the incompatibility of standpoint epistemology with the Christian Worldview
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary
Presented at: Evangelical Theological Society, Denver, CO, November 17, 2022
Original title: "Critical Race Theory and the Christian Worldview"
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord—Isaiah 1:18 (KJV)
While the explosive and devastating riots of 2020 were sparked by the death of George Floyd, there was an ideological underpinning for much of the violence and verbiage of that summer of hate, carnage, ideological blindness, and outrage. It is called Critical Race Theory (or CRT), an ideology at odds with the truth of the Christian worldview on a number of counts. We will only address the theory of knowledge of CRT, which is called standpoint epistemology. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Unless our epistemology is right, everything is going to be wrong.” CRT epistemology is wrong.
Critical Race Theory 101
CRT is a philosophy rooted in Marxism by way of Critical Theory. Like Marxism, CRT interprets society as comprised of ceaseless conflict between groups, and makes exposing systems of oppression its ruling passion. Those who developed Critical Theory, starting in Frankfurt Germany in the 1920s, were Marxists to a man, but realized that Marx’s predictions of revolution in Europe and America had not come true, since the working class was largely content in free market economies or at least were not fomenting revolution.
Instead of junking Marxism, they revised it by claiming that the oppressed had been lulled into complacency by the spell of the capitalist system. Thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, who later came to America with fellow Frankfurters, taught that Americans were sexually and racially oppressed. They would provide the critical lens through which to expose this oppression and foment revolution, in the streets (as was common in the 1960s on college campuses) and through the celebrated or lamented “the long march through the institutions.”
Marcuse mentored the black radical and self-identified Communist Angela Davis, who, in turn mentored leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, who admitted to being “trained Marxists.” Other thinkers, such as legal scholar, Derrick Bell—an influence on President Barack Obama—developed the ideology that the American system, even after the Civil Rights movement, was systemically racist and that whites only helped blacks when it was in the whites interest to do so. All whites were complicit in a systemically racist system, and idea further developed by Robin DiAngelo and Ibrahim X. Kendi. The American system could not be reformed; it has to be replaced with something else—that is, race-based socialism.
For CRT advocates, any disparity of achievement between whites and people of color that disfavors the latter it due to racism. This is abysmal social science; it is pure ideology—as Thomas Sowell has been arguing for over half a century, but this not our focus. See my book, Fire in the Streets. We will rather consider the epistemology of CRT.
Standpoint epistemology grows out of postmodernism. Postmodernism claimed that there is no such thing as: (1) objective truth (2) objective rationality, (3) epistemic neutrality. However, when wedded to critical legal theory, postmodernism morphs into standpoint epistemology. To (1)-(3) is added (4) oppressed minorities have a singularly privileged perspective on reality, given their oppression. Their narrative is true and must be unquestioned.
Epistemology is a matter of social justice wherein the oppressed set the terms of the debate regarding the relationship of the oppressed and the oppressors. Whereas postmodernism dissolves truth into relative perspectives, and warned of totalizing metanarratives (such as Christianity and scientific materialism), standpoint epistemology brings back a totalizing narrative. But this time, it is the narrative of the oppressed, who uniquely and infallibly, know what is going on. For CRT, it is the oppressed, the victims, who call the shots, not the oppressors. For CRT, POC are those who have lost the social battles and find power by claiming victimhood and grievance. Before critiquing standpoint epistemology, we consider some elements of a biblical theory of knowledge.
A Sketch of Biblical Epistemology
The Bible teaches that men and women, of whatever racial heritage, are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). Being made in God’s image means the ability to think rationally and come to considered judgments by assessing facts and evidence by sound principles of logic. The cosmos was made through the Logos, who orders all things to make them intelligible for human flourishing. Of course, the fall makes all this more difficult, but it is not impossible. God’s omniscient and omnipotent intelligence makes both general and special revelation possible (Psalm 19:1-4; 2 Timothy 3:15-17). Thus, the Bible values sound reasoning without making unaided reason the only source for truth. Consider the epistemic values contained in the prologue to Luke, for example:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).
