Last week, a student at one of the country’s top theological seminaries wrote to me about the institution. The student framed the letter not so much as a complaint about this particular seminary, but rather as a warning about the direction of Christianity via the pastors and theologians trained at prestigious places like this.
The student said in the original letter that the student knew in advance that this was a seminary that was likely to challenge the student’s orthodox Christian beliefs; that was one reason the student chose this institution: for the intellectual challenge. But the student did not anticipate that the situation there was as revolutionary as it is. I’ve looked at this seminary’s material online, and can tell you that there is nothing to indicate that conditions there are what this student says there are. But you can find online writing from those familiar with this seminary that supports what the student writes below.
The student is confident that very few ordinary Christians understand what’s happening at this level. I know the student’s name, and the seminary’s name, and asked the student to revise the letter to redact identifying details, for the student’s own protection.
Rod, I’ve been a longtime reader and fan of your work. Now that I am attending what is considered a “prestigious” American Protestant mainline divinity school/seminary, I felt that I should reach out and issue a report from the front.
I’m going to do my best to avoid the question of how Christians should be civically engaged. As important as that is, I’ll stick to the question of what is acceptable teaching within the church. While we aren’t necessarily called to impose morality on the wider world (rather we spread it through engagement and persuasion), the Bible is clear that we should be wary of – and do something about – the false teachers among us.
I chose my institution for the academic rigor and the opportunity to have difficult conversations with people who were not on my side of the spectrum. Oh Rod, how painfully naive I was… those conversations ended long before I arrived. In reality, I have to walk on eggshells to not out myself as a moral monster — for holding to biblical morality on a Christian campus. I have seen the future in the form of the arguments that the very far “Christian” left is developing. The average believer in the pews does not know what is coming.
I want to say at the outset that I write this out of genuine Christian concern for the universal church. I am not gazing down from the lofty heights of moral and doctrinal perfection; I am a sinner in need of God’s grace daily. It is hopefully a clear-eyed look at a world most won’t have the opportunity to experience first-hand, furthering a discussion about Christianity among fellow Christians. But enough of the preamble.
I’d love to say that the biggest issue is that divinity schools are not taking the Bible seriously. Every divinity school and seminary like mine have professors who don’t believe the resurrection happened, who teach future pastors Intro to New Testament and Systematic Theology. Even if they do believe in the resurrection, they easily cast off any other part of the Scriptures they dislike by denying the authorship of the Holy Spirit and then proclaiming the human authors were hopelessly blinded by the bigotries of their era. Unfortunately, this isn’t news.
I won’t spend any time on the things that are becoming de rigueur at all institutes of higher education, such as professors asking which pronouns each student identifies with on the first day of a new class, or the shocking sexual hedonism displayed by some of the future pastors of America.
Rather, I’d like to take a stab at defining the latest iteration of a battle for the identity of Christianity that has been raging for centuries now and why this latest version has a better chance of succeeding where the earlier coups failed.
Progressive Christians have woven a version of Christianity that dramatically diverges from the historic, orthodox faith. It’s a three-part harmony:
First, they fully bought into the primacy of the autonomous individual. You are untethered from all social and biological relationships and constraints that you do not willfully choose. Anything you feel is good and should be celebrated by society. You are unbounded by any moral constraint except the consent of other autonomous individuals. Nothing new here for people familiar with your work.
Second is the overwhelming triumph of critical theory and its offshoots, such as critical race theory, critical gender theory, etc. A primer for those who have mercifully been spared thus far:
Critical theory (CT) “in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be
distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human “emancipation from slavery”, acts as a “liberating…influence” … (Horkheimer 1972, 246).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
CT identifies the primary dichotomy in life as oppressor and oppressed. It has been applied to gender, to sexuality, to race, even to colonialism. It has given us the fields of Queer Theory, Postcolonialism, and Whiteness Studies, among others. These are not just fields of study at secular universities – they are the latest and greatest in the world of Christian theology.
You can see how nicely CT dovetails with autonomous individualism: you are morally excellent if you embrace all your identities and liberate yourself and others from the shackles of the oppressors (systemic white, capitalistic, patriarchal heteronormativity).
Technically, critical theory is a form of academic analysis. Practically, it functions as a rival religion to Christianity. Instead of life’s main problem/solution being sin/grace, it is now
oppression/liberation. It creates a new system of sinners (oppressors) and saints (the “woke” or “allies”) and all the requisite devotional duties.
The third aspect is where the magic happens. Critical theory/individualism gets clothed in a Christian dress. It is social justice with a thin veneer of Jesus. The way it works is critical theory’s definition of love and justice gets read into biblical themes:
When Christians say God loves you, that now means God affirms and supports your feelings and identity, even when they contradict scriptural witness.
When Christians say love your neighbor, that now means affirming and supporting them regardless of biblical truth.
When Christians say God is just, that now means God is for dismantling oppressors (the systemic white, capitalistic, patriarchal heteronormative oppressors).
A miraculous transfiguration has occurred: Marxist (via CT) morality is now virtually unchallenged as the full realization of biblical love and justice. The new, CT morality isn’t merely good for progressive society – it’s godly.
