A conversation with Dr. Carl Trueman on the modern self and the sexual revolution

This is a transcription of the Digital Public Square podcast interview with Dr. Carl Trueman. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app to get new episodes each Monday morning or listen online.

JASON THACKER: Dr. Trueman, thank you so much for joining us here on the podcast. As we get started, can you tell us a little bit about your background and why you decided to write this book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self as a church historian?

DR. TRUEMAN: I was a classicist as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., went on to study Reformation history—particularly Reformation thought at the postgraduate level— and then spent many years teaching at two universities in the U.K. and later at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia where I primarily taught church history. My academic focus was on 16th-17th century themes. John Owen, the English Puritan, was a particular interest at one point. My latest book, of course, has little or nothing to do with anything I’m actually competent to comment on. The narrative begins in the 18th century and comes up to the present day and deals almost exclusively with secular thinkers and secular thought. Personally, I reached a point in my career a few years ago when I wanted to do something else. I’d done pretty much everything I wanted to do on the Reformation and was looking for another challenge. 

It was then that I was approached by Justin Taylor of Crossway and Rod Dreher of the American Conservative, asking if I would be interested in writing a short introduction to the thought of Philip Rieff. I started reading Rieff then in order to get some kind of idea of what that would entail and became convinced that a more interesting project would actually be using some of Rieff’s ideas to think about the state of culture today. This was right about the time that Obergefell v. Hodges was being decided by the Supreme Court. The issue of gay marriage and transgenderism was exploding onto the the national, if not international, scene.

I am also a Christian. At the time, I was not just a professor, but also a pastor. And I became convinced that there was a place for somebody to try to explain the sexual revolution in a way that would allow people, particularly Christians, but not exclusively Christian people, to think about the sexual revolution more holistically and to see it as part of an ongoing narrative in the West. And this book, which was researched primarily on a James Madison Fellowship at Princeton University in 2017 and 2018, is the fruit of all that.

JASON: I really appreciate the book. I think it’s been a really helpful introduction to a lot of these thinkers but also to the history of the sexual revolution and what has brought us to this point in history. I think it’s easy as Christians to trace back a lot of the rejections of the traditional sexual morality back to the sexual revolution in the 1960s, and not see it as part of a larger movement as you talk about throughout the book. The reality is our culture didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to reject the kind of traditional morality that undergirded civilization for millennia. This is a long project. Can you walk us through a high-level, brief introduction into some of that history and how these debates are tied to the larger revolution?

DR. TRUEMAN: First of all, what you’ve said is absolutely correct. Like all historical phenomena, the sexual revolution didn’t cause itself. It arose out of a set of cultural and social conditions that were already in place. For ideas like gay marriage or transgenderism to be acceptable and plausible in society, a whole host of other ideas must have already been given authority, become plausible, become accepted by that society. The story in my book looks at how the ideas that made the sexual revolution plausible, even desirable, emerged in the West. I divide the story into a series of manageable sections. The first thing that happens is giving your feelings or your desires fundamental authority in terms of who you are. Again, think about transgenderism. What is a transgender person saying when they say ‘I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body?’ They’re saying ‘I have the physiology of a man, but inside I feel like a woman. And that’s the most important thing about me.’ So the first part of the story is where does this focus on the inner life or inner feelings come from? You can go way back in history if you want to trace it out from its absolute origins. But I start with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantics in the 18th and early 19th century. They’re the ones who popularized the notion that that voice of nature inside you is the thing that determines your identity.

Secondly, when you think about transgenderism, you have to have a situation where who you are is malleable. That is, if you would like, you are able to overcome what you are by nature. Human nature itself has to be malleable or transformable. In the 19th century the idea of human nature as an established, secure, stable thing with a moral structure was demolished in numerous ways. Perhaps the three most significant thinkers in this area are Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Darwin. In my book, I have a section looking at how each of them, in their different ways, demolished the idea of human nature as having a fixed moral structure. Again, the sexual revolution doesn’t just focus on inward desires. It prioritizes sexual desires as fundamental to identity. And that’s where Freud comes in. Freud is representative of the movements of psychoanalysis from the 19th and 20th century. He’s undoubtedly the most brilliant and influential person in that school of thought. More than anyone else, he’s the man who establishes the fundamental nature of sexual desires as our identity. 

