This essay concludes my five-part review of Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. In the interest of space I will skip a summary of the arguments presented in the four previous essays and ask the reader to consult those essays in preparation for this conclusion.
Optimism and Pessimism
In general, I am an optimist. My optimism is grounded in my faith and hope in God. God’s good will most certainly will be done in the end despite appearances to the contrary. But I am not optimistic that the cultural trends described in Trueman’s book can be reversed. Nor is Trueman optimistic; for as the title of the book foreshadows the modern self has “triumphed.” The dominant culture assumes that the psychologized, sexualized, and politicized self is the only morally acceptable view of the self, and it considers those who disagree as ignorant, bigoted, and oppressive. Efforts to marginalize traditional Christians and churches are growing in frequency and intensity. Recent court decisions, anti-traditional policies of big corporations, media caricatures of conservative Christians, indoctrination by educators, and censorship by social media giants do not bode well for the social position of confessing Christians in the USA. Legislatures and courts have recently expanded anti-discrimination laws to cover those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. These new laws threaten to restrict the “freedom of religion” to the silent spaces of the inner self.
It is against this “rather bleak analysis” (Trueman, p. 402) that Trueman offers three bits of advice to the church:
The Moral Blindness of False Compassion
(1) “The church should reflect long and hard on the connection between aesthetics and her core beliefs and practices” (p. 402). The modern self was created in part by replacing moral categories grounded in moral law with aesthetic ones grounded in inner feelings. The LGBTQ movement has been propelled forward not by ever deepening moral insight but by rehearsing narratives of oppression, victimhood, and personal unhappiness that evoke “sympathy and empathy” (p. 403) from a culture that has already accepted the psychologized, sexualized, and politicized self. It is disturbing but not surprising that huge numbers of self-identified Christians have without knowing it assimilated to that culture. Many churches talk and act and worship in aesthetic categories and are silent about sin…unless the sins are also “sins” for the secular progressive culture. For the most part, churches long ago assimilated to what Phillip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic) called the “therapeutic culture,” marketing themselves to society as supporting the common good and promoting individual wellbeing. In response to this assimilation, Trueman calls on churches “to forgo indulging in, and thereby legitimating, the kind of aesthetic strategy of the wider culture” (p. 403). We must not allow false compassion and threats from progressive culture, to replace reason, moral law, the scriptures, and tradition as the determining factors in our moral teaching. Indeed, the church needs to rediscover Christianity’s “dogmatic, doctrinal, [and] assertive” core (p. 403).
The Church as a Moral and Theological Community
(2) The church “must also be a community” (p. 404). The church must form strong and intimate communities based on a common faith and moral vision in self-conscious opposition to the dominant therapeutic culture. These communities must meet together often to encourage, teach, and support members to live thoroughly Christian lives. Apart from such communities, individual Christians are vulnerable to the ever-present pressure to assimilate.
Recover Reason and Moral Law
(3) “Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body” (p. 405). Protestant neglect of natural moral law is one reason churches have been so easily assimilated to the aesthetic view of morality. Traditionally, Protestants grounded their moral teaching in specific biblical commands or principles derived from commands. A thing is wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong. Does this mean that the absence of a biblical command against something gives us permission to do it? Or, what happens when clever theological “experts” create all sorts of confusion about the meaning of a command? In future essays I plan to pursue these failings at great length.
For Trueman, recovering “a high view of the physical body” involves rediscovering God as the creator of the body, Jesus Christ as the savior of the body, and the Holy Spirit as the purifier and life force of the body. The church must resist the culture’s view of the body as a mere means of sensual pleasure or as nothing but raw material for us to drug, cut away, and shape as we please. I wish that every church could hear and take heed to the following words from Trueman:
And closely allied with this is the fact that the church must maintain its commitment to biblical sexual morality, whatever the social cost might be. If, as Rieff claims, sexual codes are definitive of cultures, then an abandonment of Christian sexual morality by the church can be done only on the basis of a rejection of the sacred framework of Christianity and at the cost of the loss of Christianity as a meaningful phenomenon (p. 406).
I placed the words “whatever the social cost might be” in the above quote in bold because I believe the cost doing this will be very high. Many will find it too high. But the cost of assimilation is even higher:
“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matt 16:26).