A Power Unto Salvation: Part IV – Can The Supernatural Save?

In this series on the human condition I have surveyed two approaches to that condition: Scientism and Semanticism. I argued that science fails to address the human condition at all, while Semanticism addresses it but cannot address it sufficiently. Semanticism cannot really save us from our deepest fears nor fulfill our deepest longings, just as the natural sciences can provide no answers to the “Why” questions of life. In this post I will look at one final approach, Supernaturalism.

Supernaturalism is decisively distinct from Scientism and Semanticism in one fundamental way: metaphysics. Unlike its materialistic antitheses, Supernaturalism assumes or even argues for the actual existence of non-physical beings, especially non-physical agentive beings like God, gods, angels, demons and human souls. There may be other kinds of non-physical beings, perhaps abstract objects like numbers or sets, but leaving those aside it is the supernaturalist who posits the existence of immaterial agents that have causal powers and even moral natures. Moreover, it is through these agencies that human beings can be saved from their finite and otherwise apparently purposeless existence, because these agencies really do interact with the physical and temporal, altering and shaping the course of human history and the lives of people– people who themselves are more than just their bodies. In other words, these agents, or God as the ultimate Agent, are in contact with the spacetime reality which most of us believe we inhabit.1 Philosophers since Descartes have posited thought experiments like the “evil demon” or the “brain in a vat” which although sounding absurd are nevertheless logically possible.

Supernaturalism and the Human Condition

In the previous post I outlined Heidegger’s way of looking at the human condition, which focused on the phenomena of existence. Existence as being “thrown into” the world– not knowing why we are here, not knowing from where we have come or where we are headed. This being in the world, Dasein, unfolds in time, Zeit, and we are left to struggle between the way we feel about the world and what science seems to tell us is true. For the semanticist, philosophy becomes the new apparatus through which we try to communicate our religious and theological impulses, and it is through such communicative acts, preferably in pluralistic societal contexts that we hope to attain some modicum of meaning and peace about our otherwise hopeless state. The usual end result of the semantic approach is a kind of therapeutic culture, where religious language acts as a sort of psychological safety net that can help us to manage through life until we die. In the words of one Christian scholar, it is a world where religion is reduced to “moral therapeutic deism.”2 This now very popular, and very useful term was coined by the Notre Dame philosopher Christian Smith. I would suggest that this is the dominant view today, at least in western and in particular English-speaking cultures.

Another way of looking at the existential crisis of the human condition was Bertrand Russell’s “firm foundation of unyielding despair” which he thought emerged inevitably from a thorough, scientific analysis of the natural world. All stories, according to the adherent of the Russellian worldview, are naturalistic ones and anything that cannot be reduced down to natural entities, e.g. subatomic particles, and natural causes, e.g. the law of gravity, are at bottom fictions. They are projections of a physical brain onto a physical world. In the end we must fess up to this stark reality and learn to be the captains of our own “souls.” The genuine adherent of Scientism, unlike the semanticist, also sees any kind of religious language or practice as not only meaningless, but potentially harmful to society. The supernatural approach to religion as well as the semantic approach should both be excised from modern society since they muddy the waters of objective truth.

Both of these approaches seem to leave us wanting when it comes to answering the significant questions of life, however. For when it comes to questions of ultimate origins, meaning and purpose, morality and eschatology both Semanticism and Scienticism seem to say the same thing: we are left to ourselves to develop our own answers. There is no outside help, no aid from above. 3Of course, there may be an intermediary for both types of naturalists, one often portrayed in our films, namely the existence of highly evolved and supra-intelligent extra-terrestrials. Some, although a dwindling number, still hold out hope for a “close encounter” of this kind. On both views we must conjure our inner Sinatra and “do it our way.”

Alternatively, the supernaturalist approach presupposes a very different solution: there is outside help and we can know that that help is there based on revelation knowledge. And, in knowing there is a supernatural realm, we might actually attain real answers and real peace about our situation.

Supernaturalism and Traditional Religion

Supernaturalism then is the prerequisite for any traditional religious belief system: Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Mormonism on the one hand or Hinduism, Janism, and classical Buddhism on the other. While each of these systems will cash out the nature of that which is beyond the physically differently, especially between the two sets listed here, all will hold to some kind of non-physical reality. In doing so each system will have something on offer to answer the human existential condition that the other, non-supernaturalistic approaches will not have.

First, each of these traditional religions will have metaphysical commitments. Most of Christianity’s foundational metaphysical commitments, for example, are contained in its early creeds. Second, because of these commitments traditional religions will ground its answers to fundamental questions in the metaphysical realities that underlie their theological statements. For example, morality is grounded not in social conventions but both in the nature of the God who designed the universe and objectively in the design itself. Thus, moral truths can be discerned both by a careful examination of God’s creation and by a direct revelation of His will. To know the latter, however, requires some kind of communication between the supernatural agent and the human creature. Thus, third, each traditional religious system that holds to metaphysical commitments of a supernatural kind will also have a set of oracles, writings and traditions that are considered revelatory or inspired in some special way.

For the Christian worldview, both Protestant and Roman Catholic versions, the only domain of special revelation knowledge4 Meaning that which can be known about the supernatural realm apart from just our experiences of the world around us. is that of the words of the Bible, or Sacred Scripture.5 Some Roman Catholics hold that there are sacred traditions that are equally revelatory to the words of Scripture, but this is a minority view and one dismissed by the Church at Vatican II. The Bible is a special kind of propositional knowledge, a unique communique between God and man that must be evaluated at a higher level than any other communications about reality, even other communications between God and man, e.g. like personal revelations or rational reflection about nature. However, while the existence of a sacred text or set of inspired oral traditions may count as the standard by which other inferences about reality are to be gauged, this does not mean that sacred texts or traditions must be utilized in every instance of human evaluation about reality. One need not go to the book of Leviticus or to Judges to assess the merits of differential calculus or the taxonomies of marine biology.

Nevertheless, on the broad existential questions traditional religions, their sacred texts, creeds and practices will inevitably give answers that presume the reality of some supernatural agent that can break in, or already has broken into the physical world; and, in doing so, has initiated some process that will ultimately save us from having to construct our own “ultimate” meaning and purpose for life, that provides for us a human-independent standard of moral behavior, and that will actually rescue us from the finitude of bodily existence and likely bring us into some new kind of existence. If there are such supernatural Beings with such plans and purposes, then it would seem Supernaturalism has quite a leg up on Scientism and Semanticism. However, Supernaturalism has one central weakness, a weakness that has been continually exposed and argued about since at least Descartes. That weakness is this: how do we know that there is such a thing as the supernatural?

Supernaturalism and Religious Epistemology

The apparent death-knell to a supernatural approach to the human condition did not come all at once, rather there was a long, slow atrophying of looking at the world through supernatural lenses. However, in the West many philosophers will trace the history of the rejection of metaphysical knowledge through at least three main figures: Descarte, Hume, and ultimately Kant. After Kant (1724-1804) the notion that we can know anything about the non-physical world becomes an increasingly minority view among the intellectual elite, a view that ultimately trickles down into popular culture, ending in what we label today as our secular society.6This is a very simplistic description of how we have come to be “a secular age.” For a robust treatment of the history of Western culture’s slide from supernaturalism into secularism, see Charles Taylor’s magisterial tome, A Secular Age.

