The Critical Flaw in Critical Theory

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The recent unjust and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are truly tragic and reprehensible.  They represent a growing list of needless deaths in a culture of hate.  As individuals, communities, and a nation, our hearts should be bowed down in empathetic grief and enflamed with righteous anger.

Beyond the legitimate emotions, many are also trying to assess the reasons for the profoundly problematic social realities leading to such deaths.  Foremost are claims of oppressive and systemic racism as well as corporate greed among those in positions of power in America.  This may well be true, but at the grave risk of sounding insensitive and uncaring, I believe such appraisals remain secondary to a much deeper question, namely, the best way to solve these kinds of socially systemic issues.

Contemporary Critical Theory claims to answer the problem through three very basic means: 1) A full reversal of power, demoting previous power-brokers and putting the previously oppressed into positions of influence and authority, 2) Widespread restructuring of oppressive social systems, and 3) Compulsory redistribution of goods and services (i.e., wealth).  To be sure, all three—the redistribution of power, restructuring of systems, and reallocation of wealth—are important problems to address, but they are also very often hard to bring about in a fair and just manner.  The first and third, however, can be achieved fairly quickly, so long as those currently in power can be pushed out of the way and the wealth of those with much can be seized and given to those with significantly less.

This is why Marx and other communist theorists (who form the ideological infrastructure for Critical Theory) had no problem with social coercion and, if necessary, violent armed revolution, to accomplish the so-called “greater good” of a “more equal” society through the forcible redistribution of wealth and power.

There are many ways to argue for or against such goals and means, but one of the most critical flaws in Critical Theory is simply this: At best, it provides an inadequate and (at worst) inaccurate understanding of human nature.  Suggesting that whole classes and races of people in society are, for example, primarily victims or villains fails to admit the root problem—we are all simultaneously victims and villains, damaged and damaging, oppressed and oppressing.  Why?  Because we are all sinners: rich and poor, privileged and impoverished, strong and weak, young and old, male and female, black and white—and everyone in between.  You cannot solve social problems by changing social structures alone.  You have to change the social beings—each and every one of us—that constitute, create, perpetuate, mediate—and even deny or ignore—these unjust social systems.

In short, changing human nature is much more radical and difficult than changing social structures and inequalities.  And changing the latter is extremely hard to do at all, let alone morally and patiently.  Consequently, the proposed solutions of Critical Theory and closely related socialist ideologies consistently fail in practice primarily because the diagnosis of the problem excludes a vital aspect of human nature: No matter who we are, we are far too prone to selfishness, tribalism, and abuse of power than we care to admit.

If these internal problems of greed and hatred are not dealt with deeply at the heart-level, they will fester and grow in the lives of those with influence and resources, no matter where they started in society.  This is why when reversals and redistributions occur, even with the best of intentions, those in positions of power almost always become just like the people they previously condemned for their selfishness, tribalism, and abuses of power.

As David Gooding and John Lennox point out, “A movement, while still a minority, will clamour for the right of free speech and protest against its removal; but when that same movement becomes the majority movement, it will in turn seek to suppress all other minority movements.”

Does government need to be involved in trying to assure a fair and just system of opportunities for power and wealth acquisition as well as their distribution?  Of course.  The solution is not a libertarian divestment of all governmental intervention with the assumption that people will do what is right when big government gets its nose out of everyone’s business.  That falls into the same trap of misunderstanding sinful human nature and our need for constant external and internal regulation—something Christians call accountability.  But since those who govern, just as much as those who are governed, are prone to selfishness, greed, and abuses of power, they also must have systems of accountability—real checks and balances—in place to keep them humble, honest, just, and selfless.

The framers of the US constitution believed in the propensity of every human being to turn great possibilities for good into terrible opportunities for godlessness.  In short, they believed in the doctrine of total depravity.  It was this conviction that led them to create a tri-fold system of checks and balances—legislative, judicial, and executive—so that no one person (or class of persons) would gain too much wealth and power and have the potential to become a tyrannical mass-oppressor.

Critical Theory fails and will continue to fail for many reasons, but the primary reason is that it does not understand who we really are—all of us—as human beings.  We are, first and foremost, sinners in need of a loving Savior, not classes in need of a political revolution.  And this is why John Adams, the second president of the United States, rightly noted, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . .  Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  This is why we need repentance and redemption, not merely reparation and revolution, for our lives and our world to truly change for the better.

