One common trope which is regularly invoked in current debates about the defensibility versus the danger of Christian engagement with critical theories (or, species of Critical Theory) is the idea of “eating the meat but spitting out the bones.” Usually not far behind is a nod to the Neo-Calvinist principle of “common grace” — the idea that God grants to all persons various non-redemptive gifts, including true and profitable, albeit partial and non-salvific, knowledge about God and the world He has created. Thus, the logic is then extended, Christians can find, affirm, and adopt genuine insights from non-Christian sources, even as they attribute such insights to an act of God’s grace. The wise and discerning can, it is claimed, take the good while discarding the bad. There is thus no reason to be afraid of these theories, and dissenting voices are summarily dismissed as narrow-minded fundamentalists, if not castigated as unloving bigots.
In response to such arguments, I simply want to pose two questions: 1) Is it so easy to accomplish this task? 2) Is this the most apt metaphor to capture the nature of the relationship between Christianity and such views?
So first: Is it so easy to discern the good from the bad, to sift out what is profitable and discard what is untrue, unhelpful, and potentially destructive? especially if the views originate from a source profoundly opposed to the faith of Abraham? If this was so easy, why did God warn the Israelites against making a covenant with their neighboring pagans and forbid intermarrying with them (Deut 7; cf. Ezra 9-10)? Is it not because such alliances subtly incline God’s people to adopt the views and practices of their partners to the eventual corruption of their faith? One might argue that the wise within the faith are less susceptible to such dangers; yet one must account for the downfall of the wise king Solomon (1 Kings 11). Even his heart was led astray.
Now, intermarriage might appear as of a different magnitude than partial alignment with anti-Christian ideologies. This is most definitely true; but analogous dynamics are at work, according to prominent Protestant and Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century who discussed these matters especially in relation to Marxism — an ideology which provides basic conceptual categories which are appropriated in various ways within critical theories (which is obvious given the dependence of much of critical theories on the Neo-Marxist Frankfurt School).
In an essay written in 1958, entitled “Ye Are the Salt of the Earth,” French Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur elaborates on the danger of such “militant ideologies.” He describes the relation between the “great revolutionary ideologies” and the Christian message as “a very strange one.” Such ideologies, he argues, “are very close to it, and at the same time entirely different from it. The superficial resemblance between them is just as disturbing as the apparent antithesis between them.” He speaks positively of the resemblance exhibited in the critiques of status quo apathy and denunciations of the hypocrisy of a piety which is divorced from justice and love. “But,” he goes on to say, “these ideologies are very far from the Christian message even when they most resemble it.” In support of this argument, he brings up what he calls the “humanized Christology” which can be understood as foundational to all the revolutionary ideologies of the 19th century. Such immanentizing is exemplified in said ideologies’ faith in “the redemption of history and the reconciliation of men” — redemption and reconciliation sought not through Jesus Christ, “but through the sacrifice of a social class, which is (as it were) a purely human and collective Christ.” [Note: this is something another French philosopher, René Girard, would later characterize as a “scapegoat” mechanism.] Ricoeur anticipates the objection which could be easily summarized as the “eat-the-meat” thesis. A Christian might think there is no difficulty here. She might say, “I will accept what is Christian in the ideologies and ignore what is anti-Christian.” “But,” Ricoeur retorts, “this is more easily said than done. Ideologies put up strong resistance against such distinctions; their whole effectiveness lies in their being swallowed whole.”
One might object here: But aren’t critical theories just tools of analysis? Can’t we employ the analytical tools without subscribing to the entire ideology? At this point it would be profitable to look at Catholic critiques of a close cousin to critical theories: liberation theology. All of these authors share a similar conviction — that liberation theology uses tools of Marxist analysis, and that the analytical tools have ideological conclusions built-in.
