Was Jesus Punished for Our Sins?

From the Publisher:

Have you ever found yourself repeating expressions such as “”Jesus saves”” or “”Jesus died for our sins”” without really understanding them? When popular speakers “”explain”” how Jesus’s death satisfied God’s wrath so you could be forgiven, do you ever think to yourself, “”I don’t get it””? If so, you’re not alone, you’re not dumb, and the problem is not with you. Ron Highfield reframes Christian teaching about the atonement so that it comes alive with fresh meaning. Drawing on biblical and traditional sources, Highfield explains why our frustration in trying to understand how Jesus’s death satisfies God’s judicial wrath is inevitable . . . because the idea doesn’t make sense and the Bible doesn’t teach it! Instead of viewing the atonement as the solution to God’s problem of how to forgive sins while remaining perfectly just, Highfield argues that the atonement is God’s solution to our problem. In Jesus, God rewrites the human story, forgiving our sins, correcting our mistakes, and realizing our destiny. As one of us, Jesus lives a perfect life, passes through death, and enters into eternal life. As the new Adam, he invites us to join his family, share his life, and enjoy his victory

How Does Jesus Save?

After six years of work my book on the atonement The New Adam is finally in print. I hope you will check it out and recommend it to others. We often repeat such statements as “Jesus saves” or “Jesus died for our sins” without understanding what they mean. Perhaps we think we don’t need to understand. However I believe that the first Christian believers understood, and I believe we can also understand. This book will, I believe, deepen your understanding of how Jesus saves and what salvation means. I will be blogging for the next few weeks on some ideas from this book.

At the time of this post the preview link is not working. Go directly to Amazon.com and search for Ron Highfield, The New Adam.

The Wisdom of Epictetus and the Culture of Blame

Who doubts that we live in a culture of blame? Whatever you suffer, whatever you do, whatever emotions you feel, whatever you lack is someone else’s fault. If you are poor, sick, or uneducated; if you are unhappy, unsuccessful, and don’t get the respect you think you deserve, and if these things make you angry, resentful, jealous, envious, and hopeless…fate, other people, society, government, or God is to blame.

Epictetus (AD 50 to 135) was a stoic philosopher who suffered greatly in life, as a slave, under torture and abuse, and through sickness and banishment. His thoughts were collected and published by a disciple and translated into English as Discourses. I have long admired Epictetus’s thoughts but only recently have I read straight through Discourses. Like other Stoics, Epictetus believes that everything that happens in the world of appearances happens by necessity. We have no control over what merely happens to us. Hence to fret, worry, rage, or despair over the appearances and their impact on us makes no sense. We don’t control them, can’t prevent them, and can’t change them.

According to Epictetus, the only thing we control is our inner self, which is free from the necessity that determines the course of external events. No one and nothing can make you feel or do anything against your will. If you feel anger, resentfulness, jealousy, envy, self-pity, or despair, you choose to do so. You control what you do in response to every situation. If you betray your friends or curse God because someone threatened to drive a sword through your heart, you cannot blame the threat for your sin. You chose to value your life above faithfulness or piety. You are responsible for what you do no matter what choices nature, fate, and other people place before you.

What does Epictetus’s wisdom have to say to the culture of blame? We do not have to accept the Stoic view that everything in the world of appearances happens by necessity in order to acknowledge that we do not control what happens to us. We control only what we do in response. You don’t have to be a Stoic to understand that no power can force us to choose what we do not will or do what we don’t want to do.

