Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman

As I write this, two coincidentally related things have just happened. Firstly, I’ve just finished reading Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020). Secondly, I’ve just heard the news that the Australian state of Victoria’s Parliament, in their lower house, has passed a bill prohibiting “conversion practices”. I’ll come to Trueman’s book in a moment. First, I need to explain about the Victorian law.

The Victorian Legislation

This Victorian bill has an explicit aim that is far broader than simply outlawing the dubious fringe practice of gay “conversion therapy”. Rather, the law is intentionally taking aim at a wide range of interpersonal interactions, with the core examples identified including “religious practice” such as “prayer based practice” and “conversations with a community leader that encourage change or suppression of sexual orientation or gender identity”.

The bill makes absolutely clear that it is not seeking to ban “practices that assist a person undergoing (or considering) a gender transition”. In fact, this kind of change (of gender) and suppression (of biology) is something the bill is designed to protect and support. Rather, the bill is specifically targeting practices and conversations that encourage what it describes as “change” and “suppression” in the other direction. This includes, for example, providing help and encouragement to a person to affirm them in remaining true to their own Christian conviction to remain celibate in their own circumstances. While the bill does not yet specifically seek to ban Christian sermons and statements of faith relating to sexuality, it has been made clear that these things may well be targeted by future legislation. The bill includes provisions for criminal offences for causing “psychological harm”, carrying prison terms of up to 10 years and fines of up to almost $2 million.

This explicit targeting of religious prayer practices and conversations as harmful and in need of state prohibition across Australia has been supported and endorsed by Amnesty International, which has a petition calling on governments to (among other things) “Ban practices … (including pastoral care and religious) settings, whether paid or unpaid” in order to “protect people from being harmed”. Note that this is the same Amnesty International who were originally established to oppose “the global trend of people being imprisoned, tortured or executed because their political views or religious orientation were unacceptable to their governments“.

Why do I care?

OK, so maybe you’re wondering at this point why I’m going into such detail about Australian state legislation in a book review. In fact, it’s possible that you’ve already made up your mind about what my motives are here. Let’s face it: social media and the modern world in general have trained us all to jump quickly to conclusions about people’s motives before we’ve heard them out. We all feel the need to instantly categorise people, decide whether to love them or cancel them, feel the instant feels, and then move on to the next issue. So—have you made any snap decisions about what my motives are here?

There are various possibilities for what you might be thinking I’m doing. Maybe I’m a religious traditionalist, lamenting the decline in the morals of a bygone era. Maybe I’m a social warrior, trying to stir up a bit of juicy political outrage against the imposition of the state on religious freedom. Maybe I’m a frothing compassionless conservative, full of an irrational phobia (homophobia? transphobia? something-else-phobia?) caused by an inadequate childhood which may have created in me a desperate need for power and control. Maybe I’m just desperately sad for those who will be harmed by this legislation through the state removal of the kind of help and support they would previously have sought. So what’s my true motivation? Can you guess? (By the way, this is all quite relevant to the book review, so hear me out).

Some of these possibilities point to positive motivations that I might indeed have in other contexts. I do believe that the Bible’s vision of morality is good for humanity, and should be promoted and shared. I do believe that it is right to lament our own sin and the desperate situation of the tragic world we live in. I do believe that the hard-won religious freedom of our modern democratic society is worth protecting, and needs to be preserved even as we seek to show compassion to the vulnerable. I do believe that there is a real spiritual battle happening in our world and our lives, and that we need to pray earnestly that the light of God’s truth is spoken into the darkness. I do believe that we should love our neighbour, so I do believe it is right to warn our society of the potential impact of such state-enforced gender ideology on a new stolen generation of vulnerable young people who will not be allowed to have their gender confusion lovingly questioned, but only confirmed, so being set on a path towards deeply invasive and life-changing medication and even surgery without any kind of adequate informed consent (a tragic reality recently exposed by a landmark court case in the UK). And yes, as a Christian minister lecturing in biblical studies in a theological college, I have to admit that at times I am a bit apprehensive of what might happen to my colleagues, and to me and my family, if these kinds of laws reach into the rest of Australia. If they do, certain parts of my own regular Bible teaching and pastoral ministry might suddenly become illegal (though of course I never went into Christian ministry in the first place under any illusion that I’d be respected in Aussie society).

But none of those possible motives I mentioned is what is motivating me here in this review. What’s motivating me here is something more far-reaching and long-term.

