Individualism is the assumed, and thus unquestioned, operating structure of for both the Left and the Right, conservatives and liberals. They are two sides of the same coin.
Nearly every disagreement and conflict that see in our society is framed within individualism and often ‘both sides’ are just the inverted – or photo negative – of each other simply focusing a different aspect of the individuals experience.
I ask the question: what is the most dangerous or objectionable thing that you believe? Not to your opponents but to your chosen group? Do you vote the party line? Do you vary at any point? Do you diverge from popular opinion at any level?
It’s like language – there is no private language. Language is socially constructed as is nearly every aspect of our life and culture. Race is socially constructed. Sexuality is socially constructed. Religion is socially constructed.
The problem comes when we don’t realize the ways that we have been:
Thus even our deepest conviction and true opinions are not independently our own. We are acting within a given structure that acted upon us and within in that we have some agency but we are never choosing from an unlimited menu of options. We are located socially and thus make choices within that structure.
Conservatives focus on one aspect of the individual. Liberals do the same just prioritizing different aspects of the individuals. Libertarians are just radical in this regard.
Watch the linked video and let me know your thoughts. Share with with groups your think might benefit from this challenge as a conversation starter.
Until we recognize the dominating ideology that is operational in all of our politics and social strife, we will not be able to fix the broken, fractured, and fragmented state or our societal problems.
Sometimes patient listening and genuine dialogue can really pay off. Over the past several months I have been interacting with some conservative, evangelical, and charismatic Christians who are very concerned about and even opposed to Critical Race Theory (CRT). I am writing in CRT in my academic work and I am Christian minister who employs CRT so I have been more than perplexed by the outrage and defensiveness of my fellow Christians who are just not open to dealing with issues of race in any meaningful way.
I have asked lots of questions and some patterns have emerged that have helped me figure out what that problem seems to be. It turns out that it is a two-headed monster.
First, they are not actually reading Critical Race. They are reading critiques of critical race from non-practitioners such as famous pastors or authors in other fields.
Second, they are not reading Christian authors who deal with race. They are reading only DiAngelo’s ‘White Fragility’ (or summaries of it) and Kendi’s ‘How to be Anti-Racist’ (or critiques of it).
This makes so much sense why they are so upset! They are not actually reading or listening to Critical Race or Christians who write on race. I see that now. I have said before, I am totally fine if people don’t want to read academic works in CRT … but they are not even reading accessible popular level stuff like Randy Woodley, Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong Chan-Rah, Christena Cleveland, Michael Eric Dyson, Drew Hart, Willie Jennings.
This is the problem of not reading on race but only listening to criticisms of it.
There are actually several types of this:
Those who do not read Critical Race but listen to critiques of by famous pastors or authors in other fields.
Those who only know DiAngelo and Kendi and don’t read Christian authors on race.
Those who actually read CRT but as critics and not as practitioners.
Those we actually engage Critical Race research in order to employ it in their ministry and work.
It all makes so much sense now! I had been baffled by the reactionary, simplistic, and erroneous accusations and scare-tactics. It has been fascinating to see some really predictable patterns emerge:
CRT is a competing worldview (or salvation) and so it is anti-Christ and not only should we not listen to it but it will lead astray from the truth.
CRT is Marxist – though no one has shown me a single practitioner who employs Marx.
CRT bears bad fruit like family tensions, conflict in congregations, and social strife.
The Bible (and usually Galatians 3:28) is quoted as saying we should not be focused on Race because Jesus ____ . Not realizing that the ancient (pre-modern) conception of race is entirely different from our contemporary concern or that those passages don’t mean that there is no such thing as race but that the power of the gospel ruptures our categorization and man-made ways of grouping people. I actually use Galatians 3:28 in my critical race scholarship!
CRT pits people and groups in adversarial tension with one group oppressing the other group. And yes – that is the ‘theory’ of history in critical race theory. It would be called a negative dialect by those who use such language.