Then there’s the question of how all this stuff became political. It’s one thing to say that I’m determined by my inner desires. It’s another thing to say that society has to recognize that. And that’s where we get to the question of how sexual desire becomes politicized. To understand that, one really needs to look at the 1930s-1950s. We have this very interesting group of figures associated with what we call the Frankfurt School, who fused together Marxist politics and Freudian psychoanalysis in a way that makes the struggle for political liberation pretty much the same as the struggle for sexual liberation. That lays the groundwork for what we have today. I know this podcast is particularly interested in technology. There’s a whole technological story to be told alongside the intellectual one that I tell.

JASON: Charles Taylor is one person who you highlight in the book that I really gravitated towards. I know many times throughout the book you reference his Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Can you give an overview of Charles Taylor and why his view of the expressive self helps connect these things with the wider politics of society?

DR. TRUEMAN: Taylor is one of those enviably polymathic people. He’s been a politician. He’s a political philosopher. He’s a straight down the line philosopher. He’s a scholar of the German philosopher Hegel. He’s a historian. I found him particularly useful on two fronts. One, Taylor correctly identifies Romanticism as the key move in Western society where inner feelings become constitutive of who we are. He sees that as leading to the formation of a particular notion of the self which he calls the expressive individual. Essentially, what he means by that is that the self comes to be thought of as that which we feel inside, and the self manifests itself when it’s able to behave outwardly in accordance with those inner desires. That’s where we get the language of authenticity. Today in society, we often use the language of authenticity when we’re talking about people. A good example is Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner in his interview with Diane Sawyer when he was talking about transitioning. He made the point that ‘finally I’m going to be able to be who I always have been.’ Essentially saying, ‘finally, I can be authentic. Finally, I’m not going to be living a lie anymore.’ Now, you don’t have to be a transgender person to identify with the notion that ‘I want to be outwardly that which I feel to be inwardly.’ 

Second is Taylor’s notion of what he calls the social imaginary. I found this extremely helpful. The social imaginary points to the fact that most of us don’t relate to the world around us in terms of first principles. Life is not a syllogism. I don’t get up from my chair and think, ‘Okay, where do I need to exit the room from? Oh, there’s a door over there. I’ll go through the door.’ I get up and instinctively leave through the door. The social imaginary gets to the idea that that’s how we think about an awful lot of things. It’s how we think about morality. We tend to pick up the intuitions of the world around us, internalize them, and make them our own. We don’t alway think in terms of first principles when we think about morality. A good example might be provided by the gay marriage issue. Most people have not come to find gay marriage acceptable by reading heavy tomes of sexual ethics or sociology. Most people have gay friends or have seen attractive images of gay couples and things like the sitcom “Will and Grace.” It’s not that they’ve been convinced by argument. It’s that their intuitions have been shaped by broader cultural patterns. I found that very helpful in approaching this notion of the modern self. It’s not that we get up one morning and decide ‘Let’s be expressive individuals.’ The very air we breathe shapes, tilts, and bends our intuitions towards that result.

JASON: Throughout the book you also speak to the inherent instability of this broader project of the sexual revolution. Why do you think it’s unstable, and where do you see some of these confusions playing out in today’s culture and debates?

