The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman (Crossway, 2020) was named this year’s top book in the Public Theology and Current Events category by The Gospel Coalition. Trueman, a former William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University, is currently professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He was kind enough to talk with me about this fascinating and insightful work.
KSP: The title and subtitle of your book are quite a mouthful, but they do capture the depth and complexity of the work: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Let’s start with “modern self.” Can you briefly explain what philosophers mean when they use this term?
CRT: I use the term to mean the way in which we see the significance of ourselves as individuals. To put it another way, what makes us tick – how we understand the nature of human happiness or fulfillment and how we see our identity in relation to the world around us. The question is whether these are things we choose for ourselves or things we have to learn from the way the world is. The answer in the modern world focuses on sexual desires and fulfillment. My book is in a sense preoccupied with why our culture answers the question ‘Know thyself!’ in such terms.
KSP: And what do you mean in the book by “cultural amnesia”?
CRT: This refers to the tendency in our culture today to forget or repudiate the past, sometimes intentionally, sometimes as a function of broader cultural and educational changes. Gay marriage might be the most obvious example, where society has now rejected as normative a definition of marriage that was normative for many generations. We also see it in the so-called ‘cancel culture’ and #disrupttexts movement. As a general phenomenon, cultural amnesia tends to set the present in an adversarial relationship to the past.
KSP: And “expressive individualism”?
CRT: This is the normative notion of the self in modern western society: that at my most fundamental level I am who I feel myself to be inside; and I am at my most authentic when I am able to live outwardly in accordance with that.
KSP: It would (and does) take the entire book to flesh out the connections you make between these concepts and the sexual revolution that has been occurring over the last half century, so let’s skip that and just encourage people to read the book instead. But I would like to touch on some of the notes that you hit along the way. As a literature professor and lover, I was surprised, pleased, and impressed at the role you assign literature (specifically Romantic literature) in your cultural history. For years, I have told my students that all the while the church has been arguing about the relationship between science and religion, it was art and literature that were having at least as strong (if not stronger) influence on our social imaginary. As a professor of biblical and religious studies, how did you discover this important role literature played in getting us where we are as a culture today?
CRT: I am not sure I remember exactly how. I think I was fortunate at my grammar school to have English teachers who inspired me as a teenager to read and love literature, especially that of the Romantics. That’s no mean feat for teachers at an all-boys school. From them, and from my undergraduate studies in Classics, I came to realize that the most important questions in life – those of love and hate, life and death, beauty and passion, loyalty, and betrayal – were not reducible to chemical reactions or algorithms. As human beings, we are not simply the chemical compounds out of which we are made. The Romantics (and indeed expressive individualism) point to truths about human nature. And that means that it is those things that shape our feelings, our intuitions, that play such a huge role in how we imagine ourselves and our world to be. Thus, you are absolutely correct: the religion v. science debate grips the imagination, but the humanities v. religion debate is far more important. It is why the message you have repeatedly pressed home — that we read well, that we are serious, critical, and discerning about literature, music, and art – is so vital. Sadly, more Christian people likely have their moral imaginations shaped by trashy sitcoms than carefully argued sermons.
KSP: A major role in the rise of the modern self was, as you explain, the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud. While you offer an excellent history and analysis of Freud’s contribution to our current culture, I was wishing that you had included the way in which some of Freud’s most flawed theories were developed from his ultimate refusal to believe the stories of sexual abuse he heard from his female patients, instead concocting bizarre and harmful theories about women’s sexual fantasies. I wonder if this blip on the radar of human history offers an example of how ignoring or denying real pain and suffering can lead later to a kind of equal reaction in the opposite direction, and how that phenomenon might fit into the bigger picture you draw in your book?
CRT: Yes. I was grateful for the email exchange we had on this. Of course, I focused my discussion of Freud on the aspects of his theories of most direct relevance to my overall narrative and so did not address this. But it actually strengthens my narrative in three ways. First, it fleshes out the background to, and importance of, Freud’s sexualization of children. Second, it is another example of where a theory can be wrong but so come to grip the cultural imagination that it shapes attitudes and behavior on a massive scale. Third, and flowing from this last point, it offers more evidence that a deeply wrong conclusion sets the terms of later debates which are consequently highly problematic because they refract the issue through a distorting lens.
KSP: Your book offered an unexpected and needed encouragement, Carl. Anyone who knows you or your work knows that you are a man of (ahem) strong opinions that are often strongly worded. Yet, in the book you aim (as you state in the introduction) to do the hard work of giving an “accurate account” of views you disagree with. “There is nothing to be gained from refuting a straw man,” you write. Yet, we are living in days when it is rare—even in (perhaps especially in) the church—to see even an attempt to understand opposing ideas and present them fairly and honestly. I would go so far as to say that whatever “culture war” it is we want to win, nothing else will make us lose it more than quixotic battles against straw men. Beyond the actual ideas in your book (as important as they are), I am tempted to think that it is the posture you model that will do the most work in helping truth to triumph in our culture. That wasn’t a question! But please comment on this.
CRT: Well, we all grow older and hopefully we all grow a little more mellow, even perhaps kinder! I have, it is true, always enjoyed a good argument but I am increasingly worried that social media is leading to a real breakdown of thoughtfulness at the same time as normalizing slander and misrepresentation. For example, I am really horrified at the routine contempt many Christians show for each other on Twitter. Our behavior often seems indistinguishable from the loud-mouthed loutishness of our political leaders, right and left. The rising generation of young Christians needs good examples to follow. They need our generation to grow up, tame our tongues, and model how to treat others with intellectual depth, seriousness, and fairness, even where we disagree, perhaps disagree very strongly, with them. That does not mean being bland or never expressing forthright opinions that some may consider offensive. But it does mean remembering the Ninth Commandment and that the purpose of engagement is to convict and persuade, not to denigrate and destroy. Caricaturing or lying about a particular idea or person will only ever do the latter.
KSP: Finally, can you note implications of anything we’ve talked about for those of us who are teaching, whether on how we teach or who the “selves” are that we can expect to teach in this cultural moment, even in Christian institutions of learning?
CRT: My experience at Grove City College leads me to believe that there are a lot of good, thoughtful, young Christian people in our classes. What they sometimes lack is awareness of how the culture is shaping the way they think and that means they tend to absolutize themselves and their own moment in history. Those of us who have the privilege of teaching them need to make them aware of the cultural water in which they swim. My book is an attempt to do just that in one particular area, that of sexual identity. But the task is much broader. To help them fulfill the mandate ‘Know Thyself!’ we need to expose them both to the great truths of the Bible as expressed in the Christian tradition, and to the ways in which human beings have reflected on the human condition in literature, art, music, and other areas over the centuries. We need to help them relativize the present – and themselves — so that they can come to see that reality is much bigger, and God much greater, than their pet concerns and personal priorities.
KSP: Since you and I had this initial conversation, you published an essay at First Things on critical race theory that produced some objections that you did not present opposing ideas as fairly or accurately as you have been praised for doing in your book. Would you like to respond briefly to that criticism?
CRT: Of course, however fair one tries to be, the claim that one has presented a straw man is a classic rhetorical response from those who do not like what one has to say, and is particularly tempting when the opposite is the case as it alleviates the need for actually engaging arguments. Those making such a response need to prove that what is presented is indeed a straw man and not representative of the claim being made. My response to such is always: Well, don’t just tell me I’ve presented a straw man, show me how I have done so, where I have misused quotations or mischaracterized arguments. If critics won’t do this, one has to assume that the straw man response is itself an example of the straw man argument.
KSP: Well, all we can do to move forward is to continue these kinds of discussions, as you suggest here. Thank you for doing so.