Clearly, Epictetus understood that we are not always responsible for the external circumstances that affect us. The forces of nature and the actions of other people often affect us negatively. So, you do not have to take on guilt for circumstances over which you have no control. Hence much of the suffering we endure can be “blamed” in a certain sense on external forces. But only objectively. That is to say, external circumstances are responsible for much of the bodily suffering we must endure. The culture of blame, however, becomes pervasive when we habitually blame external circumstances for our unhappiness and sins. In other words, we refuse to take responsibility for our free choices and place the blame on something else, pretending that we have no control over our inner selves. This endemic denial of responsibility for our actions is what I mean by the culture of blame. Everyone is oppressed, deeply offended at any slight, awash in self-pity, always looking for someone to blame. And indeed you may have to deal with harsh circumstances, but Epictetus and Jimmy Buffet agree: if you are unhappy and “wasted away again in Margaritville, “it’s your own **** fault.”

New Anti-Institutionalism

I’ve been searching for a term that captures the mood that has gradually come over me in the last ten years. I think I’ve found it: New Anti-Institutionalism. I sense that this mood has become widespread among American Christians and has developed into something of a grass roots movement. But why “new”? How does it differ from “old” anti-institutionalism?

Old Anti-Institutionalism

For readers that don’t know my background, my theological and ecclesiastical identity was shaped in the (American) Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, out of which came the Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ. Among Churches of Christ there developed an anti-institutional tradition that resisted the rise of parachurch institutions that accompanied the increasing wealth, urbanization, and the social and missionary consciousness of churches after the 1880s. Many argued that these organizations were usurping the work that churches ought to do. Parachurch organizations may do good works in Jesus’s name, but they don’t answer directly to the authority of the church. Indeed, some feared that local churches would be brought under the authority of such organizations. I am sure that some Baptist and other independent churches also had similar fears and engaged in similar controversies. In Churches of Christ, the original anti-institutionalists argued that the local church was the only institution with divine authority to carry out such essential works of the church as preaching the gospel, sending out missionaries, and taking care of the poor. The cogency of such arguments depended on the widely accepted doctrine of the church known as restorationism. Restorationism is the idea that many of the divisions among Christians are caused by adding extra features to the simple organization of the New Testament church. However, following the simple pattern of the New Testament church, without addition or subtraction, charts the way both to faithfulness to Scripture and unity among believers.

New Anti-Institutionalism

The new anti-institutionalism does not object to the existence and work of parachurch organizations, certainly not for the reasons given by the old anti-institutionalists. We cannot discern one organizational pattern in the New Testament that must be implemented regardless of era or circumstances. Nor are we concerned with legal precision of organization. We worry, instead, about our freedom to preach and live the gospel in this post-Christian culture. The challenge to our spiritual freedom comes from within as well as without the church. Hence new anti-institutionalists focus as critically on institutions that call themselves churches as they do on so-called parachurch organizations. In fact, new anti-institutionalists consider most traditional churches to be “parachurches.”

Note: See my book Rethinking Church: A Guide for the Perplexed and Disillusioned (Los Angeles: keledei, 2021) for my explanation of why most churches are really parachurch organizations. One suspicious critic seem to think of Rethinking Church as an apology for old anti-institutionalism. Not really, but I suppose one could think of it as a manifesto for New Anti-Institutionalism.

The Regulatory State

In nineteenth-century America, the dominant culture was friendly toward Christianity, there was no income tax, and no regulatory state. Churches and parachurch institutions had great liberty to organize and conduct their affairs as they please without government entanglement. In 2021, however, churches, schools, and all other legally recognized associations live under mountains of laws and government regulations. Their freedom to preach and live the gospel is under constant threat. Compromise and assimilation are their greatest temptations. The new anti-institutionalists assert that the threat from the regulatory state and the dominant culture has become so menacing and compromise so common that it has become impossible for a government approved institution to remain unequivocally faithful to the gospel. We don’t trust any of them.

The Impersonal Institution

Institutions are by nature fictitious persons. They have no heart or soul. They are organized as bureaucracies and operate according to rules. The bigger they grow the less nimble they become.  Self-preservation is their strongest instinct. The institution’s officers and bureaucrats almost inevitably substitute their own private interests for the founding goal of the institution. And when that institution calls itself a church, it often prioritizes such institutional goals as growth in numbers, visibility, and wealth, over the spiritual welfare of individual believers. The institution is well fed while its members starve. New anti-institutionalists object to institutionalization because it is the enemy of community and individual discipleship to Jesus.