Abortion: From a Necessary Evil to an Essential Service and a Blessing

 

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, there were many debates about abortion laws.  Some were trying to put limits in place while others argued that regulating abortion in any way was an affront to human rights, especially those of women.  Limiting abortion, they contended, was regression into the dark ages of ignorance and insensitivity toward “women’s healthcare” and the right to self-determination.

Within this spirit of “women’s healthcare,” abortion has again come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many are arguing abortion is an “essential service,” but as I read some of the online rants, one thing is exceptionally clear: No one advocating abortion as an “essential service” mentions or talks about the baby in the womb.  Instead, it is argued that women must continue to have the unrestricted right to do whatever they want with their bodies, especially in the arenas of human sexuality and reproduction.

But herein lies the rub: What is the true identity of the “product of conception” in the womb?  We cannot simply pass over that question in favor of a woman’s “right to choose,” because no one, male or female, has the unrestricted or unregulated right to do things with their bodies that intentionally inflict harm upon another human being.

It’s convenient, of course, to claim this an issue of “women’s healthcare” and call what’s in the womb a “product of conception,” “a ball of cells,” or “a blob of fetal tissue.”  But these labels only subvert and obscure the true nature of what (or better, who) resides within.  Relabeling something or someone does not fundamentally alter its true essence or nature.

From a purely medical standpoint, at six weeks, though no bigger than a pea, the fetus’ arms and legs have already begun to appear, the heart is beating, and brain waves can be detected.  By eleven weeks—less than three months into the pregnancy—the baby is completely formed with its own fingerprints, a fully functioning organ system (including circulating blood), and a nervous system that can and does feel pain.  The second and third trimesters of pregnancy are primarily periods of growth in size, not complexity.

It is deeply ironic that during the COVID-19 pandemic severe limitations have been imposed on nearly everyone planet-wide in order to save human lives, yet the “right” to terminate the life of an unborn child has simultaneously been dubbed an “essential service.”

During his presidency, Bill Clinton, like many of his time, considered abortion a “necessary evil” and hoped it would become “safe, affordable, and rare.”  To be sure, abortion is relatively safe (for the mother) and affordable, but it has never become rare.  While rates of abortion are significantly lower now than they were in the eighties and nineties, every year well over half a million babies are aborted in the United States alone.  And much of the downturn in abortion rates is simply related to a significant decrease in overall pregnancies.  In short, fewer pregnancies means fewer babies to abort.

Sadly, recent rhetoric among some pro-choice advocates has become increasingly shrill and harsh about protecting the unrestricted right of a woman to decide what to do with her “product of conception.”  In fact, a 2018 billboard campaign in downtown Cleveland proclaimed abortion to be “self-care,” “a family value,” “life-saving,” and even “a blessing.”  Rather than a necessary evil, it has become a sacramental right and an “essential” medical service.  As awful as it sounds, this makes sense from a certain point of view.  If what’s inside the womb is just an inconvenience, then who cares what becomes of it?

I would argue, however, that these babies are tragic sacrifices to the spirit of age, one that demands unaccountable sexual freedom and no unplanned and undesired interruptions to one’s self-determined lifestyle.  Somehow, in our moral confusion and hypocrisy, “selfishness” has been transformed into “self-care” instead.

In today’s moral climate, it’s difficult to imagine a publicly funded billboard campaign stating simple truths about abortion: abortion is “big business,” “brutal,” “guilt-inducing,” “traumatic,” “infanticide,” or a host of other more honest and accurate adjectives and nouns.

The fact that an unborn child is small, largely unseen, and even unwanted should never count against it.  This merely means it is doubly weak, vulnerable, and defenseless.  It is therefore an “essential service” to protect, care for, and nurture it in celebration of all God-given life.

 

Pandemics and the Problem of Natural Evil

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The recent Covid-19 pandemic raises the age-old problem of evil and the goodness of God.  How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil things to occur?  Considered by many to be the “Achilles heel” of Christianity, how can an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God co-exist with profound and incessant evil?

In an earlier post, I explained how genuine human moral freedom brings with it the possibility that some evil choices will result.  But what about those events deemed “natural evils,” where despite their devastating impact, no obvious human moral decisions are involved?

