Dr Philip Jenson offers a review article on Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020).
At the end of 2020 Carl Trueman published a book that tells the story of an inexorable and irreversible cultural shift that shapes modern thinking and discourse. It is a demanding read, so it is helpful that he sums up the argument more succinctly in various places (e.g. here, here, here, and the first chapter is available as a pdf). He has also taken part in various podcasts and interviews (e.g. here, here, and here). I am not sure that I am the best person to review this weighty volume, since my own speciality is the Old Testament. However, precisely because I am immersed in a text that belongs to a very different world, I have had to engage with why those living in the modern world frequently find the biblical world alien and offensive. What follows is a selective account of Trueman’s thesis, and some reflections on its potential relevance.
Basically Trueman seeks to give an account of the revolution in Western thought and culture that has led to the modern idea of the self. The nearest equivalent is the work of Charles Taylor in his two surveys, The Sources of the Self (1989), and A Secular Age (2007). Taylor is a major influence on Trueman, along with Alasdair MacIntyre and someone whom I had not encountered before, Philip Rieff. The presenting issue for him is the sentiment now common in transgender discourse, ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’ But from the beginning he argues that what matters is not first of all how we understand sex and gender, but how we perceive the self. It is the revolutionary invention and triumph of the modern self that is central to the story that he tells.
The first part of the book sets out the basic issue and ‘the architecture of the revolution’. Here Trueman introduces us to some of the basic concepts that support his analysis. Much of this is drawn from Taylor, though presented in a more accessible way. Thus the social imaginary is a helpful shorthand for the extensive and usually unexamined set of intuitions and practices that guide the assumptions and actions of ordinary people in a particular society. For example, the expectations and customs that young men and women follow as they relate to each other today is hugely different from what would have been customary in Biblical Times, or in a traditional African tribe, or indeed fifty years ago.
The key change that he describes is what Taylor sums up as expressive individualism, MacIntyre as emotivism, and Rieff as psychological man. It is a shift from finding order and meaning and purpose in the external world, to one that is defined by the individual, especially in what he or she feels. Gone is any recognition of a transcendent God who has created an ordered world and provided guidance about how to live in it. Drawing on more Taylorian terminology, Trueman highlights how this transcendent frame has now been replaced by discourse within the immanent frame. This simply means that people today have to talk about life and morality without reference to God or any comprehensive account of the order of things. In the UK we might point to Alastair Campbell’s infamous ‘we don’t do God’ as a paradigmatic illustration of the immanent frame.
From Rieff comes a simplified but helpful contrast between three worlds. The first world is the world of pagan myth, which was then largely replaced in the West by the second world of Christian faith. Both these draw upon conceptions of a sacral order. Christianity emphasizes the source of our knowledge and being in the revealed will and work of the Christian God. But these two worlds are now being replaced by the third world, characterized by psychological man, whose being is defined by the individual self. The third world is incompatible with any idea of divine order, and indeed committed to the revolutionary demolition of the theological and moral order that formed the social imaginary of the second world. But it has no source of meaning and morality beyond the individual, and truth is ultimately reduced to personal preference and the exercise of influence and power. The multiple manifestations of the third world are united mainly by opposition to the second world, often through an appeal to victimhood and oppression. But, in Rieff’s vivid term, its creative deconstructions are deathworks, anticultural artifacts and practices that seek to destroy the inherited structure of faith and behaviour from the second world. Readers of Rieff quickly discern that he is a first-rate pessimist, but the verification of his cultural predictions have enhanced rather than undermined the persuasiveness of his account.
The second part of the book sets out the historical progress of this revolution. I expected Trueman to begin with Descartes, who pronounced the priority of the individual self with lapidary clarity (‘I think therefore I am’). However, Trueman prefers to highlight Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Like Descartes, Rousseau sets out to explore the inner self, but significantly traces the source of evil not to the sinful self (as Augustine does) but to society. True freedom is found in the heart of the free man rather than in external government, hence his invention of the myth of the ‘noble savage’. These ideas are taken up and popularised by romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley. But Shelley in particular carries forward the crusade for freedom through an attack on institutionalized religion and its oppressive external moral codes.
