What you win them with, is what you win them to. A critical assessment of Critical Theory and its subsets

Introduction

This is a personal reflection of my journey so far in my studies. Firstly, this is not a personal attack on my teachers or fellow students. From my context, I am begging the question regarding the methods and principles my institution endorses. I don’t support or subscribe to the methodologies under discussion. Although, given the opportunity, I am confident I could blow a hole big enough to drive a battalion of tanks through their stance, I am sure they would smile and invite me to try so they could wipe the floor with me.

In no way am I attacking anyone personally, even though I am on the opposite side of the fence. My context is Reformed and Evangelical. I accept the Bible as a proposition from God that it is both fully inspired and without error. I firmly believe God spoke through the Patriarchs, the prophets and the Apostles. But, most importantly, I have my faith firmly placed in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God in whom salvation is found alone.

I am not attempting to give a complete definition but outline some of my subjects foundational ideas. This reflection and many other blog entries from my website could be the basis of a dissertation or thesis.

Firstly, some definitions

Critical Theory [1]

Critical Theory is an approach to social philosophy that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture in order to reveal and challenge power structures Wikipedia

Historical Criticism. The study of biblical literature, method of Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and the New Testament emphasises the interpretation of biblical documents in the light of their contemporary environment. It draws upon not only exegesis and hermeneutics but also such fields as historyarchaeology, and Classical scholarship in an attempt to reconstruct the historical setting within which biblical texts were produced[2]

Redaction criticism, in the study of biblical literature, method of Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament that examines the way the various pieces of the tradition have been assembled into the final literary composition by an author or editor. According to this method’s proponents, the arrangement and modification of these pieces can reveal the author’s intentions and how he hoped to achieve them.   [3]

So, now that you’re completely overwhelmed and, for some, highly suspicious of my motives, let me clarify that I  do not endorse the foundation or philosophical basis for the above mentioned. I merely point the above out to say something that many of my peers and lecturers will not like.

I am presently undertaking a theological degree. I am not saying this to brag or laud it over others. I am saying this even at this early stage of my studies. I have definite opinions about my studies and the premise or underpinning the methods of inquiry.

Discussion

I am surprised and alarmed that those I have observed entering this field of study who variously want to teach religion in schools or seek a ministry or pastoral care career. Why am I amazed and alarmed? I don’t mean to denigrate others or question their ability as academics and teachers. Still, their lack of knowledge and unfamiliarity with the Bible is alarming, to the point of naivety.

As students, we look to our teachers as guides that we entrust to instil in us the tools to Instruct others faithfully. We put faith in them because they represent or model what we might pass onto others. The problem and the point of this discussion are what we do or don’t pass on to others.

The above approaches are the particular models I want to focus on because this is the crux of what you win them with, is what you win them to. If knowledge of this kind is the prevalent paradigm one intends to teach future generations, we’re in deep trouble.

The above claims to be a critical approach to understanding the Bible and education in general. If critical thinking means questioning, analysing, and determining what truth is, I fully agree. However, as you will see, that is not what they mean. Critical Theory has one single motive, to undermine everything we believe and replace it with something that resembles wet putty or plasticine that at any moment can reshape into something else. Critical  Theory is like a never-ending piece of elastic.

 Critical Theory and its subsets are prevalent if not the only method for analysing the Bible so far as many Theological institutions are concerned. So, if the approach is critical, why do so many bible colleges and universities insist that students use it without pointing out its faults and weaknesses? The reason is that they don’t want students engaging what they call theology with more conservative material, particularly those reference materials that are systematic or thoroughly biblical in their approach.

Those that do point out the shortfalls of the system don’t offer an alternative. Instead, they refer to literal and fundamentalist approaches to hermeneutics and exegesis as child-like. Critical Theory implies the Bible is simply literature full of myths and stories about God that people wrote in primitive times according to the customs and mores that they lived within. These include patriarchal dominance, strict regulations for how relationships should work, and principles upon which past and present society is built.

 If the authors of the different books were speaking the words of God then practices such as slavery, incest, homosexuality, rape, murder, adultery, stealing and even uncontrolled anger are only a few of God’s objections. I say ‘objections’ because some of these are now commonly accepted. In contrast, other explanations are psycho-social issues where people are victims of racism, sexism, white privilege, marginalisation and or discrimination.

There is truth in the kinds of things Critical Theory opposes and points out. There are many circumstances in which social justice should act. For example, there is truth in saying that being gay does not mean they cannot become mechanics or engineers where they are a job to make a living. In saying this, People should have the freedom to agree or disagree with life choices, but that should not be pushed on society as if it is nonoptional where those like myself are seen as narrow-minded, bigoted primitives who don’t agree with the present narrative. We are fast becoming criminals.

