, I think, of targeting law schools and transforming legal theory. And again, going back to that general point I made earlier, if critical theory is all about destabilizing categories, if that's the way you transform society, then destabilizing legal categories, messing with legal categories, that has to be absolutely key. And of course, again, there's that sort of popular rhetorical appeal to this amount of things that Derrick Bell does in his car, one of the early Critical Race legal theorists. What he does is he points to the fact that landmark decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, the 1950s, desegregating education, which are often held up as your landmark moments in the civil rights movement, which I think most fair-minded people would say, yes, that's a good decision. One of the things he does, of course, is he points out that the motivations for that decision were not necessarily all pure. There were some pragmatic, some darker motivations for that. And that, of course, can confuse people who've been led to believe that it's just an unmitigated good thing. This one, I think, actually Christians can have an advantage because, you know, as a Calvinist, I don't believe anybody ever acts out of pure motives on anything. So it doesn't particularly disturb me to discover that Brown v. Board of Education may not have actually risen from the purest of human motives. But it doesn't mean it wasn't a good thing to do. Right. It did actually change society for the better. So yep, law schools, obvious target. And that's where I think the students we saw writing the other week relative to Kyle Duncan, these are going to be your lawyers 5-10 years down the line. Will they take your case? … It used to be the old taxi rank system, certainly in Britain. If a brief lands on your desk, you have to take it and you have to defend that person, regardless of the opinions of them. Well, it looks to me as if we're getting a generation of law students coming through who could well be rather picky about who gets their chance of justice. Even worse, many of these students could end up sitting on the bench. They could be very significant judges, setting legal precedents. I think we're only just beginning to see, you know, today's student rioters are probably rioters. Could be tomorrow's Supreme Court justice. That's a really problematic and worrying scenario that's developing.
ALBERT MOHLER: You know, I think we need to make the connection in which, for example, in the law schools, yeah, critical legal theory, you mentioned Derrick Bell, really the progenitor of that, but then we shift to a Kimberly Crenshaw, who really does fuse critical legal studies with what would become critical race theory. And, you know, I want to test the theory with you. We're going to talk about that. But I want to test the theory with you, Carl, and that is this. There is no end, by definition, there's no end to this. So real soon, we have to have the critique of critical race theory from the left.
CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah, I think a couple of things that I won, I am absolutely convinced that queer theory is the end term of this. Queer theory is really in the game of destroying all categories. So I think all of this will tend towards queer theory. In the end, the Christian who holds to critical race theory, man, you got a tiger by the tail, you are buying into a theory that will turn on you and will dismantle you at some point. And it doesn't matter how anti-racist you are. If you believe that men are men or women are women or you believe that homosexuality is wrong, critical theory is coming for you. So the first thing to comment on, I think, is I think queer theory is the real game here. That's critical race, that is almost a sideshow. In some ways, I think queer theory is where the future of all this lies. Secondly, I do think there are opportunities for Christians here, actually, because it's, I wrote a thing at First Things last week, where I use some postmodern ideas against the very people who'd been writing and protesting Kyle Duncan, at Stanford Law School. The thing about critical theory is, it's a debunking of power. Well, once the left has power, guess what, guys like me, you're going to be grabbing hold of a little bit of critical theory and throwing it back at the left. I think we can use it to debunk the left as well.
ANDREW WALKER: So I'd like to turn almost to a sense of biography in this discussion because I'm always interested when you have intellectuals creating the ideas. These intellectuals aren't just the ideas themselves, they're persons, and usually their individual biographies, I believe, are playing a part in the formation of their ideas. I'm thinking here in particular of individuals like Michel Foucault, who is, you know, a postmodernist French individual, I won't even repeat the atrocities that he's been accused of. But I'm just curious, what do we know about the major intellectual architects of critical theory? And their particular lives and did their lives events, any type of the fruits of their own ideology? And perhaps there's not? I'm just curious to know if there is a connection here.