The next key figure is Nietzsche, who declares the death of God and draws out the implications. In the absence of divine order there is no sound foundation for metaphysics and morality. What is left is freedom to create the self without the need for reference to any essential being. Marx and Darwin reinforce this redefinition of human nature in their emphasis on the economic and environmental factors that shape human nature, which is increasingly regarded as malleable and plastic.
The stage is now set for the next act, which is described in the book’s third part: the sexualization of the revolution, especially through the work of Freud. He invents the now controlling myth that sex is the real key to all human existence. True happiness is therefore only to be found in unbounded sexual fulfilment and in the overthrow of oppressive traditional moral constraints. These basic ideas were then taken up and popularised by the New Left, who made the free expression of sexuality (and much else) the focus of political activism. The demise of the key institutions of marriage and the family are indications of the success of this process.
The fourth part sets out some of the consequences of this new revolutionary view of human nature. The triumph of the erotic is evident in the pornification of culture, the public display of sex, and the loss of mystery and modesty. But above almost all segments of society have now surrendered to what Rieff calls the triumph of the therapeutic. What matters is the fulfilment of the desires and happiness of the individual self, whether this be sex, material things, or affirmation (not merely tolerance) by others. Only then do we come to the triumph of the T in the LGBTQ+ alliance. The transgender movement is the ultimate expression of expressive individualism, with the dissociation of gender and identity from any biological or transcendent givens. Intriguingly Trueman points to some of the incompatible assumptions and goals amongst the various parties, such as the recent tensions between feminists and transgender advocates. Nevertheless, they are sufficiently united in their concern to overthrow heterosexual normativity. With the help of technology there is a concerted drive to marginalise biological realities. In sum ‘the individualism, the psychologized view of reality, the therapeutic ideals, the cultural amnesia, and the pansexuality of our present age are closely intertwined’ (p. 380). Thanks to the constant and one-sided presentation on the full range of media the social imaginary has been decisively reshaped by the third world, which becomes ever more intolerant of any criticism from those who seek to maintain the second world.
The book ends with a sober ‘Concluding Unscientific Postscript,’ in which Trueman suggests some ways forward in an era of plastic people and a liquid world. As always his comments are thought-provoking and helpful, but I did find this the most unsatisfactory part of the book. This may be because a response deserves a second book of the same length. So as a tentative contribution towards such a project I offer five reflections that draw out some of the consequences of his account in areas of my interest.
1. It has helped me reflect on the method and content of the recent Church of England report, Living in Love and Faith (LLF). It seems to me that the absence of any engagement with the kind of story that Trueman tells is a serious weakness (its usefulness is summarily dismissed on p. 348). It suggests that LLF’s focus on disputed issues of sexuality is too narrow. The debate needs to put into a larger historical perspective, especially regarding the language that now pervades the discussion. LLF also illustrates the tension between second world reasoning (often present in the discussion of the biblical texts and more traditional positions) and third world discourse (in its emphasis on experience and individual stories). These are often put, unresolved, side by side. A sobering warning by Trueman is that there is no common ground that can mediate between these two worlds. This is consistent with the recognition in LLF that, however well produced (as it is), it is not intended to decide anything. Rather it seeks to help different parties understand each other better, and Trueman’s work should offer a contribution to this worthy cause. While opponents of his argument will point to its conservative conclusions, he has sought to write fairly, and the challenge to those who disagree is to present a more persuasive alternative.
