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The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

How should Christians understand the current moral confusion with regards to gender and sexuality? How did we get to the place where someone can claim to be a woman trapped in a man’s body, without them being wheeled off to a mental institution? In one sense we would be right to simply say that this is an example of God’s judgment on our society. Man has rejected his Creator and God in turn has given man up to a debased mind (Rom. 1:28). But it would be irresponsible for Christians to simply dismiss as irrelevant the historical developments that lead up to the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s and the current LGBTQ+ movement. Carl Trueman in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self lays out the historical genealogy of these modern movements by tracing the development of ideas in the West over the last three centuries. In his book, Trueman explains that man first became psychologised, then psychology became sexualized and finally we have arrived at the place where sexuality has become politicized. This book is therefore an examination of the historical development of the modern conception of the self. It would be impossible in this short review to summarize accurately how this development took place according to Trueman, but we will briefly consider the four parts into which the book has been helpfully divided.

Part 1 of the book deals with insights raised by thinkers like Philip Rieff (a Sociologist), Charles Taylor (a Philosopher) and Alasdair MacIntyre (an Ethicist). Carl Trueman shows that a shift has taken place in society with reference to the authority given to human feelings or emotion. A moral revolution has taken place where feelings rather than objective truth determine what is to be regarded as right and wrong. As Trueman explains, ethics thus becomes a function of feeling. This is why the statement “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” has ceased to be ludicrous. The fact that the woman feels like her “true self” is actually male carries more weight than the physiological fact that she was born with XX chromosomes. The body is little more than an appendix to the self – a shell within which the self finds itself. This separation of the self and the body is of course what has lead to the modern distinction between sex and gender and why, should these two be out of sync, it is the body that must be surgically and chemically altered to reflect the gender the individual has come to identify themselves with.

Part 2 explores the roles played by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin in the radical shift that has taken place in human teleology (the purpose of human existence). The ideas of these men have led to the widespread rejection of Christian Theism – separating man from his Creator. In the absence of a Creator who reveals his authoritative will to His creatures, man is left to not only determine his own morality, but he is also free to redefine the purpose for which he exists. The highest good therefore becomes being true to one’s self – being authentic, while the idea of a divinely ordained moral law must be rejected as restrictive and oppressive since it inhibits the individual’s ability to express themselves freely.

Part 3 of the book considers how this psychology became sexualized through the influence of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Freud, more than anyone, says Trueman, was responsible for the sexualisation of psychology. For Freud, man is essentially a sexual being and therefore being free to express ones sexuality and pursuing sexual fulfilment is at the heart of what it means to be human. This means that for Freud, sex was not simply to be regarded as an act (something humans do), but something we are (the essence of our identity). But this sexualized man was then politicized through the work of the Marxist Frankfurt School – specifically the writings of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. As a result of their influence modern man has embraced the idea that any restriction or taboos placed upon his sexual activity must be seen as both oppressive and evil.

In part 4 Trueman explains how all of these ideas have been disseminated at a popular level and demonstrates that they lie at the root of all of the sexual and moral confusion we see all around us. He shows how this has lead to the normalization of pornography (what he calls the pornification of our culture) and how this thinking shapes what is emphasized in academic institutions. Perhaps most shockingly, he shows how this kind of thinking has influenced even the rulings of the Supreme Court in the United States. All of this, says Trueman, is simply an outworking of the intellectual traditions of the West that has shaped who we are and what we intuitively believe.

Trueman makes it very clear that his book is neither a polemic against the LGBTQ+ movement nor a lament over the moral corruption that is threatening to destroy our society. His desire is to move the Church beyond simply complaining about what we see happening and instead seek to understand the ideas that underpin the secular worldview and look for ways to respond appropriately. Christians must play the hand that they’ve been dealt, he says, lamenting about how bad that hand is will accomplish nothing. He does not give his readers much practical instruction with regards to what this appropriate response should look like. But then again, he does make clear that this book was never intended to be the final word on the subject. It is a prolegomenon, an introduction to the subject that will hopefully lead to fruitful exploration by others.

My only critique of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self would be the fact that it is written at an intellectual and technical level that may make it inaccessible to many Christians. The reason I find this so frustrating is that the average Christian desperately needs to be educated on these issues. The intellectual heritage of the West has not only affected those we would label as leftists or liberals. None of us are immune to its influence. We all intuitively think like Expressive Individualists and we can’t even begin to think about engaging the culture around us if we’ve yet to discover how that culture has shaped us as well. But my hope is that Trueman’s book would indeed accomplish what he set out to do. That it would at least start a conversation on these issues. That we would see more books on this subject, especially books written at the popular level that would help Christians understand the culture of Expressive Individualism – a culture which, as much as we might want to deny it, has had an influence on us all.