DR. TRUEMAN: We need to set the sexual revolution against the much broader background. Modernity is an attempt to organize or justify society without recourse to any reference to the transcendence or the sacred. Nietzsche is the man who calls the bluff on this in the 19th century when the madman in his book The Gay Science runs into the town square and confronts the polite Enlightenment atheists and says to them, ‘You’ve killed God, and therefore you need to accept the role of God yourselves. You need to step up to the plate. You need to make your own reality.’ That’s a great idea on paper. In practice, it means that reality is always going to be contested. It’s always going to involve a struggle between power groups and interest groups. There’s nothing beyond the current state of things to which we can appeal to justify where we stand. This is the situation we are in today. We see that manifesting itself in a number of contradictory ways. When Pete Buttigieg was standing for the candidacy to be Democratic candidate for the last presidential election, it was very interesting to read some of the reaction in the gay and the queer press to his candidacy. He was regarded as far too conventional. He’s married to another guy, but he’s just sort of your archetypal middle class, respectable gay guy. The real radicals in the sexual revolution see that as a capitulation to the old ways. You’re just accommodating yourself to the old ways. Real revolution requires an overthrow of that kind of thing. Marriage is far too respectable in any form. This is one example of how the sexual revolution doesn’t have any authority to which it appeals. It ultimately comes down to competition among lobby groups sharing disparate visions of what sexual morality and social organization should look like.

JASON: Earlier you mentioned the role of technology and the need for someone to do a history on the way that technology has shaped and formed the modern conscience. In your research, did you see modern technology playing in the human search for identity? And do you see expressive individualism playing itself out in other areas of ethics like technology, or even the current debates over digital privacy?

DR. TRUEMAN: I’d go back to the Communist Manifesto of 1848 on this question. One of the interesting things that Marx and Engels say is that as the means of production are increasingly automated, the difference between male and female will diminish. Now, Marx and Engels are thinking primarily in terms of sheer physical strength. Once factories have machines, you won’t need men wielding pickaxes and sledgehammers, etc., etc. Once physical strength becomes less important, women will be able to do the same work in the workplace. They’ll be able to occupy the same position relative to the means of production. That point has developed all the way through to the present day, where we see that there is a real connection between technology and the way we construe the relationship between the sexes. 

One obvious example from the 60s would be The Pill. The Pill revolutionized the nature of of sexual relations between men and women. Transgenderism is a more extreme example. Why has transgenderism caught the imagination? Technology makes it plausible. It’s now a plausible thing to do. We can manipulate our bodies. We can manipulate our hormones. Somebody blurring the boundary between the sexes, separating sex from gender, is operating in a world that is able to make those things at least plausible, if not always particularly practical. If you were to say ‘Trueman, could you summarize your book in a single sentence?’ I might say, ‘Yeah, my book is all about the decreasing importance of the body, the physical body, to selfhood.’ Think about online media. You can’t see my face. I promise you that I have a full head of hair, a perfect set of teeth, and frequently get mistaken for Tom Cruise when I walk down the streets of Grove City. You have no idea. I mean, you have a pretty good idea that I’m not telling the truth, but I can invent myself online, in my online relationships, in a way that I could never have done before. Technology opens up a whole panoply of identities for me that I could never have had or only had in a very limited sense before.

JASON: I hope there’s more work to come on that emphasis on disembodiment in the digital age. The embodiment of the technological age is a really important topic when we’re talking about technology and ethics and morality.

You say in the book, ‘Every age has its darkness and its dangers. The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives, but to understand its problems and to respond appropriately to them.’ I really resonated with that quote early on in the introduction. It sums up the tone and the approach that you take throughout the book when engaging a lot of these difficult and complex issues. What’s some advice that you would give to the church in navigating a lot of these challenging times? Why was it important for you to take a careful and, at times, dispassionate approach to a lot of the figures and the ethical systems and worldviews that you laid out in your book?

DR. TRUEMAN: That’s a very rich question, and there are numerous facets to any adequate answer to that. I was influenced during my year at Princeton watching Robbie George and his inner circle in action. What struck me was that whenever there was bad news (and there was usually bad news coming out in the national media), Robbie’s response was never, ‘O, Tempora! O Mores! Isn’t it awful?’ His response was always, ‘Okay, so how are we going to respond to this? What are we going to do? You know, this is the hand we’ve been dealt. How are we going to play this hand?’ And it struck me as a really healthy antidote to that temptation that Christians have to lament. A number of people have said, ‘You said in the book it’s not a lamentation. Are you saying lamentation is wrong?’ Absolutely not. I’m just saying lamentation is merely part of what Christians are to do in this fallen world. Certainly, we’re not to be smug and complacent and celebrate the falseness of this world. On the other hand, we’re not to allow ourselves to be crippled by lamentations so that we never actually get on with doing the tasks that the Lord has given us to do. That’s a sort of general preamble.

