Vosburg: What’s wrong with Neil Shenvi?

“The most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter protests has brought with it something of a panic among the most politically conservative evangelicals — particularly, that the uprisings have been extremely prolonged and that a larger wave of white Christians than before seem to have joined league with the overall cause. There has been an effort to claim that these Christians are making a departure with historic Christian belief and are sneaking a competing worldview, variously called “critical theory,” “critical race theory,” “wokeness,” “social justice ideology,” “cultural Marxism,” or “intersectionality,” into the church.

Perhaps no figure has been more successful in self-promotion to the position of “expert” on these things than Neil Shenvi, a homeschooling dad with a PhD in theoretical chemistry from UC Berkeley. His writing and speaking on the various critical theories, and his conclusion that they ought to be vociferously rejected and repudiated by Christian leaders, have become difficult to avoid in a certain corner of the evangelical world. He has also been criticized widely by Christians who find his work does not stand up to the task of Christian engagement with these theories, primarily focusing on whether Shenvi has misrepresented his opponents. But I find many of these critiques (including ones I have previously leveled at him in Twitter conversations) to be mostly peripheral to the problem. Though Shenvi certainly engages in some categorical vagueness and over-grouping of ideas that may in fact be in conflict, the main problem is more with his critiques of these ideas than his representation. Shenvi repeatedly proves inept at thinking about epistemology, addressing philosophical problems, or engaging with social research to inform an alternative.

To an apologist, everything looks like a worldview

Shenvi is, by his own claim, an American-style evangelical apologist, and it is largely why his critiques do not work. American-style evangelical apologetics has a long history of looking at a theoretical perspective from a particular field of science and hailing it to be the latest comprehensive worldview against which Christianity must contend. When I was growing up, myself in homeschool and private evangelical school environments, Darwinian evolution and postmodernism were the bugbears we were armed to defeat. The problems with this “worldview” approach are that, first, it conceptualizes each position as fully discrete and incompatible with the other, and that second, it imagines these positions to be total theories rather than local theories.

We can see these problems at work in Shenvi’s own words:

The most fundamental problem with Critical Theory is that it functions as a worldview. A worldview answers basic questions about life and reality, questions like, Who are we? What’s our problem as human beings? What’s the solution to that problem? What’s our primary moral duty?”

Shenvi claims that Christianity and critical theory have entirely different and incompatible answers to these questions because he frames them as worldviews arising from metanarratives — foundational stories about the world. It hardly seems necessary for Shenvi to actually argue for why the two theory’s answers to these questions are incompatible. For instance, he claims that while Christianity says sin is what’s wrong with the world, critical theory says oppression is what’s wrong. This sort of claim leaves me scratching my head, in part because Shenvi is careful whenever he critiques critical theory to say that, of course, oppression is sinful and bad. One could even say that oppression is a major problem worth focusing on. But the worldview model of philosophical inquiry is such that even compatibilities must be rejected because they are not identicalities — since oppression is not the same word as sin, these must be incompatible worldviews.

But of course, you might say, the problem is really that critical theory claims that oppression is the only problem with humanity, not that it is a problem at all. This leads us to the second problem with the worldview approach: it must inflate everything it sees into a total theory. How does Shenvi substantiate the claim that critical theory thinks oppression is the only possible problem with the world? Or more broadly, that it is a total rather than local theory? He does not. He claims that it is, presents his gloss on how the two “worldviews” answer certain questions, QED. I can do this for just about any kind of theory: free market economics, for instance. Who are we? Hobbesian self- interested creatures. What’s the problem? Limited resources facing unlimited desires. What’s the solution? Free market enterprise and private property. What’s my main moral duty? To rationally pursue my self-interest within the bounds of the law.

The problem is not that there’s nothing between “critical theory” and Christianity that is in conflict, but that the apologetic worldview paradigm is about as blunt a conceptual instrument one could find to suss out those conflicts. It seems fairly obvious to me that critical theory — like free market economics, Marxism, Darwinism, libertarianism, or liberalism — is not a total theory in its nature. Of course like all of these, it can be made to fulfill the role of “worldview” in the thought of an individual, but not a single one of these ideologies is best suited for that purpose, and the fact it can be made to serve that role does not mean it is legitimate to claim that it simply is a totalizing worldview.

Stunted epistemology

Epistemology, particularly the epistemology of social science, is a discussion where Shenvi is clearly out of his depth. He writes, with Pat Sawyer,

Within Christianity, truth is known through revelation, whether the general revelation of reason and nature, or the special revelation of Scripture. While personal experience can illuminate God’s revelation, all experience needs to be evaluated in light of the Bible and objective evidence…. In contrast, any social justice movement which draws heavily on standpoint epistemology will call into question whether “oppressor” groups can grasp the nature of oppression. This false perspective will have devastating effects on our ability to discern theological truth from error.

