On a crisp, clear December night shortly before Christmas 2008, I walked up the stairs from the underground parkway on Lower Wacker Drive in beautiful, downtown Chicago. I was home on block leave from AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at Fort Huachuca, AZ. The purpose of my visit to downtown Chicago that night was to meet with a friend from Israel who had been at a small, pro-Israel rally in front of the embassy. There was turmoil in the Middle East, as usual, and Israeli Defense Forces had just launched a series of operations against Hamas called “Operation Cast Lead.” My friend and about 20 other supporters went to the embassy to show their solidarity with Eretz Israel. I went to join them.
However, what I saw when I emerged from the parking garage was anything but pro Israel. I had arrived late due to traffic, and by the time I got to street level there were thousands of Palestinian Arab protesters on the street, yelling and chanting pro Hamas slogans, whilst decrying Israel, and cursing then president George W. Bush. This rally was obviously professionally organized as protestors marched with ready-made signs and thousands of Palestinian flags of various shapes and sizes. Teenage Arab girls dressed in fashionable hijabs and designer jeans held sparkly I-phones with dainty, pink tassels, all-the-while chanting slogans that were grotesquely antithetical to their otherwise harmless appearance.
There was also a handmade sign (I have a picture somewhere) that simply depicted “Star of David = Swastika.” Incredible and terrifying in its simplistic presentation of two objects that should never be equated as such in any possible world. But, this was the actual world.
What really shook me, however, was not the protesting against Operation Cast Lead, or even against Israel more generally, or against president Bush, rather it was the shocking and downright strange amalgam of various groups that were protesting together against Israel, Bush, and, in my opinion, something they all view as far more threatening than either of these. Or better said, someone more threatening. But, I bracket this concrete story for now. First, some conceptual analysis.
Scientism and Social Justice: Modernity and Post-Modernity at War
Historically it seems that the Church often finds itself (or herself, if you’re Catholic) in the middle of what would otherwise be opposing forces; a common foe of two enemies, both hostile to each other, but willing to cease hostility for the sake of attacking those who belong to Christ. Just consider the striking alliance between Pilate and Herod which Luke records for us in his Gospel (see Lk 23:12). As is often the case, the historical facts provided in Scripture give evidence for the truth of more universal claims about the nature of man and the world he occupies. Here, in particular, is evidence that history does indeed repeat itself in this manner. If Christ Himself united enemies as disparate as Roman Imperialism and Judaism, then we might expect to see other historical examples of this same phenomena.
Today there are two intellectual and cultural enemies squaring off against each other, yet who have Christianity writ large in their common cross hairs. First, there is what I will call scientistic materialism on the one hand, and then critical theory as social justice on the other. Call one SM for short and the other CTSJ. It is not my interest here to define either of these in great detail, I have done that elsewhere.
Briefly, however, what we can say is that both movements, even if not all of their adherents, seem to have one common belief, namely, that atheism is true (I eschew the Flewian “lack of belief” word game here). However, other than this very broad agreement on the non-existence of God, both paradigms often seem at each other’s throats, especially in the US, and most certainly in Canada (see anything about Jordan Peterson for proof of the latter). In fact, this conflict seems to be so heightened at the moment that very strange alliances indeed are beginning to form; ones that pair traditional Christians with scientific materialists, both defending against the rather shrill claims of CTSJ advocates, especially their college-aged minions.
The Modern Rock of Scientific Materialism
Scientistic materialism can be roughly understood as a product of Enlightenment modernism. It is beholden to the truth claim that only natural facts exist and everything else that is claimed to exist (e.g. abstract objects, immaterial entities, objective moral values, God, etc.) should be relegated to a place of secondary intellectual citizenship, if not outright exiled to the netherworld of fairy tale and fantasy; a mystical realm that humanity in its evolved maturity need not tend to any longer, and, when it appears to resurface, must be mockingly put back into its pre-modern place.
For the scientistic materialist (most prominently represented recently by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or Sam Harris) past history, especially the religious past, is primarily a hodgepodge of pre-scientific, superstitious beliefs and socially adaptive, yet dispensable, rituals. While the study of history or religion may be interesting, to look there for real knowledge applicable to contemporary life in the present, or to guide society’s future, is not just foolish, it is ignorant, insane, or perhaps simply wicked.
