Worldview: Critical Theory

A Postmodern optimist will seek to change the world and will often do it in the framework of critical theory.  Critical theory looks at society and critiques it looking for the underlying structures of domination.  It seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Max Horkheimer, 1982). It will often look at time honored traditions and critique them for bias in order to free society from the underlying oppression.  Critical theory also appears many times in literary criticism.

Critical theory is about power.  A critical theorist, who is a white woman, is concerned with being oppressed (as a woman) and also with one’s place in a dominant group (white privilege), besides other groups that she may be a part of.  She would be concerned with liberating nonwhites from the oppressive norms of society, as well as being concerned about her own oppression as a woman.  She as a woman would have special insights into the truth because of her “lived experience”, but also she would be missing the insights that a nonwhite person might have.  Critical theory says she would need to accept the truth that a nonwhite person might share because she does not have that “lived experience”.

For a literary example of critical theory let us take a look at the “generic he” (and the “singular they”).  Because English does not have a generic singular pronoun, the pronoun ‘he’ has been used to refer to a person of unspecified gender.  Do you say “A person entered and he sat down at the table with his notebook”?  Or do you say “A person entered and they sat down at the table with their notebook”?  Or do you say something else. Traditionally, you would use the “generic he”.  A critical theorist would see the sexist bias in the “generic he” and call for a change.  They (or He) would be more happy with using the “singular they”.  In fact that has become standard practice these days. It avoids societal gender bias.  I have also seen a “generic she” used instead of the “generic he”.

Today, with declared genders being flexible, the critical theorist would call for the use of the pronouns depending on personal preference to avoid the two gender lock-in.  I have seen at the bottom of emails a list of pronoun words to use in responding to the person, and I have seen documents recommending flexible use of pronouns based on personal preference.  A critical theorist would want to free the person from the societal constraints of genderism.

As a Christian I see some truth in critical theory.  There is oppression and domination in this world, not only overtly, but also in the hidden structures of society.  They are problems that need to be rooted out.  However, the Christian sees the root problem not as oppressive norms of society but as the sinful nature of each and every person.  Liberation does not come from being free from the norms of society but from a restored relationship with God.  When I would talk to a critical theorist, I would ask questions and do a lot of listening.  I would acknowledge the oppression, but would share that the root cause is our sinful nature and liberation from societal norms does not solve the problem.  We can not solve it, but God can.

This is a worldview that I am less familiar with, but I see people using its concepts.  For some more reading on critical theory, check out a short summary at and for an in-depth look check out .

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