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Religion & Liberty: Volume 33, Number 2

How irrationality triumphed

One of the great benefits of the university lies in the leisure for advanced study. While the tenured professor may be a dying breed, the ideal of a profession whose adherents study important questions so that they might then share their learning through writing, teaching, and speaking remains an important ideal for the university. While that ideal is rarely realized, Carl R. Trueman's The rise and triumph of the modern self: cultural amnesia, expressive individualism, and the road to sexual revolution brings together years of scholarly reading to provide an analysis explaining a specific intellectual shift. 

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

Carl R. Trueman. B&H Academic. 2020. 407 pages.

Gender studies and critical theory classes are now common in the collegiate space, but Trueman wants to explain how der zeitgeist has shifted such that a person who has never taken such a class could say with complete sincerity, "I am a woman trapped in a man's body." There is, Trueman argues, an intellectual journey that has occurred in higher education whereby that statement is theoretically justifiable. How does a person who has never read Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, or Simone de Beauvoir make such a claim? And why is such a statement received as a deep, personal expression of identity? These are Trueman's questions and, to answer them, he combines deep reading with clear explanations reflecting a career spent communicating to undergraduates and writing for a public audience. 

Reading Triumph of the Modern Self is its own education. Trueman takes his readers on a tour de force of key concepts developed by Rousseau, key Romantic poets, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Phillip Rieff, and Charles Taylor. By his conclusion, Trueman equips his readers with the tools to understand the shift in our public perception of reality, from a fixed to "plastic" self, and he closes by extrapolating future trajectories of societal change in coming decades. 

This volume is a diagnostic book; it does not offer extensive solutions. Though written by a career academic, Trueman's writing style is accessible and didactic. He explains complex philosophical concepts and theories in a way that makes this book accessible to the educated layman. This is a book for readers concerned about the current course of the Western world: Teachers, clergy, academics, and educated laymen who want to understand our cultural moment will benefit from reading Triumph of the modern self. In Irreversible Damage, Abigail Schrier outlines the rise in "rapid onset gender dysphoria" in teenage girls; the pseudonymously authored "When Sons become Daughters" series of essays by "Angus Fox" published by Quillette chronicle a similar rise in ROGD in teenage boys. Trueman provides the theoretical apparatus to help traditionalists, conservatives, and religious individuals understand how mainstream society reached the point of losing touch with such fundamental aspects of reality as biology. 

Trueman builds his argument carefully. In the first two chapters, he crafts a theoretical apparatus from Phillip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. From Rieff, Trueman extracts and explains the terms "the triumph of the therapeutic, psychological man, the anticulture, and deathworks." 

Perhaps the most helpful concept from Rieff is the description of three "worlds" of culture. First world and second worlds "justify their morality by appeal to something transcendent, beyond the material world." First world cultures, like those of ancient Greece and Rome, rely upon fate; second world cultures depend on faith and reason. Rieff classifies the biblical faiths (Judaism and Christianity) as second world cultures. Third world cultures reject transcendence and, thus, have no concept of the sacred. "The culture with no sacred order therefore has the task – for Rieff, the impossible task – of justifying itself only by reference to itself." 

Part of our dilemma, Trueman argues, is the Christian's perception of the world through a second-world cultural lens when the secular majority perceives reality through a third-world cultural lens. Both individuals can then look at the same phenomenon, but lack the ability to share a common explanation. Rieff's vocabulary pairs neatly with the analysis of Charles Taylor. Trueman leans on Taylor for "the dialogical nature of selfhood," the "social imaginary," and how "the politics of recognition allow for answers to the question of why certain identities (e.g., LBTQ+) enjoy great cachet today while others (e.g., religious conservatives) are increasingly marginalized." Trueman closes his theoretical chapters by drawing on Alasdair McIntyre to show that "modern ethical discourse has broken down because it rests ultimately on incommensurable narratives and that claims to moral truth are really expressions of emotional preference." These three thinkers provide the vocabulary in which Trueman's argument makes sense. 

