Episode 16: The Modern Self – An Interview with Dr. Carl Trueman, Pt. I

Description of The Modern Self, Pt. I:

TSR sits down (via Zoom) with Dr. Carl Trueman to discuss his latest book. Come join The Socially Remote!

Summary of The Modern Self, Pt. I:

In this episode, TSR talks with Dr. Carl Trueman about his most recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, which looks at persons and events over the last 200 or so years that have led to a world where the phrase “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” makes sense to a growing percentage of its population. Dr. Trueman (“Carl” to friends like us) defines several key terms and concepts in his book and sets the stage for the second half of our discussion, where we will look at some of the key historical players who have helped shaped modern self-identity and talk through how the church can speak to the increasingly secular and sexualized culture in which it finds itself.


The Podcast:

Introduction to The Modern Self, Pt. I

Challenge to Our Listeners

Don’t forget our 2,020 listens by the end of 2020 campaign. We’re right around 1,665 listens, and we’d like to challenge our listeners to help us get to 2,020 listens by the end of 2020. Please rate, review, and share the podcast! Next we introduced the topic of this podcast, an interview with Dr. Carl Trueman about his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

Introduction

General
  • After Episodes 9 and 10 on Critical Theory, Matt shared with us a recent article Dr. Trueman wrote in August 2020 in First Things magazine entitled “Woke Repentance,” in which he observed that the recent focus of Christians has been to selectively apologize to the world for those sins the world presently deems as needed because Christians are seeking to enhance our status in the world, and that true repentance should be God-oriented and focused on all things that are an affront to him (not just those that are popular at the time)
  • From there, we discovered that David was a fan of Trueman’s podcast “The Mortification of Spin
  • Steven reached out to Trueman about doing a show on the article and Trueman and his publisher (Crossway) proposed an episode on his forthcoming book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self due out in late November (eBook – November 15th; Hardcover – November 24th).
  • In short, Trueman analyzes the development of the sexual revolution as a symptom―rather than the cause―of the human search for identity.
Early Praise
  • “This book is perhaps the most significant analysis and evaluation of Western culture written by a Protestant during the past fifty years.”
    Bruce Riley Ashford,Professor of Theology and Culture, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
  • “Carl Trueman has written an excellent book: ambitious in its scope yet circumspect in its claims and temperate, even gentlemanly, in its tone. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self will prove indispensable in moving beyond the superficiality of moralistic and liberationist interpretations to a deeper understanding and should be required reading for all who truly wish to understand the times we live in or are concerned about the human future. I very much hope it receives the wide readership it deserves.” ―Michael Hanby, Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy of Science, Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America
Sensitive Subject
  • This is a sensitive subject, especially in modern culture. For many, the subject we are about to discuss goes to the very essence as to who and how they define themselves as human beings.
  • So we approach this subject and this interview with care and sensitivity – in the spirit that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who taught us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
  • Finally, the goal here is one of understanding, careful reflection, and learning how to approach this sensitive issue as Bible-believing Christians.
  • As Trueman himself says in the final chapter, the point of this episode is not as a lament or a polemic:

It should be the Christian’s natural state to feel that the times are out of joint and that we do not truly belong here. Yet lamentation can too often become just another form of worldliness, and polemic simply a means of making ourselves feel righteous. There is an odd masochistic pleasure to always decrying the times and the customs of the day, and in that sense, lamentation and polemic always run risk of being less prophetic and more therapeutic in their motivation and their effect.

Dr. Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
  • Rather, as Dr. Trueman rightly says in his book,

The task of a Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately to them.

Dr. Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Sneak Peek of The Modern Self Pt. I

Introduction to Carl

Carl R. Trueman (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Creedal ImperativeLuther on the Christian Life; and Histories and Fallacies. Trueman is a member of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Introduction to the Book

This book came after a conversation with Rod Dreher and Justin Taylor. They wanted to see a volume introducing more people to the thoughts of Philip Rieff, the author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic. From there, it morphed into using the thoughts and ideas of Rieff to answer the question about how the phrase, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” has come to make sense to the ordinary man or woman in the streets (and not just crazy French post-structuralists in ivy league seminars). Indeed, such a phrase has become so plausible that to deny it’s plausibility is to render oneself liable to accusations of bigotry or irrational hatred.