ALBERT MOHLER: I'm going to jump in and say at one level, yes, we do. No. And, by the way, the story of critical theory in the Frankfurt School has to go to the age of Hitler when it would have been, well, rather suicidal to try to make the arguments of the Frankfurt School in Frankfurt, Germany, during the Third Reich. So, the school moved to Geneva shortly. That was also not sufficient. So they moved to New York City. But then you had figures such as Herbert Marcuse, who goes all the way to the West Coast. And here's the thing: in the United States, Critical Theory made absolutely no progress even in the major universities, except when it came to the '60s and sects. It is really interesting that the United States was not open to fundamental revolution in the period between the wars, nor certainly even more so after World War Two. But it was Marcuse, whose liberation theory of sexuality really caught on with college students. And by the way, he appalled many of his Frankfurt School colleagues who, and this gets to something else, actually lived far more conventional lives. So, I know what you're asking, and Carl was very helpful to point out how many of them come from a certain strain of Judaism, rather secular Judaism but very vulnerable Judaism. Others of them, including two of the founders of the Frankfurt School, were actually pretty conventional Protestants, and in the German sense, that's not to say I believe they were believing Christians, not it, but they were just considered this I was kind of conventional Protestant. So, a part of the Frankfurt School is that they believed that this intellectual critique and ruthless, multi-disciplinary intellectual critique would bring about change, but they were not calling for revolution in the streets, and they were quite concerned several of them with Marcuse actually appeared to do just that. Adorno, another fascinating figure, Carl, be fascinated what you want to say here. But I just want to say, you know, you mentioned Foucault. I'm not going to count him in critical theory, I'm going to count him in the extreme left of deconstruction as post-modernism. For one thing, he's French, operating out in French categories, but you might see him as the result of some of this list thinking. But most of their lives, I just want to say, are far more disappointingly conventional in one sense. And the second wave of the institute was something like you're going to Habermas. I mean, Habermas is very much a middle-class academic, much to the frustration of astute revolutionary students in the 60s, who thought that Jürgen Habermas was a part of the problem, not a part of the solution.
CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah, and, and Adorno is fascinating. I mean, one thing I might say, Andrew, is that a lot of the early Frankfurt School came from pretty affluent, bourgeois families. And one could speculate about guilt, I suppose, on that front. But Adorno is fascinating. I mean, he's an absolute elitist. He's a very talented musician, apart from anything else. He despises pop culture. Some of his most, I would guess from a modern perspective, some of his most troublesome writings are his criticisms of jazz, which might be regarded as ethnically pretty insensitive these days. He doesn't like movies. When students occupy his classroom in the 60s rebellions, he calls the police. Right. So, Adorno knows. I don't know, I think his critical theory is great in theory, but he's a classic bourgeois intellectual.
ALBERT MOHLER: Yeah, I don't mean to interrupt you. But I want to kick you off the diving board just a little bit. Adorno was also appropriated by some parts of the far right.
CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah, I mean, he's an elitist. He's, he's, and all of these men have a certain totalitarian impulse behind them. Again, I'm thinking of Adorno. His writings on the possibility of homosexual marriage are not particularly enlightened by a modern sense. So, you know, Adorno is an interesting figure who does not represent the typical 60s radical in a whole heap of ways. I mean, he just dislikes jazz. Goodness knows what he thought about rock and roll. I can only imagine where he would, well...
ALBERT MOHLER: His statements were likely considered just overtly racist.
CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah. Oh yeah. And that's, it's interesting seeing left-wing writers write on Adorno on jazz because they feel the need to try a bit like excusing. If Napoleon's your hero, there's an awful lot you got to excuse.
ALBERT MOHLER: How about Heidegger?
CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah, Heidegger would be another one, of course, the Nazi connection. So, yeah, interesting. And Adorno, his use of Nietzsche does not necessarily sit well with the left either. So there are some interesting elements, Andrew, but hard to speculate. I think we, the early Frankfurt School were, as I said, in some ways, they have quite prosaic sort of guys, not like Foucault, they were not these rather flamboyant figures where the connections between the theory and the life were really rather obvious.
