What is a critical theory? Aren’t various critical theories used widely in the academy and the culture to deconstruct Christian faith? Is there something to be learned from various critical theories in the way the critique culture? How does the Bible engage in cultural critique and provide resources for doing so? This is not just an academic discussion but one that has ripple effects throughout the general culture. Join Scott and Sean for this illuminating discussion with British philosopher Chris Watkin.

Christopher Watkin is Associate Professor of French Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He describes his work as “I make sense of how people make sense of the world.” He is author of several books, including, From Plato to Postmodernism: The Story of Western Culture through Philosophy, Literature and Art, Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1-2 as Tools of Cultural Critique, and Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible's Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: A lot of discussion today in the culture at large about different forms of critical theory, critical race theory, there's a whole slew of critical theories today that goes way back historically to the advent of postmodernism. But today we want to talk about a biblical critical theory and what exactly that is and what do the various aspects of our theological stands such as the image of God, the doctrine of sin, the Exodus, how do those provide resources for us to do the kind of cultural critique that the Bible calls us to? How do the prophets engage in cultural critique? What's the political impact of the Exodus? And things like that. We'll talk about these questions and much more with our guest, Dr. Chris Watkin, with a remarkable new book called "Biblical Critical Theory." This is “Think Biblically” from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae.

Sean McDowell: I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell.

Scott Rae: And Chris, welcome. Glad to have you with us. For our listeners who are not really familiar with the notion of critical theory, why don't we start with this: what is a critical theory, and what does it attempt to accomplish?

Chris Watkin: Yeah, thank you. Scott, Sean, it's lovely to be with you today. Thank you for inviting me on. A critical theory at its most basic is really an attempt to take a step back from society and to question the way that we do things in whatever society we find ourselves at the moment and to see what's wrong with that society and the ways that it could be improved. Now, there are lots of specific ways of doing that. And so the way that we use the term critical theory today often implies, for example, a Marxist way of doing that, stepping back from society, critiquing it through a Marxist way, and understanding what's wrong with it and how it can be made better. But at its most fundamental, it's just trying to get a bit of distance from the everyday society and everyday way of living that we have, and critique it in the sense of point out where it's failing people, where it's not doing what it ought to be doing, and sometimes to cast a vision for how that can be no better.

Scott Rae: Chris, I think we might have some listeners who would view the term “a biblical critical theory” as an oxymoron. How would you help them understand what you mean by a biblical critical theory?

Chris Watkin: I think you're right, first of all. And I think I just want to say two things to try and help people with those really legitimate misgivings about a term like biblical critical theory to try and get a handle on what I'm doing. And the first one is that critical theory does have this broad and this narrow sense. So the way we use it today and the way that it's used in the news media today often implies a very specific lens through which society is viewed, and that's very often a Marxist lens. But there's a broader sense of critical theory. It was actually the first sense of critical theory that I was introduced to, that doesn't necessarily imply that the lens we view society through is Marxist, it just implies taking a step back and looking at society from a critical standpoint.

And the second thing that I'd want to say is that the origin of doing this in the Western tradition is fundamentally Christian. So if you look back, who is the first person historically to take a whole society and subject it to a systematic critical view and put beside it a vision for a better society? I think you'd struggle to find anyone earlier than Augustine in the book, “The City of God”. And he's obviously not doing that from a Marxist point of view. He's doing that from the point of view of the Bible. He takes the whole biblical story from Genesis to Revelation and he uses it as a series of lenses through which to critique late Roman society. So I think there's a real sense in which the very origin of the idea of doing something like a critical theory is profoundly Christian in our tradition. And so one thing that I'm trying to do with this title, “Biblical Critical Theory”, is to reclaim that heritage. Say that the biblical approach is not a newcomer to the idea of a critical theory of society. It's actually right there at the beginning.

Sean McDowell: Okay, so tell us what you want people to take away from this book. Again, it's called “Biblical Critical Theory”. You're saying it's in the spirit of what Augustine has done within the church. Obviously, how it functions now is different than during the height of the Roman Empire when Augustine would have produced his work. What are you hoping to accomplish through this biblical critical theory?