It should first be acknowledged that the Bible makes it clear that our world is not currently as it should be.  Disease and sickness are some of the tragic marks of a world deeply marred and damaged by sin.  After Adam sins, God tells him, “cursed is the ground because of you,” and Romans 8:22 reminds us that creations groans and longs to be freed from this curse.  Viruses like Covid-19 are just one more example of a world gone wrong because a long time ago in a garden far, far away, our ancestors refused to submit to and trust in the goodness and wisdom of God.  Everyone has been paying a heavy price ever since.

In Christian history, many great thinkers developed responses to this problem of natural evil that have come to be called “theodicies,” or ways of justifying a perfect God in an imperfect world.  Most argue that an orderly creation is a necessary condition for certain divine objectives to be possible.

The idea is this: It would be very difficult for a moral agent to act with intentionality and responsibility in an unpredictable environment.  As Michael Peterson points out in Evil and the Christian God, “If the objects in the world acted in sporadic and unpredictable ways, deliberation and action would be severely impaired if not eliminated.”  For example, if an individual could not predict what would happen when they pointed a loaded gun at someone’s head and pulled the trigger, then how could a responsible moral action be ascribed to that individual?  But the laws of physics as well as past experience (i.e., predictability) clearly inform the event and give the agent at least some knowledge of its moral value.

In addition, the so-called “laws of nature” are a two-edged sword.  As Peterson puts it, “The same water which sustains and refreshes can also drown.”  At this point, it becomes clearer that when people are upset about the way the natural world normally works, they are ultimately asking for is some sort of suspension or alteration of natural law whenever a natural disaster occurs.  But this would only succeed in producing a chaotic and unpredictable universe where the supernatural (miraculous) could not be distinguished from the natural, and where the “normal course of events” would have no real meaning.

Two observations are worth noting at this point.  First, perhaps God really could miraculously intervene every time some natural catastrophe was about to take place.  But again, if God was constantly intervening this way in nature, then predictability and the resulting stability and responsibility of human moral choices (not to mention the possibility of scientific knowledge) would be severe jeopardized, if not rendered meaningless.

The natural universe is constructed such that when an individual’s brain is disrupted by a speeding bullet (for example), the likelihood of survival is greatly diminished.  But if God were to intervene each time a speeding bullet disrupted the brain functions of a human being, then the person who shot the bullet could hardly be held responsible for doing something good or evil.  This would negate all freedom to make a moral choice, for the moral agent could foresee no negative recourse for his or her actions and would therefore never know or have to be concerned about the difference between good and evil.  Consequently, “natural evil” is part of the fabric of the universe for it makes moral decisions possible and everyday life meaningful and predictable.

A second observation is closely related to the previous one.  If God is omnipotent and all-wise, why didn’t He create natural laws that precluded the possibility of natural disasters?  The problem here is that it is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where natural laws that make life possible could have been made such that they exclude the possibility of natural evil.  For example, if water quenches thirst in the human body, it must also have the property of being able to drown the individual who cannot swim.  Exercise is good, but resistance from gravity is a necessary prerequisite to its benefit.  As such, gravity is also the cause of the unfortunate results when someone falls from a tenth-story balcony.  It is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where gravity would operate as it does without also having the potential to be an accomplice to some occurrences of what are termed “natural evils.”

Because the natural order is a highly complex system, even tiny changes in that system will have far-reaching and profound effects upon the rest of the system.  The universe is predictable and functional because of the way it is put together in the current system.  Skeptics and critics consistently fail to provide a workable model for a different system that would have all the benefits of the current system with none of the liabilities.

At this point, Peterson’s conclusion proves insightful: “The whole matter becomes so complex that no finite mind can conceive of precisely what modifications the envisioned natural world would have to be incorporated in order both to preserve the good natural effects and to avoid the . . . evil ones.  And if the desired modifications cannot be detailed, then the further task of conceiving how the proposed natural world is better than this present one seems patently impossible.”

The real objection, it seems, is an objection of both scope and degree.  Given the fact that God is not expected to intervene at every point in which some natural evil might occur, why can’t He at least intervene more often than He already does and so reduce the amount of natural evil we experience?  This has been called the “inductive problem of evil.”  Applied to natural evil, it suggests that God could at least do a marginally (if not significantly) better job of managing natural disasters so that fewer lives would be lost and greater human flourishing would result.

Here again, though, this objection assumes we know better than God about these things.  It is, however, impossible for us to know how much natural evil is already restrained by God in order to make life on planet earth possible.  For all we know, God is constantly holding back the tide of natural hostilities to keep our planet habitable and hospitable.