The idea that this cultural moment has not just recently appeared on the scene, but is the result of 200+ plus years of thought.

Summary of the Book

  • Architecture of the Revolution – exploring some modern theorists who have provided useful ways of looking at recent history (an architecture) – Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre (concepts of first, second, and third worlds and also the progression of man from political man to psychological man)
  • Foundations of the Revolution – a look at the philosophical and artistic underpinnings of the challenge to moral norms and the removal of God (Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelly, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin)
  • Sexualization of the Revolution – a look at the psychologizing of identity and how sex became the primary marker of identity (Freud and the politicization of sex)
  • Triumphs of the Revolution – a look at our current culture (since the 1960’s) and how we’ve arrived where we are – cultural revolution to legal validation to expressive individualism manifesting itself in gender fluidity.

For the Counselors

David

David is encouraged that there is someone thinking and speaking about these things. But he is discouraged by where the culture is. He is also discouraged by the churches current lack of thinking and engagement on these issues.

Matt

Matt agrees that this book has been somewhat depressing. However he has been encouraged and emboldened by the books model of engaging on these topics.

Steven

After reading this book, I honestly feel both hope and despair. I also really appreciated your handling of what is happening in the humanities in the university; because as a grad student, I felt that. I felt the weight of not having a canon. So you gave words to something I’ve felt for a long time.

Carl Trueman

Dr. Trueman found this to be the most enjoyable book he’d ever written, because it was very intellectually stimulating. On the other hand it was also the most difficult book he’s ever written, because it was like trying to control an octopus. He agreed that the material was quite depressing. The other depressing aspect of the book was acknowledging that he will probably not live to see it get better in his lifetime.

His hope is that academics will take it seriously and that the arguments are strong enough to withstand the critics. He also hopes it helps Christians understand the depths of the problem and that we are complicit in the problem. We are all expressive individualists, and we are complicit with the erosion of marriage. Further, he hopes it drives home the need for community. Practically he hopes that the church understands that the answer is not having our doctrine correct, but rather living out that doctrine in a powerful way.


Deep Dive on The Modern Self Pt. I

Defining Self

Matt: The book starts out with foundational principles of the very nature of humanity. It does an excellent job of synthesizing 200+ years of intellectual and artistic thought on the concept of self and identity and how it has ultimately led to where we are now. When we talk about the term “self,” how are you defining it in this book (22)?

Carl: I’m really using the term as a holistic concept of identity. What makes us tick, and where is our place in this world.

Mimesis vs. Poiesis

Matt: Your work stands on the shoulders of the prior works of Charles Taylor (Canadian philosopher), Philip Rieff (American psychologist-University of Pennsylvania), and Alasdair MacIntyre (Scottish philosopher) as a framework or “architecture of the revolution” as you call it to the making and understanding the modern self and would like to highlight a few of these concepts. Can you help us understand a bit more about Charles Taylor’s view of mimesis vs. poiesis?

Carl: This is really how we think about the world. Mimesis is the term early socities would have thought about the world. The world comes with a given meaning and structure to which we must adapt ourselves. Whereas poiesis is an idea that emerges from the 16th century onwards. That the world does not have a given meaning or structure other than what we give to it. Nietzche of course expresses this philosophically by declaring the death of God. But he goes further and rightly identifies that we must now become god.

Technology also encourages us to think this way. We can bend reality to our will to a certain extent that was not available to an individual in the middle ages. The world seems to have less external authority.

Subdue the Earth

Steven: Isn’t this something of a biblical ideal, though (subduing the earth)?

Carl: The command to subdue is given to a creation that has a specific moral structure to it. And, in some ways Satan is the first deconstructionist. He questions the language and the motivation of God. Satan is the first poesis guy. Adam and Eve are commanded to subdue the earth in a mimetic way (find out it’s structure and tame it in accordance with that structure).

David: This is fascinating in light of historical movements (like the Industrial Revolution). It is really our attempt to seize control of all things.

Social Imaginary

Matt: Before we dive in further, I’m wondering if you could define a couple more terms that are important in your book. Specifically, I was hoping you could cover the social imaginary and expressive individualism.

Carl: The social imaginary is a term used by Charles Taylor to describe how most of us interact with the world. It is not in a logical, first principles sort of way. Rather it is in an intuitive sort of way. I may not know how my car works, but I know if I turn the key or press the button it (should) turn on. I know if I hold an apple in the air and drop it, it will fall to the ground (even if I can’t explain gravity). We intuit most things (including moral and ethical principles).