ALBERT MOHLER: Yeah. And even Marcuse, and his far radical idea of sexual liberation was nowhere near, you know, Foucault, you know, dying of AIDS acquired in, uh, I can't even say what the truth is. And I'll just say, the homosexual underworld. Yeah. It's a different, and, you know, a part of this is because the founders of critical theory were largely German. And German cultural restraint is something that was quite different, which people recognized at the time. And, of course, that was part of the German temperament. So we were halfway say in this conversation, and, you know, we kind of look into genealogy, which is a very enlightened thing to do, of where critical theory came from. But let's talk about why we're talking about it right now. Because again, as a college first-year student, I thought this is not gonna get anywhere. It's too theoretical. And, you know, it's hard to have, most Americans have a serious conversation about ideas, much less think that they're going to be involved in some liberationist critique of, by imposition, a theory. So Andrew, just tell us, why in the world in 2023, do intelligent Christians, in nations like the United States, need to be aware of this?
ANDREW WALKER: Goodness, I mean, so. So categories of intersectionality, which is, again, something that is absolutely omnipresent in our culture, the idea that you can base your individuality not on your personal agency, but basically as a part of a larger group. And it could be the fact that you, as a member of that individual group, you could be oppressed, even though you might be a high-income earning individual. Because the claims of how one deems themselves as oppressed no longer have any correspondence to objective reality. It's more determined by the fact that you are part of this oppressed class that's mediated through kind of your standpoint epistemology, that the individual is caught up within the group within identity politics, which within grievance as a primary kind of mode of discourse. And so now with something like intersectionality …
ALBERT MOHLER: Andrew, define it.
ANDREW WALKER: Yeah. So intersectionality would define degrees of oppression by interlocking classes of membership. If you are a white male, in this particular worldview.
you can't go to Wellesley, you can't go to Wellesley you're not oppressed. But then if you are an African American male, you are one rung up on the oppression ladder. And then if you are an African American female, you're one rung up above the African American male and then whatever next distinguishing characteristic. Now, what with intersectionality? I think what really becomes important in this discussion is you get exempt from any type of moral evaluation being placed upon you so that your membership in a particular group identity gives you almost like a special Gnostic Get Out of Jail Free card, having to have any culpability whatsoever, as far as your actions. So if you ever hear someone saying, "Well, you don't know what it's like to walk in my shoes as a member of this particular class," that is critical theory par excellence, whether the person who is saying that phrase is aware of themselves that it is critical theory par excellence, because they are utilizing both a special form of knowledge based on their particular class identity. That class identity gives them again that Get Out of Jail Free card that they are no longer having to play by the rules of the so-called hegemonic power, keeping them oppressed.
ALBERT MOHLER: Yeah. And I think a part of why we're having this conversation is because we want Christian parents to be able to understand when they hear this kind of discourse from their kids, and we want those young people to understand when they hear this from a teacher, and we want all of us, you know, men, women, boys and girls, let's use those old categories that, you know, to understand when we're hearing this from the culture. So, yeah, that's very helpful, Carl, you know, you're not writing this book for nothing. You're not You're not involved in this new project, simply because you need another, you know, title on your bookshelf. You've got some burning interest here with some practical consideration.
CARL TRUEMAN: I'm writing the critical theory book for Broadman and Holman, of course, which is the Southern Baptist press, and Broadman and Holman approached me, essentially saying, "We want a book that we can give either to upper-level undergraduates or to seminarians that will give them some handle, some way of orienting themselves in terms of what's going on." So that was what attracted me to taking the project on, because it's not just parents, it's also pastors who are going to have to address this stuff. And again, go back to the comment I made earlier. So many of the things that critical theory touches on are important things, and they do pull on the heartstrings. Pastors need to have an opinion about racism, they need to have an opinion about the evils that exist in society. The question is, what framework do they use for understanding those evils? And how do they address them? The problem with critical theory in many ways is that it gets to define the terms and it gets to provide the solution. And if you don't agree with their definitions and you don't agree with their solutions, then you are that which you claim to repudiate. You're a racist or a sexist or whatever. So what I want to try to do in this book is to give some broad, not particularly academic, but some broad comprehensible background that will allow hard-pressed pastors, students, etc., to have some orientation that what is going on. I just add to what Andrew was saying just now. I think another reason why things like intersectionality appeal in critical theory is that we live in a society where victimhood conveys status. Yeah, what is intersectionality on one way, in one way, it's a very sophisticated way of establishing what victimhood provides, what status within society. And again, I think that's one of the reasons why it appeals to a lot of Christians, because we don't exist in isolation from the culture, we participate in a culture that prioritizes victimhood, and therefore, any system that appears to address that is likely to feel attractive and virtuous to us.