The sad reality is, we often find it hard to fully trust in God’s wisdom and power because deep down, despite our obvious incompetence and incapacity, we are still convinced we know how to run the universe better than God.  But we clearly do not know what combination of disasters and relief creates the right mix for human beings to be properly chastised for our sin and reminded of our gross inability to control the realities of our own lives, let alone those of the entire universe.

This is where our attitudes and responses to events like the Covid-19 pandemic come most forcefully into play.  Whether we want to admit it or not, part of natural evil’s goal is to humble and remind us that we are severely limited in our power and understanding.  We are decidedly not in control of our own lives and destinies.

In view of this, we can either refuse to submit to and continue shaking our fists at the God who lovingly made and sustains us, or we can beautifully demonstrate to those around us the authenticity and significance of our faith in Jesus Christ by giving thanks, affirming, and resting in His sovereign wisdom, goodness, and grace.

Knowledge in a Trivial Age

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Francis Bacon claimed, “Knowledge is power.”  In an information age, this is certainly true.  But with a surplus of information sources at our fingertips, knowledge can also be a serious source of distraction since much of this knowledge, even if accurate, is trivial and ultimately doesn’t matter all that much.

In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman describes the impact media has on us this way: “[People] no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.  They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images.  They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. . . .  When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments . . ., then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”

One of the great challenges Christians have in the digital age is to resist the temptation to “be in the know” about everything.  We are tempted to keep up on the latest news, events, trends, and celebrity exploits so that others will see us “relevant” and “knowledgeable.”  We fear missing out on what everyone else already seems to know, and dread being perceived as hopelessly old-fashioned and uninformed.

We are taken in by the promise of endless entertainment and amusement—a shallow vision of joy—that keeps us from a deep and abiding relationship with God.  We somehow think that inconsequential ideas and experiences can meaningfully replace what truly matters—a growing knowledge of and intimacy with God.  We no longer have the wisdom to discern the difference between the superficial and the significant, the trivial and the momentous.  We end up only thinking and talking about the latest fads and fashions rather than the deep things of God.

Because of its antiquity and our love for all things new, we are tempted to ignore or downplay the Bible’s importance when considering the issues of our time.  Nothing, however, matters more than the word of God since nothing and no One is more relevant than God.  As the old saying goes, “Everything that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”

We have to come to grips with the fact that God has made us finite.  We have only limited amounts of time and energy.  We must make wise choices in who we spend time with, as well as what we choose to know, care, and talk about with others.  And if we know more about current celebrities, sports figures, and politicians than we do about our neighbors, friends, and even the members of our own family, something has gone horribly wrong with our sense of purpose and relationship with the Lord.

So much of what passes for essential knowledge in our time is actually transitory and temporary.  The word of God, on the other hand, remains forever (Isaiah 40:8).  Jeremiah 6:16 implores us to “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it and find rest for your souls.”  2 Peter 3:18 exhorts us to “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

How, then, do you spend your time and energies?  Where are you looking for real and substantial knowledge?  What do you think and talk about the most?  Who and what do you really want to know and why?

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Education in a Digital Age

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When I sensed God calling me into teaching and training as a primary ministry platform, I did not think very long and hard about specific methods of teaching.

It seemed clear enough that much of my ministry as a teacher would be spent researching, reflecting, writing, and preparing classroom lectures.  Oh yes, I would also be grading traditional student assignments like papers, tests, and quizzes.  How I was educated seemed the norm for how I would subsequently educate others.

The meteoric rise of digital technologies and a host of new online educational delivery systems has fundamentally altered the way students have been, expect to be, and are being educated today.  And this seismic digital shift has become especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic where most schools have been mandated to do all classes via distance learning.

But long before the COVID-19 pandemic, our world was becoming progressively immersed in the virtual realities of our time.  Traditional residential classroom education and the pedagogical methods of yesterday have increasingly felt like endangered species.

Such enormous transformations have made me step back and ask some hard questions.  Why did I go into teaching in the first place?  Was it about me and what I enjoyed and was good at, or was it about my desire to see lives changed for the glory of God?  It was likely some of both, but central to the decision was my love for interacting and engaging with people and ideas, especially those things pertaining to God and His world.  I longed to understand, communicate, and wisely apply God’s truth in clear, meaningful, and life-altering ways.

The digital age has forced this old dog to revisit fundamental questions about my calling and modes of teaching.  If I only want to deliver information in a traditional classroom setting, it appears my days as a teacher are numbered.  But if a ministry of teaching and training is more primary—no matter what delivery systems are employed—it might be possible for me to learn some new tricks and continue serving in seminary education.