Chris Watkin: I'm hoping by God's grace to help other Christians to realize what it took me quite a long time, a number of decades, which I will realize for myself, which is that there is a robust, fresh to modern ears, supple, incisive way of viewing society that comes off the pages of the Bible and that's informed by the whole Bible story from Genesis to Revelation, that can produce for us a way of engaging with society and casting a vision for a flourishing society in a really deeply biblical sort of way. So I suppose one way of putting that would be I want to show that the Bible really needs a seat at the table of all these other critical theories. The Bible has something unique to offer to the debates that are going on in our society at the moment about how we do society, how we do living together. And that something, not only for Christians, I guess, but something for everybody is lost if we exclude the Bible from that conversation.

Sean McDowell: Okay, so when you say you want the Bible to get a seat at the table, typically this is done, and I've been a part of this, apologetics, making the case from history and manuscripts and other avenues that this book is true and authoritative. Your book is trying to get the Bible a seat on the table, but it's not apologetics. It's through telling the biblical story and through showing how it relates through the lens of the Bible to some of the cultural issues of our day. Is that fair?

Chris Watkin: Yeah, I think it is, Sean. I think that's a really good way of putting it. So when I was a young Christian, I was trained quite well in knowing what I believed. And I was trained quite well. I didn't always take it on board, but the training was there in knowing why I believed it, doing the apologetics. Why is it reasonable to believe in God and so forth? What there probably wasn't quite as much training in was the question of so what? So you believe this stuff. What does that mean for society? What does it mean for things like freedom and equality and the way that we live together in society? And that's really the question that I'm wanting to answer in this book. Not why should we believe it, but what follows from believing it in a social way?

Scott Rae: I think some of that, I think, within at least American evangelical circles has been sort marked by what I would call a privatized faith, and the so what question that people are answering from the biblical story has more to do with their personal, individual, spiritual lives, maybe their marriage and their family, but not so much about the culture at large. So, I'm wondering, what would you say to folks who have just never really wrestled with or never considered it all that important or all that interesting to use the Bible's resources for critique of the broader culture and the so what for the broader society? But it's just been limited to the more of the private sphere of life.

Chris Watkin: I guess insofar as the Bible makes it very clear that we're to love our neighbors, one aspect of loving our neighbors is helping to make the sort of society that's going to allow people to flourish. It's sort of the Jeremiah 29 thing, isn't it? Working for the peace and prosperity of the city where we're in exile. And that will absolutely have an individual dimension. I want to do my job well and with integrity. But I think it also has a broader dimension. How can we contribute to the debate about how this society is structured, to the extent that we're able to do that in a way that loves God and loves our neighbor as well. So I wouldn't want to pit the individual against the social or against the collective. I think both of them have a really important place in loving our neighbor. But I think that it's a shame if we narrow what it means to love our neighbor only to the individual.

Sean McDowell: One that's going to strike anybody who reads your book, even a cursory reading, which is hard to do, this is a deep, in-depth, thoughtful book, for the record, is what comes clear as how rich the Bible is as a resource for cultural critique. Now, if that's the case, why not just jettison other critical theories and rely on the biblical narrative, whether it's critical race theory or what's often called queer theory or Marxist theory, etc.?

Chris Watkin: It's a question we're thinking about, isn't it? I'm really glad you posed it. I mean, there are a lot of theories out there. And someone might be tempted to say, "Well, don't we have enough already? Why add another one from the Bible?" And I guess the only reason that it's worth staking out a biblical critical theory is if the Bible has something distinctive to say, and it's not just giving a sort of warmed-over version of what other theoretical approaches are already saying. And it's my conviction, and it's a growing conviction. As I wrote the book, I became more and more convinced that, my goodness, the Bible has a really fresh take on a lot of the key problems that are being thrown around in these theoretical circles on power, freedom, society, that sort of thing.

