The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

And How the Church Can Respond, by Carl Trueman

February 25, 2020

Historians are the great relativizers of the present. When someone declares that the times in which we live are unprecedented, the task of the historian is to offer a sanctimonious response, by pointing out that, in actual fact, this or that event, action, idea, or pattern of behavior was previously evident in 13th-century Florence or Periclean Athens, or during the time of the Tang Dynasty in China. And such relativizing is often true and always a helpful corrective to the temptation to idolize or catastrophize our present age.

Yet for all of the continuities and precedents that likely exist in the past for the way we live in the present, it’s arguable that the times in which we live today do exhibit a number of pathologies whose coincidence is unprecedented. This doesn’t necessarily mean the church’s response needs to be as novel as the times, as I will argue below; but it does mean that we need to reflect on the implications of our times, lest we panic overmuch or rest too much on our laurels.

Plastic, Psychological Self

The most compelling illusion—in the Freudian sense—of our day is that we can all be whatever we want to be. And our institutions are increasingly volatile and ephemeral such that it would be a brave person indeed who bet money on what they might look like five, let alone 50, years from now.

Taken separately, these phenomena would be significant enough. That they coincide and are interconnected means that both our societies and also our own sense of identity are in a state of flux, generating a kind of vertigo that leaves us disoriented and often adrift.

The symptoms of this malaise are all around us. It is surely odd that there is apparently more anxiety today than, say, 50 or 100 years ago. We enjoy considerable material comforts today, not least of which is the most technologically advanced health care to which any generation has ever had access. Unlike my father, my earliest memories do not involve running to the bomb shelter to avoid being killed by a Luftwaffe raid. Life is—outwardly at least—much better.

Yet more college students today use counseling services than ever before. The news sites frequently carry tragic stories of teenage suicides. And everywhere the anger and outrage that characterizes online life and the public square points to an era ill at ease with itself. And my hunch is that at the core of this present age of angst is the coincidence of the psychological self and the liquefaction of traditional institutions.

The psychological self—the notion that we are who we feel we are and that the purpose of life is inward, psychological contentment or satisfaction—renders identity a highly plastic, malleable thing, detached from any authority greater than personal conviction.

Contemporary Politics of Sexual Identity

Transgenderism as an ideology is only the most recent and most extreme form of this to grip the political imagination. That we are now to teach our children that not even their bodies are any authoritative guide to who they are is a dramatic and disturbing development, placing immense responsibility on them—god-like responsibility, one might say—without offering any guide as to how they might respond. Yet for all the novelty of transgenderism, it is but a symptom of the psychological self that has deep and longstanding roots in the Western intellectual tradition.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) is a key source, with his provocative notion that human learning—the “arts and sciences” of his First Discourse—is actually that which corrupts us and hinders us being truly ourselves. Uncultured instincts and feelings are really who we are; civilization merely hinders, twists, and perverts these, making us conform to its demands and rendering us inauthentic.

Rousseau had a somewhat cheerful view of human beings in their natural, uncultured state. Not so his near contemporary, the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), who agreed with Rousseau that culture prevents us from being ourselves, but regarded the natural human being as a seething mass of dark and destructive desires. This Sadean appropriation of and reaction to Rousseau found influential expression in the plausible idiom of science in the hands of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Then, to abbreviate the story somewhat, the marriage between aspects of Marxist theory and Freudian anthropology in the work of men such as Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) and (even more so) Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957). The self was psychologized, psychology was then sexualized, and finally sex was politicized. The stage was set for the contemporary politics of sexual identity.

Of course, few people read Reich and Marcuse, let alone Rousseau and de Sade. But the idea that happiness is personal psychological satisfaction—“self-fulfillment”—is the staple of sitcoms, soap operas, movies, and even commercials. And this narrative, this illusion, has powerful implications. When the goal of human existence is personal psychological satisfaction, then all moral codes are merely instrumental, and therefore continually revisable, to this subjective, psychological end.

That society seems to have decided that a—perhaps the—major way to achieve this is sex means that any attempt to enforce a code of sexual behavior is an assault on the individual, a means whereby individuals are forced to be inauthentic and, indeed, unhappy. And anyone who therefore tries to enforce sexual codes is oppressive or a “hater,” to use the cheap and lazy means of delegitimizing any critic of the moral mess that is late modernity.

Institutions and Their Discontents

Yet if the psychological self has rendered selfhood an elusive, subjective concept, the liquidity of institutions has exacerbated the situation. For all of the fallacious economics and bogus political prophecies of their Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels made a number of perceptive and prescient observations. They saw how the rise of capital, fueled by the Industrial Revolution, was remaking social relations. They noted that technology, in making sheer physical strength less significant, would slowly erode the distinction between the sexes. And they saw that globalized markets would challenge the notion of the sovereign, nation state. More than 170 years later, these points are even more true now than they were then.

If we look at just three institutions—the family, the church, and the nation—it’s clear that each has been transformed.

1. Family

The family has been redefined. Many mothers work outside the home, single parenthood is the scourge of inner-city communities, and no-fault divorce (a sign of the primary importance assigned to personal satisfaction over social responsibility) carries no social stigma. And these were realities long before gay marriage.

2. Church

The church carries almost no social authority. Scandals have made her moral pronouncements look like sanctimonious hypocrisy. And freedom of religion, while a great social virtue, has over time meant that congregations and denominations are effectively competing in a free market for congregants, something that presses churches toward pandering to consumer tastes and/or focusing on marginal differences to leverage their market share.