What is important to note for the SM advocate, however, is that scientific facts do indeed matter. There are scientific truths about the world, and it is incumbent upon human beings to align themselves with what science says those facts indeed are. J.P. Moreland has recently penned a book that analyzes, and successfully critiques, this kind of strong scientism, which says that only natural facts matter, and only science can tell us what those facts are.
The Post-Modern Hard Place: Critical Theory as Social Justice
On the flip side of this atheistic coin, is the view that there simply are not facts about anything, at least not anything that is other than or outside of personal or social constructs of “reality,” whatever reality may mean. This view is birthed out of Critical Theory and Post-Modern “epistemology.” It rejects modernist notions of human progress, the universality of reason, and other bedrocks of the Enlightenment.
Perhaps more radical than post-modernism is the view that, in fact, there very well are natural facts about the world, but they are simply irrelevant, or inconvenient, to the subjective experiences and feelings of human persons who live in that world. Personal feelings about the kind of world the world should be, but actually is not, trump any scientific conclusions to the contrary, even if those conclusions are literally true. Abdu Murray has pointed out this distinction between post-modern and post-truth culture in his book.
This rejection of scientific facts is seen most clearly in the areas of abortion and sexuality. For example, because I feel a fetus is not a living, human being, therefore that same being, although it bears all the properties of human life, isn’t human. Worse yet would be to actually believe that the fetus is a human baby, yet, as Murray has pointed out, to simply not care about the wrongness of murder.
Another example would be transgenderism. Because I feel I am a girl, therefore it matters not that I have boy parts and a “y” chromosome that generates those parts. In fact, one might argue, the idea of a “y” chromosome itself may be a “fact” simply fabricated by the current hetero-patriarchal culture that still dominates the natural sciences. As such, “y chromosomes” should be rejected as a product of the white, heterosexual males who first “discovered” them!
What matters for the CTSJ advocate then is personal stories and the feelings that give rise to those stories. Or is it the stories that give rise to those feelings? Either way, personal experiences of the world are the only “facts” that matter, and the natural world, especially its societal forms, must be shaped (usually through a multiplicity of laws) in order to fit these personal feelings and desires. This push toward social constructivism based on subjective experience was appropriately termed radical, socially transformative subjectivity, by one of the leading members of the Frankfurt School.
The “SJ” part of CTSJ then goes on to suggest that power dynamics and group identities are the primary components of reality, and thus their resolution is the only stumbling block to a socio-political utopia and this-worldly sense of salvation. Andrew Sullivan has written on this quite incisively, especially its effect on the evangelical church.
As such, the conflict between the SM world and the CTSJ one becomes clear as neither of these can, when placed in a theoretical vacuum, coexist. As such, atheistic belief produces incompatible worldviews that, if taken to their extremes, cannot live together in the real world. And, as such, the Church writ large, i.e. traditional Catholic, conservative Evangelical, finds itself in between this modern rock, and post-modern hard place.
Christ in the Middle: Embracing the Best of Two Extremes
Still, each of these paradigms contain truths that Christians should desperately want to affirm. Each has something to say about reality, and some aspect about it that the Christian worldview can, and truly should, embrace. For example, if there are real facts about the world, and these facts also matter (e.g. they play a significant role in the flourishing of the human person), then a reasonable inference would be that such facts exist for a reason, or purpose. They are products of something or someone that intended them to be that way. They are objective.
But, if natural facts are objective realities of the world that seem to reflect or point to something beyond themselves, this would count as evidence for something like design. And, where there is design, there may very well be a designer– a mind that literally had these facts in mind. Many instances of these kinds of facts have recently been discovered in the world of bio-chemistry, for example. Further, the applicability of mathematics to describe the way the universe works also points to an objective reality that is not the product of mere human mental construction, but seems to come from without. Add in the laws of logic, and science and reason point us to a world that has an order to it, that functions in a certain way, and that cannot have come from nothing, randomness, chance, or mere brain activity.