And so I think that Christians need to lean into the uniqueness of the Bible, if there's any case for having a biblical critical theory at all. And we need to draw out what the Bible can bring to the table that these other theories are not as supplying. But I think there's also a sense in which a biblical critical theory that's grounded unapologetically and firmly on the biblical text also has dialogue with these other theories in two ways. First of all, there's a sense in which we've all got our blind spots. And although the Bible thoroughly equips us for every good work, sometimes we are very slow to avail of ourselves of that equipping because of the particular cultural blind spots that we have. And sometimes, in certain ways, engaging with other theoretical approaches can help us to see things in the Bible that were always there. We're not suddenly planting them in the Bible, but that we may not have had eyes to see previously because we were conditioned in a particular way by our culture and just these things didn't jump out at us. And so there's a sense in which all different sorts of writing in society can help sharpen our sense of what's there in the Bible. And often the way that we'll find something in the Bible, once we're sensitized to it, we'll find that the Bible has a different account of it from these theoretical approaches. So it's not just tallying off the ways in which the Bible agrees, it's often the Bible transforms these ideas as well. But also finally, a lot of these theoretical approaches borrow very deeply and very heavily from biblical themes. So if you think, for example, about the Exodus narrative and the way that previous to those events, I think you'd have to work really hard to find an ancient society that said slaves getting freed from their slavery is a really good thing and it's something that we should desire.

And then the Exodus comes along and suddenly this whole paradigm of liberation and a liberated community set free to serve God becomes really valorized in Hebrew culture. And so what do you find by the time you get to the modern age? Well, we've been breathing this air of liberation for so long and seeing it as such a wonderful thing and the way it's translated in the New Testament into salvation and being set free from sin, that we've adopted what the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, the guy who wrote the “Postmodern Condition”, talks of as the modern emancipation narrative. He says this is right at the heart of modernity, the idea that there are oppressions that we need to be liberated from. That's how we know who we are. We had those who were being liberated from oppressions, and that traces itself back in large part to this Exodus narrative. And so there are also ways that once you've read the Bible and become familiar with this story, you can see how these modern critical theories are borrowing and piggybacking on and developing and sometimes twisting these biblical motifs themselves.

Scott Rae: I think one of the things that stood out to me about your book is, again, just how rich the Bible is as that resource in it. And I've been thinking about studying questions of church and society for the last 25 years, but I have a new appreciation for, for one, how countercultural the biblical narrative was in whatever culture it manifested itself. And then second, I think the point you make throughout the book is that there are a lot of examples where concepts that were so radical when they were introduced in the biblical narrative are now taken as basically finished, that the Christian revolution in areas like freedom and equality and democracy are almost complete. And so that's the reason we don't really debate a lot of those subjects as much any longer. So, I guess my question is, do you see other areas that are contemporary today where you see the biblical narrative as equally countercultural as it was in Old Testament times and in the Greco-Roman world of the first century?

Chris Watkin: Thank you, Scott. I think I definitely do. And it's something that only really became clear to me as I did the study for this book, actually, just how fundamental and hardwired into the biblical view of the world is the idea of gift and grace and gratuity. So, if you think right from the beginning, the very creation of the universe, why did God make the universe? Well, to the extent that we can discern from the biblical hints about that, he didn't have to.There was no necessity behind that act. God wasn't compelled to create. As far as we can tell, he created out of love as an overflow of love.

Scott Rae: You mean he didn't need to create us? (laughing)
Chris Watkin: No, I don't think the Bible says there was a necessity that

he created us.

Scott Rae: I think that's part of the human hubris to imagine that somehow God needed us to somehow complete His creation.

Sean McDowell: That's right.

Chris Watkin: That’s right. And to live in a universe that is not governed by an iron law of necessity, but by an overflowing and superabundant gift of grace, right from the beginning. I think that if you really let that sink in, it transforms your view of reality in yourself and God and everything. And as soon as you become sensitive to that theme in the Bible, that things are fundamentally gift, I think it comes through even in the fall, you know, where God very graciously, even at the moment that he's pronouncing judgment upon Adam and Eve, makes clothes for them to wear, gives Eve a wonderful promise that her offspring will crush the serpent's head. And all along the way, God is being lavishly and super abundantly gracious to his people. And this puts what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls the logic of superabundance right at the heart of reality. And I think that really comes into its own when you contrast it with the way that we as modern people view reality.

