Critical Theory: The Good, The Bad and the Absurd

Rev. Dr. Michael Berg is a professor a Wisconsin Lutheran College and a co-host of the podcast Let the Bird Fly. Last year at about this time he gave a presentation on Critical Theory at the 2023 WELS National Conference on Lutheran Leadership, which you can view here

I'm engaging this content (a year late) because it's clear this presentation was not a flash in the pan.  He's been taking it on a road tour having presented at Hillsdale and at various WELS district conferences. Let's go!

Introduction (first 13 minutes)
Berg's introduction from Heraclitus to John to Descartes and Kant is fair, as far as I understand those individuals.

I feel that Berg begins by soft-pedaling Derrida. Ultimately, he reaches the correct conclusion that Derrida is attacking the Christian worldview, but it takes him awhile to get there. Just to be clear, this is Derrida's view of Scripture:
'For me, there is no such thing as "religion." Within what one calls religions - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or other religions - there are again tensions, heterogeneity, disruptive volcanos, sometimes texts, especially those of the prophets, which cannot be reduced to an institution, to a corpus, to a system. I want to keep the right to read these texts in a way that has to be constantly reinvented. It is something which can be totally new at every moment."  [1]
As Christians the Logos is the ultimate stability on which our faith is built. The Apology to the Augsburg Confession rightly states that "God cannot be interacted with, God cannot be grasped, except through the Word." [2] Only through words and the 'visible word' of the Sacraments can God be apprehended. Language is inherently stable and stably conveys Biblical Truth. But corrupt men aim to confound the clear use of language for the purposes of subverting the Christian faith and sinful men are tempted to look outside Scripture. It's not an inherent problem of language, it's an inherent problem of sin.

Berg's thought experiment with the word 'run' is not indicative of a problem with language it is indicative of different people with different experiences. This, to my understanding, is a different problem than Derrida's proposed instability: were Derrida correct, this would be a universal problem extra nos. Berg's example is something different, showing that different brains with different experiences will make different initial associations. In the natural and fair use of language, we guide our hearers by the use of adjectives and adverbs towards an intended meaning. Note: I was too kind. I've since become convinced that Berg is engaging in expressive semiotics.

Introducing Critical Theory
Berg defines Critical Theory as: "an overarching term that refers to a new way of looking at the world (as opposed to traditional theory). It aims to critique and ultimately change society by exposing underlying assumptions and power structures that keep humans from true freedom." (14 minutes)

I'd like to contrast his definition with James Lindsay's 
"A critical Theory is chiefly concerned with revealing hidden biases and underexamined assumptions, usually by pointing out what have been termed “problematics” which are ways in which society and the systems that it operates upon are going wrong." [3]
Note the difference: Berg's definition imputes the aim of the critical theorist is true freedom; Lindsay's rests on the act of problematizing. This is an important distinction because in the very next breath Berg claims that being a critical theorist "is not necessarily a bad thing." 

In describing the Frankfurt school, Berg says:
"A lot of people like to throw around Marxism... unless you've spent years doing this, I would not use that word." 
(a picture is worth a thousand words, let the reader understand)

"And you can stop a conversation real quickly when someone says 'Well, that's Marxist,' and you say 'Oh, what is your favorite part of the Manifesto?' And then the conversation is over"
This tactic is ironic in the context of discussing critical theory because this would fall into the woke tactic of nullification (You haven't read enough Marx; so you can't speak), or perhaps The Gnostic Temptation (There are secrets that are inaccessible until you do the work). In what other context would we make this demand? Would we tell new Christians that they can't share the hope they have in Christ because they haven't read the Bible tip to tail? "You can shut down the conversation pretty quickly by asking a new Lutheran to explain the crux theologrum" ...

He's right about Critical Theory growing out of Marxism, while being critical of Marxism. This is the whole thesis-antithesis-synthesis cycle that came out of Hegel (Marx was a young Hegelian). You start with a thesis like Marxism and you have an antithesis (which is not a diametric opposite thesis but a competing one) and the combination produces a synthesis which spirals upwards towards perfection, in the Hegelian view.