Where to begin? First of all, revelation as described here is a process external to the person. It is an event. To say that the Christian epistemology is one of revelation is to fail to grasp what the concept of epistemology refers to. Nature is something outside of persons. Scripture is outside of persons. That both of these came into existence as revelations of God is separate from how human beings come to know things.

Almost immediately, however, we see that Shenvi and Sawyer have in fact imported some sort of Baconian scientific epistemology that relies on “objective evidence” as the foundation of justified true belief. They do not simply represent “the Christian epistemology,” whatever that could mean, but rather an essentially modernist school of knowledge about the world that is itself riddled with problems.

More particularly, this kind of paradigm runs into unresolvable issues when applied to social sciences. What counts as “objective evidence” in society, a phenomenon that we are a part of making and can never remove ourselves from? That is the fundamental source of standpoint epistemologies: when observing society, where we belong within society will have something to do with what we are able to see and the knowledge we’re able to produce. This concept is observably true: for a fairly clear example, the knowledge that a slaveholder could produce about slavery is entirely different from the knowledge enslaved people could produce.

The error Shenvi should be critiquing (but that he himself makes) is that of the epistemic fallacy: collapsing the real world into our knowledge of it. This critique has been performed excellently by a school of thought in social theory called critical realists, many of whom Christians themselves (though many are also Marxists; indeed, some are both). In brief, the world (including the social world) exists ontologically, independent of our awareness or knowledge. However, human beings attempting to know that world cannot know that world but through their position in culture, tradition, and society — knowledge is relative and positioned.Knowledge is always fallible and dubitable, because we are fallible creatures. Finally, knowledge is not all equally fallible — we are not, because of our fallibility, trapped in an endless cycle of fake knowledge. Since there is a real world independent of our knowledge, we can employ rational arguments with one another about which fallible knowledge best fits the real world, since that real world remains even as our theories and positions change.

Frequently those who employ standpoint epistemology collapse ontological reality into a series of positioned knowledges, whereas Shenvi and Sawyer collapse ontological reality into indubitable “objective evidence” which can be experienced directly. The strong social constructivism of many who espouse varieties of standpoint epistemology is a problem, but largely for reasons of internal consistency. For the idea of standpoint epistemology to be coherent, the standpoints must be looking at something ontologically real. Few committed to the position would say that oppression is simply an illusion of knowledge. It is understanding of oppression, not its reality, that is dependent on social position.

But social positions are also complicated. This is why the “identitarian deference” version of standpoint epistemology has been widely critiqued by the left. To say that social position in a hierarchical society affects what knowledge of the world you have access ought not mean that those who are more oppressed are automatically correct in all instances. “Identitarian deference” of this sort has already been thoroughly gamified: for instance, the existence of a relatively small number of Black political conservatives becomes a major argument for why the political right is not racist.

Shenvi and Sawyer are ultimately right to see standpoint epistemology as a challenge for their methods of knowledge. The solution for Christians, however, is not to shut one’s ears to the idea that knowledge is socially located, but rather engage in the process of judgmental rationality. This means, in order to understand claims about the social world, that some Christians should participate in the community of people dedicated to rigorously debating and understanding society.

What is Neil Shenvi for?

Neil Shenvi, although he certainly has read books on what he’s talking about, is not writing for people who have read those books. Despite his claims that there is some overlap between claims critical theory makes and Christianity, the payoff — that it is a fundamentally incompatible different worldview from Christianity — is what his followers are looking for. Rather than do the hard work of engaging the thought of others (never mind their empirical social research, which essentially never appears in Shenvi’s writing), Shenvi’s audience is content to assume they’ve read someone who can intelligently demonstrate critical theory’s incompatibility with Christianity.

The purpose of Neil Shenvi’s writing on this topic, I believe, is made clear by the fact that he dedicates a huge amount of time worrying about how critical theory will turn Christians into left-wing atheists and hardly any time worrying about the defenders of the confederacy or Charles Murray enthusiasts who gobble up his work. I, like Shenvi, find it troubling that a lot of Christians cannot sustain their faith in Jesus or in the Bible once they discover the deep injustices of our society. But the more strongly you say that “social justice ideology” is incompatible with Christianity, the more you alienate Christians who have just discovered how we incarcerate people in this country, or perhaps that many historical American Christians were slaveholders or pro-segregation or believed Black people to be ontologically inferior. Conversely, the more you focus on this incompatibility as the main story to be told, the more you legitimize in their own minds those who want oppression to continue. This is obviously not Shenvi’s goal, but it is a consequence, and we must deal with the consequences of our ideas.”

-Dawson Vosburg, https://medium.com/@DawsonVosburg/whats-wrong-with-neil-shenvi-6e0a06e30247