Nevertheless, in spite of that long slide into a strongly secular cultural milieu, the way the culture operates currently is not conclusive evidence against the possibility of metaphysical or even religiously relevant metaphysical knowledge. The question of how we can know that the supernatural realm of the religious exists has been taken up anew since the mid-1960’s by both analytic philosophers of religion in Protestant circles and by Roman Catholic neo-Thomist scholars. Even non-theists have come to admit that serious metaphysics is back on the table in contemporary philosophy.

In the strain of Evangelical philosophy of religion there are at least two viable models to justifying religious, i.e. supernatural, beliefs: the more science-friendly model grounded in forensic evidence and probabilistic inferences to the best explanation and the Reformed epistemological model, which argues religious beliefs as properly basic and thereby warranted unless otherwise defeated. Representatives of each would be philosophers like Richard Swinburne on the one hand, and, of course, Alvin Plantinga on the other. Both have spawned schools of thought on religious epistemology.

Conclusion: Supernaturalism, If True, Is The Only Approach That Can Save Us

Since the supernaturalist approach to the human condition allows for not only individual and immanent purposes but also ultimate purposes, and since it also allows for not just subjective moral values and socially constructed moral obligations, but objectively grounded obligations and values, and because it provides a real solution to the finitude of physical existence, that is to death itself, Supernaturalism is in the end the only approach to the human condition that really could solve our existential crisis. Only Supernaturalism could literally save us from a world where our deepest longings go unfulfilled, our deepest pains go unredeemed, and all our human efforts, projects, and endeavors ultimately go into oblivion. Unlike Heidegger’s failed attempt to solve the crisis of existence by positing some sacralization of the immanent, Supernaturaism has the resources to actually do so because it maintains there is a God who actually can perfect the immanent through His very real power (and gracious willingness).

If Supernaturalism then has any epistemic justification,7 For a concise yet powerful argument that Christian epistemic practices have the same epistemic justification as our sensory perceptions, see William Alston “Religious Experience and Religious Belief” in Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, edited by Geivett and Sweetman (New York: Oxford Press, 1992) 295-303. it should be clear that it is the best, existential option for anyone who has thought a minute about the human situation. That Supernaturalism has at least some warrant in virtue of both rational argumentation, e.g. theistic arguments from cosmology, design arguments, or arguments from morality or beauty, and personal experiences, e.g. encounters with the divine, the demonic, etc., should further provide a starting point for those skeptical of this traditional religious approach to the human dilemma.

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

Romans 1:19-20

A Power Unto Salvation?: Part II – Can Science Save?

In this series I am analyzing three broad approaches to understanding and responding to the human condition: Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturalism. In the previous post I defined what I mean by each. In this post I will take a closer look at Scientism, and see how it tries to answer the fundamental questions of human morality, meaning and purpose, i.e. the human condition.

First, What is The Human Condition?

While this foundational question could be addressed several ways, for my purposes here I will draw from perhaps the greatest existentialist philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, who framed the problem of human existence in a profound way. The human condition is for Heidegger, at rock bottom, related to the simple fact that when we think about any kind of beings that exist in the world, one thing we recognize is that only human beings, out of all other beings (e.g. apples, aardvarks, atoms), are capable of asking the question itself, “what is Being?”. Human beings, whatever they may be, and only those beings that are human grapple with the meaning of Being itself (in German Sein), as well as the experience of “Being-there” (Dasein) among other beings. For whatever “Being” is we are at least concretely participatory in it in virtue of our being alive and being conscious. As such we find ourselves like helpless creatures, creatures thrown into the world (Geworfenheit), disposed to it (Befindlichkeit), having various moods (Stimmungen) about it, and, in some very real way, fallen away from it and from our own selves, for we do not properly know what it means to be to begin with.1 One artistic attempt to portray this kind of existentialism is the movie, Being There with the late British actor Peter Sellars. In the film, the gardener, Chance, is thrown out of his simple, edenic circumstances into a modern world that he has no way of understanding or really relating to. He is a mere observer of the variety of beings presented to him. This just is our experience of things, or at least it is in this period of late modernity in which we now reside.

Hence, we find ourselves in the world, having experiences of it, but with this (horrible?) capacity to “step back” and think about our own being in the world, to include the tremendous freedom we possess to interact with the world, i.e. with other beings, and with our own selves (called Projection).2 For more on Heidegger, see Michael Wheeler’s article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/#Que We are therefore both determined, in virtue of our not having chosen to exist, yet we are also existentially free in that we can make choices to act, and in acting become something other than what we are right now. This is both a wondrous, and terrifying, reality. It is wondrous because the fact of it is innately mysterious. It is terrifying, because having abandoned the previous universal hermeneutic of religious belief that explained our existence to us, we now feel incapable of offering any sufficient answer to the emotional and intellectual anxiety existence causes.

The other fundamental aspect of this anxious act of existing, of “being there” in the world, is our experience of it as unfolding. In other words, this existence happens in time.3 Heidegger’s magnum opus was entitled Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). It begins and will, with our own death, ultimately end. Our own death, it is worth noting, is not however part of Dasein itself, since it will not actually be something we experience. We only experience the death of others, those deaths are part of our experience and therefore part of Dasein, our own deaths are not.

Beyond this brief, and profoundly deficient, summary of a Heideggerean view of the human condition, I cannot venture. It is well known that Heidegger is both one of the most obscure philosophers of the 20th century, as well as one of the most difficult to read, even in his native German. In a later post we will look briefly at what Heidegger thought could potentially save man from such a conflicted condition, a potential solution that was, tragically, aligned with the National Socialism of his day. For now, however, this descriptive, albeit vague, presentation of the human condition will serve the main purpose of this post: how do these three approaches to the human condition try to explain or answer both the terrible anxiety, and the mysterious wonder that conscious, self-reflective life presents to our experience? Which approach, in other words, answers the questions of morality, meaning, and purpose that emerge from such experiences and such reflection?4 There are other foundational questions of human existence than these, like identity, authority, and, of course, origins. But, this phrase serves as a metonym of sorts for the questions associated with the human condition.

Heidegger’s description of the human condition in the life of modern man also seems to sync well with the view of a very different kind of philosopher, his contemporary in England, Bertrand Russell, who might have called modern philosophy a philosophy of despair. In a personal letter, Russell once wrote:

What else is there to make life tolerable? We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night and the emptiness; sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness. But it is the voice of one drowning; and in a moment the silence returns. The world seems to me quite dreadful; the unhappiness of many people is very great, and I often wonder how they all endure it. To know people well is to know their tragedy: it is usually the central thing about which their lives are built. And I suppose if they did not live most of the time in the things of the moment, they would not be able to go on.

Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Betrand Russell, 194.

