If you were living 100 years ago and heard this statement, you would likely say that the person has a problem with their mind. Their mind needs to be brought back into line with their body.
However, today our culture has legally mandated that the person’s mind is fine, and their body needs to be realigned to match their perceived inner self.
So how has this momentous and existential shift taken place and how does it interact with the Christian faith?
In what will surely become one of the pivotal Christian books of this generation, Dr. Carl Trueman, Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, lays out the pivotal shifts in Western culture over the past three centuries that produces a statement like the one above.
I have followed Trueman’s writings for years. He has a sharp mind to examine theological issues, such as the Reformation, and as a good Church historian does, apply it to our modern day. So, when his new 2020 book, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution” was released, I was eager to see how he critiqued the rich philosophical and metaphysical tapestry from the Enlightenment to today.
This is Part 1 of a review of Trueman’s book and his answer to our initial question. In Part 2 (March) I will explore application and comments on this 2020 book.
Don’t read this book
Trueman’s book is not a simple holiday read. It covers some of the major historical players in secular philosophy from Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. He also draws in modern day thinkers such as Rieff, Singer and Greer.
Their ideas are not easy to understand as they connect to a matrix of cultural and individual aspects of the human psyche. If philosophy intimidates you, let me give a therapeutic suggestion to first listen to Trueman discuss his book on the many podcasts he has done. Then decide if you can handle the depth of this brilliant book. One Podcast suggestion is at this link: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3R9lTy6X2tdgl4qpDefcL7?si=XlXwrPJUT5SG4FFKzajNXQ&utm_source=native-share-menu
Another criticism given to Trueman is that he does not use his Orthodox Presbyterian Church background to tear these secular philosophers apart for blasphemy. To his academic credit, Trueman clearly states he wants his book to be neither a lament on lost sacred Christian foundations or a polemic against hedonism.
He wants to outline the foundations of these thinkers’ thoughts that set the trajectory towards our current world and LGBQTI+ hegemony. I think he is correct to set a foundation and create a debate rather than feel he has to defend God or answer why the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?
Do read this book
However, despite the fact Trueman uses big words, big concepts and has no pictures, the book is essential reading. The big concepts of hundreds of years of cultural thought may be hard to understand but are beautifully presented. His writing is like a skilled artist as he explains each step in the puzzle moving the reader towards our position today.
As he presents this tapestry of ideas, the skill of his writing allows you to start to see the overall big picture and application to our daily life. In the later chapters he applies the summaries to modern day events such as abortion, U.S. High Court cases and the transgender reality star of Bruce / Caitlyn Jenner.
It portrays someone who is widely read and has reflected deeply over many years on the way our culture has been shaped. Trueman, as a Pastor, theologian and historian is uniquely suited to write on this topic. You will not find better.
Trueman wants us to see that ideas matter. When a philosopher such as Rousseau circulates an idea that society imposes its power on people, stifling individual freedoms and true self actualisation, then this sets in motion a wave that breaks today as “expressive individualism”.
Or when a philosopher such as Freud uses scientific language to rationalize the sexualisation of everything, then that genealogy gives birth today to the sexualisation of everything from modern advertising to seeing our gender as our identity.
Or when a philosopher such as Nietzsche explains that “We have killed God. God is dead”, then this sets the thoughts in motion to search for a new foundation for society apart from the Judeo-Christian moral and ethical foundation the West was built on. Each idea snowballs, with new thinkers evolving these ideas for a new generation.
The result of these centuries of ideas is that, in the West, we are the kings of our consumer worlds. Advertising tells us we can have what we want. We self-create our own plastic mouldable worlds. Our culture creates desire so individuals can search after personal wholeness.
And it is not just in a materialistic sense, but in our sexual identity too. In this, Trueman brings together centuries of thinkers such as Rousseau’s individualism, Marx’s economics of oppression and Freud’s sexual hypothesis.
These are the pathologies that produced our present moment. They offer a world imagined in terms of self-creation rather than shaped by a teleology or sacred order. The result is that a Christian theocentric worldview is not only shunned but replaced by an egocentric god of self.
A great example in the book of both Trueman’s research breadth and brilliant analysis comes from comparing the shift in thought of two great philosophers: Rousseau (18th-century) and Augustine (fourth century).
The former, an example of the rejection of Christian ethics. The latter, a patriarch of Christian thought. Both reflect in their writings on the theft of an object.
Firstly, Rousseau: he is persuaded, by a friend, to steal some asparagus to make some money. Rousseau’s introspection of the incident is that his motivation for the crime was good as he wanted to please his friend. He stole to help his friend. The point is that Rousseau sees human nature as good, and that “sin” or human corruption was a social construct used to control individuals.
Now contrast Rousseau with Augustine, who in his writings shares a similar story with a different conclusion. Augustine and his friends steal some pears. Augustine also explains the social influence in his actions and that he was also not motivated by greed but social pressure.
However, he sees it not as a good desire misdirected but social sinful delight. Trueman brilliantly shows the worldview contrast: For Augustine, living in the fourth century, it was intrinsic, a sinful core, and the situation simply brought this out. For Rousseau, living in the 18th-century, it is external: it is society’s corrupting forces because his inner core is good.
This is a process of psychologising the self which Trueman also develops as a theme in his book. Trueman’s church history knowledge helps him draw the theological contrast between these theocentric and egocentric worldviews and develop the larger thesis of his book.
In summary, Trueman says that this shift takes place through the priority of inner feelings over biology and community. And this new expressive individualism is sexualized to see gender as a core to individual and social identity.
From this evolution of ideas, Trueman says we can understand this statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” as a position that has gradually progressed from centuries of secular philosophy and rejection of Christian thought.
Trueman’s book will become a pivotal piece for this generation in understanding the rise of our modern self and critical for the modern Church as to the way God is working providentially in the future. In Part 2 of this series (March) I will explore some possible application from Trueman’s book.
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and Pastor
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover1.html