Are there any practical effects of the “critical theory-ization” of Christian theology? You bet! From the mouths of professors and future pastors:
- The Constitution is inherently a patriarchal, white supremacist document that is unsalvageable; we must do away with it and start anew.
- Any support for biblical sexual morality is a nonstarter – supporting traditional biblical morality is oppressing Christians whose identities do not align with biblical morality.
- Business owners – even after paying workers their freely-agreed-upon contractual wages — do not have a right to their profits; rather, workers have the right to all profits.
- Multiple times I have heard evangelism – the Great Commission – referred to as “colonialism.”
- The ideas of the fallenness of humans and Original Sin are harmful to psychological health and we must do away with those doctrines.
- Since we are not inherently fallen, we can do away with the idea that Christ’s death and
resurrection were to atone for our sins. Such a doctrine is child abuse by a blood-thirsty God.
- Jesus willfully went to his death not to defeat death and redeem humanity, but to show
solidarity with the world’s oppressed.
All of this in the name of Jesus, love, and justice.
And think of these as a sneak preview, not a list of greatest hits.
This represents the instrumentalization of Christianity to social justice ends. Routinely, the discussion of Christianity’s value comes down to “can Christianity help liberate me and others who share my identity from oppressors?” Christianity is not good because it is true; Christianity is adopted if it is useful.
And if all of this was not bad enough, there’s this:
Multiple times I have heard professors and graduate assistants, with a wink and a nod, telling seminarians that they don’t have to share everything they have learned when they sit for the ordination board and hiring committee, only what those boards and committees need to hear.
There is such a shockingly strong belief in the goodness of this mission that some level of conscious lying-through-omission is acceptable if it means getting into congregations that would otherwise never invite you to be their pastor. That way, you can slowly work them out of their old-fashioned bigotries.
Here’s the predicament: how can Christians argue against CT’s version of love and justice when progressive “Christians” are busily making sure CT’s love and justice is Christian love and justice?
In other words, disagreeing with the new CT morality isn’t just being a bigot, or an oppressor, or promoting hate on society’s terms – no, now you are going against Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. You are being a bad Christian, on par with those Christians who used the Bible to support slavery and apartheid.
How is the average Christian in the pews going to be able to respond to the issue when it is framed like that? Will they be able – or even have the opportunity before being shouted down – to say something like:
“I do support love and justice, I just disagree with the source of your vision of love and justice, which is Marxist critical theory and fundamentally conflicts with a Christian worldview.”
Odds are slim.
How is the average Christian going be able to witness to others? We have lost the ability to say that we “hate the sin but love the sinner.” If autonomous individualism means a person is what the person feels, then denying what the person feels is tantamount to denying the very person.
CT morality says denying what the person feels is oppressing them. You are actively harming them. It is thus impossible to respectfully disagree when it comes to issues of personal identity.
In the end, it might be difficult to come to any other conclusion that we now live in two incommensurable moral universes in this country (and the church). This is the idea that two groups do not share a fundamental philosophical foundation from which to have a rational discussion.
One group says that truth exists, humans are sinful, our actions must be conformed to God, and that society and systems help us obtain those ends. The other says that truth either doesn’t exist or is dependent on the subjective experience of the individual, humans are fundamentally good and only corrupted by oppressive systems, and God should be conformed to our behavior.
Both cannot claim the mantle of Christianity.
In the long view, we’ve successfully fought off some of these attacks before. The problem this time around is that the battle has tilted away from us. In yesteryear, background culture held to traditional Christian values. Businesses weren’t actively promoting anti-Christian values. The internet and smartphones weren’t around reinforcing our omnipotent individual online existence and helping grease the gears of our hedonic consumption. There were traditional social, religious, and civil institutions that could hold the line.
This time around, the opposition is coming with the support of the surrounding culture. The opposition is buoyed by culture’s understanding that THEY have the moral high ground (even if that morality is based in Marxism, an ideology that was designed to take direct aim at Christianity).
Maybe all this stays in the divinity schools, seminaries, and churches of dying mainline congregations. After all, we’ve more or less won all the previous battles.
But maybe we won’t win this one.
As a church, we must think about civic life – how will we deal with corporate pressure on non-allies and pro-lifers, educate our children free from anti-Christian ideology, and protect our First Amendment rights in the public sphere? But if we don’t defend against the “critical theoryization” of our churches, we will lose our distinctive Christian witness from forces within, not from without.
The seminarian here is warning us that the Christian Left has colonized the institution — in this case, a leading one — and, crucially, the language of Christianity. It’s as if the Red Army had secretly taken over West Point. Keep in mind that this student is not saying that all seminaries are like this. That would be untrue, and silly. The student’s main point is that the student went in thinking he/she would be attending a liberal-ish Christian seminary, but discovered that the seminary was in truth anti-Christian — though it uses the same language as Christianity.
The sociologist Christian Smith identified Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as similarly parasitic on Christianity: a different religion that inhabits the same conceptual and linguistic forms of Christianity. This is something even worse. You might call it Moralistic Deistic Marxism. My correspondent’s point is that we are no longer talking about progressive Christianity vs. orthodox Christianity, but of rival religions.
Finally, the reader is talking about a Mainline Protestant seminary, but people from other Christian traditions can see similar things happening in the theological discourse within their own tribes. It might not have the institutional backing that it does in the Mainline, but it’s there.