Ultimately, I teach because I am called by God and want to be used to help bring about life-transformation for His greater honor and glory.  In this sense, I hope and pray He will enable me to continue to learn how to more effectively teach, mentor, and minister in the rapidly changing realities of an increasingly digitized age.

Lord Jesus, please make it so.

We are not in control

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Just before Jesus’ death, the disciples were marveling at the magnificence of the Herodian temple.  As Mark 13;1-2 puts it, “And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’  And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings?  There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’”

Herod’s temple seemed impregnable.  It stood within one of the best protected cities in the ancient Near East.  In addition, it was one of the most magnificent structures of its time and at that point in history, had taken almost 50 years to build.  Even more than this, the temple was the sacred place where almighty God dwelt and was worshiped.  How, then, could it possibly be destroyed?

Less than 40 years later, the Romans set it on fire and razed it to the ground.

Not long ago, I was walking around Singapore marveling at the city’s majestic buildings, bustling economy, clean environment, and proactive government.  All seemed right with the world and I couldn’t help but wonder, what could possibly bring down such a towering edifice of human ingenuity and safeguarding as the nation-state of Singapore?  Everything seemed so carefully controlled and well thought-out.

Of course, I knew in theory that if God wanted to bring the nation down, He could do so in a moment, but that possibility seemed so utterly remote and unlikely, it felt like an implausible distant dream.  It’s amazing how a dream can become a living nightmare in just a matter of days or weeks.

It was not a military or alien invasion, nor was it a massive corruption scandal that brought Singapore and the rest of the world low.  No, it was a microscopic virus called COVID-19 that brought this grand illusion of control crashing down, shattering it into a million little pieces.  Try as we might, this intrepid microbe is finding ways to slip through the tiniest cracks of our lockdowns and quarantines, infecting and sometimes killing the rich as the poor, the great and the small, the important and the insignificant.

Try as we might, times like these remind us that we are decidedly not in control—and never really have been.  As Psalm 33:10-22 so aptly puts it, “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.  The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations. . . .  The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man; from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.  The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.  The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue. Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine.  Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.  For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.  Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”

Whatever our illusions of control may have been, COVID-19 confronts us with the fact that the God can use the very great or (in this case) the very small to bring an entire planet to its knees.  While on our knees, may we be found praying prayers of hope and faith in the only wise and sovereign God who still deeply loves and cares for each and every one of us.

 

Will there be enough? Trusting in the God Who Provides

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With the COVID-19 outbreak, stock values worldwide have plummeted over the past few days.  I have not bothered to find out how much my retirement portfolio has already lost since the days and weeks ahead will likely become worse.

Being significantly closer to retirement age than when I started in ministry, I confess, everything that’s happened recently has me thinking about questions of provision.  Will there be enough to eat and live on in the days ahead?  Over the long-haul, will our financial support significantly shrink in the wake of job and market losses?  Will I be able to leave an inheritance to my children’s children?

When Cru founder Bill Bright and his wife, Vonette, were approaching retirement, they decided to liquidate their retirement account to help advance the fulfillment of the Great Commission around the world.  In so doing, they believed God would provide their needs in old age.

Later, when Bill was 74, he was awarded the one million-dollar Templeton prize for advancing spirituality in the world.  Any normal couple might have concluded that God had honored their faith and provided for their retirement through this rather exceptional means.  Instead, Bill and Vonette once again gave it all away, this time to promote a global movement of fasting and prayer.  Seven years later, Bill died, and Vonette joined him twelve years after that.

When visiting Bill’s grave in 2014, I remember thinking it was nice, but relatively simple and non-ostentatious considering he was the founder of one of the largest and most influential Christian organizations of the 20th century.  One thing was clear, however.  Bill and Vonette truly understood what few of us ever will.  They knew that when they died, they would leave behind all earthly goods and spend eternity enjoying the unending treasures of intimacy with the Lord Jesus Christ.  In that light, no earthly shortages or privations really mattered anymore.  They were convinced that God was fully faithful and would always meet their basic needs in this life—and so He did.

He will do no less for us as well, even if our jobs are lost and our retirement accounts drain away to zero.  We can still praise and hope in God, echoing the faith-filled words of the Prophet Habakkuk: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.  God, the Lord, is my strength!