Throughout history, there are people we should rightly describe as monsters who were morally decadent and brutal. But that does not diminish their artistic, social, economic and political skills. For example, Adolf Hitler’s oratory skills were mesmerising. To those of us who don’t speak German, Hitler appeared to be a raving madman. However, if he had spoken our language, what influence would that have had? I am not endorsing or condoning Hitler’s fascist Nazism, but you can’t deny that he had some powerful skills at his disposal. MY point here is that one action does not make up the whole person… however,  some people shouldn’t be allowed near old people, children or small animals.

However, God forbid that we should take the Bible as divinely inspired, preserved, or that it speaks eternal truths. Critical Theory in essence opposes this belief. The idea that one of the bases of logic is antithesis, the bible is a work of antithetical idea and beliefs. The idea that if one thing is wrong, its opposite must be right. Ironically, critical Theory opposes the idea of antithesis because opposing antithesis is antithetical. So, of course, Critical Theory has to find a way to reconcile opposites or synthesise opposites.

 A good example of irrationality or nonlogic Critical Theory is  Lazarus being raised from the dead Jn 11: 1-44. The opposite of alive is dead. So, according to Critical Theory, Lazarus could not have died. Of course, Lazarus could have been materially indisposed, existentially absent, or some other nonsense. But, Lazarus could not have expired because dead is the opposite of being alive, i.e. antithesis. But Jesus said that Lazarus is dead Jn 1: 14, 23, 34. Other verses imply that Lazarus is dead, Jn 11:38-39. It is questionable, or it isn’t.

The question is whether raising Lazarus is an actual event or a later edition to the story of Jesus to harmonise or fill in the story so that Jesus has power over death. According to Critical Theorists, many of Jesus sayings were words put in his mouth by later redactors. Also, according to Critical Theorists, many of Jesus’actions were added later so that Jesus evolved from a simple mortal Rabbi to God incarnate. I am using these as examples, not stating them as facts, although this is the Critical Theorists’ essence.

In the Old Testament, speaking of the Pentateuch, Moses may not have been an actual person but a compilation of different authors. Other sayings and instances are rephrased, reorganised, added to, and expanded upon to give a more refined emphasis to the Law, priestly activities, Yahwist’s, etc. But, of course, no one knows who these other authors are. The only clue appears changes in voice or style. So Moses had to be the perfect novelist for there to be single authorship. I wonder if Moses had a proofreader, that couldn’t be God could it now?

Historical Criticism believes the Bible adapts stories that predate Judaism, such as the Epics of Gilgamesh or Mithras. So, the only conclusion historical and literary critics can draw is that the Bible is not very original. Also, many New Testament writings are by authors using pseudonyms (their assumptions, not mine). Thus, the original authors are unknown in most cases. The  Soteriology and Christology of each book developed over time, as there could be no real possibility the Apostles wrote the Gospels ( this is sarcastic wit).  Paul could not have written all his Epistles, nor Peter, because there are stylistic differences. Not even John is exempt. It could be possible John, Paul and Peter all used professional writers or that they may have used dictation. This explanation is also dismissed. There always has to be some unprovable complex explanation that does nothing more than sow doubt. It reminds me of the mythical serpent in the garden who questioned the consequences of the command not to eat from the tree of knowledge.  God forbid that God and Jesus are one in essence Or that the Jesus spoken of in the Gospel of John may be the same person who created the Universe in Genesis chapter 1 and so forth.

The reason so much of this is simply an idealised version of a remarkable person who lived once upon a time is  that it fulfils the criteria  for yet  another genre called Higher Criticism

study of biblical writings to determine their literary history and the purpose and meaning of the authors [4]

If these ideas are overwhelming to the average person, imagine how confused children would be. The teachers objective is to make the Bible culturally relevant.  The teacher must explain most of it away as myth and custom from an older time.  Lastly, some of the materials have repeatedly stated  that  the Bible is not a book  for children and shouldn’t be sanitised children’s Bibles. Is this objection moral?

I find it ironic that Critical theorists can explain the Bible away as stories, but the Bible cannot teach children moral lessons. Should we conclude that children can’t be religious? Or worse, it shouldn’t. Do Critical Theorists fear that their methods may not be effective or that children will be inoculated against Critical Theory?

If we are honest, the Bible is relegated to literature. The Bible cannot be any more real than Brothers Grimm or Esops Fables or even Mother Goose. So why not simply give that to the Critical theorists and higher critics to dismantle. Why not merely dismantle all meaning of truth?  Oh wait, they did.

