The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution
The oft-used analogy that “fish don’t know they’re in water” is a reminder that a worldview, or, in Charles Taylor’s more nuanced phrase, a social imaginary (26), often becomes so taken for granted that we do not notice it anymore. Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, reveals the water in which we are swimming. But, we could invoke another water metaphor to suggest that he has done more than that. That is the one where the frog fails to react to slowly heating water until it is too late. When the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation unleashed ideas that elevated human autonomy as a central feature of modernity, few could have predicted where these ideas would lead. Hindsight and historians, however, help us look back to see how we got to a world where it makes sense to most of us when someone says, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (19).
Trueman’s primary discipline is church history, so he acknowledges in a recent Gospel Coalition podcast that his latest book takes him into new territory,1 and he admits early in the book that his survey of the modern self is selective and brief, and therefore cannot be exhaustive. However, Trueman’s curiosity as a widely-read historian and his pastoral sense of the influence of culture on the church make him well suited to his task in this book. Since he covers territory already traversed by Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre, one might be tempted to dismiss Trueman’s book as lacking originality. But that would be a mistake. Trueman’s contribution in this book is to mine important insights from these three authors, as well as many others, and make them accessible to current readers. Even more helpful, however, is his ability to connect the dots in a way that helps readers understand the historical developments that have shaped our culture’s sense of self, and more specifically, how that understanding of the self has transformed our understanding of sexuality.
Trueman’s overall project is to show how the modern concept of the self in the West has evolved from externally derived sources in which a person’s identity was defined by institutions such as church, family, and tribe. This transformation did not occur in a linear fashion, but with still recognizable phases. First the sense of self became “psychologized,” turning inward to focus on one’s feelings as an authoritative guide. Trueman quotes Rousseau’s Confessions as an example: “The particular object of my confessions is to make known my inner self…. [A]ll I need do… is to look inside myself” (108). It does not take much imagination to see how this idea is ubiquitous in today’s 24/7 social media world. Next, the self became sexualized, a shift Trueman primarily attributes to Freud. Although Freud’s theories have been largely debunked today, the idea that sexuality is at the heart of our identity (what Mark Regnerus has now depressingly called the “genital life”2) has persisted to the point where we now view sexuality as something we are, rather than merely something we do. Freud’s focus on sexuality gave scientific legitimacy to heirs to Marxist thought who sought to politicize the psychologized and sexualized self. Trueman singles out some of the key figures in the so-called Frankfurt School of critical theory, particularly Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich. The Frankfurt School sought to extend Marxist analysis beyond economics by expanding its critique of capitalism to what it perceived to be the institutions that supported and legitimized capitalism, including marriage and the family, and therefore also traditional ethics of sexuality. As Trueman puts it, “To transform society politically, then, one must transform society sexually and psychologically” (250). For Marcuse, Reich, and others in the Frankfurt School, the liberation of sexuality from the repressive norms associated with traditional marriage was essential in overcoming oppressive capitalism. Freedom from these societally imposed norms was necessary if persons were to be fully free and authentic to their true selves.
It is one thing for philosophers and academics like Rousseau, Freud, Marx, and others to develop these ideas, but is that sufficient for these notions to capture and sway the popular imagination? Here Trueman helpfully surveys accompanying influences in popular culture that helped to spread these ideas. For example, he quotes William Blake’s poem “The Garden of Love” as an expression of the idea that the church has repressed human’s true and authentic selves: “And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars, my joys and desires” (156). Similarly, Trueman describes how the Surrealist movement of the early twentieth century contained elements that explicitly sought to undermine Christian understandings of sexuality. Again, his treatment is not exhaustive, and no doubt there are those who would contest or revise his examples. Nevertheless, his inclusion of the Romantics and the Surrealists is useful in identifying the power of popular culture to push what might otherwise be obscure ideas out of the ivory tower and into the public square.