Berg makes the claim that:
"[critical] legal theory, a very obscure legal theory... has become part of the news, mostly because of Fox News, Critical Race Theory."
This isn't the first time he's going to propose that Fox News is culpable for promulgating critical theory (although later on he's bipartisan and also blames MSNBC) but this would seemingly be another example of nullification

Berg then lays out six characteristics of Critical Theory (around the 16-and-a-half-minute mark). I'll refrain from commenting until he discusses them in detail later in the presentation. After defining the six characteristics, he lays out rules of engagement:

The Rules of Engagement
1. If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us (1 Jn. 1:8)
2. Charity is a virtue that pays dividends (1 Pt 4)
3. Every -ism and -ology has a kernel of truth in it (1 Co 13:12)
4. Every -ism and -ology is deeply flawed because of its humanity (1 Co 1)
5. Do not let anything get in the way of seeing the humanity of the "other" (Mt 5:44)
6. Do not let anything get in the way of the gospel (literally all of Galatians and really the whole Bible)

The first point is fine. 

The second point is fine, bearing in mind there are propositions that violate Scripture to which the proper response is a firm 'No', and if the other party is as charitable as we are then there is an opportunity for a discussion.

The third point is a massive equivocation in my book. Not every -ism and -ology should be lent credence. What do we have to learn from a satanist? From astrology? Not something we couldn't have learned better from the Bible and our Lutheran theology. While the heathens are groping about, we have the light of Scripture to aide us. 

Berg misapplies 1 Corinthians 13:12 here. The EHV Study Bible states: "Now we know God through what we learn about him from Holy Scripture, yet we do not know everything about God. In eternity we will know him directly and visibly." Lenski says something similar with a lot more words, as is his wont. A Christian's incomplete knowledge of God does no impute that every -ism and -ology of the heathen has some kernel of truth. 

The Bible speaks clearly about the problem of fallen man. Listen to the Preacher! "[God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." [4] There is a void in all of us that needs to be filled and that void will not be completely satisfied until we rest with God [5]. In the meantime, we have faith in God, hope for Heaven, and love for our fellow man. We need to evaluate the void that exists in man using the Scriptures to understand why it exists and what was intended to fulfill it, and not look at what the heathen use to fill it.

The fourth point is fine, except that the -ism of Lutheranism and the -ology of Christian Theology are things where we should put all our eggs in the basket!

The fifth point is fine, but Berg's explanation is lacking.  I have to disagree that Critical Theory is largely "educated white people talking with slightly less educated white people" (although in the context of Berg and your humble host, this characterization is correct!) There are plenty of non-Whites in the discussion (which makes sense - according to intersectionality they have privilege! Their view should be taken as authoritative over mine!) 

It's hard for me to acknowledge that 'the average person doesn't give a flying flip about Critical Theory' when we have neighbors with Black Lives Matter flags in their front windows and 'in this house' signs planted in their yards. As a synod (which means 'walking together') I have to notice when MLC uses the black power fist on their bulletin boards. Or when the Lutheran Leadership Conference has a keynote speaker who implements DEI on her college campus. Or when my employer makes me take annual anti-bias and anti-racism training. I would like nothing more than to not have to care! I feel Berg from his post in academia is out of touch with what many of us are dealing with down here. 

The sixth point sounds pious. But our theology is not compartmentalized to justification, and our theology bleeds into everything in life, including politics. We've turned "two kingdoms" theology into a barrier between church and politics. Berg uses "people smarter than you" as a sort of kill switch on conversation as if I can't have an opinion if there is someone who possibly knows more than me (nullification, again). They may know more than me, and if so, we should be engaging in the "mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren" [6]. I may be completely off my rocker, or they may have overlooked something. 

