Description of The Modern Self, Pt. II:
TSR continues our discussion with Dr. Carl Trueman about his latest book. Come join The Socially Remote!
Summary of The The Modern Self, Pt. II:
In Part II of our discussion with Dr. Trueman about his most recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, we look at some of the key historical figures who helped paved the way for our modern understanding of self and sexuality, and we discuss what the path forward might look like for the Christian church.
Introduction to The Modern Self, Pt. II
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On this episode, we continue our interview with Dr. Carl Trueman about his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
Sneak Peek of The Modern Self Pt. II
In the last episode, Dr. Trueman set the table for this episode’s conversation. He defined some key terms and outlined a little of the theoretical framework he used to approach the topic of his upcoming book. The book explores how the phrase, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” makes sense in our cultural moment. In this episode we’ll discuss some of the key figures who have led to this cultural moment, as well as how the church should respond.
For the Counselors
Knowing how this interview ends, Steven feels good-ish. He is concerned, of course. And there are many aspects of what we’re talking about that are alarming. But we still have hope in Christ. He also feels that the history we cover in this episode is very important. And he quoted Chesterton:
Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.G.K. Chesterton
He thinks history is important and it’s really important to know how we got where we are. I am excited about discussing where we go from here.
Matt feels that Dr. Trueman has really addressed this issue in a winsome way. While the book did depress Matt, the conclusion was winsome and encouraging. He liked that Trueman offers up how Christians ought to perceive themselves and how we ought to interact with society as a church.
Overall David was encouraged that there are faithful men who are thinking well and trying to apply Scripture to cultural issues in a very winsome, even-handed way. We need more of those voices. People unafraid to speak the truth in love and with patience so the church can remain faithful and ultimately serve as a beacon of hope and peace to the world around in order to point to Christ.
Deep Dive on The Modern Self Pt. II
Steven: I realize this is a tall order, but can you give us a condensed summary of 3/4 of your book? As you mention, many of our listeners are going to be unfamiliar with a number of the key player who helped shape modern society into what it is. It would be nice if you could summarize some of their more important contributions.
Carl: There are three big movements that bring us to where we are today:
The Self Gets Psychologized
Carl (cont.): This is represented by Rousseau and the Romantics (man is born free and society screws you up, and you need to get back to the inner voice of nature that is the true you . . . through art, poetry, music, etc.).
Psychology Gets Sexualized
Carl (cont.): This is Freud (recognizes that there’s a whole lot more depth to the individual than previously acknowledged . . . but also pushes that psychology at it’s deepest level is really dark and linked to sexual desires and that our desires are who we really are . . . sex becomes who you are and not something you do). It is at this point that Christianity began to really get into trouble, because a large portion of Christianity depends on a rather strict sexual ethic. And now, to deny someone’s sexual activity is really to deny a part of their identity (this is equivalent to racism in the moral register of the day).
David: You point out in the book that Freud indicates that to be satisfied is to be sexually fulfilled (here and now . . . not in some future state).
Carl: This ties into the purpose of sex (of which there are two in the Bible):
- It is a seal of marriage. It is of course, a pleasurable activity; but it is an activity confined to the relationship between one man and one woman.
- It is to produce children. And the production of children is very important within the Christian paradigm. But in the modern paradigm, children are almost collateral damage to the act which serves as my identity.
David: And this bleeds over into the point you make about “consenting” adults. In other words, incest is not that far from legitimacy if both siblings are adults and both adults are consenting and sterile (so they are not reproducing children with deformities).
Carl: Once we see the intrinsic moral structures of the acts themselves going away (i.e. the sexual acts themselves have no moral significance). The moral significance just lies with external factors like “consent.” This also jeopardizes prohibitions against sexual activity with minors, because consent is a very complex thing. We don’t require children’s consent for many things. They are required to do many things they’d prefer not to. The reduction of sexual ethics to consent is very complicated. This is further seen in things like #MeToo when you consider the idea of consent with different power relations involved. Very complicated issue.
Matt: It is a very tricky issue legally. I think it was Justice Scalia in his dissent for Lawrence vs. Texas (a case challenging sodomy laws which were ultimately deemed to prohibited liberty under the 14th amendment and therefore unconstitutional) who basically said that to throw this law out using the 14th amendment opens the door to challenge myriads of other laws in the same vein (incest, polygamy, etc.).
Carl: Indeed, in that dissent, does he not say that this paves the way for gay marriage?
Matt: Yes, yes, he does!