It is clear to me who the objections by fellow Christians to Critical Race research is so predictable and so sophomoric: they are not actually reading Critical Race and the few who do are reading it as outsiders trying to poke holes in it! This also explains why my first video about all of this ‘Why Evangelicals Can Not Do Critical Race’ hit so close to home and why the evangelicals have no one to put forward who employs critical race in their work!
So I have a 3-fold proposal:
Put down the DiAngelo and Kendi and read your fellow Christians talk about race.
Don’t read non-practitioner’s critiques before you read some actual CRT.
Tell us who you are reading when make a claim (like Marxism) – name the actual practitioner who is doing this.
If you have time to read about Critical Race than you have time to read some actual work of Critical Race. If you don’t want to do that (and I totally understand that) then you at least need to be reading Christian authors dealing with race.
 I will add Austin Channing Brown because I hear so many powerful things about her writing and work.
Not everyone is thrilled about the presence and work of Critical Theory and specifically Critical Race Theory. And I get it. I have said many times that CRT is not for everyone.
Having said that, it is important to distinguish between two very different groups who are concerned about CRT. The first is people who actually understand Critical Race Theory and have a fundamental or philosophical objection to it. The second group is people who don’t really know what it is, or have not taken the time to look into it, but take exception to its posture or tone on a surface level.
I think that both groups have a legitimate gripe – but they are very different from each other and so I want to look at their actually concerns. I have talked before about The Beauty of Critical Theory, the Upside of Critical Theory, and how it is our salvation from bad religion. Today I want to look at the concerns about Critical Theory.
The first group actually knows what CRT is and is up to and objects to the foundational premise that bases its address in oppression. Critics bemoan that initial division between oppressed and oppressor and say, “Why would begin there? What a terrible place to start. You will divide people up in hurtful ways and you make primary someone’s group identity as a victim when that only feeds their feeling of victimization and marginalization.” It seems to this educated group that you will never build anything healthy or helpful for prioritizing and highlighting someone or a groups disadvantage and alienation. That is not a constructive way to proceed to these critics and they argue that it will never deliver you to a place of empowerment or productivity if you are perpetually deconstructing the very systems or institutions that you feel excluded from or want to participate in. ‘Playing the victim card’ is a bad hand and will never help you win the game.
That is a legitimate concern. Participating in the ‘Oppression Olympics’ is a recipe for continued victim mentality and ongoing marginalization. The mentality behind CRT is feeding yourself on the negative according to these studied critics. If you want a better life, to improve your community, and to have a seat at the table there are better ways to do that than focusing on the deficit and highlighting the deficiencies of the system.
Which brings us to the second group of critics: those who just don’t like the tone and posture. This popular, and growing, concern is with the general mentality or big-picture approach of CRT. This group doesn’t really understand Critical Theory but just doesn’t like its attitude. “Are things perfect? No. But are they getting better? Yes. So let’s focus on that and continue to progress together instead of causing more division and animosity.”
These less-knowledgeable opponents have a core objection to Critical Theory’s obsession with rummaging through the past to find injustice and even atrocities. They see history as “a long arc that bends toward justice”. They love the hallmark version of MLK and fundamentally object to viewing history as a problem and a limitation. We can’t, they argue, “go back and fix the past now – so let’s just move on and make things better now.”
This is a legitimate concern because Critical Theory really does begin with the conviction that something is deeply wrong and a problem to be addressed. It is not fun or cheery or optimistic. It is critical and pessimistic in its tone and posture. One of its founding members, Walter Benjamin, viewed history as an accumulating series of atrocities that piled up at the feet of the Angel of History who was facing backward trying desperately to resist the accumulating pile of these catastrophic events which Critical Theory then sorts through in order to account for, catalogue, and attend to their consequences. This is not a fun way to look at the past and it is not a cheery way to talk about how we got here or where we have arrived at.
Now, having said that, there is an important distinction to be made at this point: those who don’t like Critical Theory also have a pre-existing condition of being generally against Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), liberals in general, poor-me-ism, playing the victim, snowflake culture and ‘every kid gets a participation trophy’ in general. I became very aware of this cynicism in 2015 and 2016 as I got to travel the country and speak with different audiences. There was an across-the-board general sense of disdain for those on ‘the other’ side of the aisle.
So I just wanted to acknowledge that there is an actual disagreement about Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory. It is not just a matter of educating the masses or listening to the other-sides’ perspective. These are fundamental differences about foundational assumptions. Not all of Critical Theory’s critics can articulate what CRT actually wants and may not even be open to hear what its practioners are saying.
They reject the premise outright and object out-of-hand to the presumptions and assumptions that Critical Theory is based on. They refuse to concede the initial point of viewing some groups as oppressed and blaming the oppressors. They take exception to both its goals and its initial starting point and I get that. I always begin by saying that Critical Theory is not for everyone. I don’t think that everyone should do it or that it should be the predominate view.
Here is an computer analogy that might help. Critical Theory is not an operating system that can run the whole machine. It is a diagnostic tool – like a program that looks for viruses and debugs the system. It is not the game it is a referee. it is an internal affairs task-force that is looking for corruption. It is not the business or the bank, it is an auditor. If you are expecting it be the whole thing then you have misunderstood what it is up to. But by the same token, its critics and despisers are like a King who objects to the presence of the Jester in the court. That is the entire point of the Jester – to mock, to point out inconsistencies, to level the playing field, and to expose the ridiculous elephant in the room and to help people see that the King has no clothes on! Is it objectionable? Sure. Is it uncomfortable? Absolutely. Is it needed? Yes.
So when critics object and try to defend the status quo and tell Critical Theorist to back off, get in line, knock it off, and settle down – they are doing exactly what you would expect from people who benefit from the system as it is currently configured and who profit from the as-is nature of the structures and institutions as they currently exist. All they are saying is that, “I don’t like when you name the dysfunction, expose the hidden assumptions, point out the inconsistency of my behaviors, doubt my motives, and call into question my underlying values or priorities. It makes me uncomfortable and even angry.”
That, however, is exactly the point of Critical Theory – to make visible the invisible … or as Critical Theory refers to: ideology. The goal of Critical Theory is 3-fold: to examine, to expose, and to advocate for change. The point of Critical Theory, after all, is not just to explain the world but change it toward a more equitable, just, and beneficial system for those who have been historically marginalized and disadvantaged. It makes total sense why those in the King’s court would object to that. Resisting the agenda of Critical Theory is a no-brainer as they say.
We humans are gifted at interpreting. We are constantly interpreting signs and symbols everywhere we go and in everything that we do. We are so comfortable interpreting that we may not even know that we are doing it.
Interpreting comes to most of us almost as second nature. We pick it up as child in the same way that we learn language and so many other things from imitating adults and our peers. We are conditioned in powerful ways that influence our opinions, convictions, prejudices, and even our desires.
We are constantly interpreting.
We almost instinctively know how to read different facial expressions, body language, gestures, moods, words, tone of voice, intensity, sincerity, pace, volume, etc. We even interpret things like gender, body style, and clothing. We interpret everything from human interactions, to sacred texts – from the clouds in the sky to the road signs as we drive.
We are always interpreting.
What if you were told that the way you interpret something may be more important than the thing itself?
Would you be comfortable with the idea that your interpretive lens doesn’t just help you process your experiences – but actually helps create those experiences at some level?
Thinking about the way that we interpret things is called hermeneutics. It is a fancy word that would seem completely unnecessary if humans were not constantly interpreting nearly everything. The ‘Herme’ in hermeneutics comes from Greek mythology where Hermes was the messenger of the gods. Hermes was “considered to be the inventor of language and speech, an interpreter, a liar, a thief and a trickster. These multiple roles made Hermes an ideal representative figure for hermeneutics.”
Words and ideas need interpreting because they can be tricky, double-coded, multilayered, and highly situational (contextual).