I disagree that two men talking politics in the narthex is an impediment to the Gospel. Yes, it is true we should strive not to put a stumbling block in someone's way (Romans 14). But no man can interfere with election or take and eraser to the Book of Life. Or consider the Sacrament of the Altar, the purest form of Gospel - if we don't let anything get in the way of the Gospel then let's get rid of closed communion! It's a silly argument.

Our confessions clearly state: “the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a particularly brilliant light. It serves the purpose of rightly dividing God’s Word and properly explaining and understanding the Scriptures” (FC SD V 1). The Gospel may predominate in preaching, but the law must do its work in the hardened sinner to brings about contrition and then offer the sweet salve of the Gospel (Walther's Law and Gospel, Thesis VIII. Nathan and David. Many such cases!). We sing about the law doing its work prior to the Gospel "predominating" in "Salvation Unto Us Has Come," verse 8.

Around 28 minutes in his excursion on Marx and advent preaching, specifically about consumerism, he says "we can learn from -isms and -ologies that yes, may be a threat to the Gospel, but their diagnostic ability is not something we should ignore." I have to disagree here - regardless of how profoundly Marx said it, if Marx is asking the 'right questions that give the wrong answers' something is wrong with his frame. Which means he is shooting in the dark, and just happened to say something Berg things we can latch on to.  If the question does not arise out of our own superior theology, was it a question worth considering? Where in the Bible were the Israelites commended for looking to the worship of false gods to derive the "right questions" that had wrong answers? Did Paul commend in any of his epistles the practice of deriving truth from demon worshippers? By no means!

What we can learn - and this is all laid out clearly in the Bible - is that humans are self-justifying machines and humans - whether they have the language to articulate it - seek God. They seek justification. They recognize the gap between who they are and what they were created to be. Eternity is in their hearts. Instead of taking what they find as 'their truth' and finding something in it worth learning, look at the person and what they seek and how our -ism and -ology is what God gave to fill that gap.

Berg then moves on to discuss his six characteristics using his six rules of engagement.

Berg presents six characteristics:
1. Privilege and oppression are permeant (structural) and not an aberration. expressed in multiple ways (intersectionality)

Berg makes the point that we all are privileged. Being privileged is not a sin. Jesus experienced privilege as a male Jew, and yet remained without sin. I think Berg and I agree here. 

I would disagree that structures and system are amoral. Berg justifies this stance by saying that if something is moral or amoral, we have to be talking about a 'soul thing.' The problem with this view is that Satan and his minions exist! They are not souls, and they are not limited to attacking souls, but also the body (Luther's explanation to the Seventh Petition of the Lord's Prayer in the Large Catechism). We wage war against powers and principalities, soulless beings, who inhabit systems. In The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Chapter 13, the beast out of the sea is civil government. While there are individual emperors, kings, princes and presidents who wage war on the Church explicitly, the system of government proceeds from Satan and acts regardless of who is at the helm. Consider for instance the Prince of Persia in Daniel 10. (And we all know the trope of the civil servant 'just doing their job' mindlessly (soullessly) enforcing policies.) Paul tells us of the demon-inhabited system that is the worship of false gods [7]. Systems like abortion (but I repeat myself: the modern worship of Moloch). A system that cannot promulgate good, but only evil is not amoral, as is the case for abortion, or human trafficking, and quite frankly the educational standards put in place by the State of Minnesota.

2. Action of inaction. Illiberal over liberal.

His points are fair, in my opinion.

3. Power replaces truth.

The statement is fine, but Berg takes two unnecessary jabs.
"..what they did in the South..."
"Let's talk Confederate statues. All of a sudden, Billy Joe Bob from Texarkana was a history major... all these people who hated history and got Ds in them, and never took them in college, are all of a sudden historians." 
This is an unnecessary jab without substance, Berg should back up his argument within the context of power replacing truth. I think it is a stretch. It's also not very pastoral, but it probably gets a giggle out of the academics...
"I think a lot of them [confederate statues] were rightfully taken down. We all cheered when the statue of Saddam Hussien on television was toppled, right?"
Did we? Not all of us wanted to go to war! We found out after the fact that God was using Saddam to protect His Christians. American foreign policy meddled with the affairs of God. If we were cheering, let us repent!