Agility, Simplicity, and Freedom

New anti-institutionalists are not iconoclasts. We don’t want to demolish institutions for the joy of hearing the crashes and bangs. We want believers to be free in mind and heart to invest themselves directly in service to God without bureaucratic rules, government entanglement, and avoidable cultural pressure to assimilate. New anti-institutionalists prize agility, simplicity, and freedom—all for the sake of the gospel of Jesus.

Politically Correct Christianity

One of my Chinese students recently asked me whether Christianity would eventually become a philosophy instead of a religion. The question puzzled me at first. After some probing, I realized that he was asking whether Christianity would eventually drop all references to the supernatural world, sin and forgiveness, death and the devil, and the eternal destiny of human beings and become a simply another source of wisdom alongside Confucianism for living the present life. This young man lives in an officially atheist country, so perhaps he was thinking that a Christianity understood as ethical wisdom would not be as offensive to the ruling party as a Christianity that referenced God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Its ethics could inspire personal well-being, community spirit, and social peace. Such a Christianity could be made to fit with a culture focused only on this world, and with a little adjustment here and there it could even lend support to the social and economic goals of Chinese communism.

Even before our conversation ended my mind had turned from the atheist culture of China to the western world, specifically to the United States of America. I am not going to generalize, but more and more I find myself interacting with Christians who focus on Christianity’s utility as an instrument for “social justice” to the near exclusion of its message of salvation from sin, death, and the devil. The question seems no longer to be “how do we attain right standing before God as individuals?” but “what position should we take on the social issues of the day?” It is all about problems of race, gender, inequity, and climate change. Its ethical message is limited to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The world is divided into oppressed and oppressors, innocent and guilty, anti-racists and racists rather than believers and unbelievers. Sin is a systemic problem within the social order, and salvation can be achieved only through social change. My Chinese student asked about a politically correct Christianity suited to an atheist culture. I was shocked when I thought of the parallels to the American situation. Some people prefer a politically correct Christianity that requires no personal repentance and conversion and is adapted to the secular progressive spirit that dominates high culture. It is a Christianity without power, a timid echo of the culture, whose most potent message to the world is “we can be progressive too.”

The original Christianity presented itself as the solution to our deepest problems. And our deepest problems are not political, social, or psychological. They are sin, death, and slavery to the devil. All other ills derive from these causes. Sin is the radical, individual self-centeredness of the soul that pollutes every act in the mind and in the world. Social problems find their origin in the original sin in the human heart. Without God’s intervention, death is the final destiny of every living thing. If nothing lasts, nothing matters; and death is irrefutable proof that nothing lasts. The devil is that deceiving and enslaving power that manifests itself in the individual evil will, in the lust of the flesh, lust of the eye, and the pride of life and in social life in injustice, war, and genocide. It is a power against which no flesh can stand. Christianity is about salvation from that total destruction of body and soul that is the human heritage and destiny. Politically correct Christianity offers no remedy for sin, no salvation from death, and no victory over the devil. It is a physician that treats the symptoms but neglects the disease.

Rethinking Church–Just Released

I am excited to let you know of the release of my new popular level book Rethinking Church. Some of you followed my 2020 series “Rethinking Church” in which I developed many of the ideas that now comprise this book. I hope you will go the Amazon page and read John Wilson’s Foreword to the book and my Preface. Perhaps you will think of people who would be encouraged and challenged by reading this book. It has questions for discussion at the end of each of its seven chapters and would serve well for small group discussions. I also believe church leaders need to consider my criticisms of churches that continue “business as usual.” And I present a different and much simpler vision of church life.