You may know that I come from an evangelical-charismatic background. What you may not know is that I am continually contested in conversations with people from that background about the need to interpret our experiences and texts. I am often told that our religious experiences do not need to be interpreted, that they are actually a validation or a sign of faith. That, of course, is in itself an interpretation.
We don’t just have experiences (like we don’t just read and believe the Bible), we interpret. We do it as second nature because to be human – and thus social – is to be thoroughly saturated in language and symbols. We speak, and indeed think, in language. It permeates everything we do and are. It is part of what being human means.
Hermeneutics is quite concerned with the complex set of relationships between an author, the text itself and the original or subsequent audience. The reader, according to hermeneutics, has a lot of power in that relationship.
Hermeneutics is a massive and complex field. Since this an ABC’s series, there are two basic things that are important to know:
The word has been in use since the 17th century even though the idea is an ancient one that can be traced all the way back to the Greek philosophers.
Everything changed in past 90 years. With the publication of Heidegger’s “Being and Time” in 1927, philosophy, and then subsequently the human sciences, took a hermeneutical turn.
This trickle-down effect has made its way through nearly every aspect of society and culture. The impact of this turn has been so thorough that we are now to the point where everything is analyzed, dissected, and questioned. No area of life gets a free pass and no activity is safe from interrogation. Social media is the perfect venue to exam how absolutely everything is now amplified (first) and then scrutinized.
If you are attracted to someone or not attracted to them, if you comb your hair a certain way or you don’t comb your hair, if you go to church or don’t go to church, if you stand for the national anthem at a sporting event or you don’t … everything means something.
This is true for individuals, families, congregations, people groups, and nations. It is the reality of the world that we live in for the 21st century.
One of Heidegger’s most famous students was Hans-Georg Gadamer. His 1975 book “Truth and Method” was about the world of interpretation and it expanded what is called the hermeneutical circle.
The five elements are characterized as:
the experience of being brought up short
fusion of horizons
This five-part cycle is really helpful and I often paraphrase it this way:
We all come in with something to contribute. We have different perspectives, experiences, insights, histories, and assumptions. We might be familiar with topic or we might be new to the information. Both perspectives are needed.
When we compare notes we come to realize that none of us have the whole picture and we might not even looking at our part of the picture in the most helpful or healthiest way. We admit our limitations or the flaws in what we were given.
We begin to put our individual parts of the picture next to each other and may need to go outside to find some more or different parts of the picture in order to have a fuller or more wholistic understanding of what we are looking at.
We begin to piece the whole picture together. We might overlap some areas, glue some down, we may choose to expand some elements or minimize others into order to make the project work together as a whole.
We commit to actually do something with what we have made. We have each been impacted by the process and we acknowledge that we leave this phase of the cycle different than we came in.
We all interpret. We think, experience, and speak through a lens. None of us are a blank slate and we never start from scratch. None of us come to a text, an event, or to an encounter value-free or judgement-free. We are rich tapestries full of values and laden with judgements.
These interpretations impact our beliefs, convictions, behaviors, practices, decisions, and feelings. Accounting for and attending to our interpretive lens in any situation will allow us to prosper in the complex, complicated, and multi-sensory world of the 21st century.
Bonus Section For Church Leaders:
A helpful example of the hermeneutical circle is employed in my field of Practical Theology. I tend toward utilizing the work of Paul Ricoeur and his ‘second naivety’ myself, but the example I want share is from Richard Osmer who utilizes Gadamer as his framework to talk about a community of interpretation.
Let’s looks at what it takes to be someone who facilitates this for their community. This understanding engages in different forms of communication because it is a collaborative effort. The following elements factor in significantly for the spirituality required to carry out the leadership that Osmer envisions.
The Descriptive–Empirical Task is called Priestley Listening and finds great importance in the power of presence.
The spirituality of presence addresses several levels of what is called attending to the congregation as a community of interpretation. Being present with and being attentive to the diverse perspectives, insights, experiences, and histories of those who make up the community.