4. Truth is a construct. Words cannot mediate truth.

His points are fair, although in the "absurd" I would place Derrida's intentional distortion of language.

5. Equality: all treated equally. Equity: All have the same opportunity. Justice: Barriers to opportunity and outcome are eliminated.

Berg is to some extent spiritualizing the concept of Justice. Biblical justice exists in both the law and the gospel. "An eye for an eye" is biblical justice. Moabites and Ammonites couldn't enter the temple until the tenth generation of assimilation [8]. This, too, is biblical justice. Yes, the ultimate expression of God's justice takes place on the cross in the death of Christ justifying sinners. But the gospel does not negate the law - justice occurs in both.
"A lot of people who think that they didn't have any privilege and they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. No, you didn't"
I don't think this is a fair statement, but Berg doesn't provide enough context to make an argument. It is another jab that doesn't land. 

6. Only oppressed voices should be allowed to speak

Berg's comments are fair, in my opinion.

Concluding Remarks
"Hone the ability to see the 'difference between the political and the theological'." 
"Can you make the difference between 'I'm being annoyed that people are criticizing "my nation and my culture," and "over here is my theology?" 
This is another misappropriation of the two kingdoms theology. We don't divide the secular and the sacred into two separate buckets, we live in both worlds simultaneously and understand that the civil estate and the ecclesiastical estate have their own positions of authority and minister in their own unique ways, often at the same time in a particular situation. The problem is Berg puts critical theory in the wrong bucket - Critical Theory is a complete theological system. This is something that Rev. Andy Mueller addressed nicely throughout his presentation - critical theory is not a political theory, Critical Theory is a competing theology that has political ramifications. One way to recognize this is that it speaks in terms of aughts and not from a detached, scientific is. Critical Theory presents implied moral imperatives. Again, from James Lindsay:

"Those social sciences and humanities scholars who took Theoretical approaches began to form a left-wing moral community, rather than a purely academic one: a intellectual organ more interested in advocating a particular ought than attempting a detached assessment of is - an attitude we usually associate with churches, rather than universities." [9]

Several commentators (including Neil Shenvi and James Lindsay) have shown how well the Woke framework aligns with a Christian framework:

