I’ve taught an undergraduate sociological theory course for 20-some years, and it’s long been one of my favorites. Theories are fascinating phenomena. They can prod people to adjust their gaze, see things anew, step into the shoes of another, and occasionally even shift paradigms. Theories can delight, enrage, puzzle, unnerve, and challenge. They can move us from rooted recalcitrance to receptive revelation. Occasionally, they leave us unmoved because our cognitive biases make us apt to defend theories that affirm our prejudices, even when they become indefensible. In fortifying in-group boundaries, we tend to disparage perspectives that push against the ones ordering our own lives and embrace those that help us defend cherished us-versus-them boundary-markers. For those of us in religious communities, alignment with the right theories and opposition to the wrong ones can signify orthodoxy or, in reverse, apostasy. Bernard Lewis nicely captured the sentiment in an Atlantic Monthly article with the pithy title, “I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Go to Hell.”1
Over the past year, I’ve heard what is by now mythical “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) described as “pure evil,” and an undergraduate student summarily dismiss a brilliant colleague of mine who, without revealing her ideological leanings, lectured on its contours and distinguished between its academic and popular forms. Christian college and university administrators worry about whether even a hint of something like CRT or Marxism will alienate an important donor or cost them students in a narrowing and highly competitive market. Such fears are real—both for administrators who face serious problems when the mere inclusion of a book in the “recommended reading” section of a course syllabus can raise the ire of important donors, and for professors who may wonder if they need a college attorney to sign off on their syllabi and lecture material before they set foot in a classroom.
Theories are explanations of relationships between variables situated at varying levels of abstraction. A theory can be a good explanation, or it can be a bad one. It can be simple or complex. It can be a really compelling account containing a few elements that seem contradicted by data, or an outrageously implausible one with parts that offer unparalleled insight. It can be an elucidation that made a great deal of sense in the 1950s but is inadequate for explicating things in late modernity. In the final analysis, a theory is just an explanation, not “pure evil,” and certainly not the final word on some matter.
When I teach theory to senior sociology students, I tell them that the course is intended to help them fill their “theory toolbox” with an assortment of tools. No one would hire a carpenter who showed up to build a house with only a saw in tow. Saws are good for some things but not for others. Likewise, no one would kick a carpenter off a project for having a brace and bit—the precursor to the cordless drill—in her toolbox. If an antiquated tool were all she used, the project may never reach completion, but if it were used in just a few tasks for which it was well suited, we might take note and seek to procure one for ourselves. Likewise, would one really desire to learn sociology from a professor who had never studied Marx, or study ethnicity and racialization with an academic who had scrupulously avoided CRT, or explore theology with a professor who had never encountered scholars outside his or her own tradition? Were I to permit sociology students to graduate having never read or discussed Marx, I would be as negligent as a music professor who had excised Bach or Mozart from the curriculum. They would have every right to demand that their tuition be refunded.
Should faculty in Christian higher education approach theorists like Karl Marx, or broad theoretical platforms like CRT, with the simple goal of debunking and rejecting them, lest they tarnish their institution’s reputation? I think not. But what’s a university to do? Ignore theories that have gained traction in popular consciousness and you’re treading the path to institutional irrelevancy. Take them seriously, dissect them, discuss their merits and shortcomings with students, and you risk everything from institutional reputation to personal unemployment. Theories—what power! I believe there’s a much better way of handling theories that challenge a religious community’s accepted canon. Consider how I address Marx in my theory course.
I typically open sociological theory class with a brief prayer that ends, “God, help us to see just a little further through the ideas we encounter in our study of Marx.” Partly, this is to remind myself and the students that we find truth and wisdom in all kinds of places. Then, we discuss why Marx is generally viewed with suspicion in conservative religious communities. In this, I’m trying to help students learn to separate theories and concepts from the theorists themselves, and from ways those ideas may have been used or applied. And finally, I’m working to demonstrate how good theories can help explain a wide array of diverse phenomena.
