Plundering the Egyptians

As I write this American Baptists are tearing each other apart over a complex set of ideologies and academic approaches collectively called “Critical Race Theory” and often abbreviated as CRT.

By the time you read this—I am committed to the idea of cold takes—I would not be surprised if they were still devouring one another (they are). It seems perennial, and if not this particular ideology then there will be another.

It’s worth saying that scholars of all kinds of critical theories would dispute that there is a unified ideology to criticise, but for the purpose of the point I’d like to make I’ll take the label at face value.

A series of seminary professors have signed a statement that is unequivocally critical of “CRT” (obligatory scare quotes). I think that the nexus of ideas that they are criticising are largely godless, rest on a series of foundations that are difficult for Christians to support and owe far too much to the academic-darling Foucault and nowhere near enough to Moses.

That’s a bit reductionist but the thought that’s captured me isn’t so much about the rights and wrongs of this particular ideology, but in the approach that they have taken to doing so. It appears that everything associated with CRT is evil, and what might be associated with it has been interpreted by many—if not by the seminary professors themselves—in the broadest possible way. They’ve taken a carpet-bombing approach that owes more to Joe McCarthy than it does to the Christian tradition.

My concern is that there are few secular ideologies that contain absolutely no truth whatsoever. If they contained no truth, they wouldn’t be attractive to anyone. Good lies are built on slivers of truth, great ones on large amounts of truth co-opted and deformed to a false purpose. It is highly unlikely that “CRT” contains no truthful statements, but blanket-banning it so that anyone who says anything that sounds like any aspect of the theories is branded as a clear enemy-sympathiser will mean that whatever truth there might be squirrelled away will be avoided.

This seems to be happening in the US to anyone who wants to speak about racism within the church, whether they are adopting an oppressor/oppressed paradigm or not. My concern is that as we seem to be in the habit of importing American culture wars, and then fighting them with little reference to the ways they don’t really fit our culture, we will be seeing the same here before too long.

This is compounded by the fact that “CRT” is notoriously hard to define. Academic trends influence on wider culture tend to be hard to define as the academic trend is some way upstream of the commonly held sentiment. Nevertheless, a difficultly in definition should lead to more careful and precise denunciations if they are required at all.

In our recent history Postmodernism was widely denounced as evil. I can see that the death of metanarrative, the replacement of Story with stories and a denial of absolute Truth (I just said the same thing three ways) are all challenges to the Christian Story. But Modernism was hardly the heart of Christendom. We often denounce the new bad thing while ignoring the old bad thing it was trying to challenge. “Better the devil we know” we tell ourselves. It only works if you know it’s a devil.

Help from Augustine

My old books bookclub has been reading St Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, and it would be better if we adopted Augustine’s approach here:

Any statements by which those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, which happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them. Like the treasures of the ancient Egyptians, who possessed not only idols and heavy burdens, which the people of Israel hated and shunned, but also vessels and ornaments of silver and gold, and clothes, which on leaving Egypt the people of Israel, in order to make better use of them, surreptitiously claimed for themselves (they did this not on their own authority but at God’s command, and the Egyptians in their ignorance actually gave them the things of which they had made poor use)—similarly all the branches of pagan learning contain not only false and superstitious fantasies and burdensome studies that involve unnecessary effort , which each one of us must loathe and avoid as under Christ’s guidance we abandon the company of pagans, but also studies for liberated minds which are more appropriate to the service of the truth, and some very useful moral instruction, as well as the various truths about monotheism to be found in their writers.

These treasure—like the silver and gold, which they did not create but dug, as it were, from the mines of providence, which is everywhere—which were used wickedly and harmfully in the service of demons must be removed by Christians, as they separate themselves in spirit from the wretched company of pagans, and applied to their true function, that of preaching the gospel.

St Augustine, On Christian Teaching II.144-145

It may not be that there is anything worth plundering in CRT, but we have to be able to. We have to confess with Augustine, who tells a delightful legend that Plato learned everything he knew from Jeremiah in Egypt (On Christian Teaching, II.43, though he later retracted this in The City of God VIII.11 as Plato hadn’t been born then), that whenever someone teaches what is true they learned it from revelation whether they realised it or not.

All truth is God’s truth. That doesn’t make all secular ideologies worth accepting, but it does mean we need careful, biblically literate cultural critics to assess the prevailing winds on our behalf. We need to find ways to train them and fund them and expect them to both denounce whatever the set of beliefs that sit ascendant in our culture are as well as commend our culture for when it loves something good and true and beautiful.

Will that truth be twisted in some way? Most likely it will. Is it worth commending while correcting? I strongly believe that it is.

We used to love the idea of “worldviews”, thankfully we grew out of it as nothing and no one is as neat and tidy as that approach would have us believe. We’re all deeply formed and affected by a collection of ever-morphing ideologies and beliefs that form our cultural waters. They are where we swim.

It’s important to identify them, it’s important to name them even, but if they were really so utterly devoid of any truth then only the most blind would follow them. We are collectively blinded by our sin, Truth is only available in the church from the Bible, but the nature of common grace is that there will be truth in what our friends and neighbours believe. And, more particularly, the Enemy isn’t that inventive. Wrong thinking (and for that matter wrong feeling, wrong doing and wrong loving) always starts with a true idea that is in some way muddled or twisted or mixed.

We should recover those true ideas. We should plunder the Egyptians’ gold. It was ours first anyway.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash