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“The Great Awokening” and Christianity

“Just as wokeness has eroded traditional liberal values like free speech, freedom of thought, merit, and individualism at an institutional level, it has also eroded traditional Christian doctrine within churches, seminaries, and Christian publications.”

The late 2010s and early 2020s witnessed what many cultural commentators have dubbed “the Great Awokening.” Entertainment, sports, politics, and the corporate sphere were suddenly suffused with the language of social justice and critical theory. Talk show hosts scrambled to interview newly-minted luminaries such as Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. Every facet of public life was shaped by new, overarching narratives of privilege and oppression.

However, secular people may not realize that the Great Awokening shook the religious as well as the non-religious world. As evangelical Christians, we have seen the language, ideas, and overall outlook of social justice seep into the church. Just as wokeness has eroded traditional liberal values like free speech, freedom of thought, merit, and individualism at an institutional level, it has also eroded traditional Christian doctrine within churches, seminaries, and Christian publications.

In our recent book Critical Dilemma, we spoke primarily to Christians, showing how the ideas at the heart of wokeness (or what we call “contemporary critical theory”) are fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. That said, we did not write our book for Christians alone. In this essay, we would like to make the case that it is crucial for non-Christians to engage with explicitly Christian analyses of contemporary critical theory, for multiple reasons.

First, roughly two-thirds of the population of the United States identifies as Christian, and approximately one quarter identifies as “born-again” or “evangelical” Christian. Although self-identification is a poor gauge for people’s actual beliefs or behavior, it does show just how influential Christianity has been in shaping our culture historically.

However, the influence of Christianity is not limited to professing Christians alone. As historian Tom Holland argues at length in his 2019 book Dominion, Western ideas regarding freedom, identity, responsibility, and virtue have all been deeply influenced by Christian categories, whether we know it or not. For secular people who want to push back against the rising tide of contemporary critical theory, it is, therefore, vital to understand the ideas that have shaped Western culture, as well as how Christians think about the world today. If the church falls, secular critics of wokeness will have lost an important ally.

Second, we—along with many other cultural commentators across the political and religious spectrum—believe that contemporary critical theory functions as a worldview, a metanarrative, or even a pseudo-religion. In other words, it answers life’s big questions, questions pertaining to ontology, epistemology, and phenomenology. It also provides a lens through which its adherents can view all of reality. Thus, secular people can benefit greatly from engaging with Christians who have spent two millennia working out their own comprehensive worldview and who are deeply invested in religious questions. By analogy, a British person might be able to understand the rules of baseball. However, truly to grasp the significance of the 2016 World Series, it is very helpful to talk to a Cubs fan. 

Third, we believe that contemporary critical theory has such an iron grip on so many people because it fulfills a spiritual need. Human beings are not simply consumers of commercial goods or interchangeable cogs in an industrial machine. We crave meaning and purpose. Here, we have to remember that contemporary critical theory is not merely propositional. In addition to its central ideas, it comes packaged with heroes and villains, prophets, sacred texts, and visions of a gloriously liberated future. Again, historic Christian thought can help secular people reflect more clearly on these universal human desires.

Finally, wokeness mimics not just the structure of religion in general but the structure of Christianity in particular. The narrative arc of Christianity moves from creation, to fall, to redemption, to restoration. We were created by a good and holy God, but we fell into sin. Therefore, we need to be forgiven and cleansed to enter the future kingdom of righteousness. Compare this Christian narrative to the one told by contemporary critical theory: We are enslaved by systems of oppression and tainted by our privilege. Therefore, we need to confess our complicity in injustice, center the marginalized, and “do the work” to wash out the stain of our unearned advantages on the way to the promised land of equity and inclusion.

From a Christian perspective, the ultimate appeal of contemporary critical theory is that it offers us an anodyne to dull the pain of our alienation from God. Consciously or unconsciously, all of us know what it is to be unworthy, to feel that something in us is wrong. Consequently, we are all desperately trying to prove that we are good or moral or significant or “on the right side of history.” Secularists who do not give sufficient thought to these feelings of guilt and the craving for forgiveness will be ill-equipped to combat wokeness in our culture.

For all these reasons, we recommend to secular readers the work of numerous professing Christians: Elizabeth Corey’s article “The First Church of Intersectionality” in First Things, Andrew Sullivan’s article “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” in New York, David French’s “Intersectionality, the Dangerous Faith” in National Review, and Rod Dreher’s “Intersectionality as Religion” in The American Conservative. And, of course, we recommend our own book Critical Dilemma, which has received endorsements from Anglicans, Baptist, Presbyterians, and a variety of other conservative evangelicals, alongside endorsements from secular writers and scholars including Peter Boghossian, Thomas Chatterton-Williams, Eric Kaufmann, and Erec Smith. 

We hope that our work (and the work of others) equips both Christians and non-Christians, first, to understand contemporary critical theory accurately and, second, to critique it effectively. While we ultimately want non-Christians to consider the truth claims of Christianity itself, we also recognize that one need not share our religious beliefs to want to live in a stable, flourishing society. Insofar as contemporary critical theory will erode this common good, both Christians and non-Christians should stand opposed to it.

Neil Shenvi, Ph.D. and Pat Sawyer, Ph.D. are authors of Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology—Implications for the Church and Society, which was released with Harvest House in October of 2023.

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