Trueman also argues for the existence of an explicitly anti-Christian animus behind these developments. For example, the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake are representative of ideas that were gaining traction in the early nineteenth century which viewed Christian sexual mores as repressive and immoral constraints on the human capacity for freedom and authenticity. Similarly, Trueman notes that the aim of many of the figures he identifies—whether Marx, Freud, Reich, Marcuse, or others—was not simply to expand the boundaries of sexual identity and expression, but to eliminate any such boundaries at all. The very idea of boundaries assumes an external authority, specifically God, which is seen as an affront to the modern self who alone should be freed to determine one’s choices based only on inner desires.
Trueman seeks charity and balance in his treatment of the ideas of those he surveys. He does so by presenting their arguments using their own language and often including quotations from original sources. These choices were intentional, for while those he critiques “might demur to [his] conclusions,” Trueman hopes they will, “at least recognize themselves in [his] account of their thought” (31). For the most part he succeeds, although I wonder whether his use of labels such as “the New Left” (252-3) or “elites” (91) might not be perceived as recognizable by those who he includes in such groups.
Lest Christians are tempted to use Trueman’s analysis as ammunition for fighting culture wars, or wring our hands at the loss of the “good old days,” Trueman repeatedly makes clear that he intends his work to be neither a lament nor a polemic. This is a caution worth repeating; we may be tempted to separate our culture into “us” and “them,” and to dismiss or criticize “them” for how “they” have accepted culture’s definitions of the self and have acquiesced to expressive individualism. Not so fast, warns Trueman. As he rightly notes, Christians cannot separate ourselves from our culture and point fingers at others. “We are all expressive individualists now,” (386) he observes, and as a pointed example he notes the widespread trend for Christians to prioritize their own choices in denominations, churches, worship styles, and more.
The modern understanding of the self is not all bad, of course. Trueman does acknowledge that some of these developments have been unmistakably beneficial. For example, he highlights the very notion of human rights, the enhanced freedom from oppressive systems, and the recognition of the need to protect individual dignity, especially for those who are marginalized. Nevertheless, Christian readers would do well to take seriously Trueman’s account as a warning: “…the framework for identity in wider society is deep rooted, powerful, and fundamentally antithetical to the kind of identity promoted as basic in the Bible” (393).
But having now been made aware of the deep roots of the sexual revolution, what would Trueman have us do? By “us” Trueman states that his primary audience is Christians in the West, and—wearing his hat as a pastor—he intends his book not only for academics or historians, but for the person in the pew who needs to understand our times. Cautiously, he offers some concluding thoughts which are most valuable as resources to help Christians increase their critical discernment and awareness of the waters in which we are swimming. But, to keep from being boiled alive, we are going to have to do more than just raise our awareness. Here Trueman offers a somewhat bleak appraisal, noting that, “there is no compromise that can really be reached” (401) between those defending religious freedom and those advocating for ever greater expansion of sexual identity rights. This observation echoes the insights recently made by Steven D. Smith, whose comparison of Christianity in the current era versus the pagan era of the Roman Empire led him to observe that, “the Christian view of sexuality was not only radically alien; it was close to incomprehensible.”3 Trueman argues that a Christian social imaginary and sexual ethic are most plausible when the church lives out its convictions in communities where biblical sexual ethics are taught. Such teaching is most effective, of course, when it is accompanied by action; that is, when the church gives witness to the truth that human flourishing comes not from inventing our own rules, but when we honor God’s laws as the guide for what is best for us. Trueman’s call to recover Christian community is reminiscent of what James Davison Hunter urged more than a decade ago:4 to change the world we must focus on being faithfully present where we are. Although Trueman’s book may not offer details on how to do that, its most useful contribution is to provide in one volume a clearer understanding of why it is important.
Cite this article
- Collin Hansen & Carl Trueman, “The Gospel Coalition Podcast.” Last modified November 17, 2020. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/the-rise-and-triumph-of-the-modern-self/
- Mark Regnerus, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), chapter 6.
- Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 122.
- James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity Today (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).