The Christian View of Oppression and Freedom

In my last series in which I reviewed Pluckrose and Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody, I promised a follow up essay in which I contrast the view of freedom that animates both Liberal Political Theory and Social Justice Theory with the Christian understanding of freedom. Here is how I ended that series and set up this essay:

For all their differences, classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory are animated by the same definition of freedom: freedom in its pure form is the state wherein there are no restrictions on doing what you wish to do. In practice, both viewpoints restrict the freedom of some people so that others can enjoy a freedom of their own. Liberalism restricts government power so that everyone can enjoy equal civil rights and equal economic freedom. Theory wishes to use the power of government and woke social institutions to restrict the freedom of white people, men, and heterosexuals—which, taken together constitute the oppressor group in society—to do and become whatever they wish in the name of greater freedom for people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and all other marginalized groups to do and become whatever they wish.

Hence both classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory adhere to a nihilistic, anti-Christian, anti-nature, and anti-human vision of freedom. The logical implication of their view of freedom is the dissolution of everything human, natural, divine, good, and right in the name of the arbitrary will of the self-defining self to become and do whatever it wishes. Social Justice Theory is just one more step in the progressive movement wherein a false view of freedom works itself out toward its logical end, that is, self-conscious nihilism and anarchy.

https://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/2021/01/17/social-justice-theory-versus-classical-liberalism-a-logical-analysis-and-a-christian-reflection/

Freedom from External Oppression

All views of freedom have negative and positive aspects. They envision an enslaving power, a self that is enslaved, a liberating power, and a state into which the self is liberated. Theories of freedom differ by viewing each of these four aspects differently. Liberalism’s and Social Justice Theory’s discussions of political and personal freedom focus on liberation of the self from oppressive forces external to the self. Social Justice Theory defines the self primarily in intersectional terms, that is, in terms of membership in an oppressed race, gender, or other group. Liberalism defines the self as an individual, happiness-seeking human being. But in both philosophies it is the fulfillment of the will, wishes, or desires—whatever term you prefer—of the self that are being inhibited by something outside the self. The liberated state, then, is envisioned as the power to do as one wishes. Likewise, Liberalism and Social Justice Theory differ in the external forces they consider oppressive. Liberalism wishes to liberate individuals from inequality in law or government enforcement of law. Social Justice Theory also recognizes these oppressors but extends the list to include many more ways the self’s fulfillment is restricted—by racial stereotypes, presumed norms governing gender and identity, systemic racism, and an ever-expanding list of others. Both Liberalism and Social Justice Theory, as all political theories do, rely on coercive power—soft or harsh—to liberate the victim self from external oppression.

Christian Freedom

Christianity also wishes to liberate people from oppression. There are, indeed, places where Christianity’s program of liberation overlaps with those of Liberalism and Social Justice Theory. However in the Christian understanding, the root cause of all external injustice is self’s internal bondage and corruption. For Christianity, the goal is not to liberate the self from some external power so that it can become and do whatever it desires. This action would only enable the self to externalize its internal bondage and corruption more readily. Christianity advocates liberation of the self from its own perverted will, that is, its inability to love God with all its heart, mind, soul, and strength and its idolatrous love of itself. In case you need reminding that what I am saying is the unambiguous teaching of the New Testament, read these statements from Paul:

17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. (Rom 6:17–18)

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Eph 2:1–5)

In this respect Christianity relativizes the worldly distinction between oppressors and victims. Everyone is a victim of sin and everyone oppresses their neighbors by not loving them as God loves them. There are no innocents.

Christian freedom is the state of possessing the inner power to love God and your neighbor. It is not leeway to sin as you like. It is the power to will and do the good. Christian freedom does not embrace or entail nihilism and anarchy. It embraces Jesus Christ as the model for divine and human identity. Christian freedom does not advance through coercion, harsh or soft. It advances in a way consistent with its nature as free, that is, by inner illumination, empowerment, and transformation through the Word and Spirit of God.