The human condition, or so it seems, is for both the British logician Russell and the German existentialist Heidegger a rather unpleasant, if not outright cruel affair. For modern man, in the wake of the Enlightenment critique of traditional religious modes of existence and explanation, the obvious question emerges: is there something, some idea or practice or perhaps story, outside of the biblical account of salvation and eternal life, that can save man from such a cruel set of circumstances?

Can Science Save Us?

Leaving behind the ruminations of the German existentialist, and following along with the thought of the British logician, Russell himself speaks to the human condition we are forced to confront, if, as his philosophical atheism suggests, the scientific picture of the world is in fact the true picture of reality:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”

But, was Russell being too negative about what a scientific view of the world could do relative to man’s existential condition, relative to his struggle with his own existence, identity, and purpose? Perhaps, there has been progress in science since Russell’s day (d. 1970) that makes a scientific worldview capable of rescuing us from the foundation of “unyielding despair” Russell thought we must construct our lives upon. Is there a firmer foundation upon which science can construct a universal sense of meaning, morality and purpose for all of (metaphorically speaking) “God’s creatures, great and small?”

Having defined “scientism” in the previous post, there is no need to review in detail what its claims are. The basic idea is that the scientific method alone holds the key to truth, and all other claims that cannot be verified through the scientific process, or in the domain of the natural sciences especially, must be considered dubious, if not just false. Since Scientism “puts Christian claims outside of the ‘plausibility structure’ (what people generally consider reasonable and rational)”5J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, 31. of belief, it reduces any claims to meaning, morality or purpose from a Christian worldview (and any religious worldview) down to purely private expressions about one’s subjective mental states and emotional preferences. Religious claims are spurious at best, if not wicked or delusional.6 Hence Dawkins most rhetorical book is entitled very simply The God Delusion.Thus, according to perhaps the leading advocate of Scientism of our times, Richard Dawkins, the so-called “why” questions7 “Why” questions are another metonym for existential questions, questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “Why do human beings have consciousness?” that cannot be answered by the natural sciences are probably not questions worth answering at all, “The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn’t make it meaningful, or entitle it to our serious attention. Nor, even if the question is a real one, does the fact that science cannot answer it imply that religion can.”8Excerpt From: Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-god-delusion/id427263983

Dawkins goes on:

“Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science. Maybe quantum theory is already knocking on the door of the unfathomable. But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?”

Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion”

While other renowned scientists like the late Stephen J. Gould or the cosmologist Paul Davies or the astronomer Sir Martin Reese may make more room for the sociological usefulness of religion than Dawkins, it is safe to say that they are all beholden to some degree to this scientistic approach to reality.9 My point here is to not lump all scientific materialists into the same category as a Dawkins, whose particularly anti-religious views are well known. Others who hold to scientism, may still appreciate the cultural benefits of religious institutions and practices, even if they disbelieve in Christianity’s claims about reality. In short then, for the average advocate of Scientism, those genuine and profound questions of human existence are likely beyond the reach of science and hence without meaning.

However, even if Dawkins ascribes meaninglessness to the “why” questions of human existence, that ascription clearly has not translated into an actual end of “why” questions being asked. Even in the most secular countries today like the United States, Britain, Canada, and Germany, countries where we might expect to see the biggest influence of the natural sciences on culture, it is not as if the quest for morality, meaning, and purpose has been abandoned. From the sexual revolution, drug culture, and civil rights movements of the 1960’s, to the rise of the New Age in the 1980’s and 1990’s, to the cry for Social Justice and racial equality today, the empirical and sociological evidence overwhelmingly suggest that the search for answers to morality, meaning, and purpose has not ceased, and that the desire for the transcendent cannot be satisfactorily answered by putting modern man in the MRI chamber and presenting him with the scan results. This tells him nothing substantive about himself.

But, if science doesn’t try to answer, or if scientists willfully reject even asking, the “why” questions, then it is already de facto the case among those who ascribe to Scientism that the natural sciences cannot speak to our existential condition. Any scientist speaking qua scientist to the existential condition of man would be speaking out of turn. And if Scientism cannot really address the human condition, then it certainly cannot exert any real power over that condition, nor relieve us from it in any real way.10 I suppose there could be some scientistic answers to the human condition. Someone might suggest, as Huxley did in his dystopian novel Brave New World, simply anesthetizing people with regular doses of pleasure-inducing drugs. That would be at least a possible answer to the existential question, one that stops short of simple mass extermination. At most it can help us to extend our knowledge of the condition itself by analyzing the nature of the physical components around us and how they interact. Or perhaps it helps in virtue of leading to medical technologies that extend the existential time we have to reflect on the very same condition. Beyond this, as Dawkins admits, that the Scientistic approach to the human condition remains powerless to save us from it appears certain. We should conclude, as Russell did, that, at bottom, all the Scientistic approach to the world can tell us is that there is nothing much positive to say about existing. Being (Sein) and our experience of our own being (Dasein)11 Or, perhaps more accurately, our realization that we are the only kind of entity, the only existing kind of thing, that allows us to even raise the questions of what Being is or that gives us a concept of Being in general. Again, it’s confusing, but not absurd. are beyond the ken of science.

While it could be the case that the world really is the way the adherent of Scientism says it is, it could also be the case that some other approach is more likely true than the scientistic one. Scientism could simply be false12 In his book Scientism and Secularism, J.P. Moreland demonstrates the self-refuting nature of “strong scientism” starting with the strong scientistic claim “Only what is testable by science can be true.”(51), which is itself a fundamentally unscientific, and therefore untestable, truth claim. Moreland goes on to show how both strong and weak scientism are themselves “enemies” of the entire scientific project, since when properly understood they are both deficient philosophical views., and some other approach could approximate better to the way things really are. An approach that would seem to better address the existential condition, might prima facie be seen as having at least more explanatory power than its scientistic alternative, which itself could be counted as evidence for that approaches truthfulness.

Finally, it could also be the case that some alternative approach contains within it some innate property, some content, which allows it to address the existential “why” questions of human experience, and not only address them, but maybe even sufficiently so by providing actual answers to them. One approach that may provide such an answer is what I am calling “Semanticism,” a view which will see the power to save neither in an exhaustive analysis of the natural world, nor in the causal powers of supermundane agencies, but in the nature and power of language itself.

A Power Unto Salvation?: Science, Semantics, and the Supernatural (Part I: Defining The Views)

“In all religion there is a recollection of the Divine Truth which has been lost; in all religion, there is a longing after the divine light and the divine love; but in all religion also there yawns an abyss of demonic distortion of the Truth, and of man’s effort to escape from God.”

Emil Brunner

In this series I examine three broad approaches to engaging the question of the human condition. Those approaches are Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturlism. After defining each, the question will be asked: “Which of these, if any, has the power to save people from their existential condition?” Each view offers some answer to the problem of human existence, but I will argue only one is sufficient to truly liberate us from our present condition of alienation and oppression.

Introduction: Two Kinds of Naturalism

Since the Enlightenment and the breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis1 The Medieval Synthesis is best represented in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who synthesized the inspired Special Revelation of the Bible and the authoritative teachings of the Church with the best philosophical reflections on general revelation, namely, Aristotle. there have been, at least in the European and especially in the Anglo-Germanic speaking cultures, essentially two posited views on the nature of the human condition: the scientistic materialist view and the semantic existentialist view. The former of these places authority and power in the domain of the natural sciences and the scientific method, the other in the domain of language and human culture.