Trueman contends that the outward symptoms of our modern malaise (disagreement about sexual identity and behavior) are fundamentally caused by a shift in what it means to "be a self." Beginning with Rousseau and the Romantics, Trueman traces the development of what Taylor terms "expressive individualism." In this understanding of the self, each person forms his or her own selfhood through relationships with others; the choices one makes become determinative for expressing the developing sense of self. Rather than the older understanding of the self as fixed, the modern sense of self is "plastic," malleable and changeable. The modern sense of self, Trueman concludes, is one that expresses itself in the ability to choose its own nature. While the Christian may balk at such a notion, and insist he could never be swayed by it, Trueman claims that "we are all part of that revolution, and there is no way to avoid it." In shifting from a second to third world culture, "expressive individualism has detached these concepts of individual dignity and value from any kind of grounding in a sacred order." The absence of an agreed upon sacred order, Trueman argues, made the West "a decreated world, exemplified by its sexual chaos. It had come to reject the created, divine image as the basis for its morality, and there was nothing left but a morass of competing tastes." 

Sexual immorality makes an easy target, but the outward symptoms of "sexual chaos" are themselves the result of a shift in the understanding of the self. "To address the symptoms adequately, we need to think long and hard about the causes, their wider ramifications, and our relationship as Christians to them." When the church comprehends these divergent views of the self, Trueman suggests, the Christian message can be communicated more clearly. Our cry is not about the evils of polyamory or transgenderism as such, but rather a message concerning creatures who have a place in God's created order as bearers of the divine image. When we can recover this stronger view of the self, and thus address a deeper cause, the symptoms will be more effectively treated. 

Trueman closes with three suggestions for the contemporary church. The first is "that the church should reflect long and hard on the connection between aesthetics and her core beliefs and practices." For the Christian church to maintain doctrinal consistency, Trueman argues, she must reject the emotivist, testimony-driven, aesthetic argumentation which the LGBTQ+ community asserts is the route to truth:

The debate on LGBTQ+ issues within the church must be decided on the basis of moral principles, not on the attractiveness and appeal of the narratives of the people involved. If sex-as-identity is a category mistake, then the narratives of suffering, exclusion, and refusals of recognition based on that category mistake are really of no significance in determining what the church's position on homosexuality should be.

Clear reasoning from the doctrine of the church should determine the church's stance on sexual concerns. 

Second, Trueman stresses the necessity of the church being "a community." If Taylor is right that "selves are socially constructed and only come to full self-consciousness in dialogue with other self-consciousness," then the church as the primary community for the people of God becomes of primary importance. The church becomes the community that shapes the self-consciousness of her members. 

Trueman closes with a third application: "Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the body." Trueman recalls the work of James K.A. Smith in highlighting the need for Protestant Christianity to consider the implications of humans as "embodied souls." Neither Gnostic nor Platonic, Christianity has clear teaching about the union of soul and body in the bearing of the divine image. Through the neo-Thomist movement, Roman Catholic thinkers have done substantial work in reviving natural law thinking in recent decades; Trueman contends this is an area where Protestant thinkers need to do the same. Through a philosophically thick understanding of natural law, Protestants can ground their views on sexuality in the nature of the body as God's creation (and, thus, subject to his laws). Much more work remains to be done to articulate a Christian response to the present moment. 

For those looking to understand the intellectual history of the present cultural landscape, and its fixation on sexual identity and selfhood, there is no better guide than Carl R. Trueman. Across 407 pages, Trueman offers a "prolegomenon" to the coming conversation between Christian scholarship and the secularizing West. In coming years, the church will be pressed to defend her teachings and pass them on faithfully to new generations. Where previous iterations of American Christianity have been able to presume a cultural homogeneity privileging biblical reasoning, the twenty-first century resembles instead an era where the broader culture grows increasingly hostile to Christian teachings, a time when "a pluralist society has slowly but surely adopted beliefs, particularly beliefs about sexuality and identity, that render Christianity immoral and inimical to the civic stability of society as now understood." Through analysis and explanation of Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdaire MacIntyre – and by tracing the evolution of selfhood across the Enlightenment through modernity – Trueman shows the connections between selfhood and sexual expression that restore the church to a place she has been many times before: a "stranger in a strange land" sojourning to a new home. Trueman's scholarship is a gift to the church, and his message could not be timelier.

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Josh Herring is a humanities instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He has written for Moral ApologeticsThe Imaginative ConservativeThink Christian, and The Federalist. His passion is studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.