In his 1971 encyclical, Octogesimo Adveniens, Pope Paul VI wrote, “It would be illusory and dangerous … to accept the elements of Marxist analysis without recognizing their relationships with ideology.” In 1981, the Father General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, echoed this sentiment in an essay entitled “Marxist Analysis by Christians”:
[A]lthough Marxist analysis does not directly imply acceptance of Marxist philosophy as a whole …[,] as it is normally understood it implies in fact a concept of human history which contradicts the Christian view of man and society and leads to strategies which threaten Christian values and attitudes. The consequences have often been disastrous, even though perhaps not always nor immediately. … Christians who have for a time tended to adopt Marxist analysis and praxis, have confessed they have been led bit by bit to accept any means to justify the end. There are many instances today which still corroborate what Paul VI wrote in Octogesimo Adveniens [about the relationship between Marxist analysis and Marxist ideology]…. To separate one from the other is more difficult than is sometimes imagined.
Pope John Paul II was particularly critical of this approach, and believed that Marxist analysis inexorably leads to the authorization of Marxist conclusions for action. One of the things which frustrated him about liberation theologians was their lack of clarity regarding what they mean by “Marxist analysis” (a similar complaint can be leveled at many of the advocates of the “eat-the-meat” approach to critical theories). John Paul II believed that the Christian faith requires solidarity with the poor and the victims of injustice, but he denounced the tools of Marxist analysis which were based on class distinctions and class struggle. In contrast, he argued, in a message to South African bishops in 1984, that the “Church’s task is to call all men and women to conversion and reconciliation, without opposing groups, without being ‘against’ anyone.’’ At that time, the pope instructed Church officials who were charged with fighting heresy to resist the Marxist-based branch of liberation theology and its idea of class struggle.
To that end, he ordered the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (future pope Benedict XVI), to provide instruction on aspects of liberation theology. The opening section of the document remarks that some are tempted to make use of concepts without sufficient critical caution. Because of this, there is a pastoral exigency to explicate “the deviations, and risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living, that are brought about by certain forms of liberation theology which use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought.” The most relevant section for our concerns here is section VII, entitled “Marxist Analysis.” Echoing the sentiments from the authors above, the document argues that in Marxist analysis, “[t]he ideological principles come prior to the study of the social reality and are presupposed in it.” Because of this, “no separation of the parts of this epistemologically unique complex is possible. If one tries to take only one part, say, the analysis, one ends up having to accept the entire ideology.”
So, in liberation theology we see a strong case that the analytical tools are intimately, and maybe ineradicably, intertwined with the revolutionary, anti-Christian ideology of Marxism. It is the argument of this essay that an analogous dynamic is at work in critical theories, which themselves build upon Marxist categories (among other things).
The second, and final, question posed to advocates for a critical employment of critical theories is this: Is this metaphor—“eat the meat…”—the best image to characterize the nature of the relation between such hostile ideologies and the Christian faith? Here we will briefly look at other images promoted by two major Catholic thinkers: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac.
In a section of his magisterial Theo-Dramatics, titled “The Battle of the Logos,” Balthasar discusses Marxism and related ideologies. He argues that in civilizations, such as the modern West, which have rejected the exclusive claims of Christ, many will endorse forms of positively anti-Christian paganism all the while “appropriat[ing] all the features of the religion of Jesus that seem to commend itself to humanity.” Balthasar discerned this to be displayed in Marxism and other forms of secular humanism which were gaining appeal among Christians. These seek to bring about secular utopia using exclusively immanent resources. Balthasar explained that since these political visions and programs parody Christian truths, they are particularly seductive to Christians. The appeal of Marxism and secular humanism, Balthasar claims, is like an “alien wasp” that injects “its anesthetizing sting and lay[s] its eggs right inside [the Christian organism], with the result that the body, hollowed out from the inside, serves as welcome food for the enemy.” Thus, by adopting concepts from anti-Christian ideologies such as Marxism, Christianity welcomes its own internal colonization. Balthasar saw this at work in liberation theology, which he described as a form of Christian thought which has been infiltrated by an Enlightenment rationality that threatens to secularize the faith by absolutizing the demand for visible structural reform such that it obscures the uniqueness of the Church and her message of hope.
In an important post-conciliar work, de Lubac raises similar concerns about liberation theology and other forms of progressive political theology. These can tend to commit the “temporal heresy” of reducing theology to sociology and the role of the Church to a mere human organization. If the Church abandons its primary task of reminding mankind of its supernatural vocation by merely echoing the socio-political wisdom of the world, she thereby “los[es] her soul, becomes a secular “parasite,” and “should simply disappear.”
This should serve as a weighty warning to those who naïvely think it is no difficult task to critically embrace aspects of critical theories: Beware; you might not be eating the meat and spitting out the bones, but welcoming the colonization of Christianity by anti-Christian ideologies.
But yes, it is true that, though difficult, such discerning appropriation, encapsulated in the “eat-the-meat-spit-out-the-bones” thesis, can be done. John Paul II himself, though highly critical of core aspects of Marxism, is an example of how to accomplish such a task in his constructive engagement with Marx’s thought. The problem at this point in our culture is how predominant these theories have become and how pastors and laypersons are imbibing them without sufficient attention to their totalizing tendencies and the hard-to-break interconnections between the parts. Without that awareness, most will lack the resources to explicitly oppose and excise the problematic elements entailed. And the principle of common grace, as it is commonly applied, is simply too underdetermined to provide much discernment on such matters. It fails to supply adequate distinctions between systems of thought according to their varying degrees of danger, and thus it tends to incline thinkers who invoke it toward credulous approaches, assuming that since good can be found in anything, there is no reason to fear. Such an aversion to fear can blind one to real dangers which should be avoided.
We need trustworthy guides at this time—or, at least for now, properly-equipped guards—if we are going to engage critical theories without inviting a hostile colonization of the faith. This was something provided by the Catholic Church in regards to liberation theology at its early stages, as discussed above. The connections with certain anti-Christian Marxist aspects needed to be addressed, and, after that those had been largely abandoned, reformed versions of liberation theology became more acceptable and the Church could embrace its profitable contributions. For example, a couple years immediately following the publication of the document by the CDF which critiqued aspects of liberation theology, the same body produced another document on the subject—“Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation”—which explicitly promulgated liberation theology’s teaching on the preferential option for the poor—now a key principle of Catholic Social Teaching.
That example might, in fact, highlight a significant problem which more acutely plagues Protestants: we have less clearly authorized voices which are commissioned to provide discerning guidance. See, we need guides who are not only equipped with sufficient scholarly training and theological wisdom, but who also are established as recognized authorities. For the Catholic Church, the CDF is such a body. It is much more difficult to identify such bodies within Protestant denominations, not to mention Protestantism as a whole. This is not to be naïve about Catholicism in this regard, thinking that Rome has a fool-proof system itself (regardless of its claims for itself). It is clear that such lines of authority can, and have, stifled important developments in thought that creatively and constructively engage with the world—as was evidenced in the “Modernist crisis” at the turn of the twentieth century. But our great confusion over these issues and the level of rancor within the current debates reveal that we could benefit from something analogous to the CDF’s treatment of liberation theology in the 1980s. We need a public statement with ecclesiastical teeth providing informed judgment on the basic tenets of the critical theories which have increasingly dominated our public discourse.
If we could find a way to be clear on what is antithetical, or even hostile, to the Christian faith, then we could more confidently move forward in trying to constructively appropriate what is profitable from critical theories. In other words, we could, as the Church, eat the meat and spit out the bones. But this cannot be a task merely left up to the individual.
Rev. James R. Wood is a PhD candidate in Theology at Wycliffe College (University of Toronto), graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (ThM, 2018), and PCA pastor. His writings focus on political theology, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology and have appeared in the Journal of Reformed Theology, Pro Ecclesia: A Journal for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, and Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Mere Orthodoxy, Providence, and Covenant (weblog of Living Church).
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