For most Christians living in English-speaking contexts today, the major battle of ideologies has played out between a very logic-centered, scientistic empiricism and a reason-oriented, metaphysical, and historical Christianity. In the 19th and 20th century this battle was waged between rationalists on both sides: metaphysical naturalists and metaphysical supernaturalists, who used arguments and evidence to both justify and compel belief– either toward atheism or in Christian theism. These engagements developed into robust philosophical debates between the great minds of the previous generation, e.g. Copleston and Russell, and those of today, e.g. William Lane Craig and Graham Oppy. Since the emergence of Christian analytic philosophy in the 1960s with the likes of men like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, this domain of intellectual dispute has informed much of our theological dialogue in the United States, especially in Evangelical Christianity.

Less familiar perhaps to many Evangelical Christians in the United States, however, were the contemporaneous developments occurring in the German and French speaking worlds of existential philosophy. As such, for many Evangelical apologists, the works of men like Sartre and Camus (on the French side), or Heidegger and Jaspers (on the German side) went unnoticed for quite some time. In addition, the Christian, or theistic, interlocutors to these existentialist philosophers have also gone under the radar, or perhaps remain entirely undiscovered, with the exception perhaps of particularly giant names like Karl Barth, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedikt XVI), or the much beloved Francis A. Schaeffer.

In particular, the most impactful group of German existentialists were the founders of Critical Theory, the philosophical grandfather of today’s multitudinous critical theories. This group attempted to develop a third way of looking at the world, one that neither denied the metaphysical naturalism of the scientistic worldview, nor that rejected the symbolic value and meaning of the religious worldview. The main figures in this very German-Jewish secular movement of philosophy were Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Weber.

For critical theorists, the result of accepting metaphysical naturalism (i.e. rejecting philosophical metaphysics), while not rejecting the existential aid of Christian theology, invested this innately Marxist philosophy with a quasi-religious flavor or tone. A flavor or tone that makes it very difficult to discern for many Christians today whether or not its tenets, or the tenets associated with any of its successor theories, are compatible with an actual biblical worldview, a worldview replete with God, gods, angels and demons, and human souls that have actual causal powers, moral natures, and that endure after physical death. This is a quite different kind of naturalism in this sense, and one harder to identify than its overtly anti-religious counterpart.2 For a prime example of scientistic critiques of religion, see almost anything by Richard Dawkins, most especially, The God Delusion.

Before we look at each of these naturalisms individually, and how they attempt to address the human condition, let’s define them a bit more narrowly, and also introduce their metaphysical opponent, Supernaturalism.

The Three Views: Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturalism

Scienticism is best embodied by philosophers like A.J. Ayers who avowed logical positivism (at least early on),3 Ayer went on to say this of his former views “I suppose that most of the defects of it were that nearly all of it was false.” or W.V.O. Quine, who tried to naturalize the philosophical domain of epistemology,4 see Stanford entry on “Naturalism in Epistemology” especially Chapter 2, “Epistemology Naturlized” or scientists like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss today. Since the days of Ayer’s positivists, who considered any claims that could not be verified through scientific means to be meaningless, modified versions of Scientism have been fairly robust and well-defended in the English speaking world. Scientism, in brief, holds that while there are true statements about the world (i.e. the way things really are), the only statements that we can know to be true are ones that can be known via the natural sciences. According to the eminent philosopher of Metaphysics, J.P. Moreland, “In scientism, therefore, science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality….There are no truths that can be known apart from the appropriately certified scientific claims, especially those in the hard or natural sciences [e.g. physics, chemistry, biology].”5 J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, 29.

Thus, when it comes to metaphysical statements about non-physical entities or agents, Scientism says these are at best speculative (weak Scientism), or, more likely than not, they are just false or meaningless (strong Scientism)6 Moreland, 29-30.. When it comes to moral issues, those who hold to Scientism may try to ground moral values or obligations in scientific facts about material reality, even though this has been traditionally seen as an inherently quixotic task, as it is almost universally agreed upon that the fact-value distinction cannot be bridged apart from something other than, or outside of, the scientific statements. In short, you cannot get “an ought from an is.”7 This idea goes back to the Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). As we will see in a later post on the question of meaning and purpose, those who avow Scientism cannot help but be noticeably quiet.

Semanticism, or what I am calling “Semanticism,” might be described as an ideology that rejects the hegemony of science to fully explain the world, but also the hegemony of any religion, most specifically of the Judeo-Christian religion, to do the same, yet that retains core components of both. On the one hand Semanticism holds on to the empirical analysis of the scientific method, while affirming the symbolic and “semantic” world of theology and religion on the other. Semanticism sees power primarily in how language is used and how concepts are employed in human societies. As such the main theories that assume Semanticism are social theories, most predominantly Critical Theory, and its successor theories (e.g. Critical Race Theory, Feminist Studies, Queer Theory, etc.) that try to rationally analyze not the composition of physical objects, natural processes, or the nature of causal relations, as in chemistry or physics, but rather analyze the meaning and value of human artifacts, i.e. of human culture itself. In empirically analyzing forms of culture, Semanticism tries to understand how individuals interact in their own socially constructed environments of communication and meaning. As such, Semanticism puts far more emphasis on human experience and the subjective life of the human person than does Scientism, which tends to reduce the human subject and her experiences down to mere natural, and impersonal, facts (i.e. facts about particles, gravity, and neuro-biological functions).

This semantic approach to the human condition can be summed up in Jürgen Habermas’ comments on Karl Jasper’s theory of the role of modern philosophy:

Jaspers regards the transition to modernity and to postmetaphysical thinking as a profoundly ambivalent process. On the one hand, the Enlightenment frees us from the dogmatism of a faith based on inherited authority [i.e. the Bible and the Church’s teachings]….On the other hand, this philosophical translation of symbolic [religious] meanings courts the danger that the enciphered truth-contents of the great traditions [i.e. Judeo-Christianity] will be entirely forfeited, while the modern sciences reduce the lifeworld to the domain of the objectively knowable and technically controllable.

Jürgen Habermas, “The Conflicts in Belief” in The Liberating Power of Symbols, 37.

What Scientism and Semanticism have in common is that they both share a common view of metaphysics, namely, that beyond the physical world nothing exists. Jaspers and other critical theorists can confidently claim along with Dawkins and Dennett that we all now live in a “postmetaphysical” world. However, as Habermas explains, the costs of accepting a full-blown Scientism is too great for the human creature, and, consequently, the existential content of religion must be salvaged to protect us from science reducing “the lifeworld” down to the merely objective and impersonal, even if we can be happy about being relieved from religious “dogmatism” at the same time.8 And here I think we could say that certain moral dogmas of traditional Christian churches, especially in the area of sexual morality and ethics, are in view for the critical theorists. For more on the deconstruction of religious sexual ethics see Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, where he argues for sexual “free play” and a “libidinal rationality.”