In terms of what the church should do the important thing to do is to keep hold of the promises—to remember that the promise is to the church. The promise isn’t to the United States. It’s not to the United Kingdom. It’s not to my denomination. It’s not to the Southern Baptists. The promise is to the Church, and the Church is going to win. It may not be your church that wins. It may not be my church that wins, but the Church is going to win. That helps provide a certain amount of stability to us as Christians. If we can keep hold of that eschatological vision, everything’s going to be okay in the end. That doesn’t make us naive optimists, but it gives us true solid hope. Christians are very influenced by Rod Dreher on this. Christians are not to be optimists. We’re to be people of hope. 

Secondly in this era where there’s so much information coming from all over the place, it’s very important that we do deal fairly with those people who we are up against. We try to be as accurate as we can about their views. We all fail in this sometimes. Nobody can do this perfectly all the time. We have a generation of young people rising, and if we simply answer strawmen, then we’re not going to persuade them. So I think it’s important to keep the temperature, keep the rhetoric down and to think through things clearly. 

Thirdly, I think we need to realize that the Bible is not enough. What do I mean by that? I’m an Orthodox Presbyterian minister. Clearly, I believe in the sufficiency of scripture. But I think what I’ve noticed in the young people that I teach at Grove City College is that many of them love Jesus. They love the Bible. The Bible is their authority. But sometimes they wonder why the Bible says things. If you simply say to them that homosexuality is wrong, they might come back and say, ‘Yeah, I agree. That’s what the Bible teaches. But does the Bible teach that simply because God wants people to be unhappy?’ We need to think about supporting that kind of teaching with subsidiary arguments based on nature, based on the body, based on human flourishing. Not that those arguments supplant scriptural authority, but they help younger people see scripture as more plausible. That’s one of the things that the Church needs to do. We can no longer rely on the world around us to shape their moral tuitions in a broadly correct way. We need to think much more proactively about how we as a church can shape those intuitions.

JASON: That last point is especially really helpful as we’re starting to see a resurgence in natural law thinking and natural law ethics, especially in Protestant traditions. It helps us see it not just as some kind of cultural apologetic but as a way to help undergird and help us to understand why things are the way they are and why the created order is the way it is.

If folks are new to this subject or to a lot of these concepts and want to dig a little bit deeper, are there one or two books that you might recommend folks to pick up that would be good introductions or a next step in a lot of these questions?

DR. TRUEMAN: I think Charles Taylor is a very useful person for helping you to think about culture. I would recommend his little book, The Ethics of Authenticity. For Charles Taylor, it’s mercifully concise. It’s a set of lectures that he gave. It’s very clear, very concise, very accessible. I think it’s also published as The Malaise of Modernity. One of those titles is the British title. One is the American title. I would also recommend James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular, which is his guide to Taylor’s much bigger work. It’s got a nice glossary at the end that helps introduce some of Taylor’s key concepts. I would certainly recommend those works. On the broader front, I would say subscribe to a couple of good web pages. Public Discourse, where Andrew Walker, who was at the ERLC and is one of the pioneers of natural law in Protestantism, is on the editorial board. They produce an article every day, not always from a distinctively Christian position. They have Jewish writers and some secular writers as well. They produce 1500 word essays on the big issues of the day from a thoughtful perspective. Go to Public Discourse, put your email in there, and every morning at about five past seven, you’ll get delivered to your inbox an excellent, thought-provoking article that will help you think more constructively about the culture around.

JASON: I definitely recommend checking out Public Discourse and the work that Dr. Walker does. He’s actually one of my professors at Southern Seminary in the Ph.D in ethics program. He actually has a new book coming out in May on religious liberty, getting into a lot of these arguments through the lens of religious liberty.

Dr. Trueman, I want to thank you so much for joining us here on WeeklyTech and for this rich discussion we’ve been able to have. I highly recommend listeners grabbing a copy of your new book. Thank you so much for being here with us today.

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