A Review of Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to the Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020)
Part I: Appreciation
This book begins with a question: “Why is it possible for a man to say he is a woman trapped in a male body and be taken seriously by our society?” Of course, anybody can do anything at all as an individual and there have always been insane people in every society. But the question is what kind of society sees this as a real possibility and treats the man who declares this as “his truth” as if he were perfectly sane? Modern Western society is unique in doing so. In past centuries and even today in other parts of the world people who say such things as this are regarded in the same light as those who claim to be aliens from another planet and demand that the earthlings obey them. Yet, in the most “scientific” and the most “advanced” societies on earth, that is, the modern West, people who say this are taken with total seriousness to the point where government will pay for plastic surgery and hormone treatment to change their appearance to approximate the other sex. How did we as a culture get to this point? This is the question Trueman sets out to answer in this book.
The first thing that needs to be said is that this is a very good book. It is insightful, needed and well-written. It grapples with a single question and takes the time to dig deeply enough into the writings of key figures in the development of Modernity to be able to frame a proper answer to that question and then show the wide-ranging implications of the answer. As a piece of cultural analysis is it exemplary in its inter-disciplinary approach, blending history, literature, and philosophy into a single narrative about the development of our contemporary culture from its roots in the Enlightenment. I liked the book very much; in fact, I wish I had written it myself. But I do not think it is a perfect book and that makes a conversation both necessary and potentially fruitful.
Trueman and I agree on so much – philosophically, doctrinally, culturally, biblically, confessionally – that these vast areas of agreement form the basis for detailed discussion of the few significant points of disagreement. I do not wish to fall into the trap of blaming the author for not writing the book I would have written, which would be unfair. But I wish to do him the honor of taking what he has written seriously enough to engage in conversation. The level of agreement between us is high enough that perhaps further progress can be made by discussing how we might differ. Trueman’s analysis is so rich, and his conclusions are so profound, that how we evaluate his work is crucially important for the church and its mission in the near future, as well as for the survival of Western culture.
In this article, “Part I: Appreciation,” I will highlight several areas of strengths in the book. In the next one, “Part II: Critique,” I will suggest two weaknesses of the book. Anyone looking for devastating criticisms that “blow the book out of the water” will be disappointed. My goal is to show appreciation for Trueman’s achievement and then reflect conversationally on how the conversation might continue from here towards, one hopes, even deeper insights. This is, after all, how academic discussion and debate is supposed to work.
1. Seeking Wisdom Instead of Tenure
This book is the kind of cultural analysis that goes deeper than most books written by Evangelicals and grapples with issues of which most Evangelicals are insufficiently aware. Hopefully, it will be read widely. Trueman is wrestling with metaphysical, ethical and cultural questions that are spread across the domains of several different academic disciplines including theology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, history and literature.
The book is so good because it combines a curiosity born of an appreciation of the weirdness of our cultural situation with a dispassionate analysis of how we got here. It is not the sort of book a young history professor writes to establish his credentials in the academic discipline and get tenure. Frankly, many such books are boring and unhelpful. They tend to be so limited in scope and their central thesis is so heavily qualified that they end up being banal except where they are wrong. We are all going to get something wrong at some point in writing a book like this one; at least we should have something true and important to say that makes the inevitable errors forgivable.
One should be able to say that a given book (if it is any good) gets some things wrong, but still has something important to say and one task of reviewers is to show whether the points that the book gets wrong are fatal to its thesis or not. In the case of this book, the central insight that sexual deviancy is a symptom not the root problem, and that the central issue is the nature of human selfhood. This is a big and important idea. It is true, not always recognized and thus deserving of having attention called to it. For a book to do this is a profound service to us all.
2. Seeking Wisdom Rather Than Scoring Rhetorical Points
One reason the book is effective is that it attempts to address a big question, but he does so in such a way as to avoid demonizing opponents in a shallow way that only serves to arouse the readers’ sympathy for them. He really tries to listen to the voices that have shaped our culture and to summarize what they have said in a way they themselves would recognize as their intended meaning. He tells the reader in the Introduction not to be surprised by his attempt to let figures such as Rousseau, the Romantics, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, the New Left, Hugh Hefner and others have their say without subjecting their views to cheap insults or casual slanders. (30) Granting that some readers might find this odd, given his dissent from many of their views, he nevertheless avers that refuting straw men is useless and says that his goal is to represent their views fairly. In this goal he succeeds admirably.
One could summarize these two points by saying that Trueman gives every indication that he is seeking wisdom in this book. If only we could say that about every book! To his credit, Trueman refuses to play to the gallery, whether the gallery is full of academic peers ready to pounce on mistakes or whether it contains the conservative wing of the church ready to cheer on the eviscerating of heretics. This book calls balls and strikes and presses relentlessly deeper into the question of how we got to the point we occupy at this cultural moment. He also recognizes that even Christians have been affected by trends in modern anthropology and acknowledges that harmful ideas have penetrated into even conservative churches. Like a biblical prophet, he uses the second personal pronoun in describing those under judgment. Woe is us! (Not Woe is them!)
3. The Central Issue of Modernity is Its Understanding of Human Nature
As mentioned above, the big idea in this book is a very significant one: the sexual revolution and the confusion it has generated is the result of the widespread acceptance of a new anthropology, a novel and highly distinctive view of the human person. Underlying the question of how we should behave sexually are questions like “What is a human being for?” and “What makes us persons?” So, the question of why our society takes a man seriously who says he is a woman trapped in a man’s body is really one of what our society thinks a human person is.
The big news here is that the essence of the human being is no longer assumed to include his or her body. The person is an “ego” or a “self” or a “thinking substance” but is no longer the embodied soul, as Western culture informed by orthodox Christianity would have affirmed up to the day before yesterday. Trueman argues that the deeper questions are ones of identity, which is a new and more fluid way of speaking of what used to be called “nature.” As he puts it:
In the hands of Nietzsche, Marx and Darwin, the world loses its innate teleology. These three strip away the metaphysical foundations for both human identity and for morality, leaving the latter, as Nietzsche is happy to point out, a matter of mere taste and manipulative power games. (27)
What Trueman may not stress enough, however, is that fact that it is not just morality that gets demoted to the level of a power game; the nature of the human being itself is also rendered indeterminate. Here we approach the limits of Trueman’s analysis of Modernity. He sees clearly enough that the older sexual morality that was displaced in the sexual revolution is not merely expanded but is vaporized altogether. But he is less clear that human nature itself is likewise vaporized as well.
In fact, the modern human person described so well in this book is stripped of all but the raw will to power. As C. S. Lewis argues in The Abolition of Man, this “post-metaphysical” and “post-Christian” understanding of human nature leaves man as just part of nature. That which is distinctively human slips under the waves of non-human nature and merges into animality. Man, as a rational animal made in the image of God with consciousness of law and morality and able to ask questions about his telos, ceases to exist. We will consider this question further in Part II: Critique.