ALBERT MOHLER: Are we surprised at how the logic has been flipped, though? Because intersectionality is not a stupid idea. As a matter of fact, I think it's much more accessible than most of critical theory in any form. And the intersectionality makes sense to people. Because I think we do understand that society works on the basis of a default. And the further you get from that default, the further you get from the center of political tension. The fact is, however, they've now flipped the switch. And so, you know, intersectionality, as at least an insight about how marginalization happens, it now happens that if you are a white, male, Christian, conservative, then by definition, you are an oppressor. And so your voice, it's not just that other voices should be privileged now and heard, is that your voice now needs to be silenced. Otherwise, there will be harm.
CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah, it's a way of dealing, legitimizing people. And, you know, one could be provocative and say, if you're a white male homosexual, you're only one step up from a white male heterosexual that --
ALBERT MOHLER: That's being said to people like Andrew Sullivan.
CARL TRUEMAN: I was gonna say, Andrew is a good example of somebody who's, well, he's now transphobic because he's not sexually attracted to women pretending to be men. You know, that's where this kind of stuff leads, and it's highly problematic. And I have a feeling that very few people believe this garbage. Right? They're either frightened, or they don't know how to resist or oppose it.
ALBERT MOHLER: I'm convinced that's true of the "T" as in LGBTQ. I just don't believe most of the people out there talking about it believe what they're saying.
CARL TRUEMAN: Well, I’m tretty sure President Biden has read deeply in gender theory. I think he knows what he's talking about — NOT. I mean, that's the ridiculous thing with these politicians.
ALBERT MOHLER: It's almost sinful for you to have said that, Carl. (laughter)
ANDREW WALKER: So, I want to recapture the conversation here. Carl, you just mentioned that there seems to be almost like a growing fatigue and exhaustion around this subject. There's obviously, I think we're seeing the bitter fruits of illiberalism absolutely bear out with the critical theory discussion. And what we're noticing, and I, in particular, I would say over the last year, in particular, we have seen the rise of what I would call kind of an anti-woke sentiment. Now, these are not conservatives. I wouldn't even say that some of these individuals are on the right at all whatsoever. I'm thinking here, in particular, individuals like Bill Maher. Bill Maher is a noted atheist. He's a man of the left and proudly so. But I've been watching Bill Maher for a long time, and he is incrementally every single season lurching more in the direction of critiquing the left for, and Bill Maher has never used the term critical theory. He's using kind of the more catch-all term of woke, which is a whole separate conversation to have about how to define that. My question for you and Dr. Mohler is, how do we make sense of this almost growing coalition of voices on the secular right, the secular left, that seem to be understanding that we are reaching a breaking point as a culture at really how silly some of the ideas are being birthed from critical theory?
CARL TRUEMAN: Interesting question, Andrew. I mean, I think one of the things that we have to realize is going on is that the traditional right-left division is being reshaped as we speak. Because the questions that we're dealing with now are not the old questions of economics, state role in planning the economy versus free market. I think the questions we're addressing now in the political sphere are anthropological questions, and where you stand on the economic question does not necessarily determine where you would stand on the anthropological question. So I am very encouraged, actually, by some of the alliances that are developing at the moment. I am somewhat pragmatic in my politics. So I'm not a utopian. Politics is the art of the possible, and I'm encouraged by some of the alliances that are developing, but I think they're developing because we have to start thinking that anthropology is the big issue here, rather than the traditional economic kind of arguments that really dominated, I suppose, politics in the '70s and somewhat through the '80s. It's not the era of Reagan and Thatcher anymore. The politics today is addressing very, very different issues.
