Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self has been called one of the best—if not the best—book written by a Christian in recent years. I am thankful for the review copy I received through the Crossway Blog Review program. For several decades sociologists and theologians have been analysing Western culture in terms of secularisation and the “triumph of therapeutic.” In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Trueman has taken this literature—often written in dense, academic prose—and presented it in a thoroughly researched and enlightening analysis of the changes in Western culture that have resulted in a world where the claim “I am a woman trapped in man’s body” (20) is treated as legitimate. To be sure, Trueman’s books is dense in its own way—just over 400 pages in length—but the pastor and student will find it far more accessible than the cultural analyses upon which Trueman relies (primarily Rieff, Taylor, and Macintyre). After summarising Trueman’s argument, I want to call in to question one claim he repeats throughout the book and then conclude on the same note he does: if his analysis is correct, what do we as Christians do about it?
Trueman contends that claims such as the one quoted above imply significant metaphysical assumptions. Something dramatic must happen to the mental framework by which people interpret the world to move from a world where such a claim would be laughed at to a world in which it is welcomed not only as a valid but a courageous confession. Using Charles Taylor’s terminology, the “social imaginary” of the culture—the “set of intuitions and practices” by which people interpret reality (37)—has undergone an extraordinary change. Trueman explains this important concept as “the way people think about the world, how they imagine it to be, how they act intuitively in relation to it,” though it is not “a set of identifiable ideas” (37). Trueman argues that the sexual revolution which has culminated in the transgender movement is not itself the primary revolution but a symptom of a deeper change in our perception of what it means to be a “self” (25). This transformation is also manifest in the rise of what Macintyre identifies as “emotivism,” the self’s intuitions and feelings as the ultimate determiner of truth and reality. Trueman’s argument is developed over four parts.
In Part 1 (Chapters 1 – 2), Trueman sets forth the concepts that will govern his analysis of history. He relies heavily on three figures to provide this conceptual apparatus, Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Of this conceptual vocabulary, “social imaginary,” “deathworks,” and “emotivism” are key (to select several terms). “Deathwork” is Rieff’s term for cultural products that form an “anticulture,” an intentional repudiation of the reigning social imaginary: “A deathwork… represents an attack on established cultural art forms in a manner designed to undo the deeper moral structure of society.” An anticulture is a “third” culture in which there is no transcendence that shapes social order and which intentionally repudiates the prohibitions or “interdicts” of a “second” cultural, where a sacred order governs the social (89). “Emotivism” is MacIntyre’s description of the morality that governs the contemporary world, a morality where the primary standard for right and wrong is a person’s feelings: “the language of morality as now used is really nothing more than the language of personal preference based on nothing more rational or objective than sentiments or feelings” (85). MacIntyre does not intend “emotivism” as a theory for justifying morality but a description of how moral languages functions in our society (85-88).
Part 2 looks at early developments towards the modern self in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantics, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin. The former figures turn the focus of human selfhood towards the individual’s inner life. The latter three figures, Trueman claims, undermine the objective reality of human nature (“essentialism”) and introduce its subjective malleability. Taken as a whole, these figures contribute to a “psychologizing of the self.”
In Part 3, Trueman shows that Sigmund Freud moves this psychologized self in a dramatically sexual direction. In Freud’s thought, sexuality becomes the fundamental meaning of human nature. In later decades when Freud’s thought influenced Marxists, the sexualization that came to define the self is made fundamentally political. Thus, with the New Left, sex as an extension of what it means to be a self becomes fundamentally political.
In Part 4, Trueman then brings the historical developments he has tracked to bear on contemporary society. In Chapter 8, he targets the rise of “the erotic” and the prominence of pornography; in Chapter 9, he looks at several Supreme court decisions surrounding gay marriage, Peter Singer’s ethics, and the recent college protest culture. In Chapter 10, he addresses the history of the LGBTQ+ movement. His conclusion ends with the reflections on how the church may respond to the issues and themes he raises across the book. (For a more extensive contents summary, see Review: ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self’ by Carl Trueman (thegospelcoalition.org)).