When it comes to morality, therefore, these two kinds of naturalism begin to differ in that those who invest their hope in the semantic power of language and symbols try to ground morality in some universally shared aspects of human culture, as opposed to merely natural facts about the human organism. As we will see, however, this is no less a quixotic, or herculean, task than that of its materialistic cousin.

Regardless, both Scientism and Semanticism are on one side of a philosophical line, while a third view, Supernaturalism, is clearly on the other side of that line.

Supernaturalism is the view that there is a real world of immaterial Being (either God or something like Abstract Objects or both), and real cause-and-effect agency beyond the mere physical world of natural processes or human biological machines. As such Supernaturalism is usually the overarching view of the traditional theist, the view of someone who really believes that the semantic content of their sacred texts actually refers to mind-independent entities: to a God or gods, angels or demons, etc. For the supernaturalist, these are real substances (albeit immaterial ones) that have causal powers, a moral dimension, and some kind or degree of free will. Those who hold to the existence of minds may also be rightly called super-naturalists, or at least metaphysical dualists of some sort.

For Christians of a classical persuasion, Supernaturalism is the correct understanding of and approach to reality. Although it may sound unfashionable or shocking to modern and post-modern ears, the true Christian really does believe that the cosmos is a lot “spookier” than the scientist or semanticist may be willing to grant. Christians who accept the full inspiration of Scripture, for example, really believe that the scriptures contain a special kind of knowledge, a revelation knowledge, part of which confirms our common sense notion of a realm that goes unseen in the normal day to day. As such, the beings the scriptures speak of, this “unseen realm”9 For more on the unseen realm of the Bible, see Michael S. Heiser’s book of the same name, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. referred to in its pages, are to be taken quite seriously, since they themselves are in some sense more real than the physical world itself (or, at least, equally as real).

When it comes to morality, the supernaturalist will have a far wider range of explanatory options than the adherent of scientism or semanticism, and that in virtue of their being an actual Divine Person, and various principles that issue forth from that Person, either directly in the form of commands, e.g. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, or wife, or ox, etc…” or indirectly through natural laws embedded in the creation itself. The same goes for meaning and purpose, as the supernaturalist, whether Christian or Jew or Muslim, will also claim some kind of true story, some universal hermeneutic that explains our position in reality, and that comes replete with an origins story and an eschatological future.

In the next post I will look at Scientism, and ask the question of whether or not it can offer us any sense of hope in light of our existential circumstances.

Critical Race Theory & The Bible: Reversing the Hermeneutical Lens

Imagine for a moment you are a scholar with a deep interest in the early Church Fathers and the Scholastic theologians. More specifically you are deeply engaged with the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the two most influential thinkers in the Church’s history (with Martin Luther a close third), and perhaps the two most influential, non-Greek philosophers in history period (with Hume, Kant and Marx a close third, fourth, and fifth). Miraculously you receive the opportunity to travel back in time, or perhaps to meet in some timeless dimension, and speak to both Augustine and Thomas personally. Obviously, you have one burning question on your mind for both men: “what is it like to wear robes your whole life?”

You flub that first question, obviously due to the anxiety of being in the midst of such giants, or maybe because you are still freaked out about being in a timeless dimension, but your follow-up question is one that has troubled scholars and laymen, pastors and their congregations for centuries: how should we interpret the Bible? Or, perhaps you ask it this way: how do we know that the Bible is divinely inspired and the infallible Word of God? What answer do you think these two geniuses might give?

I am no scholar of the early Church Fathers, nor expert in the medieval theologians, however, I think I can assert with some confidence what both Auggie and Tom would not say. They would not say this: [for Augustine] “Well, first I have to know everything that Plato said, and really understand Plato and his disciples, and then I can go read the sacred Scriptures and figure out what they mean.” Or, for Aquinas, this: “You know, first I have to read everything Aristotle ever wrote; and understand everything that great man said; and agonize over his theories; and then, and only then, can I go read the Bible and decide what is true and what is not, or what is inspired and what is merely the product of human hands.”

Not for a moment would either have said such a thing. Of course, I also do not believe either would have answered in English, but whatever the Latin equivalent of each statement is, the propositional content would still be roughly the same: “we do not study Plato or Aristotle to know that the Bible is true.” Rather, “We know the Bible is true, and then we see what Plato or Aristotle have to say about the world that might also be true, and how it might comport with the Bible.”

In other words, neither Augustine or Aquinas, these “Doctors” as the Catholic church would call them (and Calvin too!), would have ever suggested that in order to properly understand the Special Revelation that is the divinely inspired canon of scripture, one had to first understand the best reflections of a pagan philosopher from general revelation. And most certainly one does not need Plato or Aristotle to know what in the Bible is true, or to know whether the Bible in its entirety is inspired and infallible. Such nonsense and outright blasphemy would never have entered the mind of these great saints. What was clear and indubitable to both was that the Bible was the very content of divine Truth, the Word of God to man, and that the pagan philosopher was but a medium through which that Truth might be expressed in a somewhat more relevant way to a particular culture, in a particular place, in a particular time. Plato and Aristotle were servants to Solomon and Paul, not masters.

However, as depressing as it might be to actual experts in the Church Fathers or the Medieval Scholastics, we no longer live in the culture or time of Augustine or Aquinas. Unlike them, we are all children of Modernity, and Modernity has drastically changed the way we look not only at the Bible, but at philosophy, and human culture itself. Modernity, and its prolonged extension, Post-Modernity, have rearranged our approach not just to the Bible, but to the interpretation of any book or text (even scientific ones).

Philosophical Shifts and Their Hermeneutical Effects

Since the 18th century, and especially due to those three other aforementioned thinkers: Hume, Kant and Marx, ideas about Special Revelation among many in the Church, and in many churches, has been exactly the opposite from those of the Church Fathers or the Scholastics. Instead of supposing biblical Truth as prior to purely rational reflection on man and God, modern theologians have chosen to take the best (or perhaps in Marx’s case just the most influential) philosophical thinking of the day and use it as the interpretive tool by which to gauge the true or false, the inspired or merely human, parts of the Bible. Unlike Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum, this is instead intelligence seeking faith, a methodological approach that does a great bit of picking and choosing along the way.

The prodigious Roman Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, explains this modern approach in light of the modern, or empirical view, of culture:

“The classicist notion of culture was normative: at least de jure there was but one culture that was both universal and permanent; to its norms and ideals might aspire the uncultured, whether they were the young or the people or the natives or the barbarians. Besides the classicist, there also is the empirical notion of culture. It is the set of meanings and values that informs a way of life. It may remain unchanged for ages. It may be in process of slow development or rapid dissolution.”

Bernard Lonergan. “Method in Theology.”

According to Lonergan, then, since the birth of the Modern, culture has been viewed in the empiricist mode, which means, even if a given culture might sustain its values and meanings over extended time, it is nevertheless devoid of anything universal or enduring. Moreover, there is no Culture, there are only cultures. As such, on this view of culture, methodology itself becomes primary for the theologian, “When culture is conceived empirically, theology is known to be an ongoing process, and then one writes on its method.”1Lonergan, Method in Theology. He further explains what this modern method might look like, “A contemporary method would conceive those tasks in the context of modern science, modern scholarship, modern philosophy, of historicity, collective practicality and coresponsibility.” However, this is very different from how theology is done on the classicist view of culture, “When the classicist notion of culture prevails, theology is conceived as a permanent achievement, and then one discourses on its nature.”

