When I graduated from Cairn in 2014, if you asked me “Do you possess a biblical worldview?” I would have said “of course!” But functionally, I lacked an ability to accurately discern what made the biblical worldview a worldview, as well as what other worldviews may compete for its position.
In other words, because I believed the salvation story of the Bible had little to do with current problems in modern society, I actually believed that we needed other worldviews to explain aspects of the human experience that I assumed the Bible didn’t address—issues like systemic racism, patriarchal domination, and imperialism. This functionally left me with a belief that any worldview had validity if it satisfactorily explained these features of the human experience. In fact, I believed that in order to be a good Christian, one must work for the greater social good, so we actually needed to pull from other worldviews in order to accomplish this effectively.
This subconscious state of mind left me open to accepting all manner of worldviews that would be presented to me as a graduate student in the humanities. Upon graduating from Cairn, I started a master’s degree in liberal studies. No longer at a biblical university, I realized that in the broader secular academia, not all worldviews were considered equal. And it wasn’t the biblical worldview that reigned as I was taught at Cairn; it was a different worldview. In this worldview, power dynamics had the most explanatory power for what was wrong with the world, social justice was the rallying cry, and the academic must be an activist.
It can be hard to nail down the tenets of the broader academic worldview as there is still a form of diversity among scholars, especially across departments. One cannot deny that STEM tends to attract those with more conservative worldviews, while critical theory has largely taken hold in the humanities and social sciences. Within humanities departments, scholars’ individual worldviews lean in various directions based on their primary areas of study: a scholar of race may be more inclined to tell the story of humanity through the lens of race, whereas a scholar in women’s studies may opt for a version of the story focused on gender. A scholar of post-colonial criticism may say colonialism is the root of the world’s problems, while a postmodernist may blame capitalism. Through my master’s courses I learned about the worldviews of feminism, environmentalism, post-colonial theory, and critical race studies—all fields of study that owe much of what characterizes their current iterations to the developments in the broader field of critical theory. Many will say academia is a place of free thought, but each of these inclinations end up being simply another version of the overall story being told by critical theory, which is—perhaps ironically—uncritically accepted by all.
And what is that story? I’m sure I will not tell it the way its advocates want. I will miss details and drop the wrong names and lack nuance. But my goal here is not to tell the story with all the minor details, but to share my perspective of how critical theory (and its theoretical offspring) attempts to explain the entire human experience in a totalizing fashion. As Nancy Pearcey notes in Total Truth, worldviews often have their own versions of the totalizing biblical arc of Creation-Fall-Redemption, and critical theory is no different (127). This is not to say that critical theory assumes, for example, a particular theory of evolution versus intelligent design, but it does have a perspective on “how the world ought to be” as it may have been in some Edenic past (creation). Similarly, critical theory has a perspective on what is ultimately wrong with the world (fall), as well as ideas about how to solve such problems (redemption).
According to critical theory, what is ultimately wrong with the world is that there are uneven power dynamics in society. These power dynamics present themselves in many relationships across human society: race relations, gender relations, class relations, and even human-nature relations as explored by my field of the environmental humanities. These uneven power dynamics divide society into oppressed and oppressor, resulting in injustice and suffering for those considered oppressed, betraying the Edenic ideal of a world with no authority structures at all. Some oppressed classes are seen as experiencing compounded oppression due to their varied identity categories, as noted by the theory of intersectionality. The path to redemption is to destroy any power dynamic that is harmful, even if it unwittingly creates a new imbalance of power—in fact, new imbalances of power in which the oppressed become the powerful are actually forms of justice in this story.
By the time I took my first actual theory class in my first year of doctoral work in 2018, I had already bought the entire story critical theory was telling—hook, line, and sinker. In this theory course, I simply learned where it came from: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and the Frankfurt School. It was not only I that bought this story, but seemingly all of my colleagues and fellow students. In this way, I want to be clear: I am not claiming, as one might think, that I was subject to some kind of intentional indoctrination at the hands of the academy. I think the way critical theory pervades the upper echelons of humanities departments is so deep that forced indoctrination is not even necessary or on the minds of any practitioners; it is simply expected and assumed that you share this worldview if you are present in this academic space. The social dynamics of peer acceptance and groupthink are more at work than an authoritarian imposition of ideology. Very few people ever openly question it; in fact, throughout my coursework I never witnessed anyone push back on this basic explanation for the human experience.
Toward the end of my doctoral coursework, which concluded itself in a swift move to online learning in Spring 2020, I had become even more certain of the validity of this totalizing story. Looking back, I logicized it this way: Common grace allows people made in the image of God to discern truth about earthly things. The proponents of critical theory simply want what is best for humans, and their thorough analyses of power dynamics have provided some legitimate solutions to society’s problems; therefore, Christians should care about the greater good of society and implement these solutions. As my logicizing may reveal, I was a Christian throughout this entire experience. I never left the faith or rejected the basic tenets of salvation through Jesus Christ. I attended an excellent church with strong teaching and faithfully served there. This reality highlights that Christians are vulnerable to unbiblical worldviews that have attractive and totalizing explanations for the origins and solutions to human suffering.
In Summer 2020, I was presented with opportunities to test this story of critical theory—as well as its proposed solutions—through both my own experiences and the experiences of friends. Such opportunities prompted questions: If all gender relations are reduced to a patriarchal form of male power, how is a wife ever held accountable for legitimately harming her husband? If all race relations can be boiled down to a power dynamic in which white people have the upper hand, how does one manage a situation where a white person is legitimately discriminated against by a black person? I began to learn that the story told by critical theory was not just a narrative murmured through the halls of academia but one that had real-world consequences for people. The narrative that all of society could be neatly divided into oppressed-oppressor actually seemed quite messy.
