In the next few essays I want to continue the series on the contemporary moral crisis by interacting with a book I just finished reading: Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020). The book is 407 pages long and deals with a vast number of authors and ideas. I am limiting my task to presenting Trueman’s essential argument as it relates to my theme for the series. For the most part, I will express Trueman’s argument in my own words and avoid burdening the reader with technical language and multiple references to other authors. Perhaps my thoughts can serve as an appetizer to entice you to read the book for yourself.
Trueman’s Method and Goal
Trueman begins with this statement:
“The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (p. 19).
This statement tells us much about the book. When he says that he writes to show “how” and “why” this idea came to be accepted, we see at once that this book will recount a history that explains the genesis of this current state of affairs. Trueman designates the goal of the study as explaining how and why the above transgender statement came to be viewed by progressive culture as “coherent” and “meaningful.” That is to say, the author intends not to assess the truth or falsity of the statement directly but to show why people today accept this assertion at face value when previous generations would have found it absurd and laughable.
This book employs a common historical method that traces the genetic relationships among ideas through time. Apart from historical understanding, each generation is locked within its own cultural framework. One way to escape this temporal prison is to come to see one’s own culture as the product of history rather than as simply the way things must be. Trueman is well aware that showing the genesis of an idea does not by itself demonstrate its truth or falsity. But it can give us enough distance from it to entertain the possibility of criticizing it.
Trueman also knows that the same genetic history can be interpreted in at least two opposing ways. Many would interpret it as the history of progress that leads from the darkness of past ignorance to the contemporary enlightened age. Or the same story can be interpreted as the history of moral and intellectual decline. Oversimplifying matters a bit, the first interpretation uses the present as a norm by which to judge the past and the second views the past as the standard by which to measure the present. Again, a genetic account cannot settle the issue of truth or falsity. It can, however, awaken readers to the hidden moral, aesthetic, metaphysical, and political assumptions of the contemporary moral vision. And that is a worthy goal, because part of the rhetorical power of contemporary progressive morality is the pervasive sense of its self-evidence. The first step in challenging it is exposing its lack of self-evidence and its historical relativity.
Two Paradigms of Identity
According to Trueman, the sexual revolution, which has reached the conclusion that gender must be completely divorced from biological sex and transferred from the moral sphere to the aesthetic sphere, is at bottom a revolution in the nature of personal identity (p. 20). Before the year 1500, a person’s identity and all the rules for human behavior were determined by one’s place within a theological, cosmic, and social order that exists outside, above, and before them. You become someone by fitting in, adopting given roles, and conforming to inherited patterns. For premodern people—whether Christian or pagan—that order was sacred, objectively real, and obvious. Individuals were duty bound to submit their inner desires and passions to the ordering power of the metaphysical, cosmic, and moral order. The thought of reversing directions to make the external world conform to the inner world would have appeared absurd. The inner world of the passions was irrational, immoral, and chaotic. It must not be turned loose.
In dramatic contrast, for many modern people identity is something an individual chooses and creates according to their tastes. It is created from the inside outward by expressing inward feelings and dreams in external media. Only by making the outside conform to the inside can one achieve authenticity, the quintessential modern virtue. Resistance to another person’s expressing their inner self in the external world is viewed as oppressive, cruel, and immoral. In the contemporary moral vision, the sacred, objectively real, and obvious is found in the inner psychic world of the individual. The external order possesses no authority to determine an individual’s identity. Appeals to divine law, natural law, or reason are rejected in principle or as soon as it becomes apparent that they contradict an individual’s inner sense of identity. The inner self must be allowed to be itself, to act in character, on the outside as well as the inside.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self explains the step-by-step process by which the first understanding of identity was replaced by the second, so that by the end of the book we understand “how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (p. 19).