The Bottom Line

Liberalism and Social Justice Theory view

the oppressive power from which we need liberating as external restriction,

the self as the totality of the desires of the individual,

the liberating power as political coercion,

and the state of freedom as the power to do as one pleases.

Christianity views

the oppressive power from which we need liberating as sin,

the self as God’s created image made to image God,

the liberating power as the grace of the Holy Spirit,

and the state of freedom as the power to image God in all our actions and loves.

Further Reading on Freedom

I’ve written many essays and one book that touch directly or indirectly on Freedom:

https://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/jesus-means-freedom-god-and-the-modern-self-14/

https://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/freedom-means-freedom-period-god-and-the-modern-self-6/

https://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/freedom-aint-so-free-after-all-god-and-the-modern-self-7/

The Goal of Politics: “Earthly Peace for the Sake of Enjoying Earthly Goods”

In a time when politics seems to be the only subject people talk about, I thought we might benefit from considering a quote from Augustine’s City of God. In reading another work, I ran across a quote from City of God, which I placed in Italics in the quotes below. I was so taken by it that I looked up the context.

“Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God…In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, “I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength.” And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls … But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, “that God may be all in all.” (Book XIV, Chap. 28)

“But the earthly city … has its good in this world, and rejoices in it with such joy as such things can afford … desires earthly peace for the sake of enjoying earthly goods, and it makes war in order to attain to this peace … But if they neglect the better things of the heavenly city, which are secured by eternal victory and peace never-ending, and so inordinately covet these present good things that they believe them to be the only desirable things, or love them better than those things which are believed to be better,–if this be so, then it is necessary that misery follow and ever increase.” (Book XV. CHAP. 4)

Social Justice Theory versus Classical Liberalism—A Logical Analysis and A Christian Reflection

This essay is my third post interacting with Pluckrose and Lindsey, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody. I advise taking a look at the first two parts before you read this one.

Today I want to address this question: Is reasserting classical liberalism the best way to the challenge the activist, reified postmodernism of contemporary race-gender-identity theories? Lindsey and Pluckrose, Cynical Theories, think so. And in part I agree with them.

Social Justice Theory versus Classical Liberalism

As previous posts documented, Social Justice Theory values marginalized identity, experience of oppression, and equity. In contrast, classical liberalism, as articulated by John Locke, the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, and John Stuart Mill, values reason, truth, freedom of expression, civil liberty, common humanity, debate, and evidence-based knowledge. Lindsey and Pluckrose juxtapose them in the following ways:

Knowledge—liberalism asserts that knowledge of objective reality is to some extent attainable. Theory asserts that knowledge claims are merely constructions designed to justify privilege and power.

Identity—liberalism values unique individual identity. Theory prizes group/intersectional identity.

Universal Values—liberalism measures human behavior against universal human values. Theory denies universals and replaces them with the interests of marginalized groups.

Debate and Truth Seeking—liberalism encourages debate, evidence-based argument, and submission of private and group interest to truth. Theory rejects the notion of truth as an illusion designed to support the status quo; it asserts that language is a means by which we construct “our” truth, that is, a narrative or ideology that supports our interests.

Progress—liberalism is self-correcting because it believes in objective reality, truth, and knowledge but admits that human beings can never achieve perfect knowledge. Theory does not accept criticism because it rejects the idea of objective reality, truth, and knowledge. Hence it treats every criticism as a power play to which it responds not with self-examination but with suspicion and outrage. It does not accept the obligation to listen to its critics.

Liberalism’s Rhetorical Advantage

When the positions of these two approaches are placed side by side most people in the Western world—even most university professors, including me!—will choose liberalism over postmodernism as the best available political philosophy for creating and maintaining a just society. And I think this popular preference may be the ground of Pluckrose’s and Lindsey’s hope that exposure of Theory’s irrationalism, intolerance, censorship, and potential for violent suppression of its opponents to the light of day, will encourage those who have been intimidated into silence by Theory to speak out. If nothing else, you can say, “No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it” (p. 266). Even though there are some places—university faculty meetings and classrooms, for example—where advocating liberal values in opposition to Social Justice Theory will get you shouted down, in most public spaces you will have the rhetorical advantage.