Ultimately, I began to deconstruct this worldview I had unwittingly subscribed to. This started with questions like, are power dynamics the only lens through which we can assess what is wrong with the world? What other explanations might there be for suffering, injustice, and social discord? In the end, I concluded it’s not that power dynamics don’t matter, but they do not have the totalizing explanatory force that critical theory claims they do. Explanations of systemic power dynamics overlook the way that sin permeates all of creation right down to the evil of which each individual human is capable regardless of race, gender, class, or other identity category.
But the biblical narrative does have a totalizing explanatory force that is quite logical and satisfactory. It goes something like this: A good and all-powerful God creates humans to be in relationship with himself. His creation is described as “good” from all angles. But the humans he created rebel against him by disobeying his commands, resulting in what we call “sin.” Due to this act of betrayal on the part of humans, sin now pervades all aspects of life on earth. Some of the earliest examples of sin in the Bible are murder, incest, and sexual assault. Here in the “fall” part of the narrative, we see where critical theory may, at times, correctly assess some of the particular ways in which sin pervades society: racism, sexism, corruption.
But sin, in the biblical worldview, is an irrevocable feature of every human heart, suggesting that all members of society are capable of oppression and injustice, even those who are themselves oppressed or lack power. This is because sin is not just something waged within societal relationships but something that begins in the human heart. It, of course, affects relationships, but that is downstream from its origin. Therefore, in the biblical narrative, sin needs to be eradicated from the hearts of humans, not just structures in society. If sin can be taken from human hearts, all else will be well, but if injustice is eradicated from social structures, we still have the problem of the human heart, the wellspring of injustice itself.
The narrative of critical theory does not offer a viable solution to the problems in society, but the biblical worldview does in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In pursuit of reconciliation with rebellious humans, Jesus becomes incarnate and walks among his creation. Jesus lives the perfect, sinless life we were created to live in the Garden of Eden. When Jesus dies, he receives God’s wrath for sin, literally becoming sin itself. When Jesus rises from the dead on the third day, he defeats sin itself and imputes his righteousness to all who would believe in him. In the experience of individual redemption and salvation, the Holy Spirit replaces human hearts of stone ruled by sin with human hearts of flesh filled with the Holy Spirit.
While Jesus defeated sin 2,000 years ago, we eagerly await as he subjects his enemies underfoot and brings us home to him. It is in heaven where believers in Jesus will receive resurrected bodies and sin no more. All power structures in heavenly society will be perfect and full of justice; there will be no oppression or hate. Until then, society will have problems due to the sinfulness of man and the way it pervades societal relationships. Are there things we can do to mitigate the effects of sin in our societal institutions? Of course! But such solutions must begin by actually acknowledging the origin and source of our problem—the sinfulness of the human heart—rather than only focusing on the symptoms found in societal structures. In contrast, the critical theory story suggests that if humans can properly organize society and bring total justice to all human institutions and structures, humanity will flourish. And to some degree, there is truth to that. Humans flourish under systems that foster flourishing according to the biblical definition of flourishing. But we also should not assume that humans will act perfectly so long as they’re given the right resources. We must not accept the critical theory-driven claim that the problem with humans is simply their environment, and if we change the environment humans will flourish. Even in a perfectly set-up society, humans will be sinful. Fixing society will never fix the state of the human heart due to sin.
Importantly, it was the real-world disjunction of the critical theory worldview that made me question it, but worldviews are not only valid if they practically “work” in a purely human sense. The biblical worldview has better answers for humanity about race, gender, and class, but due to the fall, we will always have trouble on this side of heaven. That being said, the biblical worldview actually does practically provide full healing to all social ills through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this way, the biblical worldview is not only true, but it’s beautiful and even more satisfying than any alternative.
I do not think academia is a lost cause or that Christians should not pursue it. But Christians pursuing graduate degrees in the humanities especially should be eyes wide open. Secular academia, as I experienced it, is not a bastion of diverse thought as commonly assumed. While there are passionate commitments to pluralism and diversity, there is a lack of diversity when it comes to how people think and what people believe. I imagine that for some who attempt (or are attempting now) post-graduate work, this means they will have significant trouble navigating the waters of academia if they swim against the tide of the prevailing worldview narrative. For others, they will quietly slip through unharmed and achieve the degree they need to further their career, but their conscience may be tried at many points.
The state of secular higher education highlights the value of what Cairn University offers. Cairn has always been committed to biblical worldview formation, and it has only strengthened that commitment in recent years to counter the external influences that exert themselves on the formation of its students. Through courses like Biblical Perspectives on Contemporary Issues and the worldview focus in general education classes such as Literature and Arts in Historical Context, students have the opportunity to work through the very questions I was grappling with when I entered graduate school. At Cairn, the goal is not unbridled free thought but to teach students to critically think as “biblically minded, well-educated . . . men and women of character,” meaning that the Bible is our foundation of all truth.
Free thought, as we expect the academy to celebrate and foster, easily gives way to a trendy, dominant narrative, while an education centered solely on a biblical worldview allows students to learn about all their courses have to offer while providing a foundation of faith and truth that endures.
Dr. Victoria (Tori) Aquilone is an associate professor of English in the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in her 1989 essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” but the term has become widely used within the humanities and social sciences to explain the interconnected nature of race, gender, and class in shaping individuals’ identity experiences.
2. This origin story should probably be a hint to Christians that the narrative of the human experience propagated by critical theory may lack biblical truth. Carl Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is an excellent introduction to the origins of critical theory.