3. Nation

As to the nation, global markets, declining birthrates in the West, immigration patterns, and the way information technology has made everyone feel they have a stake in everything that happens worldwide, have all weakened the nation state.

This and other factors—for example, postcolonialism, and the rise of non-national identities such as nativist, regional, feminist, LGBTQ—pose serious challenges to those national narratives that have given nation states so much of their legitimacy in the popular mind.

The polarization of the United States and the U.K. caused by the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, respectively, indicate that national identity is perhaps losing its ability to provide a unifying framework for political disagreement.

Institutional Flux and the Self

Beyond these three, countless other institutions are in decline or a state of flux—locally owned shops, pubs, and banks, for example, were a staple in the town where I grew up. Big-box stores, supermarket chains, out-of-town malls, and now the internet have transformed, and frequently driven to extinction, such things that were once both markers of the continuities in society and also focal points for social interaction and community.

Even the bank in my hometown had a solidity to it—made from sandstone, with its magnificent doors framed by imposing Doric pillars. Its message? “I was here before you were born, and I’ll be here after you have gone. You can trust me.” Today, banks (if they have any building at all) tend, in my experience, to be made out of what appears to be cardboard. Their message? “We arrived last week, and we might be gone the day after tomorrow. Trust us at your peril.”

And this state of institutional liquidity or flux cannot be separated from the disorienting experience of the psychological self. Institutions shape us as individuals. I am who I am, and I know who I am, because of the family—the stable family—in which I grew up, the school in which I was educated, the college where I studied and, yes, the pubs where I enjoyed time with friends around the open fire.

When the external markers by which I understand my world disappear or are constantly changing, then I myself am also constantly changing. Restlessness and dissatisfaction are the routine distempers of such an age.

Church’s Response

None of this should be read as lament or nostalgia. Every age has its maladies, and I for one have no wish to have lived my life in an era when children worked as chimney sweeps or, like my father, grew up in the shadow of the Luftwaffe. We do not choose our time, and we must not waste energy lamenting our time. We need first and foremost to understand our time and then to respond to it with informed wisdom.

So how should the church respond? I would suggest three ways, though this list is in no way exhaustive.

1. The church should not capitulate to the world of the psychological self.

The danger, as noted above, is that the religious free market makes us all salespeople, trying to match our product to the demands of the market. And the currency of the contemporary market is the therapeutic. How churches can counter this and yet survive looks, humanly speaking, virtually impossible.

But theologically the church is ultimately a work of the sovereign God; and what human beings need more is not the therapy that they may desire, but careful exposition and application of the Christian faith. The doctrine of creation, anchoring human nature and setting the scene for an understanding of our rebellion against God and need of redemption, needs to be stressed. This is foundational for understanding who we are. And we must press home Christ’s sufficiency in meeting that real need.

Of course, psychology, feelings, and the like are part of what makes us human. We do have inner lives. Yet the therapeutic model, which makes those needs basic and gives God significance only in the ways in which he can meet them, is not Christianity.

Christianity starts and ends with God; and human needs are to be understood in terms of his priority. Refection on Augustine’s Confessions might help here: the first great psychological autobiography, yet pitched as an extended prayer to God. Augustine only travels inward, to the rag and bone of his heart, in order to move outward to praising God not only as Creator and Redeemer, but also for simply being God.

2. The church should acknowledge historical analogues for key aspects of our time.

It is worth noting that, for all of the unprecedented coincidence of our distinct notion of selfhood and the liquefaction of our institutions, there is a historical analogue for key aspects of our time. The church today is moving to the margins of society. Society increasingly regards her beliefs as buffoonish and her ethical norms as immoral. And the requirements of loyal citizenship are beginning to be antithetical to the requirements of Christian witness. Perhaps this is most obvious in the realm of sexual mores, where affirmation of certain behaviors or—perhaps more correctly and more seriously, identities—is seen as a moral imperative and a necessary prerequisite to being a member of civic society.

Such was the case in the second century. Christianity was utterly marginal. Its members were under suspicion of indulging themselves in immoral shenanigans such as incest and cannibalism. And the same laws that banned fire brigades banned churches from meeting, because such gatherings were seen as seditious and subversive of the common good. There is our historical precedent. Catholic traditionalists might lament for the loss of the 13th century, but those who want to respond to our situation rather than merely indulge in the masochistic pleasures of lament will reflect on the second century and how the church then behaved.

3. The church should form strong communities where Christians care and support one another.

Doctrine and teaching are vital, but Christ’s words—“By this will all men know you are my disciples, by the love you have for each other”—are too. Loving communities are powerful and attractive. The LGBTQ+ movement has triumphed in part because of its tight-knit, well-organized, and mutually supportive community.

If those who believe a lie can do so, should those who believe the truth not do as well, if not better?

We Have Been Here Before

Our times are indeed unprecedented in the sense outlined above. But they are not entirely unprecedented, and certainly not in the areas that really matter: the content of the gospel and the nature of the church.

So let me close by reverting to classic historian mode, by relativizing the present. We have been here before—despised, considered immoral, standing on the margins. And we can learn lessons that will fortify us as we move into an uncertain future.

This article was published at The Gospel Coalition

Editors’ note:  Carl Trueman expands on this topic in his forthcoming book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway).

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