Sex Gets Politicized
Carl: Then of course, in the early 20th century, there were a number of key Marxist thinkers (Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, and Herbert Marcuse), men who were connected to the Frankfurt School make the connection between political oppression and sexual repression. They linked political liberation to the sexual codes. Sexual liberation becomes a concept and oppression becomes psychological. In previous decades oppression would have been not receiving a fair wage, not being able to vote, etc.; but today oppression is seen as words that hurt us.
Matt: Indeed, in the book you mention that some of these thinkers even viewed traditional sexual ethics as oppression.
Carl: Yes, this becomes a recurring theme with many of the Romantic poets (Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron, etc.) who think marriage is an oppressive institution. And then in the 20th century, Wilhelm Reich argues that the family is behind the training of little fascists. The family trains the children to obey the strong father figure in the family through the reinforcement of strict sexual codes (so we need to smash the family). That’s why when people “come out” or “transition,” the language they often use is “freedom.” They are smashing through the traditional sexual ethic and family.
Steven: I appreciated how you took that movement and then demonstrated how it is starting to devour itself from the inside-out (i.e. transgenderism has aligned itself with other marginalized groups – the LGB and Q – but those groups are reliant on specific biological definitions of sex).
Matt: So maybe to move forward you could talk a bit about how we get from the ideas of these high-level thinkers to the point where this sort of thinking enters the social imaginary.
The Social Imaginary
Carl: There are a number of answers to that, but it’s a very complex question.
- Cultures are often shaped by a trickle down from the elites. In second-world cultures, the elites were there to sort of preserve the cultures. But in the west now, the elites are more likely to attempt to transform the culture.
- Sexual desire is a very powerful thing, and any philosophy that says you can have more sex without any sort of punishment or consequences is going to ultimately win the day. And once you have contraception and antibiotics, a lot of the old reasons for “behaving yourself” disappear.
- Pop culture also plays a significant role, because it shows only what it wants you to see. For instance, you can get divorced and then three episodes later everyone is friends with their exes and life goes on. That is often not anywhere close to reality.
How Should We Then Live
Steven: Wow, we could spend an entire episode on nearly any one of these topics, but why don’t we take some time to talk about the three responses you give for the church to consider in these matters. One you’ve already hit on, community; but as a parent I want to understand this final one you talk about – a robust understanding and a high view of natural law and the physical body. How do I catechize my children so that these issues don’t turn into schisms within my own family and within the church?
Carl: These are not issues that can be addressed in isolation. Our kids will interact with the world and the broader culture. So firstly, we must deal with our children inside whole counsel of the word of God (participation in Church, Bible reading, prayer, etc.). Then the culturally relevant topics will be pressure points, but not maker-or-break issues.
Second, kids in the modern culture need to understand the why behind the Biblical commands. Whereas previous generations might have accepted, “because the Bible says,” that doesn’t work with this generation. Thus the ideas of natural law and a robust theology of the body is helpful in providing the whole counsel of God’s Word. It’s easy with younger kids to talk about the biological differences in the body. That a man and woman “fit” together. Additionally, the purpose of sex itself should be part of the discussion. These are powerful topics that go one layer beyond, “because the Bible says.” Indeed, look at the broader culture. Look, for instance at the “swinger” culture. You never hear of 80-year-old swingers. It is because they end up broken and destroyed from their lifestyle.
Paving the Way
David: Having lived abroad, who do you think is paving the way on these issues?
Carl: Modernity is taking different forms in different countries, so it’s very difficult to tell. One of the big differences that I see in the U.S. is how so much of this is being legislated through the Supreme Court. Part of a democracy means that you win some you lose some; but it’s a hard pill to swallow to know that very important issues are being decided on how potentially one person is feeling that day. And this has a huge polarizing effect on the nation. And that means the stakes are incredibly high with what should be a rather routine appointment.
The Supreme Court and the LGBTQ+ Movement
Matt: I am very passionate about this topic, so I appreciate you saying that. I too am concerned about the direction the Supreme Court seems to be taking – deciding morality. In a very real way, we are taking these very important decisions out of the hands of the people (abortion, gay marriage, etc.), and putting them into the hands of a very select few. In some ways, that is why these issues have become so political, because the courts have taken the decision away from the people. But you also point out that LGBTQ+ group has become a political force as a combined group as opposed to discreet groups, but that leads to fractiousness for the reasons we discussed earlier. Do you see such polarization throughout other European countries or is this a U.S. phenomenon?
Carl: Oh, the LGBTQ group is a remarkable success story everywhere. They’ve gone from marginalized to a very powerful force throughout the world. It’s the same in law courts everywhere. Traditionalists lost the battle when they lost the law schools.