Luke is a careful historian, who sifted through extant historical sources in order to bring knowledge to his readers. Scholarship bears out the veracity of his reports. This same kind of rational diligence was exercised by the Bereans who vigorously tested Paul’s teaching against Scripture to determine whether or not it was true (Acts 17:1-12).
Likewise, the Apostle Paul holds to the objectivity of truth in reference to the resurrection of Jesus and gives reasons for believing it occurred based on the testimony of credible witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:1-14). This truth cannot be contravened by human opinion or unbelief since, “Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written: ‘So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge’” (Romans 3:4). We need to further explain the meaning of truth.
What is Truth?
The New Testament word aletheia (or truth) and its derivations retain the Hebrew idea of "conformity to fact" expressed in 'emet (or truth). According to New Testament scholar, Roger Nicole, "The primary New Testament emphasis is clearly on truth as conformity to reality and opposition to lies and errors." The biblical concept of truth is essentially the correspondence view of truth, philosophically considered.
On this commonsensical view, truth is quality of unambiguous statements. A statement is true if it is factual (that is, corresponds to reality) and false if it is not factual (that is, fails to correspond to reality). The statement, “Martin Luther King was assassinated” is tragically true, since he was shot to death on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. The statement, “Martin Luther King died peacefully in 1975” is untrue. Truth is not the property of personal beliefs, but of statements.
Speaking of phrases such as "my truth” or “our truth” or “your truth,” Thomas Sowell, the distinguished African-American economist, writes:
However lofty and vaguely poetic such words may seem, the cold fact is that the truth cannot become private property without losing its whole meaning. Truth is honored precisely for its value in interpersonal communication. If we each have our own private truths, then we would be better off (as well as more honest) to stop using the word or the concept and recognized that nobody’s words could be relied upon anymore. The more subtle insinuation is that we should become more “sensitive” to some particular group’s “truth”—that is, that we should arbitrarily single out some group for different standards, according to the fashions of the times or the vision of the anointed.
No one owns or controls truth, although opinion is shaped in many ways. Sowell cites John Adams's comment: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
Although it is a contentious issue, I define knowledge as justified, true belief (JTB), which is the internalist view. Therefore, for a subject S to know P (that is, any unambiguous proposition) to be true, S must (i) belief P to be true, (ii) P must be true, and (iii) S must have adequate justification for P as true. CRT is not known for analytical precision in epistemology (or anything else), but it does seem to make a claim that race uniquely justifies claims about race, thus putting it roughly in the internalist camp.
Race and Epistemology
What of the CRT claim that POC have a uniquely privileged perspective on the oppressive structures of society? They, unlike the oppressors, are not necessarily afflicted with what Marxists call “false consciousness,” and are thus the last word on the unjust realities they face. Thus, Thomas Chatterton Williams speaks of the “left-of-center public thinking” where in “identity epistemology is employed. A POC simply knows things through their POC being. But unless you are God himself, “knowing through being” or “identify epistemology” is just too easy. You have to work beyond your pigment or gender to attain knowledge. But how should be understand knowledge in relation to social or racial standing?
The Bible reveals that God is greatly concerned for those unjustly treated by society. These are often referred to as “oppressed” and are members of groups such as “widows and orphans” and “strangers” to the commonwealth of Israel. Jesus warns that as we have treated “the least of these”—the hungry and thirsty, those ill-clothed, the sick, and the prisoner—we have treated Jesus himself, and God will judge us accordingly (Matthew 25:31-46). Proverbs teaches, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8). In order to speak for the voiceless and help the helpless—either because of racial mistreatment or for any other reason—we need to listen to their stories.
However, giving voice to people who have been silenced or muffled because of their race or gender does not mean that they will always speak the truth. They may misinterpret their own situation innocently or even lie (as is the wont of all sinners). Both oppressed and oppressors are, in the biblical vision, sinners in need of regeneration and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and intellectual and moral reorientation the Word and the Spirit. We all need large transfusions of objective truth from God to offset our proclivities to self-justification, exoneration, blame-shifting, stereotyping, scapegoating, and more. But a rational orientation to objective truth is a vanished value in CRT as can be seen in the following comments.