Two Twists on Freedom

Pluckrose and Lindsey consider classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory “almost directly at odds with one another” at every point (p. 237). And as documented in the list above there is much truth to this assertion. However I think they share a common view of freedom that animates their political activities. Liberalism and Theory both view freedom as removal of external limits that keep people from becoming and doing what they want. This view of freedom is the core value that has animated Western liberation movements from the seventeenth century until today. This understanding of freedom possesses a negative and a positive side. On the negative side, freedom negates every boundary and limit outside the self as a potential oppressor. On the positive side, the self—its desires and will—is the force that determines itself and its world and is the sole animating principle of its activity.

Clearly, this type of freedom can never be fully realized in its pure form. It is extremely individualistic and it views the self as a self-creating god. It is nihilistic in that it negates all values and structures outside the self—other people, moral law, nature, and God—to clear space for the realization of its own will. The debate in liberal politics, however, centers not on the nature of freedom in itself but on how and to what extent it must be restricted to keep it from destroying the community and itself. In this way, classical liberalism contains within itself an unrealizable ideal as its animating principle, which it must always compromise in practice. Theoretical idealism combined with practical realism is an unstable mixture that will produce wave after wave of radical movements intent on rejecting compromise and realizing the ideal no matter what the cost.

Social Justice Theory is the latest wave of idealists who, dissatisfied with the compromises made by liberal politics, think putting into practice their theories will create a better world. Don’t let the word “justice” distract you from Theory’s the quest for freedom. In the lexical world of Theory “justice” is indexed to liberation. In fact, the traditional meaning of justice can have no place in Theory, because “justice” means conformity to the way things ought to be, and in Theory, there is no objective way things ought to be. Theory’s use of the word “justice” is a cynical rhetorical ploy. In both classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory the world is divided into the oppressed and their oppressors, and liberation from oppression, that is, removing restrictions on liberty so that one can to do as one wishes, is the goal in both. The difference between the two theories lies in the differing lists of oppressive forces and victims of oppression and the places where liberty must be restricted in favor of the victims.

Classical liberalism views centralized government power as the greatest threat to liberty and it works to enshrine equality of civil rights into law. And over the last two and a half centuries it has viewed progress as the advance of individual liberty and the retreat of government sanctioned inequality. Liberal politics attempted to ameliorate the worst negative effects of unfettered economic freedom—that is, concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few families and corporations—by instituting inheritance taxes, graduated income tax rates, regulations of all sorts, and creating a quasi-welfare state. Theory’s list of threats to freedom includes religion, moral law, objective truth, biological nature, and God. Its list of oppressors includes white people, men, and heterosexuals. It flips its prized intersectionality of marginalized groups on its head by making white, heterosexual men into the evil twin of the intersectional victim. It works to free people from restrictive notions of gender and identity and liberate people of color from the systemic racism of contemporary American society.

Summary

For all their differences, classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory are animated by the same definition of freedom: freedom in its pure form is the state wherein there are no restrictions on doing what you wish to do. In practice, both viewpoints restrict the freedom of some people so that others can enjoy a freedom of their own. Liberalism restricts government power so that everyone can enjoy equal civil rights and equal economic freedom. Theory wishes to use the power of government and woke social institutions to restrict the freedom of white people, men, and heterosexuals—which, taken together constitute the oppressor group in society—to do and become whatever they wish in the name of greater freedom for people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and all other marginalized groups to do and become whatever they wish.

Hence both classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory adhere to a nihilistic, anti-Christian, anti-nature, and anti-human vision of freedom. The logical implication of their view of freedom is the dissolution of everything human, natural, divine, good, and right in the name of the arbitrary will of the self-defining self to become and do whatever it wishes. Social Justice Theory is just one more step in the progressive movement wherein a false view of freedom works itself out toward its logical end, that is, self-conscious nihilism and anarchy.