Augustine and Aquinas, unlike theologians today, were working under the classicist understanding of culture. Thus, while Augustine clearly used Platonic and neo-Platonic modes of thought and metaphysical categories to better articulate the truths already found in the inspired Scriptures, and where Aquinas, after the rediscovery of the Philosopher in the 12th century, appropriated Aristotle in order to expound Gospel truths in a more robust and synthetic manner, the trend in the last two hundred years of the Church’s history2 actually one can find this trend much earlier in the sense of intellectual history, perhaps as far back as Spinoza in the mid 17th century. However, it was in the 19th century that Enlightenment critiques really began to sink into the life of the Church, especially in the German and English speaking worlds, has been to turn this methodology on its head— to reverse the heremeneutical lens. On the empiricist view of culture, the one ushered in by the ruminations of thinkers like Hume, Kant3 This is not to say that Kant was an empiricist, but that his views served to facilitate this empiricist understanding of culture, and Marx, it is now the engagement with “modern science, modern scholarship, modern philosophy…” that sets the stage for biblical interpretation.

For several generations now this reversal of the hermeneutical lens has deeply impacted the Protestant churches especially, although Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have not been left unscathed. The practice of taking some current and influential, yet purely immanent theory, about the world as the paradigm through which we understand the Bible, as opposed to taking the Bible and seeing how we might press into service the philosophical theory, has been vogue for quite some time. In fact, so vogue that it is, as Lonergan hints, the default methodology for knowing what is true or false, what is right or wrong within the Christian tradition. We might call this en vogue approach something like “General Revelation Prioritism,” since it makes the Bible just one part of a larger revelatory schema, a schema that itself is in the process of constant change.

Practitioners of “GRP” might appropriately be called “General Revelationists” in that they assume one must adopt extra-biblical thought patterns or paradigms by which to adjudicate the contents of the Bible, rather than the other way round, analyzing the thought patterns and paradigms of the Bible to adjudicate over extra-biblical ones. Again, this approach is not for the purpose of contextualization or elaboration of the scriptural data, an unavoidable act for any pastor or theologian, but for the purpose of actually determining the truth value of biblical propositions4 Any act of interpretation would obviously include things like historical context, grammatical analysis, and, of course, literary genre. However, it is not my purpose here to discuss the analytical tools needed for a proper, original-intent hermeneutical approach. For more on proper contextual interpretation see Michael S. Heiser’s excellent podcast, The Naked Bible at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0Ud2F59K45tT5dujVD0Qzw., or for distinguishing especially inspired and divine parts of the Bible from its less inspired and historically contingent human parts.

There is also no real sense that this trend of hermeneutical reversal will revert back to a previous paradigm, like the one of the Middle Ages, barring some massive global crisis, or maybe some very public manifestations of supernatural (metaphysical) realities. Manifestations of such entities which might shock us out of our empirical malaise, reconfirming the validity of the metaphysics that so belabored the ancient and medieval mind, and reaffirming the classicist view of culture. Thus, it becomes incumbent upon the historically and metaphysically minded Christian to know when certain philosophical or social theories5all social theories are philosophical, even if not all philosophical theories are social have not only been adopted by churches in their approach to Scripture, but also when they have been elevated above the scriptures in such a way as to make them, the theories, the norm by which the data of Scripture must be evaluated. Further, each generation of Christians must be in the position to show why a particular philosophical theory falls short, and in doing so, show why it should not be utilized as an interpretive lens for the special revelation of the sacred texts.

Today, the paradigm through which many are attempting to read the pages of Scripture in order to see which parts remain valid, and which can be relegated to a trash bin of historically situated religious aphorisms, is Critical Race Theory– a theory that itself is born out of another all-encompassing system, namely, Marxism.

What Makes A Universal Hermeneutic Universal?

What is a universal hermeneutic? A universal hermeneutic is basically a worldview, an explanatory framework of the world that acts as a totalizing system of thought, a filter through which all human phenomena are interpreted, and into which we are meant to try and fit not just public history, but also our own personal narratives, each of which is itself one member of the total set of historical, human phenomena. Traditional religions like Christianity or Islam, for example, are totalizing systems in that they seek to explain the most fundamental aspects of human existence through a single, interpretive lens (or narrative). Those fundamental aspects are: origins, meaning or purpose, morality, authority, and eschatology or final destination.

For Christians, passages like Genesis 1 & 3; Romans 1:18-32, or John 1 and Rev 21 make such totalizing claims with regard to origins, meaning, purpose, etc., and all in reference to God and Christ. The Apostle Paul sums up the Christian way of looking at reality when he writes, “He is before all things, and in Him [Christ] all things hold together” (Gal 1:17), or when he proclaims “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:9). However, it is not just traditional religions that perform this role of universal interpretive lens. Philosopher C. Stephan Evans talks about a “global” hermeneutic when referencing the work of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud:

“I call these perspectives global because they are applied to human persons as a whole and they are used to understand huge swathes of human action. I call them hermeneutical because I think their epistemic force is not captured by standard models of empirical science which emphasize prediction and verification or falsification. Such global perspectives differ from scientific hypotheses in that they rarely, if ever, can be confirmed or refuted by specific events.”

“The Revolt Against Accountability to God: A Global Hermeneutic Perspective on Contemporary Moral Philosophy” in Philosophia Christi Vol. 21, No. 2 2019.

Evans argues here that certain systems of thought act as global hermeneutics when they sidestep any critique of the natural sciences regarding their validity, i.e. their correspondence with reality, yet all the while making enormous claims about global humanity and the human condition. In fact, on these systems, the scientific project itself is under the microscope, and therefore cannot make any claims against the hermeneutic.

Agreeing with Evans, I choose however to use the term “universal” instead of global only because universal better encompasses the full sweep of history, i.e. to all trans-historical phenomena that either appear to occur in a stage-like process, or that explain why all people and cultures, regardless of their place in history, acted in certain ways. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud all constructed systems that attempted to provide this kind of trans-temporal, universal explanation. Darwin would be a fourth to add to that list. However, for the purposes of this article, we need to focus on Karl Marx.6 Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution was very compatible with Marx’s economic theories and his dialetic of materialism.

Focusing on Marx then, whose theory will be more relevant to our understanding of contemporary Critical Race Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre makes the following point about Marxist claims:

Only one secular doctrine retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world and direct their actions to ends that transcend those offered by their immediate situation: Marxism.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity

Here we must pause. For how can Marx claim the kind of explanatory scope and power for his system that he seems to want to claim? On Christianity or Islam, there is at least a transcendental claim, namely, that God has revealed things to man about man that go beyond man’s own speculation. But, this is clearly not the case for Marx (nor for his counterparts Freud and Nietzsche), whose entire theory is grounded in materialism. How does the atheistic Marxist justify the self-referential claim that Marxism acts as a universal, explanatory system for all of human history? After all, isn’t the Marxist system itself, like all other philosophical systems, embedded in that same history? Isn’t Marxism also a product of human minds operating in a particular place in time, and, therefore, open to eventual irrelevancy and falsification like the other philosophical systems that came before it? How can Marxism claim to be the overarching interpretation of its own history, where other theories were not?