However, if there are objective features of the world that seem to have been designed, and if those features matter to the health and welfare of the human person, then a Christian worldview must also embrace the full value of human persons. Of course, this valuing of human persons need not rest on natural law gleaned from empirical observation, since it is plainly given to us in revelation (Genesis 1:26-27). Human persons matter because God says they do. The designer has told us what part of His creation is His masterpiece.
As such, this intrinsic value of human persons has to include the subjective experiences of people living in the world; it means that peoples’ stories matter, because people matter. And, if people matter, then so do their constituent parts, to include their emotions, desires, and other kinds of psychological and mental states. Thus, although these aspects of the human person don’t actually construct reality, as proponents of CTSJ argue, the subjective experience of reality is something Christians who affirm objective, natural facts and human uniqueness should take quite seriously. Facts may not care about our feelings, as some have recently said, but we should care about both facts and feelings.
Moreover, when it comes to injustice, there are legitimate, objectively wrong things in the world due to sin, and all objectively wrong or evil things should be fought against, albeit in a manner that honors Christ’s own example. Thus, there is much of the social justice part of CTSJ that the Church can readily affirm, even if it should reject much of the CT part alluded to above.
So, in sum, scientific materialism and critical theory as social justice both illuminate aspects of reality that Christianity also validates. However, unlike either, a biblically grounded Christian faith need not, yeah dare not, affirm either in its totality, or affirm only one to the exclusion of the other. Christ unifies the the best of both paradigms by best answering the questions each evokes.
But, in unifying the best of both, Christ also demolishes the naturalistic and atheistic foundations upon which each is built. Science should continue to progress as a natural function of man created in the image of God, but it should not be held prisoner to naturalism. Social Justice should continue to progress as a natural function of man, and as a biblically mandated responsibility, but it too should not be help prisoner by atheism. Both must be liberated from an impoverished metaphysics and a deficient morality by the cross of Christ and His servant the Church.
Epilogue: Christ Amidst the Chaos
After stashing away his oversized Israeli flag in the boot of his car, due to the dramatic shift in the character of this nighttime protest, my Israeli friend and I cautiously moved about the scene of this pro-Hamas rally, looking to get a better feel for what the protestors were about, all-the-while aware of how antithetical our own views were to that of the crowd. To my surprise, however, it was the presence of two other groups of protestors that threw me into a state of mental confusion.
First I noticed a small stand with a few middle-aged white folks passing out literature (I still have their pamphlets). It was the Communist Worker’s Party of Chicago, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Castro’s successful putsch against Batista on December 31, 1958. Second, I noticed an assembly of huge rainbow flags, proudly waving in advocacy of LGBTQ rights. This was most likely Jesse Jackson’s Chicago-based Rainbow Coalition, a CTSJ amalgam if ever there was one. Communists, LGBTQ, and Hamas supporters; it didn’t take long for this to strike me as more than odd.
For what, if anything, could unite such ideologically disparate entities? After all, if put into a socio-political vacuum in some virtual existential space, it seems that first the pro-Hamas Islamists would eliminate the LGBTQ advocates (and what I mean here is they would kill them). This would then leave the Communist Worker’s Party members and the Hamas supporters to effectively recreate 1980’s Afghanistan in the middle of downtown Chicago! It seems like nothing good could come of these three groups living together, unless there were other, restraining forces acting upon them from the outside–another worldview that not only kept these in check, but that facilitated their capacity to protest in unison.
After all, these three ideologies, if held consistently, are totally incompatible with each other; yet for some reason they felt they could, maybe even that they should, protest together. But why? And How? How could groups as intellectually and culturally divided as these, seem to be emotionally so united in common cause? Only a shared opponent it seems, a common enemy, could unite such factions.
“Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in elegant robes, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.”
It was getting late, and as a chorus of voices began to chant in unison and with great fervor “Behead Gilad Shalit! Behead Gilad Shalit!”, my friend, who bore the same name as the Israeli soldier being held by Hamas at that time, and I absconded from the scene to a more welcoming place, a small cafe at the corner of Lower Wacker and Columbus. There we drank an espresso, one Christian, one Jew, and ruminated about what we had just seen: a unity of hate, explicitly aimed at Israel, but more deeply, I think, aimed at Christ.