Next Time: What is freedom understood in a Christian way?

Understanding Academia’s Obsession with Race, Gender, and Identity (Part Two)

In the previous essay I promised to complete my description of Theory (or Critical Theory), which is the framework that makes sense of the “crazy talk” about race, gender, and identity we often hear emanating from the modern university. The original postmodernism, with its two principles and four major themes—discussed in the previous post—takes a playful, skeptical, and ironic stance toward all truth claims. It affirms nothing and criticizes everything. Pure postmodernism cannot function as a philosophy for political activism. For it deconstructs everything and constructs nothing. Whereas science aims to describe the world and radical politics wants to change it, postmodernism wishes only to criticize it.

Social Justice Theory as Applied Postmodernism

According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, Cynical Theories, between the 1980s and 2010 race, gender, and identity theorists drew on postmodernism for the critical parts of their activist theories. Theory uses postmodern knowledge principle to create suspicion of the knowledge claims and narratives of the dominant groups in society. And it uses the postmodern political principle to expose the pervasive presence of power in society and its control over what counts as truth and justice. However, in contrast to the original postmodernism, Theory uses postmodernism’s critical tools only against ideologies and narratives it deems supportive of the oppressive forces in society. It does not turn them against the narratives of society’s oppressed and marginalized.* The latter are treated in practice as true and expressive of justice. The former are treated as false and expressive of injustice. Postmodernism’s universal deconstruction of all truth claims, every power center, and each assertion of stable identity, was transformed into a binary order–a new metanarrative–defined by the division between oppressor and oppressed.

*I don’t have space to define the “marginalized.” As the term indicates, the marginalized are defined by what they are not. They are not the dominant group. Look up Cynical Theories in your favorite search engine.

Social Justice Theory as Reified Postmodernism

After 2010, Theory (Social Justice Theory or Critical Theory) confidently asserted the truth of its critique of knowledge and the political order. The mood is no longer skeptical and playful but cynical and dogmatic. Pluckrose and Lindsey speak of this shift as the “reification” of postmodernism. Within the world of contemporary Theory it is presupposed that any moral or scientific justification of the status quo (the oppressors) is merely an ideology originating from desire to maintain dominance over people with marginalized identities. In contrast, narratives that free and empower marginalized people are by definition true. Social Justice Theory is a strange combination of cynicism and dogmatism, which makes sense only as an arbitrary decision to apply postmodern cynicism to the narratives of one group and superstitious credulity to the other. What motivates this seemingly arbitrary decision? Lust for power, guilt, resentment, and envy or passion for justice?

Ironically, because of Theory’s dogmatic assertion that truth and right are always on the side of the marginalized, a marginal identity has become a coveted possession within the Social Justice universe. And the more marginalized your identity, the higher your status in the new order will be. A person’s identity as marginalized is enhanced when it is constructed by the intersection of two or more marginal identities. In a reversal of postmodernism’s universal suspicion of power, contemporary Theory uses its claims of truth and right to demand submission from the heretofore dominant group. Theory, then, flips the social order on its head. The oppressors become the oppressed, truth becomes falsehood, good becomes evil, and right becomes wrong. And there is no arbiter, via media, no common ground. There are only winners and losers.

Classical Liberalism as the Response to Applied and Reified Postmodernism?

As their response to the irrationality and socially destructive effects of Social Justice Theory’s activist and reified postmodernism, Pluckrose and Lindsey urge a return to classical liberalism, that is, to reason, truth, freedom of expression, civil liberty, common humanity, debate, and evidence-based knowledge.

Next Time: I will explain my partial agreement with Pluckrose’s and Lindsey’s proposal and offer a Christian response to the view of freedom common to both postmodernism and liberalism.