The Why? question

Rather, here I want to ask the question: Why? Why are we, as a nation, in this situation? Why are we in a situation where “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are so central to our collective modern view of what it means to be a human being that it obviously trumps biological reality? Why are we in a situation where psychological well-being—especially when it comes to the complex feelings associated with sexuality—is seen as such a fundamental good that anything that challenges it must be punished by the state? Why are we in a situation where freedom of speech and association—even entirely consensual and seemingly private conversations—must be legislated and curtailed by the state in the interests of a particular vision of individual happiness? Why are we in a situation where religion—especially here Christian religion—is not simply disrespected, nor simply tolerated, but seen as positively dangerous and in need of state control, down to the level of individual interactions? And furthermore why is it all seen as so obvious by enough regular people in Australia right now that elected governments can raise bills like this with so little fanfare, pass them with so little comment or opposition, and do it all with the full support and active endorsement of International Human Rights organisations originally set up to oppose such activity?

Now of course there is a fundamental answer that Christians can and should give: sin and judgment. Just look at Romans 1:18–32, after all. We humans are sinful. We’ve rejected God. This sinfulness isn’t just a matter of action; it deeply affects our minds and our desires. We human beings are wrong, on so many levels. And God, in his wrath, actually gives us over to our sin and foolishness, even in this life. So yes, at the fundamental level, the biblical truths of sin and judgment answer the Why? question. They tell us the ultimate reason why our world is so seemingly crazy and messed up and tragic.

But these fundamental truths by themselves don’t answer the more specific Why? question: Why are we, at this particular place in Western society, at this particular point in time, in this particular situation? After all, it hasn’t always been like this. Previous generations would have regarded our modern privileging of individual psycho-sexual feelings above all other goods and freedoms in society to be quite mad (and probably quite alarming). This isn’t to deny that previous generations had their own equally deplorable forms of sinfulness and foolishness, including views that enabled and perpetuated real abuse. Human beings have always been desperately sinful. But why this form of sinfulness and foolishness at this time?

Why ask the Why? question?

There is an even deeper reason why I want to ask the Why? question? The basic motivation I have in asking this question is this: I want to know how, through God’s grace, to bring the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ into our world today. I want to know how to speak that gospel, and how to live in light of the gospel, to real people in this real and particular world that we live in. I want to know how to pray and live and speak as a forgiven sinner, among and for the people around me who are sinners facing God’s judgment. And to do that, I need to understand my particular world and what makes it—me—tick.

I need to do more than simply protect myself or my religious freedom within this world. I need to do more than write off my fellow human beings as simply mad and foolish. I need to do more than call names across the ditch, responding to the cheap charge of “bigot” with the equally cheap charge of “snowflake”. I need to do more than spend endless hours talking to other like-minded people in my increasingly marginalised (and possibly, in future, illegal) social bubbles on the internet. Rather, I need to understand the people around me, so I can pray for them, live for the gospel among them, and speak the gospel to them. This is what God cares about. And if you’re a Christian reading this, I hope the same motivation is true for you.

That’s where Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is so incredibly valuable. In fact, I think it’s one of the most significant Christian books in this era. And I want to urge you—especially if you’re involved in Christian ministry—to get it and read it too. Let me explain why.

The value of history

Trueman sets out to answer the Why? question for us. And to do that, he tells us a story: a story well-grounded in good history. He explains, with sufficient detail and with admirable clarity and grace, where these ideas come from. Without being tedious or exhaustive, he summarises the thoughts of some of the most influential Western philosophers, poets, politicians, artists and celebrities from the last 300 years, often providing extended quotes so we can see what they believed in their own (often starkly confronting) words. He shows the connection of ideas through history, demonstrating how one idea was used as the basis for the next over a period of centuries. And he explains how these ideas came to grip the modern Western world’s imagination, so that the views of these historical figures are now so basic that many people today simply assume them to be self-evident and obvious, even though few have heard of these historical figures for whom the ideas were originally radical and subversive.

Trueman’s writing is clear, non-technical and a pleasure to read. The book isn’t short (at 426 pages), so it’s not for everybody. But for anyone involved in any serious way in Christian ministry and witness—i.e. people who are every day bringing the gospel to real people and dealing with the forces that motivate them—reading it in full would be a terrific benefit.

Trueman’s book is an example of the value of good history. Good history (like international travel, but cheaper) takes you outside of your own context and culture, and shows you that the views and values you assumed to be obvious aren’t necessarily so. Good history tells you the back story of yourself and your neighbours, so you can see in 3D where things came from and why. Good history enables you to question the present in light of the past. Trueman’s book does all this. And, like any good history, Trueman deliberately holds back on the quick and cheap judgmentalism characteristic of the modern age. He seeks to understand before he critiques. He tries to be accurate, so that you too can understand why the people he is writing about held the views they did, and what motivated them. Trueman explains:

it seems to me that giving an accurate account of one’s opponents’ views, however obnoxious one may consider them to be, is vital, and never more so than in our age of cheap Twitter insults and casual slanders. There is nothing to be gained from refuting a straw man. In the accounts I give of, among others, Rousseau, the Romantics, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, the New Left, surrealism, Hugh Hefner, Anthony Kennedy, Peter Singer, Adrienne Rich, Judith Butler, and LGBTQ + activism, I have therefore tried to be as careful and dispassionate as possible. Some readers might find this odd, given my personal dissent from much of what they each represent. But truthfulness is not optional.

Page 30

The main thread of the story

Trueman argues that if we want to understand what’s happening today, we need to go back much further than the sexual revolution of the 60s. “Acceptance of gay marriage and transgenderism are simply the latest outworking, the most recent symptoms, of deep and long-established cultural pathologies” (25). What has happened, at least over the last 300 years, is that the modern Western view of the “self”—i.e. what it means to be a human being—has undergone a profound revolution—or perhaps a series of revolutions. Each revolution in the view of the self builds on previous revolutions, and together they lead to the current situation where our view of the self—which reaches deeply into our psyches—is profoundly psychological, sexual and political. Here is an example of the kind of argument Trueman is making:

To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. To follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity—and therefore sex—political.

Page 250

Trueman is saying that influential figures of the past have made us think in particular ways about what it means to be a human being. For so many in modern Western society, our “identity”—how we understand who we are, at a fundamental level—has now become a matter of psychology (by which Trueman means primarily how we feel) and of sexuality (i.e. how we feel sexually). Furthermore, this is all political because our individual psychology and sexuality are intimately connected to the way other people in society feel about us. This helps to explain why psychological well-being, sexual orientation, gender identity, and politics are absolutely fundamental to the way many people think about life and their own (and others’) human existence. It also helps to explain why governments and (especially) schools are all caught up in the struggle.

“Statue of Mad Liberty”. A sculpture by Wang Kaifang. Sculpture by the Sea Exhibition, Bondi, Sydney, November 2019.

The chapters in the story

Part 1: A framework for thinking

In Part 1, “Architecture of the Revolution”, Trueman begins his story with some key concepts that give a useful framework for helping us to understand our current situation and the revolutionary changes that have occurred over the last 300 years. He draws here on the thought of Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. For example, he discusses Taylor’s description of the way ideas about the “self” can be formed and make their way into the “social imaginary”. This is the way that people in societies instinctively think and act, even though they can’t name the influential figures or state the philosophical concepts that lie behind their instincts.

Part 2: The psychological self

In Part 2, “Foundations of the Revolution”, Trueman discusses the first key step in the “revolution”, in which the modern self became “psychological”. A key figure here is the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who regarded the “true” self to be the individual, free from the corrupting effects of society. Poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley and Blake pushed this view further, presenting a vision of a world in which feelings and aesthetics triumphed over the negative effects of society, including (in particular) Christian affirmation of marriage and sexual morality. Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin provided a basic view of humanity as “plastic”, ever-changing and needing to take charge of our own destiny.

Part 3: The sexual-political self

In Part 3, “Sexualization of the Revolution”, Trueman discusses the next key step, in which the psychologized view of the self became fundamentally associated with sex. In this seismic shift, “the figure of Sigmund Freud is so important. His theories may have been contested in their own day and largely repudiated in the years since then, but his identification of human beings as essentially sexual has proved to be revolutionary as few other ideas in history” (265). This is partly because “Freud expressed his theories in the objective language of the scientific idiom, something that has proved very compelling to the intellectual elites of the modern age” (266). “After Freud, the idea that sex is not simply an activity but is foundationally constitutive of our very identity becomes extremely plausible” (266). This is why, for example, Freud is associated with the “sexualising” of children, meaning that his views about childhood development were inherently sexual. Freud himself was not overtly political, but others who came after him developed his thoughts in a decidedly political direction, following Marx and others. Figures in the “New Left” as well as the philosophy of second-wave feminism have been foundational to this enterprise.

Within this section, Trueman demonstrates—through summaries backed up with extensive quotations—the startlingly clear and uncompromisingly radical positions of many of the influential thinkers of the past, positions that anticipate some of the events that are happening today. For example, the kind of assumptions and views expressed in the Victorian legislation I referred to above are clear and understandable in light of views expressed by members of the “New Left” in the mid-Twentieth Century—foundational for modern “critical theory”. Here is a series of quotes from Trueman that summarise these views and demonstrate their significance:

On Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Revolution (1936):

While asserting that the patriarchal family is the single most important unit of ideological control for an oppressive and totalitarian regime, Reich also believes that the state must be used to coerce families and, where necessary, actively punish those who dissent from the sexual liberation being proposed. In short, the state has the right to intervene in family matters because the family is potentially the primary opponent of political liberation through its cultivation and policing of traditional sexual codes. … What is significant in Reich’s comment is not so much the principle of state intervention to stop abuse but the underlying definition of abuse with which he is operating. It is a psychological one, specifically one rooted in a highly sexualized psychology. … The importance of Reich’s point here can scarcely be overestimated. It has had a decisive influence on Western political thought, most obviously for the Left but, as it connects to the rise of a psychological conception of victimhood, for Western society in general. When oppression comes to be thought of as primarily psychological, then victimhood becomes a potentially much broader—and much more subjective—category. This affects everything, from reasoning in Supreme Court cases to ethics to campus politics and beyond.

Page 237

Patterns of private sexual behavior are not simply private; they are public and political because they constitute a significant part of how our culture thinks of identity.

Page 239

The sexual education of the child is simply of too much social and political consequence to be left to the parents. After all, it is the parents as those in authority who actually constitute the problem. The family as traditionally understood needs to be dismantled.

Page 239

[T]his is of great importance for understanding why sex is now so political and why even holding personally to traditional sexual codes is regarded as dangerous.

Page 240

It might seem odd to a religious conservative that a call for chastity is seen as positively harmful to society, but that is because the religious conservative does not look at society through the type of lens that is provided by Reich and that is now an intuitive part of much political discourse.

Page 241

And that raises a matter of great significance: when we start to think about sexual morality today, we need to understand that we are actually thinking about what it means to be human. Discussions of what does and does not constitute legitimate sexual behavior cannot be abstracted from that deeper question. On that point, the thinkers of the New Left are correct. One may disagree with their conclusions—and I do so vehemently—but one must give them credit for understanding that when we address matters of sexual morality, we are actually addressing questions about the nature and purpose of human beings, the definition of happiness, and the relationship between the individual and wider society and between men and women.

Page 264

Part 4: Modern manifestations

In Part 4, “Triumphs of the Revolution”, Trueman surveys various movements that have resulted from and continued the revolution in our understanding of ourselves.

He describes the triumph of “eroticism” (through both surrealism and Playboy’s Hugh Hefner), which is caught up with “the idea that sexuality is identity is now basic and intuitive in the West” (299). Thus “all matters pertaining to sex are therefore matters that concern who we are at the deepest level. Sex is identity, sex is politics, sex is culture” (299).

Trueman also discusses the triumph of the “therapeutic” ideal, which helps to explain why free speech in society is often seen as bad and detrimental where previously it was an ideal to be promoted. “In a world in which the self is constructed psychologically and in which the therapeutic is the ethical ideal, … The notion of assault on the person becomes not simply—or even perhaps primarily—a matter that involves damage to the body or to property ; it becomes psychological, something that damages the inner self or hinders that sense of psychological well-being that lies at the heart of the therapeutic. In such a context, freedom of speech becomes not so much part of the solution as part of the problem” (326).

Finally, Trueman discusses the more recent ascendancy of transgenderism, and the various uneasy and often internally incoherent alliances within the “LGBTQI+” movement(s), an increasingly diverse coalition with members united only by a common sense of victimhood. A few quotes can help to see the way in which transgenderism is connected to the revolution he has described throughout the book:

For transgenderism to be coherent, the society in which it occurs needs to place a decisive priority on the psychological over the physical in determining identity. For it to be coherent also involves a correlative downplaying of external authority, whether that of the person’s biology or of traditional social expectations. Biological and cultural amnesia must be the order of the day. In addition, its credibility is fueled by a powerful individualism and facilitated by the technological ability to manipulate biological realities. All these factors are present in contemporary Western society. To these we might also add the notion that gender is separable from sex, something that we noted in the work of Simone de Beauvoir and later feminism and that gains plausibility again from the technological attenuation of the difference between men and women in the workplace, as predicted by Karl Marx.

Page 351

With transgenderism, identity is almost entirely internalized, so that in theory a parent does not necessarily know whether a particular child is a son or a daughter. Such thinking not only places huge responsibility on the shoulders of the child (“Only you can decide who you are ; not your father, not your mother, nor even your own body can give you any help here…”), it also places potentially huge power in the hands of the government, of the medical profession, and of the various lobby groups to whose tune they tend to dance.

Page 377

The value of Trueman’s book

Trueman’s aim is for his book to be a “prolegomenon”. That is, his book is not designed to be a specific roadmap to chart a way forward for Christians living in modern Western society; rather it is designed to provide necessary self-understanding for those who are seeking a way forward. If we want to live for and speak about Jesus Christ in and for the world around us, we need to understand our world first.

And it is very, very important to understand this element of the world around us, because it affects all of us in a way we can’t avoid:

The revolution of the self is now the revolution of us all. The modern social imaginary ensures that. The long-term implications of this revolution are significant, for no culture or society that has had to justify itself by itself has ever maintained itself for any length of time. Such always involves cultural entropy, a degeneration of the culture, because, of course, there really is nothing worth communicating from one generation to the next. And with serious challenges to the idea that Western society is the intended goal of history—from Russia, from China, from Islam, and from the myriad political ideologies that have taken root on the internet—the anticultural nature of the contemporary West looks unstable and unconvincing.

Page 381

Trueman has, I believe, provided us with a valuable and insightful understanding of ourselves and of our situation in Western history. He hasn’t said everything, of course. But he has said something very significant. This will help us as we seek to shine the light of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ in our world. And when I say “our world”, I don’t just mean our world as an abstract concept, but the actual people living among us who are influenced in this particular way at this particular point in history and who need the gospel to be spoken to them in this particular context.

While charting a way forward is not his primary goal, nevertheless in the final chapters, Trueman provides a “Concluding Unscientific Prologue”, with some important insights into where things may be heading and key ways in which Christians can respond. For example, he reflects that in many ways “Christians today are not opponents of the anticulture. Too often we are a symptom of it” (389). For example, in our church worship and practice, especially among the “megachurch” phenomenon, Protestantism has “frequently adopted the aesthetics of the present moment in its worship [which] is arguably a sign of the penetration of the anticulture into the sanctuary of historic Christianity” (389). Trueman calls us to turn away from simply assuming the “psychological self” and catering to it through our individual-oriented worship and pastoral ministry, to seriously question and thoroughly address the framework that has led to us defining human selfhood in primarily psychological and sexual terms, and to provide compelling doctrinal alternatives within strong, truly loving communities.

This, of course, is not easy. We must not be naïve, and we need to realise how out of step we are with the world of today. Trueman warns:

the West has come to see sexual identity as the key to the expression of personal identity. Therefore, any religion that maintains a traditional view of sexual activity and refuses to recognize identities built on desires and activities that they regard as wrong is by definition engaged in oppressing those who claim such identities… [In this view] traditionalists only maintain their beliefs about sex and sexual mores on the grounds of irrational bigotry. In short, they are either stupid or immoral or both. In such a world, the idea that religious freedom is a social good is not simply increasingly implausible, it is also increasingly distasteful, disturbing, and undesirable.

Page 400

Trueman doesn’t write this to cause us to despair, but to help us to see where we truly are, so we can move ahead with confidence. Christians in the Twenty-First Century are in many ways like those in the Second Century Roman Empire “where Christianity is a choice—and a choice likely at some point to run afoul of the authorities” (408). In this situation, it is vital for the church to hold fast to a positive view of the body as created by God, and to “maintain its commitment to biblical sexual morality, whatever the social cost might be” (406).

Personally, Trueman’s book has given me a renewed sense of joy and prayerful confidence in teaching God’s word. In fact, this coming semester at Moore College I’ll be teaching Paul’s Pastoral Epistles. These biblical letters contain many of the kind of body-affirming Christian doctrines relating to human identity, sexual morality, and gender that Trueman recommends the church needs to hold fast to. Of course, that also makes these biblical letters some of the most subversive, politically dangerous, and potentially illegal texts in our modern world. Trueman’s book, therefore, brings into sharp focus the words of Paul to Timothy:

But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 

The apostle Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:13–14)