The second task is the Interpretive Task called Sagely Wisdom.
The interpretive task draws off of thoughtfulness, theory, and wise judgment. Osmer appeals to Israel’s wisdom tradition and to Jesus being the hidden wisdom of God revealed. Facilitating this kind of communal discernment requires a unique set of skills and tools. There is a place for someone with specialized education (like seminary) in a community of interpretation.
The third task is the Normative Task, which is called Prophetic Discernment.
This task weaves together narrative, theory, and scriptural illustration. This is the art of this kind of leadership. Like a quilter stitching together the various pieces of fabric into a coherent whole, or a knitter diligently alternating between the required and various patterns required to bring out the texture for the desired finished product.
The final task is the Pragmatic Task, classified as Servant Leadership.
Osmer identifies the three forms of leadership as task competence, transactional leadership, and transforming leadership. Playing this role in your community requires three overlapping and interrelated convictions: you want to do this well, you want to do it with people, and you want the community to empowered and liberated for their work in the world.
A priest mediates between God and God’s people, a sage has unique knowledge, a prophet tells the truth in interesting and creative ways, and servant works on their hands and knees.
The motif of “deep change” is introduced through the writing of Robert Quinn and is woven together with Old Testament imagery in order to illustrate the type of leadership that is required in this task. Quinn’s Four-stage model of organizational change (called the transformational cycle) involves: Initiation, Uncertainty, Transformation, and Routinization.
I share all of these different examples to point out two themes that you find in almost every hermeneutical project:
They form a cycle, a circle, or a spiral – signifying an ongoing (continual) process.
The second stage or step is one of negativity, negation, or something negative (like uncertainty). This is important because it is only after was pass through the unknowing that we come to see-know-engage-understand-assimilate-fuse in a new way.
In summary, interpreting is always and ongoing process and we must address the negative second step in order to move forward.
 This is from the Wikipedia entry on hermeneutics.
 Like we talked about in F is Fideism, divine revelation or religious experience cannot be privileged to the point that it is exempt from the attention that pay to other ‘ways of knowing’ and other areas of refelction.
 He first examines the idea of guiding the congregation as a community of interpretation. Secondly, he addresses the need to guide interpretation evoked by the experience of being brought up short. Lastly, guiding the dialogue between theology and other fields of knowledge. Leadership of this kind is defined as “the exercise of influence.”
There were clear themes to the feedback in all 4 issues that I raised and to the thesis I proposed that Evangelicalism has become a set of conclusions.
Individualism: Why does it have to be an either/or issue. I am excited about this consensus. However, if you view of personal sin keeps you from addressing larger issues of systemic racism and structural injustice then it is a barrier.
Scholarship: I am thrilled that there are some PhD students and new faculty hires who engage in Critical Race Theory. I just hope that their insights will be received by the institutions when it comes to hiring practices and funding issues.
Marxism: It turns out the ‘cultural marxism’ is not just a boogeyman but a red herring. My suspicion is the it more about Foucault then about Marx. (Yes Foucault was a marxist for time). It is the legacy of discourse analysis and the genealogy of power that has disseminated into our entire culture in the 21st century.
Diversity: There was wide acknowledgement both of evangelicalism’s racial diversity (a good thing) and that it hides behind this diversity to not deal with other issues of justice such as LGBTQ inclusion and (for us more specifically) Critical Race Theory (CRT) in issues related to recruitment, funding, empowerment, and training.
Evangelicalism: Those who did not like my thesis that evangelicalism has become nothing more than a set of conclusions (or a constellation of convictions) could not provided a better definition of contemporary evangelicalism in N. America. My assertion that is has migrated to become a bounded set with heavily policed boundaries may not be a generous or broad as some may desire but until someone points to a clearer framework for understanding the changes in the evangelical movement over the past 50-70 years then my assertion has merit for consideration.
Let know your thought and we will keep the conversation going.