It is often said of Marx that he “flipped Hegel on his [Hegel’s] head.” What that means is that Marx claimed that in his own thinking philosophy itself had become conscious or aware of its own foundations. In other words the history of philosophy is not the history of rational human agents thinking great abstract thoughts, thoughts that then bear down on and shape concrete material and social realities; rather, the history of philosophy is the history of concrete realities shaping human thinkers who, for reasons intimately connected to their material and social conditions, then generate great, or apparently great, abstract thoughts. Progress (or teleology), according to Marx, is not in the great synthesizing of abstract ideas, rather, pace Hegel, it occurs in the dialectic of materialism, the transformation of previously conflicting states of material conditions into new states of material conditions. Since man just is an amalgam of material, a new set of material conditions means a new man. Thus, if material conditions are understood, and then altered, so can man be liberated from that which has alienated him from himself. First he can be liberated from toilsome labor, itself a curse of both Capitalist and of Canon (Genesis 3:17-19), and second he can finally be freed from an abstract, yet non-existent view of his own self, from a human “essence” or nature, as defined by religion or abstract philosophy (i.e. Plato). For Marx and his followers there are not “fixed natures” that endure over time, there is only the perpetual dialectic.

It is in this sense that Marx believes he has truly discovered, or created, something new. MacIntyre puts it this way,

“It is this conception of truth that enables Marx both to affirm a historical relativism concerning all philosophies and also to deny that his own philosophy is merely a product of the time, since it is in Marx’s own thought that philosophy has for the first time become conscious of its historical basis in seeking to transform that basis and has therefore passed beyond the limitations of earlier philosophy. ”

Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.”

For Marx then, there can be no changing of “the human heart” until there is a changing of the material conditions surrounding the human body (and mind, whatever that might be). Change the material and social conditions, change the man who lives in them. This is the crux of Marxist thought, and the key to Marxism acting not only as a universal hermeneutic, but also as a direct competitor with classical Christianity, which clearly asserts the very opposite notion: change the human heart, change the material and social conditions in which men live. But, if we have two worldviews competing for the role of universal hermeneutic, then the inevitable question emerges: which one, if any, does the work of interpreting the other?

While classical Marxism has by and large been rejected by contemporary, Western culture, that does not mean that versions of it, i.e. the intellectual great-grandchildren of Marx, have been rejected. One version of Marxist thought that blossomed in the mid 20th-century is Critical Theory, and one version of Critical Theory that is taking on the properties of a universal hermeneutic in the English-speaking world today is Critical Race Theory.

Does Critical Race Theory Operate As A Universal Hermeneutic?

That Critical Race Theory has the potential to act as a universal heremeneutic or totalizing, explanatory system seems at face value plausible. First, recall the four or five domains of human existence any universal hermeneutical system must try and answer: human origins, meaning and purpose, morality, authority, and end state or eschatology.

With the exception of a clear origins story (although there is some evidence for emerging popular-level versions), CRT seems to offer an overarching meaning and purpose for human existence: the human story is one fundamentally about oppression and liberation, of oppressive groups, or hegemonic powers, and their victims. On CRT race becomes the central property determining where one stands, or has historically stood, within the oppressor-oppressed dynamic. All human existence, all meaning, relates to this very Marxist, and even very Darwinian, understanding of life. The dynamic itself is also one that is not foreign to the biblical worldview, a dynamic that C.S. Lewis creatively portrays in The Screwtape Letters, when he has Screwtape explain Hell’s philosophy:

“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition’.”

C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.”

The goal on CRT then is the liberation from these oppressive, racist (or sexist) societal structures. Liberation is the key concept in any Critical Theory, and the psychology of always being in the place of having to be liberated from some structure of oppression, or oppressor group, can provide the individual, or community, with an enduring, sacred struggle worth fighting. This struggle, or the being actively involved in it, can also create the framework for certain moral values and obligations to emerge.

With regard to morality, CRT also addresses the age-old question of “How now shall we live?” Moral goodness on a CRT view can have two aspects: first, an intellectual aspect of awakening, i.e. “wokeness,” to one’s own role in the oppressor class–to one’s identity as oppressor. This personal, or corporate, enlightenment can then engender acts of piety, especially of propitiation and satisfaction, in the form of publicly declaring one’s newfound sense of guilt and shame, followed by various symbolic acts of repentance and sacrifice. Whether or not those acts of repentance or sacrifice will actually be accepted, however, is questionable at best. This is something the mayor of Minneapolis appeared to learn first-hand quite recently. Thus, it is yet to be seen whether or not there is room for atonement on CRT, or just propitiation without real satisfaction and ultimate reconciliation.

This second aspect of CRT morality, public moral action, could also be seen as having two facets: first, the willingness to abdicate any advantage (usually material, but not always) in life one may have attained to those in the historically oppressed class or classes, and second, becoming politically active so as to advance, or enforce, the abdication of advantage by those who resist the voluntary handing over of goods to those perceived as historically disadvantaged. This can provide many people who are otherwise immoral (according to any transcendent standard) with a public means to be moral, a means through which to demonstrate their newfound moral superiority over others who can now be labelled as immoral, i.e. the “non-woke.”

As such, there is both an element of intellectual enlightenment here akin to Gnosticism, as ignorant oppressors, for now White people, become aware of themselves as indelibly corrupt vìs-a-vìs their darker skinned counterparts, and an element of concrete, social action in light of this pseudo-spiritual illumination. This illumination, of course, is provided to them by those of the oppressed class (at least in theory), who preside over secret knowledge in virtue of their being oppressed.7 For more on this idea of “Ethnic Gnosticism” see Voddie Bauckham: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ip3nV6S_fYU.

Here again we see the Marxist ideology that underlies CRT, as CRT is able to both claim a status that places it beyond the ken of accepted, epistemic standards of justification, while also making concrete, political action its fundamental moral activity. MacIntyre sums up this dual Marxist impulse of the interconnectedness of special knowledge and political activism, “It is only those who are engaged in changing the world who can hope to see the world rightly.”8 Marxism and Christianity, Applebooks, 63. Indeed on CRT, only CRT activists have the proper standpoint from which to gauge reality.

That also opens up another domain of CRT as it potentially acts as a totalizing system: the role of authority. For the philosophical critical theorists, the goal of social theory was, of course, the perfection of democracy. A “real democracy”9 see James Bohman article “Critical Theory” in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Section 2: https://nypost.com/2020/06/07/oh-grow-up-mayor-frey-devine/ would entail human beings being in control of the social factors that affect and shape them. Again, as per Marx, if human agents are nothing more than the product of matter and social constructs, then to be able to properly understand and control material and social conditions just is the means by which we can become new kinds of creatures. Ultimately, the “real democracy” the early critical theorists were arguing for was one where the human community itself could effectively play the role of God. Authority is no longer reified and objectified into a metaphysical deity, a benevolent “sky-daddy” who will fulfill our deepest desires. Rather, we must, through the rational analysis of those things that we as human beings produce, figure out what the perfect set of conditions will be, so that we can live in a new creation of our own making.

