Tim Keller’s Strong Warning Against Postmodern Critical Theory

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About two weeks ago, Tim Keller published an article titled A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory in a series he is writing on race relations. I deeply appreciated his analysis of what he calls “postmodern critical theory,” which, he asserts, “draws on the teachings of Karl Marx.” 

Keller certainly hasn’t been an outspoken critic of social theory, until now. Because of this, his strong warning is somewhat surprising but sorely needed. His worldview analysis tracks closely with my own study and thinking, which I unpack in some detail in my newest book, Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice: An Urgent Appeal to Fellow Christians in a Time of Social Crisis, which will be released on September 15. I encourage you to visit our website to learn more about it and sign up for news and updates related to its release. 

why social justice is not biblical justice

Like Keller, I believe that to rightly comprehend critical social theory, you have to see it as much more than a set of ideas that relate to power, race, sex, and sexual orientation. You have to see it as a comprehensive worldview. Many now describe it as a kind of religion. Critical theory provides answers to all the big worldview questions such as What is ultimately real? What does it mean to be human? What is wrong with the world and how can it be made right? and many more. 

Its answers differ sharply from those provided by a biblical worldview, which isn’t surprising when you consider that the source of critical theory is a European philosophical tradition known as Idealism and captured in the writings of philosophers such as Kant, Hagel, Nietzsche, and Rousseau. From this philosophical soil both Marxism and postmodernism emerged, with people like Antonio Gramsci, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Jaques Derrida making contributions along the way. It gave rise to the Frankfurt School social theorists, who first coined the phrase “critical theory.” These people, including Herbert Marcuse (the father of the sexual revolution), and Max Horkheimer, brought their ideas into American universities in the 1950s where they eventually came to dominate the social sciences and humanities, and ultimately large swaths of the culture in our own time. These ideas were picked up and developed by Derrick Bell, father of critical race theory, whose ideas inspired present-day popularizers including Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and the founders of Black Lives Matter, to name a few. 

I fully agree with Christian apologist Neil Shenvi, who wrote: “I worry that too many people are trying to hold on to both Christianity and critical theory. That’s not going to work in the long run. Either we will abandon historic Christianity in favor of the core tenets of contemporary critical theory or we will abandon the core tenets of contemporary critical theory in favor of Christianity. Any amalgamation of the two will, in the long run, be unstable.” In short, I view critical social theory as a “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). 

Following is my summary of the basic worldview presuppositions of critical social theory, showing how they differ from biblical presuppositions. I’ll intersperse this with helpful quotes from Keller’s new article. 

I encourage readers to do their own research and decide if they think my summary, and Keller’s comments, are fair or not. 

Ultimate Reality

Because critical theory is grounded in atheism, there is no God, no objective truth, and no transcendent morality, All that remains is power, and in particular, an endless struggle for power between various groups. At its core, critical theory is concerned with power: Who has it and who doesn’t, and how those with power establish systems, structures, and norms to maintain it and to dominate and subjugate those who don’t. Power, in this framework, is entirely negative and zero-sum. The world is divided into an oppressor-oppressed binary, with nothing existing outside these categories. 

There is a degree of truth in this analysis. The Bible agrees that in our fallen world, this is how power typically functions. Jesus said to his disciples in Mark 10:43, “You know that those regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them.” But then He pivots, contrasting power and authority in the fallen world with power in God’s Kingdom: “But it shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great [that is, whoever wants to possess power and authority] among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man [the most powerful being in the universe, the supreme authority] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Power is not all that exists. Everything cannot be reduced to power. God exists. Christ has all power and authority (Matthew 28:18) and yet, in love, He uses His power to serve those under His authority. Those who follow His example bring this revolutionary approach to power and authority into the fallen world, and in doing so, transform it. Power exists, but so does truth, and so does love. And because love exists at the foundation of reality, so does grace, mercy, and forgiveness. 

These redemptive qualities are completely foreign to critical social theory. In the zero-sum world of social justice power struggle, there is no “live and let live” tolerance. No win-win, or even compromise. No place for forgiveness, or grace. No “love your enemy.” No “first get the log out of your own eye” introspection. There is only grievance, condemnation, and retribution. Those labeled as bigots, haters, and oppressors must be destroyed. We are seeing this happen with alarming frequency in what is now called “cancel culture,” which is a bitter fruit of critical theory.

