Thoughts on Theology and Theory

Three or four chance conversations over the past few weeks have raised the subject of ‘Theory’, or critical theory, in ways that have made me think about how I do theology. I’m going to argue here that there are good gospel reasons for theologians to be open to theory, and that these are particularly compelling for B/baptist theologians.

I have used critical theory all my academic life. My master’s dissertation engaged with Derrida; Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have been lasting sources for reflection; from memory I have engaged with Cixous, Bourdieu, Gramsci, Adorno, Horkheimer, Spivak, Freire, and various others from time to time in writing. Marcuse and Lacan are sitting on my desk at the moment.

This is on one level unsurprising. Theory—I’ll offer a definition in a moment—is part of the standard tool-kit of the humanities and social sciences today. As someone who teaches in the Arts faculty of a European university, I need to understand critical theory the way someone managing a European football team needs to understand pressing—whether you like it or not, it is a part of the current assumed knowledge in your profession.

There is, however, a difference between ‘understanding’ and ‘using’, and this is where the question starts to bite. In some of the ecclesial circles I move in—Baptist; charismatic; evangelical—‘theory’ has become a rude word, something that is inevitably opposed to the gospel, and so to be refused and resisted.

As far as I can tell, the presenting arguments for this turn on the alleged Marxist origins of theory, and the (universally unargued) assumption that whatever has its origins in Marx cannot be good for theology. So stated, this is of course a version of the ‘reliable anti-authority’ fallacy—nobody is wrong about everything, and so identifying a position with a particular individual is never an argument against that position.

Perhaps the most basic position Marx took was that philosophy needed to be practical: the philosopher analyses the world only in order to change it. This is the basic intuition of all forms of critical theory also; to this extent they are ‘Marxist’. They are also universally critical of some other aspect of Marx’s thought. More recent versions note his lack of attention to gender, or race; the Frankfurt School, whose programme is often termed ‘cultural Marxism’, started, essentially, with Horkheimer’s recognition that most of Marx’s economic prophecies had proved remarkably accurate, but that his political prophecies had all failed, and sought to understand that strange mismatch.

Their exploration gave rise to the concept of ‘critical theory’ (the first reference I know is Horkheimer in 1937, but I’m not going to claim an exhaustive knowledge of that history). The term became common, although meaning different things for different writers. For Adorno it referred to an immanentist methodology, where reflection on the particularities of the present historical/cultural moment was elevated to be the key philosophical activity; for Marcuse it referred to cultural analysis informed by (his misunderstandings of Lacan’s misunderstandings of) Freud’s analysis of human desire, and so on.

It would be easy, on this basis, to dismiss the whole concept—‘no-one can agree what it means!’—but this would be a mistake; it is a concept taken very seriously, as already noted, by basically all current scholars in the humanities, and that fact alone suggests there is something to it.

What? My best analysis of what unites all the disparate versions of ‘critical theory’ is that they are attempts to destabilise cultural norms and to subvert the apparently obvious. (If you know Bourdieu’s concept of ‘doxa’, it will be helpful here; if not, don’t worry…)

If this is right, all versions of critical theory are attempts—however good or bad—to look at current cultural realities, and to ask, ‘what unexamined—unjustified—assumptions are necessary to sustain this?’. Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) writes the history of European criminal justice systems with the intent of showing that the move from capital/corporal punishments to imprisonment might not have been, as universally assumed, progressive and civilised. Cixous (in ‘Le Rire de la Méduse’) tries to undermine agreed accounts of what constitutes literary excellence by insisting that they are gendered and patriarchal. And so on.

Critical theory, then, is revolutionary. It is an attempt to get behind normal modes of analysis to uncover the unquestioned assumptions that they instantiate. (Of course, this methodology is not in itself revolutionary: we might uncover the unquestioned assumptions, and then assert that they are entirely appropriate; critical theory does not generally do this, however.)

This of course means that critical theory is inevitably political: it is devoted to discovering the unjustified assumptions behind cultural norms, and so questioning and destabilising those norms. If we think that the cultural situation we inherited is perfect, or close to perfection, we will experience critical theory as a profound threat, devoted to undoing all the good that we inherited. If we think the cultural situation we inherited is irredeemable, we will regard critical theory as an unquestionable good, deconstructing the unjust structures of the past.

So what should Christians do with theory? My first reflection is that we should not embrace either of these extremes. The Kingdom is not yet fully come, and so we cannot embrace unabashed conservatism; equally, God is not without witness in any cultural reality, so we cannot embrace unqualified revolution.

Second, however, I would suggest that, in the contemporary West, there is a particular context we need to be responsible to, which we might call ‘Christendom’. There was—perhaps still is in some places—a culture that assimilated Christianity sufficiently well that it credibly presented itself as ‘Christian’.

If we believe this self-presentation, then the ‘conservative’ view above becomes strong, perhaps compelling. This is a temptation—the right word—for state churches, looking back to an imagined golden age when the culture was theirs. Of course, it never was—there were always religious minorities like Baptists (& Gramsci, in his prison account of the ‘subaltern’ groups who would overthrow the present norms, listed religious minorities high amongst them), & the truth was (at least) as much that the culture owned them as that they owned the culture.

As a Baptist, however, I am more interested in the other side: for us, ‘Christendom’ meant persecution of one form or another, and so its ending was, to some degree, the triumph of the gospel. Every cultural reality both contains seeds of the gospel, and instantiates the basic fallenness of human life. We cannot, of course, sign up to every criticism of contemporary culture(s) as if they were all holy; but we can and must believe that unpicking and exposing the particular idolatries of our contemporary culture(s) is a gospel task, and so we can and must find a degree of common cause with critical theory, welcome its insights where they are well-founded, and use it, too, as a handmaid to the gospel.

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  1. Church growth and decline in the UK 2: Is church decline due to ‘progressive ideology’? | Shored Fragments - […] human ideology doesn’t? I struggle, however, to see it as something simply bad. As I commented in a previous…

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