ALBERT MOHLER: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right, Carl. I think the other thing we have to keep in mind is that there's always a battle for ideas in the public square. This is not a new thing. There's always a competition of ideologies in the fallen world. That's not a new thing. I want to say I think a lot of conservatives counted on the iceberg lasting a little bit longer in the modern age and thought some of the fixed categories of political, you know, moral debate of say a generation ago would continue. And actually, obviously, the issues continue where the people who believe in objective truth. But the reality is we find ourselves talking about things. I mean, even Carl mentioning, you know, queer theory and things like that. And I would have been sent to my room first for saying that just, you know, as a young person, if it even was understood, and this is the kind of thing that is now just the stuff of conversation around the dinner table, just of necessity, sometimes without the ideological niceties, but it's all there. And so at least a part of what we have to face here is that the number one, it's not all about power, that we as Christians understand our concern is not all about power. That's the problem. Many people on the right correctly see critical theory for what it is. But their answer is to overpower it in a political effort, and by the way, good luck with that. It has never worked out well for the right; the 20th century should have taught that lesson. That doesn't mean that we are not concerned with politics and with legislation and policy. It does mean we as Christians understand we've got a much deeper challenge than anything that the political right can handle. Now, I'm proudly conservative and proudly involved and actively involved in trying to further conservative causes and conservative truth, but I think we understand as Christians that we can't just have a reverse critical theory. We can't just say, no, rather than destroy all of the current system, we need to defend all the current system; that just doesn't work. We need to defend truth and gospel, Christ and morality; we need to defend boy and girl and man and woman; we need to defend marriage. And so just a reverse form of critical theory won't get us there. It just joins the same pernicious game.
You know, as we think about Christians uniquely, strategically responding to this, let's speak as theologians here. Let's speak pastorally to Christians. So what is the Christian response to the indictment by their critical theorists that the world is broken?
CARL TRUEMAN: Well, I think on one level, we have to agree. I mean, the world is fallen. Where I disagree with critical theorists is, I don't think there is any Utopia coming this side of the last time. So yeah, I think there, at that point, if you like, as a point of contact, and certainly again, as I've hinted at in this discussion, there are points that critical theorists, many theorists make about oppression that are legitimate. And the solutions they propose, the analysis they offer is deeply flawed, but I think we can agree on certain things. This world is broken. It's not as it should be. The answer, I think, for the Christian ultimately has to be rooted first of all in the local church. Where do we see lives transformed? Where do we see families transformed? Where do we see communities transformed? It's through the proclamation of the gospel in the local church and through the administration, can I use the word sacrament with Baptists? Is that okay? Ordinances, sacraments, it's through the practice of the sacraments and the ordinances. It's through the ordinary Christian life, it's through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through the church that we're going to see lives transformed. And I think that requires a certain shift in the imagination, particularly for American Christians. The idea that American Christians own the nation, I think, was very deep-seated for a long time. It's clearly not true now, even if it possibly was in the past, and I'm not sure it necessarily was way back when. We need to rethink ourselves or local, local ethic, we need to steward the local in terms of the Christian gospel more effectively than we have. We need to teach our children the whole counsel of God. I cannot predict, I mean, how your granddad, I'm a granddad now, I cannot predict what ethical challenges our grandchildren will face 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now, but I can make sure that they're catechized with the whole counsel of God, so that whatever comes up, they have the tools and the resources to be able to think in a Christian and a biblical way about these things. So, it sounds very trite to say it, but ordinary local church Christian discipleship, that has to be central to the Christian response.
ALBERT MOHLER: So Andrew, why do you teach young people right now? I mean, why aren't you trying to mobilize them for some kind of political action in response to critical theory? Why are you a professor of Christian ethics for crying out loud?
ANDREW WALKER: Certainly, because I think that Scripture provides a better account of the human experience than what critical theory can attempt to do on its own. And I echo what Carl said, there are some points of commonality or common notions that the Christian and the critical theorists could identify, namely, being the idea that there is a sense of brokenness, a sense of things are not as they ought to be. Now, the problem here is the storyline in critical theory defines this in strictly political material terms. Whereas in a Christian worldview, we go beyond just the material. We bring this into the eschatological and then to the heavenly. And so in one sense, the ongoing frustration and conflict and grievance baked into the critical theory worldview, the Christian can come along and say, we can actually give an account for why you feel that sense of angst. But we actually would say to you that short of Christ, short of the eschaton, that angst is always going to be baked into the nature of societies because societies are by nature fallen. This is, you know, you've got to have a healthy dose of Augustinianism to make sense of this. This world is not as it ought to be. But how it is not, or how it is right now, is a part of what you're going to expect it to be. It is broken and is fallen. At the same time, though, as Carl said, and this is not to be trite or to simplify this, we have a better answer in the sense that the answer is not an escape from just earthly oppression. An escape from earthly oppression is obviously important. But we believe that there is another horizon that actually fills out and gives a more complete picture of this horizon. If you're just staying in kind of a penultimate or earthly domain.