2. How should Christians respond to the culture (or anti-culture) in which we live? Trueman mentions lamentation, but warns that this can become a therapeutic practice. But here I would like to commend a deeper understanding of the biblical Psalms of lament. In these there is the space to be honest in describing our experiences. But in fact the Psalms redefine those experiences through setting them in a world where (however it looks like on the surface) God rules and will judge the world in righteousness. This assertion of the theological grounding of reality is further reinforced by the praise of God that is frequently a concluding element of the lament. Another common feature of the laments is reference to enemies. But they lack historical specificity in the text. They are in fact open metaphors that a reader can apply to anyone or anything that threatens the life of individual or community. It seems to me perfectly fitting to identity the enemy as a third world culture that encourages lawlessness, shamelessness and the satisfaction of our selfish desires. The more general observation is that immersion in Scripture is the most powerful way in which we can learn to live and think in a world where God is the decisive agency.
3. One of the consequences of this dwelling in Scripture is a growing sensitivity to the distinct language of the second and third worlds. I have long been fascinated by the way in which a whole set of important biblical terms have become endangered species, and replaced by others that cannot be found in a concordance. I enjoy pointing out that in the Old Testament there are no emotions, feelings or experiences. Of course, we cannot do without later concepts in interpreting the Bible, but we have to be alert to how they can co-opt the Bible in the service of another ideology. Terms for states of mind in the Bible are primarily related to the external realities of a situation, not individual interiority (see, for example, this Grove booklet on joy). This is also evident in which common terms, like love and freedom, are redefined in ways that loose them from their biblical framing. Yet other major theological words are become increasingly rare in the speech of ordinary Christians, because they are at odds with modern thought. Examples would be election, covenant, sin, commandment, and judgement. Point of view is also symptomatic. There is a world of difference between the human subject being the dominant starting point, and the priority of God in the Bible and in the doctrine of revelation. For example, the referent-light ‘spiritual’ replaces God-talk, and mindfulness becomes the nearest secular equivalent of prayer.
4. Another practical response might be to develop what I might call a second modesty, echoing Paul Ricoeur’s second naivete. We cannot return to an age of innocence and unawareness of the sexualisation of our culture. But we can refuse to collude with it and ensure we return to the life-giving disciplines of Christian holiness. It is possible to ignore (or even contest) lewd comments, abstain from knowing laughs (even though we are well aware of the allusions), and resist following through the impure thoughts that are unavoidable today. We can take seriously the cautionary categories of temptation, shame, and confession. We can follow the cognitive discipline that Paul commends when he writes to the Philippians that they should think about ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable’ (4:8). This may mean choosing what to watch or read, or at least maintaining a critical distance. So too can we deliberately nurture the language of traditional Christian virtue: purity, chastity, faithfulness, modesty.
5. Finally, I would like to highlight the role of law and order in Trueman’s account. In a striking observation he argues that cultures are ‘defined by that which they forbid, specifically those sexual activities and relationships that they prohibit’ (p. 297). Concepts such as liberation have now been redefined with an emphasis on freedom ‘from’ rather than a freedom ‘for’. This highlights the very different understanding in Exodus, where the goal of liberation from Egyptian bondage is service (though the word is the same as for slavery) to the God of Israel, embodied in a commitment to obeying the commandments. Nor is love the free-flowing liquid love of modernity. Rather it is found in obedience to the commandments that define the community of faith (Deuteronomy 6:4-11; John 15:9-10). I suggest that one vital task is to recover the traditional Jewish appreciation of the gift of the law. Only within the fence of the law is it possible to know the security, peace and freedom of being a member of the people of God (see my Grove booklet on this). Inattention to these guidelines bring terrible consequences that affect not just individuals but also families, communities and the land (Deuteronomy 28). A serious question for our age is how far the modern idea of the self has resulted in the great problems of our age, including rising mental ill-health, the collapse of families and communities, and the consumerism that fuels the exploitation of the earth’s resources. Is there a correlation between the extent of this and how far people now live within a third world social imaginary?
Revd Dr Philip Jenson teaches Old Testament at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. His interest in cultural analysis was sparked by the work of L’Abri, and the challenge of making sense of other cultures was heightened by his scholarly interest in Leviticus. His concern to bridge the world of the Bible and the world of today has led to several Grove booklets on difficult texts.