Whereas the philosopher Michael Sandel has very powerfully written on recently, everything is co-opted into this market paradigm. Not only financial transactions, not only things that we buy, but his argument in what money can't buy is that our relationships and our security and our identity have become transactional now. And the logic of transactions, the logic of the market is the opposite of this wonderful divine logic of superabundance. It is what Polyker calls a logic of equivalence. Everything has to find its strict equivalent.There's no gift, there's nothing free. You get what you pay for, and if you can't pay, you don't get it. And living in a universe that's governed by that logic of equivalence is a very harsh, unforgiving place. But living in a universe where you know that behind the market and under all of that sort of structure of society of equivalence that we've made for ourselves, there is a God of lavish superabundance, a God who gives, who doesn't barter with us. I think it transforms the universe and it transforms our view of ourselves. And it's something that I think is so, so hard still for the modern world to understand about itself. It is radically counter-cultural because we're so farmed into and catechized into thinking of everything in terms of a transaction and equivalence in the market that even as Christians, we find it really hard to embrace God's lavish love.

Sean McDowell: Chris, just last week I had a buddy who graduated from our apologetics program, sent me an image of your book, and he said, "Have you read or heard of this book before?" And then he started asking me, he goes, "Does this talk about critical race theory? Does it talk about issues like race and economics and gender?" And I said, "Well, the purpose of the book is actually a systematic theology, and as we work through these main doctrines, you find connections to where culture is at. I'm guessing that's what a lot of people misunderstand about your book. Now first off, would you agree with that assessment? Is that fair?

Chris Watkin: Yes. Yeah, I think Sean, you're absolutely right. The language I use in the book is I want the Bible to set its own table. I don't want the society around us to come with its issues and then you've got to shoe on the Bible into those. I want to give the Bible space to set things out in its own way first.

Sean McDowell: I love that, and you do it well. So let's dive in and start looking at this, and the obvious place to start with is where the Bible starts, and like you said, sets its own table. So let's talk about creation. What is significant? Again, your book is asking the question, "So what?" Not, "Is there scientific or other proof for creation?" But given that the Bible teaches this, tell us what the "so what" of the fact is of the creation of the world.

Chris Watkin: Thank you. We've already begun to do that with this idea of superabundance. So the mere fact that the creation of the world is not necessary is... And one of David Bentley Hart's early books, “The Beauty of the Infinite”, is really good on this. He says that overturns the whole tradition of Greek philosophy. But there are no categories for that in philosophical thought. So immediately you've got something that's distinctive about the biblical account. And even before creation, you can say that the God who creates the Christian Bible messes with the categories of modernity as well. Because ultimate reality, of course, for the Christian is not a false or a principle, but is personal. God is personal. And John Faim is really good at talking about this when he talks about absolute personality theism. You've got gods who are absolute, Aristotle's prime mover, but are not personal. And you've got gods who are personal, sort of the Greek pantheon, but they're not absolute. And the delicious harmony of the God of the Bible is that he's both absolute and personal.

And just one quick implication of that is that, you know, most, I guess, of the listeners would have heard the argument before that because God is absolute, science is possible, that the universe has a certain stability about it. And the scientific enterprise makes sense if there's the sort of

God that the Bible describes.But something that we don't often follow up with, and I think is a real shame, certainly for those of us in the arts and humanities, is the idea that and also because God is personal, there is a weight and a dignity to persons that makes the study of the arts and humanities really valuable as well. So persons are not ephemeral. They're not some sort of late coming excrescence in the universe. There is something fundamental and important and meaningful about persons. And so, the fact that God is both absolute and personal, legitimates both the enterprise of the sciences and the enterprise of the arts and humanities at the same time and doesn't set them sort of in opposition to each other. Now, that's just one quick sort of so what from the sort of God who does the creating in Genesis 1.

Scott Rae: Chris, let me tackle another part of Genesis 1, and that is the notion that human beings are made in the image of God. As you explained that, I think you do so correctly that it's not based on any specific capacity or sets of capacities, but it's more a status that human beings have. And so, if that's the case, then what does that say about areas in bioethics like human improvement or human enhancement, the transhumanist movement, you know, things really sort of radical views of human enhancement, where the body is just kind of a thing that is for human beings to manipulate and to transcend through technological means as best we can.