ALBERT MOHLER: Carl, when do we expect to see this book?
CARL TRUEMAN: Well, they gave me a deadline of August 1st, so I think their plan is to launch it at the Evangelical Theological Society's meeting in 2024. But you'll probably see it earlier because I'm almost certainly going to come to you, gentlemen, with a view to getting a jacket commendation.
ALBERT MOHLER: Well, you'll be sure to get it. And Carl, look, we really appreciate your generosity of time tonight. I want folks at World opinions and part of the World family to understand Carl's got a fantastic column out tomorrow morning on the Wellesley controversy. I made a slight reference to it. It's really important. I dealt with it Monday. And you know, we're in the strange world where, frankly, what we've just been talking about today in terms of critical theory is really necessary background to understanding how you ended up with the Wellesley admissions policy in 2020. Right?
CARL TRUEMAN: I think so. As I say, I think the tendency is all of this is towards queer theory. It's the demolition of all categories. I keep having that phrase of Nietzsche echo in my mind. I think it's in The Antichrist, where he says, 'We will not be good with, we will not be rid of God until we are rid of grammar,' essentially saying that we won't get rid of external authority until everything is destabilized. That, I think, is what we're seeing the fruits of in our society at the moment.
ALBERT MOHLER: And, by the way, that's one of the things that gives me hope … What gives me hope is that mothers still love their children. And there are resilient seeds to moral goods. And there's an insanity to the entire world of queer theory, but in particular to the non-binary, T, and transgender. Common grace, creation order, it does have a way of shining through. And Christians are the odd people who are actually able to thank God for demonstrations of reason and order, and truth and beauty. And a world is at war with all those things, but it's still oddly drawn to them. That's a good apologetic, wouldn’t ou say, Andrew?
ANDREW WALKER: Certainly, I love what you just said, the resilience of the moral goods. In a critical theory mindset. I mean, you've built a system on postmodern hermeneutics, where everything is deconstructed, there is no sense of assurance, there is no sense of grandeur reclamation that we have in the Christian gospel. And so we should not ever shortchange ourselves on how the simple ingredients of creation, fall, redemption, restoration actually make better sense of the universe than anything that can come out of 1930s Germany.
ALBERT MOHLER: And none of that can explain none of it. Why a father looking in the crib that his baby, looking at that, that baby sleeping peacefully. It has affection and unspeakable feeling for that baby and protective instincts for that baby. That nothing in theory critical or otherwise can explain. And that's one of the great benefits of the blessings of Christianity is, we do not respond to critical theory with a different theory. Humbly, we respond to all theories with biblical truth. Our Scripture does not begin with a ruthless critique of all that exists. It begins with in the beginning, God created the heavens in the earth. And our Gospel does not come down to a refinement of critique, but rather the affirmation that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life. We want to thank Carl Truman for joining with us tonight. It's been wonderful, Carl, we hope to have you back soon.
CARL TRUEMAN: A pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
ALBERT MOHLER: Andrew, as always, thanks for your good work. And let's continue to take these things these things through together and be with you as well. And thanks to all those who are listening and to the entire world family and to all those who work with this world opinions. We're trying to make a difference in this age, in this time, in the church and in the world. By bringing top quality opinion and analysis to the issues of the day, so I'm thankful that Carl Truman is also involved with us as a contributor in this great effort. And Andrew Walker managing editor, I say thank you again. And to all of you who participated in this event, and we'll find it helpful. Let us know what else you would find helpful, because we intend to have more of these conversations in the future. As always, thank you for your interest. And may God bless you all. Thanks for participating in this panel. And in this conversation, we'll hold opinions tonight.
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