Almost every day I have to endure listening to non- or even anti-Christian meanings being poured into traditional Christian words. Even worse, I hear words whose meanings are determined by non- or anti-Christian contexts proclaimed as the height of Christian orthodoxy, piety, and virtue. This experience is as painful to me as I imagine Moses’s experience was to him as he descended mountain having heard the very voice of God only to discover that Aaron and the Israelites had made a golden calf and were worshiping it as the God who brought them out of Egypt (Ex 32). Today we have a multitudes of “Israelites” and plenty of “Aarons” within Christian circles who are only too happy to assimilate Christianity to the pagan culture surrounding it. And playing word games is one way of disguising the substitution.
Some Contemporary Golden Calves
Traditional Words Are Given Alien Meanings
Some years ago I had to study the works of some very liberal theologians. One theologian, Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004), kept using the word “salvation” in an odd way. He kept saying that there is salvation in all religions. What did he mean? Did he mean that the adherents of all religions would achieve what the New Testament offers as liberation from sin, death, and the devil? Do all religions lead to the arms of Abraham, to resurrection of the dead, to union with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to eternal life in fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? However as I kept reading I realized that Gilkey meant something quite different. He meant that all the major religions humanize, elevate, and spiritualize their followers in this life. These religions provide meaning, purpose, and identity. They create community, human solidarity, and ethical guidance. And this is what Gilkey meant by “salvation.” Jesus saves, Buddha saves, and Mohammed saves. They all make people better and happier.
Later in my historical studies, I discovered that retaining a traditional Christian word while shifting its meaning has been the strategy of liberal Christian theology from its beginning in around 1800 until today. In the liberal dictionary,
“Resurrection” means not that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead and that Jesus reigns as lord but that Jesus’s influence lives on and exercises a powerful force in the world.
“Atonement” is not about God actually changing the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus but about the positive impact of the teaching and example of Jesus.
The “Holy Spirit” is not the powerful presence of God witnessing to Jesus Christ and transforming people into his image but for all practical purposes is identified with the progressive spirit of the times.
“Justice” in the Bible means individual behavior that measures up to the letter and the spirit of God’s just laws. Today it has come to mean “social justice,” which is an agenda for reordering society toward equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Words with Secular Meanings Declared Christian
As examples secular/pagan meanings being imported into Christian churches and such parachurch organizations as Christian colleges I will examine the pervasive call for diversity, equity, and inclusion—aka social justice—in all spheres of modern society. As someone who lives and works in higher education—today’s literal counterpart to the mythical Pandora’s Box—I hear this triad invoked at least three times a day as a self-evident moral ideal. In the modern university you can blaspheme the Holy Trinity of Christianity or burn the American flag with impunity but questioning the axiomatic nature of diversity, equity, and inclusion is to commit the unforgivable sin and become subject to cancellation or termination (of employment).
Hence I am constantly amazed when I hear Christian people invoke diversity, equity, and inclusion as Christian ethical imperatives. They do this uncritically and seemingly without awareness of the radical political context within which this triad gains its meaning. In its secular context the triad sets the agenda for the fundamental reordering of society at all levels through political coercion, accompanied with violence if needed. Equity is not identical to the traditional ideals of equality before the law and freedom of choice; it is a condition within which equal proportions of society’s goods are distributed among different communities of identity—especially communities determined by race and gender. Diversity means that the membership of every institution in a society—business, club, school, etc.—reflects proportionally the diversity of identity groups in society at large. Inclusion refers to the intentional effort to include sufficient representatives from every identity group contained within society at large, especially from those groups whom society tends to oppress, overlook, or marginalize.
Clearly, achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels of society cannot be left to meritocratic and free market forces or freedom of choice or speech. The interplay of these forces has always led and will always lead to lack of diversity, inequity, and exclusion. Left to themselves historical prejudices, natural affinities and competition always produce insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, oppressors and oppressed. Hence the government must position itself as a counterweight to these forces in service to the ideals of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Next Time: Are equity, diversity, and inclusion Christian Ideals? Hint: The answer is no.
In the workplace outside academia, DEI really just refers to initiatives to ensure that people who are not part of the predominant group have equal access to the opportunities, resources, and relationships needed for recognition, plum assignments, promotion, and success. In this context, no one claims DEI has anything to do with any Christian value—although I think it’s perfectly compatible with those values. Rather, it is mostly about advancement of business interests. This might suggest a disconnect between the use of these words within the context of critical theory and how people intend them as a practical matter in every day life.
Thank you for taking the time to reply. I cannot dispute your observations about the differences between academia and the corporate workplace. I am speaking only from my experience in academia and the literature of the Social Justice movement, including Critical Race Theory. That and that alone is the form of DEI I am assessing for its compatibility with Christianity. I would not presume to argue that the words diversity, equity, and Inclusion are in themselves evil or that everyone who uses them has the same program in mind. If you are willing, follow my argument to the end and let me know whether and to what extend you agree.
Part of what I find interesting about this discussion is the difference in meaning I am learning these words take on depending on the context and how, when people discuss them, they often have in mind different things entirely. Also how concepts introduced in academia end up translating (or mistranslating?) in practice. I’m looking forward to continuing to follow your posts on these topics.
Exactly! I look forward to your assessment and criticism. Thanks. rch
BTW I changed the order in my original essay from EDI to DEI. You followed the usual order, which I think is the wise thing to do. I don’t think there is a logical or developmental order…but there is conventional order and I have conformed to that order. Or are they merely arranged in alphabetical order? Thanks.
I have been in a virtual conference for the last two days were the entire lens that was purposely infused in every discussion was DEI. I finally asked what is the difference between “equality” and “equity” and why are we emphasizing “equity” over “equality?” The speaker said that “equality” assumes that every person starts from the same point and “equity” assumes that those who have been “oppressed” (implicitly because of systematic racism) do not have the same starting point to succeed. That is an interesting assessment and one that I would like to explore more deeply in my own studies. Maybe you could also tackle that one?
Yes. That is what I understand. I am right now working on my second post on this subject. I think it will clear this up. The question is this: how is equity being applied–to individuals or groups? The point about different starting points looks very different depending on whether you are speaking of identity groups or individuals.