Here is Keller on this topic:

  • [In postmodern critical theory] reality is at bottom nothing but power.” 
  • “Religious doctrine, together with all politics and law are always, at bottom, a way for people to get or maintain … power over others.” 
  • “Power structures mask themselves behind the language of rationality and truth. So academia hides its unjust structures behind talk of ‘academic freedom,’ and corporations behind talk of ‘free enterprise,’ science behind talk of ‘empirical objectivity’, and religion behind talk of ‘divine truth’. All of these … are really just constructed narratives designed to dominate…”

Keller highlights the futility of this cynical view of reality: 

  • “if all people with power … inevitably use it for domination, then if any revolutionaries were able to replace the oppressors at the top of the society, why would they not become people that should subsequently be rebelled against and replaced themselves? What would make them different?”  

Good questions. 

Keller then contrasts the critical theory view of power with the biblical view. 

Rule and authority [that is, power] are not intrinsically wrong. Indeed, they are necessary in any society. But while not ending the [ruler/ruled] binary, neither does Christianity simply reverse it. It does not merely fill the top rungs of authority with new parties who will use power in the same oppressive way that is the way of the world … Because it is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christianity neither eliminates nor merely reverses the ruler/ruled binary—rather, it subverts it. When Jesus saves us through his use of power only for service, he changes our attitude toward and our use of power.

Human nature and identity

James Lindsay contrasts the biblical view of human identity with that of critical theory. According to the biblical view, people “are children of God, fashioned in His divine image. [According to] Social Justice, we are children of society, fashioned by its social constructions and the power dynamics they maintain.”

Postmodern critical theory views human beings as creatures whose identity is entirely socially constructed, and defined by group affiliations, particularly those based on race, sex, and sexual identity. There is no shared human nature. As Nancy Pearcey explains: “Everyone’s ideas are merely social constructions stitched together by cultural forces. Individuals are little more than mouthpieces for communities based on race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity.” She goes on to say that critical theory reduces “individuals to puppets of social forces . . . powerless to rise above the communities to which they belong.”

The casualty of this reductionist view? the individual, along with personal agency, and responsibility. 

Here’s Keller on this topic: 

  • “[Postmodern critical theory] undermines our common humanity. Biblically, we are primarily individuals before God, made in his image, and secondarily members of a race/nationality. The postmodern view, however, makes one’s racial or group identity primary.” 
  • “[According to postmodern critical theory] neither individual rights nor individual identity are primary… [It] is an illusion to think that, as an individual, you can carve out an identity in any way different or independent of others in your race, ethnicity, gender, and so on. Group identity and rights are the only real ones.”
  • “[Postmodern critical theory] sees human beings as inherently good or blank slates. Any evil is instilled in us by society, by social systems and forces. So any pathology (poverty, crime, violence, abuse) is due to one thing only- wrong social policy.”

Morality

Critical social theory has a defined moral system. Evil and moral guilt are associated with power, which is always oppressive, while moral innocence and moral authority are associated with oppressed victims. At present, those with power are said to be heteronormative males with white skin. They have established and maintain hegemonic power structures to oppress and subjugate women, people of color, sexual minorities (LGBTQ+) and others. These interlocking webs of systemic oppression have many labels: white supremacy, toxic masculinity, homophobia, misogyny, the male-female binary, and the patriarchy are just a few.

What is their solution to evil/oppression? In revolutionary fashion, oppressed victims and their allies must unite to unmask, deconstruct, and overthrow these oppressive power structures, norms, systems, and institutions. We see this revolutionary fervor in our headlines every day, with violence and looting, courthouses set on fire, and statues being toppled. 

Keller calls the moral system established by postmodern critical theory “deeply incoherent.” Critical theorists operate within an atheistic framework, yet claim a basis for knowledge of good and evil. Keller writes: “You cannot insist that all morality is culturally constructed and relative and then claim that your moral claims are not. … this may therefore be a fatal flaw for the entire theory.”

More Keller on this topic:

  • “Guilt is not assigned on the basis of individual actions but on the basis of group membership and social/racial status.”
  • “[I]n this postmodern view of justice groups are assigned higher or lower moral value depending on their power, and some groups are denied any redeeming characteristics at all.”
  • “If you are white, male, straight, cisgender then you have the highest amount of power. If you are none of these at all, you are the most marginalized and oppressed …  Most importantly, each category toward the powerless end of the spectrum has a greater moral authority … Only powerlessness and oppression brings moral high ground …”

Ideologies that draw the good vs. evil line between different groups are not just wrong, they are dangerous. If this group is good, and that group is evil, it is very easy to dehumanize the “evil” group. This is what happened in Nazi Germany with the Jews and in communist nations with “capitalists.” It happened in Rwanda in 1994, when the Hutu-led government, fueled by an ideology of hate, launched a genocide that left as many as a million Tutsis dead in just one hundred days. 

Followers of Jesus Christ must never be complicit in an ideology that encourages the dehumanization of our neighbors, particularly when the dehumanization is based on an immutable characteristic such as skin color. 

Keller warns: “To see whole races as more sinful and evil than other races leads to things like the Holocaust.”

Now, contrast this to biblical morality. In the immortal words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either [and we can add, nor between groups based on skin-color]—but right through every human heart.” “All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Our rebellion against God has resulted in broken relationships—between God and man, between man and his fellow man, and between man and creation. 

What is the solution? The cross of Christ. On the cross, God incarnate bore the punishment we deserved for sinful rebellion in order to show us mercy we could never deserve. His death on the cross and His resurrection opened the way for the reconciliation of all of our broken relationships.

Postmodern critical theory sources evil not in human hearts, but in social structures. The biblical worldview, by contrast, views evil not as structural, but as personal. Injustice exists because we are all fallen, sinful, selfish people. The only solution is a personal, heart-level transformation, not just for a particular group of so-called “oppressors,” but for everyone. There is no hope for lasting social change apart from the gospel and new life in Christ. 

Unlike postmodern critical theory, the biblical view of transformation encompasses both the inward and the outward, the personal and the societal, the regeneration of fallen human hearts and minds and the reformation of society. As Dallas Willard wisely said,

The revolution of Jesus is a revolution of the human heart or spirit. It did not and does not proceed by means of the formation of social institutions and laws. . . . Rather, it is a revolution of character, which proceeds by changing people from the inside through ongoing personal relationship to God in Christ and to one another. It is one that changes their ideas, beliefs, feelings, and habits of choice, as well as their . . . social relations. . . . From these divinely renovated depths of the person, social structures will naturally be transformed so that “justice roll[s] down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Yes, we all long to see our broken, hurting society healed. But the solutions provided by postmodern critical theory only make things worse by misdiagnosing the problem. It isn’t the patriarchy or white supremacy, and it certainly isn’t the male-female binary. Unjust and oppressive human systems, structures, institutions, laws, and norms are symptoms, not the disease. The disease is sin. It is alienation from God. The solution is inward heart and mind transformation through the gospel, leading to outward, societal transformation.

Keller again: 

  • “[Critical theory] denies our common sinfulness. The Bible teaches that sin is pervasive and universal. We are each members of a race or nationality that contains much unique common grace to contribute to the world. But every culture also comes with particular sinful idolatries. No race or people group is inherently more sinful than others.”
  • [According to postmodern critical theory] “unequal outcomes in wealth, well being, and power are never due to individual actions or to differences in cultures or to differences in human abilities, but only and strictly due to unjust social structures and systems. The only way to fix unequal outcomes for the downtrodden is through social policy, never by asking anyone to change their behavior or culture.” 

When you combine the critical theory views of ultimate reality, power, human identity, and morality you begin to see how it can only lead to a fractured, tribalistic world of identity groups competing for power. As Keller says, it “makes forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation between groups impossible.”

My point with this brief worldview analysis is this: Biblical Christianity and postmodern critical theory are distinct and incompatible worldviews. They are opposed in their understanding of ultimate reality, power, authority, human nature, morality, epistemology, and much more. These differences matter. They will inevitably lead to vastly different kinds of societies. 

The culture that is emerging around us from the worldview of critical social theory is one marked by hostility, division, and a false sense of moral superiority. A culture where truth is replaced by power, and gratitude by grievance. A culture where people are encouraged to put on the mantle of the victim. A culture where personal responsibility is eroded, and where people increasingly blame their problems on others. A culture marked by sexual libertinism. A culture where your identity is defined by your tribe and your tribe is always in conflict with other tribes.

I don’t want to live in this kind of culture. Apparently, neither does Tim Keller. 

I want to help build a culture where truth, justice, and love are the highest goods. A culture where God is honored as King, and all people, regardless of their race, sex, or class are respected and loved as His beloved children. A culture where people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. A culture in which justice is based on God’s unchanging moral law and those accused of injustice are treated with fairness and impartiality. A culture that upholds due process and the rule of law. A culture that sees all people as fallen sinners, yet recipients of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. A culture marked by grace, tolerance, and forgiveness. A culture where reconciliation and redemption are possible. A culture marked by humble gratitude.

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