If this is the case though, then what appears as an inescapable feature of this immanently human attempt to recreate ourselves, is the need for something like a priestly caste, or at least a teaching magisterium that guides the ignorant among us into this undiscovered territory, and that mediates the untapped potential in us all to usher in the new society. Consequently, we see evidence of an emerging authoritative group in CRT, namely, a sort of “star chamber” of gurus who have coined the various terms that impregnate the view with its symbolic content (“white fragility,” “white guilt,” “intersectionality”), and whose work has lead to pragmatic initiatives like diversity training in major corporations, the construction of diversity task forces at universities, or movements like Black Lives Matter. Priests and priestesses like Robin DiAngelo, Peggy MacIntosh, or Ibrahim Kendi come quickly to mind as leaders of the new movement.

Several thinkers like Andrew Sullivan, themselves far from being fundamentalist Christians, have pointed out how CRT, or here core tenets of it, operate as a religion, especially on university campuses where the aforementioned authorial figures are most impactful. Moreover, that other fervent non-Theists like James Lindsay or Peter Boghossian, have become prophetic voices against the threat of CRT, and have even allied with conservative Christians to fight CRT, provides additional evidence that CRT has moved into the realm of operating as a religious worldview, something that would make any classical atheist from Russell to Dawkins rightly shake in their scientistic boots. Even the realm of mathematics does not seem off limits to the interpretive power of CRT, as evidenced by a recent statement of the Mathematical Association of America.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not CRT provides any answer to the question of eschatology, or end state. That it can, like on Marxism, and perhaps even Christianity to a lesser degree, seems obscure. On CRT we are told what the societal problem is, we are told that there is means to solving it, and we are introduced to a group of authoritative figures who can guide us through it, but there is little to no sense of what that solution will look like once we arrive. Like Marxism, the undiscovered country remains shrouded in perpetual mystery until you actually get there to tread the supposedly new ground. MacIntyre states it this way, “but just as Christianity has been much better at describing the state of fallen men than the glories of redeemed men, so Marxism is better at explaining what alienation consists of than in describing the future nature of unalienated men.”10Excerpt From: Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.” It is worth noting that MacIntyre wrote this prior to his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Pace MacIntyre, Christianity does give us some vision of the end, even if a highly symbolic one as found in the book of Revelation. However, per MacIntyre, Marxism, and by inference Critical Race Theory, clearly lack anything like an ultimate telos, a serious description of what “liberated man” is supposed to look like once his or her earthly liberation has occurred. Of course, for any true Christian the idea of final liberation, and the final happiness that accompanies final liberation, apart from a real unity with our Creator is already at the core empty. For the Christian man, any notion of a freedom devoid of a real Christ, and a real relationship with a personal God, is just the foundational sin all over again– it is the originating original sin.

In sum, there is good reason to think that CRT does attempt to fill the role of a totalizing system or worldview that acts as a religion in its answering, regardless of how poorly, the questions of, to a lesser degree, human origins and end state; and, to a higher degree, questions of existential meaning and purpose, and moral values and duties. If this is the case, then CRT may indeed become for some, or perhaps for many, a universal hermeneutic by which all other things are evaluated and put into their right place, to include the biblical revelation.

However, the question now emerges of whether or not there is evidence of this being done within the confines of the Church itself? Has there been a capitulation to CRT in the domain of Christian education, or within the walls (or Zoom services) of evangelical churches?

Evidence that CRT is Acting As A New Heremeneutic in the Church

The natural sciences may be the last domain of culture holding out against the new hermeneutic of Critical Race Theory, although as alluded to above, that fortification also shows signs of crumbling. With regard to the Church however, CRT already seems to be for many Protestant churches and seminaries, to include some areas of Catholicism, the go-to paradigm for biblical interpretation, theological construction, and pastoral application. A quick look at something like the missions statement of a Wake Forest School of Divinity, or this recent post by Union Theological Seminary should suffice to justify this claim. However, the orientation of institutes like these should not surprise us, since they have long since accepted the Enlightenment critique of metaphysical knowledge, and the post-modern critique of epistemology.

Not only does the Bible become a merely human book for primarily critical analysis at institutes like these, but also in their embrace of current social theories and post-modern epistemology11 Post-modernism cannot rightly be called an epistemology, since it rejects any and all notions of the entire epistemic endeavor to gain or have knowledge. Post-modernism is essentially an anti-epistemological school of thought in that it rejects any need for beliefs or truth claims to be rationally justified. As such it works on an entirely different Theory of Truth than classical Correspondence Theory., the Bible can become a means to various worldly ends. Thus, the Scriptures no longer present us with a means for “how to go to heaven” but become a user’s manual for how to create heaven on earth. But, even then, the Bible is at best only a marginally useful tool, one that can be readily supplemented, or must be supplemented, by other “sacred” texts like the Koran, the Upanishads, or again, by Marxist doctrines.

What may be new however for these classically liberal institutions is not their already long-standing methodology of deconstructing a historical Gospel proclamation in order to reconstruct a social gospel correlated to the philosophical theories of the day and the existential needs of culture, but the raw material from which they can draw in order to engage in biblical interpretation and theological reconstruction. The Social Gospel of the 1920’s and 30’s was one thing, one theory located in its own time and it its own culture. The Social Justice Gospel is a new thing. After all, institutes that have divested themselves of the ontology of Scripture, i.e. its inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy, and sufficiency, to include any robust version of natural law, will always have a new gospel to preach as speculation on general revelation shifts and moves with the flow of time. Again, for the General Revelationist, the Bible will tell us the truth only when we have first discerned from current social theory what in the Bible is even worthy of consideration. Only then can its wisdom shine, and that only as long as the current social theory maintains its influence.

But, there is even more evidence that CRT is now taking over in places that once would have been considered bastions of historical, orthodox Evangelicalism. Seminaries that have adamantly held on to the classicist view of culture, and the fixity of human nature, now seem susceptible to the influence of CRT. For example, a recent petition signed by over 4000 former students of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) located in La Mirada, CA provides additional support for the claim that even more traditional Protestant schools are drifting from their original, missionary intent, and potentially moving toward a new, universal hermeneutic. Recent chapels held at the same institution seem to suggest that it is through the lens of CRT that we must learn to re-read the text of Scripture, even the Beatitudes themselves.

While it is not clear whether the hermeneutical lens will be reversed at places like Biola, or other evangelical schools, some of which have been explicit in their rejection of CRT, that CRT has the potential to become the accepted mode of biblical interpretation is, I think, quite plausible. Unfortunately, this would not the first time the church has fallen for the speculations of men over the Word of God.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas, indeed, pray for us!

*For more detailed information on Critical Race Theory, see Neil Shenvi-Apologetics here. For an atheist perspective on the dangers of Critical Race Theory, see James Lindsay’s excellent interview with Al Mohler here.