Matt: So where do you see this going? What do you see are the next steps to the cultural movement and where does that place the Church?
Where We’re Going
Carl: Well, of course, that’s difficult to call. I think gay marriage is probably with us to stay. It conforms to the morals of our culture in that it allows people to be happy; and it allows them to express themselves. But transgenderism could ultimately collapse under it’s own weight. It could well prove to be a step too far in battling human nature. And it is also taking on too many powerful groups (traditional feminists, for example).
Additionally, what will likely emerge in the next 20-30 years is that a lot of kids who are being used by their trendy parents as chemical and surgical experiments will end up having miserable lives and sue their parents, the surgeons, and the insurance companies. And in America, public morality will start to change when it hits people in their pocketbooks. Unfortunately there will be a lot of ruined lives before that happens.
David: Right, and we’ll definitely link on our website to the article you just wrote on the how the LGBQ are in many ways challenging and rebuffing the T. You can find that article here: A Fracture in the Stonewall. Indeed, you demonstrate how this alliance is sort of caving in on itself. Even some of these entities that considered themselves in alliance are now starting beginning to experience infighting.
Carl: It’s starting to fall apart. The “L,” the “G,” and the “B” depend on their being a fundamental difference between men and women. Gender is not merely a construct for them.
Matt: So where are we in this society
Carl: I think we’ll definitely be on the margins. As a historian, I’m always looking for historical analogies. And I think perhaps we can think of ourselves as in the second century. In the second century, Christianity was a marginal sect. It was not really understood by the broader society. And there was deep suspicion of it being seditious, because it proclaimed Jesus as king. And it sounded immoral because it ate bodies and drank blood and married couples called each other brother and sister.
That is sort of where the church is today. We’re regarded as seditious because we won’t affirm the register of identities society’s now affirming, we’re seen as jeopardizing the social order. Because we won’t affirm those identities, we’re seen as immoral. So I think the second century is a great analogy. And the second century church was incredibly successful.
How? It was a tight-knit community. The culture-war was not the modus operandi. Instead the attitude was that we will live out our faith as good citizens, just don’t ask us to make someone or something else lord, and we’ll get along great. We will demonstrate our faith in the way we connect with society. But we won’t be able to do that in all areas. If you ask us to sacrifice to Caesar as a god, we’re going to say, “no.” And at that point, we accept that we’re going to have to face the consequences. But please don’t do that. If you leave us alone, we’ll be great citizens.
Carl (cont.): There’s a lot of the American religious right that too often defaults to martial language. We’re going to get hammered in “the culture war.” That’s a ridiculous and arrogant model that has no future. The way the church needs to think of these things is to know what it believes, be a tight-knit community, and we need to be good citizens to the extent we are able. And then be hospitable.
The wreckage of the sexual revolution and the wreckage of the identity revolution is going to leave a lot of broken people who will be looking for a place to call home. Where they can be accepted and helped. That’s where the church needs to be. The person who’s body has been mutilated because they thought they were a woman trapped in a man’s body and then found out they weren’t needs to be able to walk into a church and be loved and accepted. They don’t necessarily need to be affirmed in everything they believe, but they need to find a group of people who will care for them in a truly meaningful way.
Carl: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self in some ways is quite depressing, but we as Christians should not forget that we are merely pilgrims and sojourners here on earth. The heavenly city is our destination. We need to remember Paul’s words in the midst of suffering (worse than suffering we will likely ever experience), that the are “light and momentary afflictions compared to the eternal weight of glory that is to come” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Now, we don’t need to be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good. But nor do we need to put our hope in the earthly powers (controlling the Supreme Court, the Senate, the township, etc.). Our ultimate hope lies in the kingdom that is to come. I hope that is an encouragement.
Most of the things that Dr. Trueman writes go up on First Things. He also writes for Public Discourse and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. And he has a weekly podcast called the Mortification of Spin. He doesn’t do social media and considers it the work of the antichrist. The only three people who should have been allowed to have a Twitter account were Martin Luther, Freidrich Nietzche, and Oscar Wilde. Those three guys could have done it well. Everyone else is an amateur.
Thanks again, Carl, for your time and for this book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. It is certainly a resource for the church and it was an encouragement for us to talk through these things.
If there were things you wish we had spent more time on or ground you thought we should have covered, it’s likely that Carl does so in the book.
So, go buy the book!
If you have something to share for our season finale (what you liked, what you didn’t, what do you want to see next season, etc.), please shoot us a message to our email address.
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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!
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