For example, in-class discussion about German historian/sociologist Max Weber’s concern that rationality and bureaucracy were colonizing the modern world centers on how the same rational/bureaucratic methods that helped Hitler more efficiently institutionalize murder during the Holocaust are also employed in world missions, the organization of churches, and children’s hospitals. Rationality is neither neutral, all good, or all bad, but it does revolutionize our thinking. Weber’s theory is sufficiently abstract to explain how supposedly neutral means/ends calculations underpin both the brutal efficiency of the Holocaust as well as some of the secularizing forces in, say, modern world missions. In grappling with Weber’s theory of rationality, our understanding becomes more nuanced, and we are, I believe, better equipped to live as the people of God in a complex late modern society.
Back to Marx. The chief objections to Marx lie in his view of religion, and in his theorizing about the need to deconstruct a class-based society.2 Marx’s famous “Religion is the opiate of the people” is commonly taken as a swipe at religion, and thus at God. But the phrase has at least two meanings. One is that religion can function to keep an oppressed group (for Marx, the proletariat) from acting on their own behalf, in effect soothing them like a drug by offering comfort in the life to come. For Marx, this “false consciousness” enables the oppressive class (the bourgeoisie) to continue their exploitation with less opposition. The other meaning is that in the 19th century, life was difficult, and the poor could not soothe their suffering, say from an injury, with the opiates available to the rich, but had to make do with the comforts of religion.
In my class, I find it helpful to point out a couple ways we might understand Marx’s ideas. On the one hand, he seems to shortchange religion. Religion does so many good things for us that aren’t reducible to drug-like effects or false consciousness. For example, it is an important part of the social bond, and it frequently convicts us about social justice issues, like helping widows in their distress, or offering “our” resources to the vulnerable. Likewise, religion played a powerful and important role in abolitionist efforts and the Civil Rights Movement. And so, seen one way, Marx was wrong, or at least incomplete about religion. On the other hand, religion can indeed function to some degree like an opiate. Some sociologists find a relationship between “other-worldly” (the goal of life is to go to heaven) religion and reduced concern for stewarding the natural environment. Climate change? Don’t worry; God loves you, and God is in control. Religion can also function in us/them or in-group/out-group ways, enabling those in a religious community to focus on guarding resources and opposing others who might access their wealth (perhaps some immigrants or racial minorities). In this sense, religion can prevent its members from seeing things from the perspective of the other and contribute to an anesthetizing insularity.
My point? We don’t have to reduce Marx’s ideas about religion to a bifurcated right/wrong, because we can use his theory to gain insight into the different ways our religion functions. In this way, we can grapple with Marx as a prophetic voice who can help us engage in self-critique about how our churches, modes of religiosity, and lifestyles function in a complex, stratified, global society. Accordingly, we use Marx selectively and situationally, not as an ideological template for all of life.
The other objection to Marx, noted above, derives from fears that promoting Marxian thought will lead to a reckless dismantling of our current capitalist social system. And, if you’ve ever visited a communist or post-communist country and seen some of the dysfunction there, such fears are not without merit. For me, Marx’s vision for a communist society seems impossibly utopian. His real insight lies in his critique of capitalist society, and all economic systems—capitalism included—should be critiqued. We tend to be falsely conscious of economic systems that benefit us. Some of Marx’s concepts like exploitation, fetishism of commodities, alienation, and false consciousness, have helped me to recognize strains, tensions, contradictions, and manipulation of the poor more clearly in the global capitalist society in which I live. I’ve become much more introspective about what I buy, who made it, under what conditions, and so on, as a result of reading Marx’s critique. In a way, I can think more “Christianly” for having studied Marx.
In my second blog post, I will discuss specific differences between Karl Marx and Christian social philosopher Jacques Ellul on the matter of revolution. Both find revolution desirable and necessary, but with different goals in mind, and markedly different means for achieving those goals.
(A version of these posts originally appeared in: Matthew Vos, “Much Ado About Theories: Teaching Marx and Other Suspicious Types in Christian Higher Education,” Journal of Sociology and Christianity, 13, no. 1 (2023): 80-86. Used by permission.)
- Bernard Lewis, “I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Go to Hell,” The Atlantic Monthly, May 2003, 36-42.
- With his refinement of the concepts of class, status, and party (power), the German historian and sociologist Max Weber offers a more nuanced analysis of stratification that avoids Marx’s simplistic dichotomies. See Weber, M. (1968). Economy and society (G. Roth, & C. Wittich, Eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press. (Original work published 1922).