Chris Watkin: That's a very rich question, Scott. Let me try and do it justice. I think the question of human enhancement needs a bit of contextualizing, so I'll do that first, and then I'll get...by the time I finish, I hope I've got to answer the question in the terms that it was posed. We've always been enhancing ourselves and that there are a number of important schools of thought that think that actually what it means to be human is to be able to change ourselves and to enhance ourselves. So we've got all these technologies that allow us to do things that we couldn't do otherwise. Language is one of them. We can communicate thoughts in this medium at the moment, because we have the technology of language that enhances our ability to communicate. We make clothes for ourselves so that we can live in different environments. That's one way of increasing our capacity to do various things. So in all these different ways, humans are distinctive as the animal that enhances ourselves in a way that even with the little tools that they use, other animals really don't do it in the same way. So the question is not whether we improve ourselves or not. But I think there are two really important questions to ask about human enhancement as it's understood these days. And the first one is who gets to define what improvement means? This is an argument that I first came across at the end of C.S. Lewis's “Abolition of Man”, where he says, "Wait a minute, we're talking about human enhancement, but who decides what the enhancement should look like? Well, it's us. Then who are we? Well, we're the humans that need to be enhanced. So how do we know that what we count as enhancement will be actually something that will enhance us because we're the defective ones that need help?”

I think that there's that aspect of it. There's who gets to decide, but there's also the sociological aspect of it, which is who is driving the enhancement industry and who is it aimed at? Well, in large part, and with notable exceptions, it is middle-aged, rich white men who necessarily, because of the narrowness of that demographic, are going to have a particular view of what enhancement means. And if that niche group gets to decide for everybody what enhancement and what improvement mean, I think then we're all the poorer, because we're all being funneled into this narrow sense of what it means to improve ourselves. And I think the second question is who gets to be improved? And I think again, there are real fears around the way in which these enhancements are targeted at rich Western people. And there's a real danger if this industry takes off and if they're effective and so forth and so forth, of exacerbating existing inequalities in the world. The rich can make themselves capable of getting even richer and being even better by enhancing themselves. And, you know, other people are left behind. And so I think rather than saying that enhancement is in and of itself always wrong, which I think gets tricky when you start to work at the edges of what is enhancement, is language which are our spectacles, our is aspirin and paracetamol enhancement and so forth. I think those two questions help us to navigate with a certain nuance that the new technologies and new possibilities that are opening up now. 'Cause I agree with the spirit of the question that something qualitatively new is happening. It's not simply that we've got language and we've got clothes and we're just continuing improving ourselves in the same way. I think there is something new.

Part of it is the capacity to improve ourselves in ways that are woven into our bodies. So clothes and glasses are things I put in and take off, but if the announcements is genetic, then it is part of me and potentially passed on to offspring as well. And part of it is the idea that it's not reversible. And I think there are questions of consent that are raised by irreversible enhancements. So, that's a sort of roundabout way of trying to touch on the different issues that are raised in the enhancement debate. Does that scratch where that question leads you?

Scott Rae: Yes, it does. That's very helpful. And I think it reflects a distinctive view of humanity that's grounded in human beings being made in the image of God.

Chris Watkin: Right.

Scott Rae: So, for our listeners, we have just gotten started. Speaking of scratching the surface, that's just what we've begun to do here with our guest, Chris Watkin. We want you to join us in our next session when we do part two of this. And Chris, we're going to allow you to cash out theological ideas like original sin, the incarnation, the life and ministry of Jesus, the last days, and all of the implications or some of the implications that those have for the way we interact with culture and the way we do the kinds of cultural critique that the Bible is calling us to.

So for our listeners, join us again next time when we do round two with our guest, Chris Watkin. This has been an episode of the podcast “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture”. “Think Biblically” podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Masters in Christian apologetics, now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, share it with a friend, tune in next time for round two with our guest, Chris Watkin. Thanks for listening. Remember, think biblically about everything.