The argument is well constructed, clear, and persuasive. The depth and clarity of Trueman’s argument, married with good style, are an extraordinary combination. However, I found one theme that Trueman raises throughout the book to be an exception to the work’s overall persuasiveness. Throughout Trueman’s analysis, he connects the loss of an essentialist view of human nature with the rise of the modern psychological self. Trueman argues that what it means to be human is malleable because we have lost the belief in the fundamental, metaphysical reality of human nature. As a corollary, one of Trueman’s application points is the need for a Protestant ressourcement of natural law and, implicit in this, its metaphysically essentialist foundation (405). This is the weakest point of Trueman’s work. On the one hand, restoring essentialism will not fix the problem. That is, to assert a metaphysical reality such as that envisioned by the Greeks does not immediately make this reality normative. Philosophy over the years has called into question the oughtness of metaphysical claims; that is, that something is the case does not immediately imply an ought. To move from an “is,” from some reality (e.g. a metaphysical human nature), to an ought (i.e. the moral necessity of a certain response), there needs to be a major premise that justifies this move (a reason why we ought to respond in that way). The major premise itself is called into question by modern philosophy: there needs to be a belief such as, “we ought to submit to reality once we have identified it,” to make an ought from an is. There is no foundation for such a belief in modern worldviews. Furthermore, this belief is self-destructing. That is, “nature” or “reality” leads us in contradictory or unsavoury directions. For example, many cultures have an intuitive sense of the goodness of mercy and kindness, yet nature is itself cold-hearted and often brutal. The “ought” of the former (that mercy and kindness are good) contradicts the latter (that brutality is a reality and, therefore, a good). As another example, take the ant and koala: observing the former’s diligence does not make it any more normative than the latter’s laziness.
On the other hand, it is not clear that essentialism is philosophically tenable, let alone desirable for a Christian. I am currently working on several projects that demonstrate the incompatibility of essentialism with the Bible, and for hundreds of years, Western philosophy has criticized its assumptions. One author has recently argued that Christology is the harbinger of ancient essentialism’s demise. In The Rise of Christian Theology and the End of Ancient Metaphysics, Johannes Zachhuber argues that post-Chalcedonian Christology led to the rejection of Greek philosophy’s fundamental assumptions, assumptions which necessitated essentialism. If we accept Zachhuber’s conclusion, then Christology itself laid the foundation for Ockham’s conceptualism, which rejected metaphysical essentialism. Christology also laid the foundation for George Berkeley’s critique of Lockean substance, the other half of the essentialist picture. Without the belief in the particular substance or metaphysical essence, there is no belief in essentialism. If essentialism is not the answer to the rise of the psychological self and its attendant belief in the malleability of human nature and the self? This brings us to reflections on the way forward for Christians.
What Trueman offers is “essentially a prolegomenon to many discussions that Christian and others need to have about the most pressing issues of our day, particularly as they manifest themselves in the variety of ways in which the sexual revolution affects us—personally, culturally, legally, theologically, and ecclesiastically” (31). How can we, as Christians, respond to a world where the social imaginary presupposes the self’s complete autonomy and its utter malleability? As a first reflection, our response should not be cast as “how do we save the culture?” I have argued recently that this cannot be the Christians goal. Instead, we need to ask, how do we raise our children to imagine the world in a different manner, and how can we effectively reach this world with the Gospel? In answer to these questions, I think Trueman’s claims concerning “natural law” are heading in the right direction but do not go far enough. If the modern psychological self is essentially a position of radical autonomy, were my feelings and desires construct reality and determine the truth, the answer to such a position is a right orientation to authority. Essentialism and natural law cannot be this answer because they are, minimally, insufficient authorities: they require a higher authority to validate them. Furthermore, they are both—arguably—philosophically untenable (see my books, Prevenient Grace, The Gift of Knowing, The Gift of Purpose, and The Gift of Seeing [Forthcoming].) Instead, as I argued in The Gift of Knowing, we need to reclaim the authority of Yahweh, our God, over all creation. If our fundamental posture towards life and reality is submission to Christ as Lord, we will accept his definition of reality. God’s definition of reality includes normative evaluations of biological sex and its implications for our roles in the world. If we raise our kids to not only believe in God but to submit to God, they will have the tools to imagine a world where the self is not god. On the evangelistic font, we can point to the inadequacy of the current view of reality to describe our experience. For example, many people who have transitioned genders have regretted the decision, and the rates of depression among those post-transition remain high. Reality bites back: we may believe in its infinite flexibility, but if we fail to reckon with the way God has ordered the world, we will find ourselves continually thwarted in our purposes. We can—and must—point to Yahweh who has revealed himself in the Bible as the only answer to the metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and existential crises of the present age. Trueman’s work is a profound exposition of our current culture, against which the Gospel shines in beautiful distinction. I highly commend The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.