Expressive Individualism

Carl (cont): Expressive individualism is related to the social imaginary. Expressive individualism implies that my inner feelings are at the core of my being. They are who I really am. The way I feel and the desires I have are my true identity. And, consequently, the way to be an authentic human being is to be able to express those feelings, thoughts, and desires publicly. This is not an innate idea. There are other times and cultures that were not beholden to this way of seeing identity.

Steven: I really liked the example you gave in the book of our jobs. A few generations ago if you had asked someone if they were satisfied with their job, the answer would have been about whether it puts a roof over their head and / or provided for their family. Now the answer is much more about how we feel about the work. Does it bring us joy or happiness.

Carl: And worship is the same way! In more expressive traditions the focus is about how I can express myself in worship. That is very different than a liturgical service where the focus who you are as part of a corporate body.

First, Second, and Third Worlds

Steven: There are a few more terms we need to get through before we talk about some of the meat of your findings. I’m wondering if you can talk about first, second, and third worlds as well as the different types of man.

Carl: These ideas are from Philip Rieff. First worlds are essentially ancient worlds where fate plays a big role in what is going on. Men and women looked at the gods and goddesses to impose a sort of fate upon us (Sparta). Second worlds are worlds that are generated by Christianity. Judaism and Islam would also work for second worlds. The basic idea is that there is a God who gives a divine order to creation (Middle Ages). Third worlds have gotten rid of any kind of something beyond this world to justify this world (ours). Third world cultures are inherently fractious and unstable.

Development of Man

Carl (cont.): Political man is concerned about the polis (the good of the community) (Aristotle). Political man gives way to religious man. Religious man finds his identify in participating in religious rites (Canterbury Tales). Economic man follows religious man. Economic man finds his humanity most fully realized in economic activity and matters of the economy (factory workers, investors, stock brokers). Psychological man finds his fulfillment inwardly. Psychological man pursues inward peace and happiness, and that is the world we’re in now. These are of course types and ideals, but you’ll notice that the first three our outwardly directed. Identity comes from learning the way the world is and fitting yourself into it (mimesis). Psychological man, on the other hand, wants the world to fit around his needs and accommodate itself to him (poiesis).

Final Summary

At the end of this first part of the conversation, we have been able to discuss with Dr. Carl Trueman his goals and motivation behind writing the book, as well as the architecture he used when approaching the history of how we got where we are today. It sets the table for what we’ll discuss in part two of the conversation, the history of that discourse and then how should we as Christians respond?


Parting Shots

Matt

One of the better parts of this book is conceptualizing the topic within a larger context. He does it in a way that helps both the Christian and non-Christian understand that these concepts didn’t just emerge out of nowhere.

David

David really appreciates the book and his thoughts in this first part of the discussion. The church has to understand what it’s dealing with. We’ve ceded the ground on marriage and if we’re lazy on this issue of transgenderism, we’ll find ourselves looking back ten years from now wondering what happened. This ideology is so prevalent in our culture and it will only continue to gain popularity. We need to equip ourselves to understand what the Bible says about sexuality, about personhood, about purity while continuing to proclaim the truth in love. For the sake of the church, our faith, and those around us, we need to communicate that living a life according to God’s design is the only way to true peace and purpose.

Steven

The next episode is very important, but the ideas that have had the most impact on me are the ideas of the first, second, and third world. Trueman mentions in the book that this is the first time in history that a culture has moved from a second world with a transcendent authority to a third world where we are the authority. If we’re not careful, we’ll end up back in the dark ages where might makes right. Because, ultimately, in a third world, the individual(s) or group(s) with the most power dictate reality. These are really helpful frameworks for thinking about our reality.


Conclusion

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Finally, just a tease of what’s coming up on The Socially Remote:

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Please tune in for our next where we’ll continue our conversation with Dr. Carl Trueman about his upcoming book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. We’ll discuss the “how should we then live?” question about the content presented on this episode.

Until next time, we are The Socially Remote!


Links and Stuff

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Deep Dive segment introduction from “Dive” by Steven Curtis Chapman on the Speechless album. Used with permission courtesy of the Stable Collective.

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