Original sin - Being white, cisgendered male
Baptized - Woke
Sanctification - Anti-Racism, Allyship
Redemption - Cannot be accomplished in the CT framework, you are always criticizing
Martin Luther - MLK
Canon of Scripture - Canon of the Woke
Inquisition - Thinkquisition [10]
"Eliminate sloppy words like 'cancel culture' 'wokeism'" 
When I (and many others) use 'woke' in its various instantiations it is typically shorthand for 'critical consciousness'. This definition does not come from the reaction to Critical Theory, but from theorists themselves. Andrew Doyle makes the argument that the shorthand is useful, and powerful to the point that its proponents are now attempting to delegitimize the term. In this sense Berg is advocating for the views of the theorists. Allow me an extended quote from Doyle:
"The religion of Critical Social Justice, in other words, is a hydra with many heads. When one encounters someone who speaks in the familiar slogans of intersectionality, one can almost always predict their opinions on a whole range of other subjects. This is why the shorthand of 'woke' has become so useful to encapsulate a range of interconnected identity-obsessed movements. It is also why, as we shall see, its proponents have expended so much energy into delegitimizing the term" - Andrew Doyle [11]
"notice by the way these words are religious. Everyone is a believer, even the atheist" 
Berg recognizes religious intonations but fails to see the entire thing as a comprehensive theology. He gives a throwaway "this is a religious movement, like all movements are religious" in character, but not in having distinct theological tenants. This is Berg's blind spot. Even the atheists see the theological framework of Critical Theory. John McWhorter: "An anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism" [12], James Lindsay [13], and Andrew Doyle [14] are all major personalities who are not Christian but see Critical Theory as a theology, and one that specifically attacks Christianity.
"Critical Theory is passe, kept alive by Fox News and MSNBC."  
In academia it may be passe (and on the Hillsdale podcast he clarifies the statement as being aimed at academia, and that the Church tends to be 30 years behind). The problem is most of us live in that world that is 30 years behind! I work for an employer that has embraced Critical Theory whole-hog: we have annual anti-bias and anti-racism training. We have 10 minute 'DEI Moments' at our weekly staff meetings, we have employment guidelines which favor women and minorities. My colleagues wear pronoun pins because (in Derridean fashion) appearances are unstable. Whether they can articulate Derrida (or as in the earlier example, articulate Marx) is irrelevant as the ideas have matriculated to the level of society we all live in.
"Thank God (we are post-shallow Christianity) because now it's an open marketplace of ideas and that's to our advantage because we have the Logos, we have the thing..." 
I understand that we don't want shallow Christians, we want authentic ones. But an 'open marketplace of ideas' which include rank heresy - why would we want that? It's only in a post-Enlightenment world we can even consider such things. Luther lived under the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio when he formulated his two kingdoms doctrine, and the principle in some form was normative until the Enlightenment. Most if not all empires have had a preferred (or mandated) religion until we hit the Enlightenment, with various levels of enforcement. The conversion of kings leads to the conversions of the masses. Berg, once again, is stretching two kingdoms theology onto the Procrustean bedframe of post-Enlightenment thinking. I, for one, would rather have shallow Christians who have a common ground we could build from than rank heretics, idolaters and such.

Concluding Thoughts
I believe Berg's presentation has flaws specifically when it comes to Rules of Engagement 4 and 5 (forget the -ism and -ology, study our superior theology) and 6 (no, our narthex discussions do not interfere with election, and knowledge is not privileged to those who have studied 'sufficiently').  His biggest mistake, however, is a failure to recognize Critical Theory as a complete theological framework attacking Christ and His Church. Berg's presentation speaks from the viewpoint of an academic, by his own admission. The target audience is overwhelmingly pastors and teachers who need practical advice. And as it turns out, the laity - I'm aware of churches that have turned Berg's presentation into Bible studies. Meanwhile, I've heard from several readers that other voices within the Synod (like Pastor Michael Zarling and his book Resisting the Dragon's Beast, Rev. Andy Mueller's presentation on Critical Theories in the Light of Scripture and WLHS teacher Joshua Nelson's various presentations on critical theory and social justice) are being dismissed from consideration. This is concerning: we have solid, confessional voices that are able to discern the sign of the times, recognize Critical Theory as a theology that is directly opposed to Christ and His Church, and provide their perspective as 'boots on the ground' with practical admonition and experience.

Finally, the WELS Conference of Presidents is working on a pastoral brief on the topic of Critical Theory. The utility of that pastoral brief will depend on who the CoP leans on for counsel. I am concerned that, if this kind of presentation is representative of what the CoP is considering, we will wind up with a winsome statement of little utility for addressing Critical Theory as it already exists in the synod

[1] John Caputo, editor, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jaques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), pg. 21.
[2] The Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article IV, para. 67.
[3] James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, Cynical Theories, pg. 13
[4] Ecclesiastes 3:11
[5] Psalm 62:5
[6] Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article IV
[7] 1 Corinthians 10:20
[8] Deuteronomy 23:3
[9] Cynical Theories, pg. 48
[10] James Lindsay, The Theology of Marxism (conference) Link (
[11] James McWhorter, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (New York: Penguin, 2021) pg. 45
[12] Woke Racism: pg. 23
[13] James Lindsay, et. al. The Theology of Marxism (conference)
[14] Andrew Doyle, The New Puritans (London: Constable, 2022)