To put it bluntly, if you deconstruct the biblical text, what real value does it have, what meaning does it reveal and what, if anything, is the practical application for religious faith? Liturgy, catechising, prayer, baptism and religious instruction have no power; they are simply rituals that have nothing to do with God in reality. In higher Criticism, God is merely an idea and not an absolute or creator. Jesus is the representation of the ‘God ideal’ He is something we can aspire to as human beings, but Jesus cannot be divine in any absolute sense. Jesus is altruistic, an idealised human being that exemplifies the best in all of us.  Critical Theory is simply a form of humanism, us, making God in our own image.

Finally, there is no such thing as sin. Religion should make us feel good or help us all find our happy space or safe place where our idea of God is our salvation. Truth is subjective whatever we think is true is our reality.

Critical Theory is defined as challenging power structures. Critical Theory is a very human structure. Let’s suppose that there is a God outside of time and space that created everything in a literal six-day period. Let’s assume that this God is all-knowing, all-powerful and everywhere at once; either this is possible for God, or it’s not; this is the very thing that Critical Theory seeks to undermine. So it says the Bible is a man made product full of stories that speak about God, but we are the authors not God.

The presupposition of God is outside of the scientific criteria. The scientific standards cannot account for a miraculous creation that has an intelligent designer behind it.  God cannot be falsified because God is outside of any criteria that would allow us to analyse God. The solution? Explain it all away.

So, who or what power is Critical Theory actually challenging?  Ultimately Critical Theory is challenging the authority of God to be God, to be creator, all-knowing, good, Holy, righteous or anything else that the Bible describes him as because the Bible, after all, is just a book.

The Bible can’t be holy, reveal truth, and direct us to salvation because Critical Theory ultimately makes us our own saviours because the truth is in us… if critical Theory is true. But that can’t be true. Critical Theory can’t be true and it can’t guide us to the truth because there is no final truth. Truth is relative.  That is the point of Critical Theory. However, Critical Theory is simply an extension of the Frankfurt School[5]

What if those who proposed Critical Theory are wrong? What if those whose confidence and faith is in a philosophy that is so intent on undermining the very thing they claim to represent is wrong. What does this mean for those they influence?

Once more, this goes to the very heart of what you win them with is what you win them to. Suppose you undermine the very bedrock of the thing you claim to believe. If ones belief is based on a false premise to begin with, your investigation is entirely erroneous.  If one is committed to the idea that Critical Theory is true when it can’t be, which is, because it claims no truth. But, then, Critical Theorists use that method and teach it to others to mould young minds with that idea, the idea and the method is still false regardless. One needs extraordinary confidence in that idea. I hear Pascal whispering from his grave, “How much will you wager?[6]

Critical Theory and other methods claim that literalism and fundamentalism is an immature approach. Whether the Critical Theory methodology is a better apologetic is questionable. Critical Theorist are fairly scathing in their attacks on Literal and fundamental approaches to apologetics. I am not a proponent of literalism or fundamentalism I believe the bible is a mixture of literal allegory and metaphor. However, Critical Theory cannot claim it is not an apologetic approach because, firstly, it claims to be a system of inquiry. Secondly, it is defending its methodology while criticising another set of principles. So, one must look at its theology because one’s theology determines the premises from which it argues.

Critical Theory, Historical Criticism, Redaction Criticism, Higher Criticism all have their genesis in the early modern period with Benedict de Spinoza. Spinoza’s god is not the God of the Bible. [7] It is uncertain whether Spinoza was a deist or a theist. His idea of God was that god is a substance that all things are part of, which, to my mind, is more familiar with a form of pantheism where god is everything. I don’t know what ideas Critical theory holds regarding God’s omnipresence. However, the orthodox position is that God is always holding all things together but that God is separate from creation, standing outside of creation but intricately involved. This is not the view Spinoza held, nor does it appear to be the view of Critical Theory. Spinoza believed God is the creation, not separate from creation. God is not an individual God is not a person, so to speak.

If one goes down that rabbit hole and Spinoza is the father of the modern Historical-Critical method and the early ruminations of the modern period, what hope does the present Church have, and what will the Church look like in the future, is this a good thing?

The world talks about progression and evolving into something better. is this better? What are we winning our world too?


[1]https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/

[2] . https://www.britannica.com/topic/historical-criticism-biblical-criticism

[3] https://www.britannica.com/topic/redaction-criticism

[4]  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/higher%20criticism

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Frankfurt-School

[6] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/

[7] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/

Categories:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s