A New Yorker article on Derrick Bell, a key player in CRT, said this: “He was just telling his story. He was telling his truth, and that’s what he wanted everyone to do. So, as far as Derrick Bell goes, that’s probably what I think is important.” Notwithstanding, what is important is whether or not what Derrick Bell said was true to reality, whether it was factual.
Truth, however, is neither pigmented nor gendered. There is no "black truth" or "white truth" or "red truth" or "gay truth" or “trans truth” or "women's truth" or "male truth." Truth is a property of those statements, propositions, and beliefs that match objective reality. It matters not who utters them, where they are uttered, why they are uttered, the media coverage they receive, or the intensity of feeling behind them. Those who insisted, against all the legal evidence, that black teenager Michael Brown was “executed” in 2014 in Ferguson by a white police officer while he had his hands up and was shouting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” were simply wrong—despite the passion of their protest, despite the racial narrative they immediately used to eclipse the facts on the ground and in the courts about the case, despite a painting that hangs in a local seminary depicting this. No one can make a statement true by merely placing into a preexisting narrative or ideology, however emotionally charged it might be.
The real questions are: Who is speaking the truth? What are the social and ethical consequences of truth and of falsity? What rights do all people deserve? How should particular groups be treated with love and justice? Everyone deserves to be heard, and, sadly, society has not always allowed women and POC that voice, despite their First Amendment rights. Yet not all voices speak truthfully or reasonably. We must distinguish between the importance of free voices and recognition of truthful speech. The loudest voice may be lying; the most emotionally compelling writing may be untrue.
As Jesus said, only the truth will ever set anyone free. “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31). Without the concept of a knowable objective truth concerning a reality independent of our biases, ignorance, and prejudice, truth becomes comes a wax nose that can be twisted in any direction without regard for proper method, objective facts, or correct implications. All that remains is partisanship, ideology, power mongering, image manipulation, name-calling, propaganda, subversion, and cancellation. It is beyond question that power and prejudice can and do corrupt our understanding of the truth about race. They can even silence the voices of the oppressed and rob them of comfort, as the ancient Preacher noted:
I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed-and and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors-and and they have no comforter (Eccles 4:1).
We should not attempt to comfort the oppressed with any false ideology such as CRT; but we need to understand their plight through their own experience inasmuch as this contributes to the overall justification of truth claims pertaining to their situation.
Critical Race Theory, Christianity, and Epistemology
This paper has not critiqued CRT beyond its epistemology, but that is not a bad place to start, because if the epistemology is wrong, everything else will be wrong. Christianity, on the contrary, offers a true and rational worldview whose general epistemology makes knowledge possible and gives us reliable standards for knowledge acquisition. Let us, then, earnestly pursue the welfare of all people with this biblical foundation under our feet.
1 See Douglas Groothuis, Fire in the Streets (Washington, DC: Salem Books, 2022); Owen Strachan, Christianity and Wokeness (Washington, DC: Salem Books, 2021). Voddie Baucham, Fault Lines (Washington DC: Salem Books, 2021).
2 Schaeffer, Francis. He Is There and He Is Not Silent. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Kindle Edition.
3 On standpoint theory, see Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2020). There is no discrete section on standpoint theory, but there are many references to it.
4 Douglas Groothuis. Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Kindle Locations 570-571). Kindle Edition.
5 Sowell, Thomas. The Vision of the Anointed (pp. 98-99). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
6 John Adams: A Biography in His Own Words, edited by James Bishop Peabody (New York: Newsweek, 1973), pp. 121–122; cited in Sowell, Thomas. The Vision of the Anointed (p. 260). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
7 See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 39-41.
8 Groothuis, Douglas R. Fire in the Streets: How You Can Confidently Respond to Incendiary Cultural Topics (p. 78). Salem Books. Kindle Edition.
9 Jenali Cobb, “The Man Behind Critical Race Theory,” New Yorker (September 13, 2021): https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/20/the-man-behind-critical-race-theory.
10 See the documentary featuring black scholar, Shelby Steele, “What Killed Michael Brown?” (2020) and David Horowitz, I Can’t Breathe: How a Racial Hoax is Killing America (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2021), 77-86.