Category Archives: Transgenderism

Surviving a Cultural Apocalypse : Advice to Churches

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).

The Origins of the Disjunction between Sex and Gender

In this fourth part of the series in review of Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, I will focus on the origin and culture-shifting consequences of the modern disjunction between the biologically determined concept of sex and the socially determined concept of gender. In the first essay I pointed out that Trueman wrote the book to explain “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” (Trueman, p. 19). The radical disjunction* between sex and gender is at the heart of this issue. If you accept it you will find transgenderism “coherent and meaningful.” If you reject it, you will find transgenderism incoherent and absurd.

The Anti-Essentialism of the Nineteenth Century

The disjunction between sex and gender was not articulated clearly until the publication of Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième sexe in 1949 (English: The Second Sex, 1953). But the disjunction did not arise from nowhere. It roots extend back into the nineteenth century. For it was in this century that the Western mind all but abandoned the search for timeless truths and unchanging reality. Early in the century the philosopher Hegel argued that all beings, including God, are evolving through time toward absolute freedom. Becoming replaced being as the fundamental category by which to understand the world. In his theory of evolution, Darwin historicized biology by postulating a historical chain of continuity connecting all living things through time. Marx asserted that human beings create themselves by their own labor out of the raw materials found in nature. And at the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche claimed that human beings can mold and shape themselves into a form that pleases them without regard to any external norms. By the end of that century, then, the idea that human beings possess a nature or an essence that defines what they are and how they should behave no longer made sense to many cultural leaders.

For those under the spell of the modern understanding of the self—which to some degree is nearly all Westerners—the concept of human nature is obscure. When we think of human nature today we think of a set of desires and needs that characterizes most human beings, or the physical, chemical, and organic laws that determine the species of Homo sapiens, or a person’s particular character, “their nature.” But what the nineteenth century destroyed was something different; it was the belief that there is a design plan, a created form, a goal, an essence, or a soul—it goes by many names—that gives unity, form, and life to human beings. In the older understanding, since human nature originates from the mind of God and serves as an ideal model for the human creature, it possesses a normative status. That is to say, there is a way human beings are supposed to live according to the divine intention, and this divine intention can be discerned through reason. The idea that human beings are created according to a good and rational design plan is closely allied with the more general idea that there is a moral law that is built into nature.

Existentialism and The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and her associate Jean-Paul Sartre (1929-1980) inherited the anti-essentialism developed in the nineteenth century. Sartre is most famous for his articulation of a distinctive philosophy of Existentialism. Perhaps the central assumption of Existentialism is that human beings, though they find themselves existing in the world apart from their free choices, are not born with a nature, an essence that determines what they are, who they should be, and how they should live. They must instead create their own essence through their choices and the projects on which they choose to work. De Beauvoir was an existentialist philosopher in her own right and wrote many works explaining and defending Existentialism. But she is most famous for her initiation of the second wave of the feminist movement.

The second volume of her book The Second Sex (1949), begins with this famous line: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (Quoted in Trueman, p. 256). One is born a biological female but womanhood is a socially constructed identity that differs from culture to culture and from century to century. In this pregnant sentence we can see the distinction between sex and gender. But de Beauvoir is not content merely to describe this socially constructed feminine identity. Applying the tradition of Rousseau and Marx to the position of women in society, she views male dominated society as oppressive, ever imposing male myths and interests on women. In dialogue with Freud, she affirms the decisive impact of the inner psychic life on what it means to be human and a woman:

“It is not the body-object described by scientists that exists concretely but the body lived by the subject. The female is a woman, insofar as she feels herself as such…Nature does not define woman: it is she who defines herself by reclaiming nature for herself in her affectivity” (Quoted in Truman, p. 256).

De Beauvoir’s criticisms of the ways womanhood has been constructed by male dominated societies are rather straightforward extensions of Rousseau’s criticisms of society’s corrupting influence on the individual. But implicit in her sentence, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” is the more radical and innovative view that biology is also a tyrant constricting women’s possibilities for freedom and happiness. Technology, proposes de Beauvoir, is the way to escape the grip of biology: birth control, abortion, and artificial insemination. As far as I know de Beauvoir did not envision gender reassignment through hormone therapy and surgery. But her radical disjunction between sex and gender opened that door and others ran through it. Trueman summarizes her thesis in this way:

“The body is something to be overcome; its authority is to be rejected; biology is to be transcended by the use of technology; who or what woman really is is not her chromosomes or her physiology; rather it is something that she becomes, either as an act of free choice or because society coerces her into conformity with its expectations” (p. 259).


If you have read all four of my essays in dialogue with Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, you will understand why I have been driven to the conclusion that the assertion, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (Trueman, p. 19) can be received as “coherent and meaningful” only by those who have thoroughly accepted the radical disjunction between sex and gender. In its radical form the disjunction between sex and gender views biological sex merely as external, objective, and determinate whereas gender is internal, subjective, and indeterminate. The two are completely incommensurable.

Moreover, I am convinced that the only justification for accepting the radical disjunction* between sex and gender is the prior rejection of the belief that human beings have a nature or an essence. And, implicit in the rejection of human nature is rejection of God as the creator of human beings and the giver of the moral law. The very idea of God becomes irrelevant to human life. It should come as no surprise that the original architects of anti-essentialism and the radical disjunction between sex and gender—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, and de Beauvoir—were all atheists who self-consciously developed their philosophies as projects exploring atheism’s implications for human existence in a world without God. This fact alone should give believers in God and creation great pause.

*It is important to take note of the word “radical” in the term radical disjunction. There are undeniable differences in the social roles women have played in different cultures and different eras. But this observation cannot ground the radical disjunction under discussion.

How Did the Statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” Come to be Taken at Face Value?

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).

Introducing a New Series: The Christian Moral Vision and the Ironies of “Progressive” Culture

The Heart of Progressive Culture

After thinking for months about social justice and critical race theory in relation to biblical Christianity, the church, and parachurch institutions, my mind has turned again to the deep moral crisis that has engulfed our culture, especially the culture of the USA. My intuition is this: The center and driving force of the ascendant culture that dominates higher education, many state and local governments, most of the media, nearly all the big cities, popular culture, and entertainment is a moral vacuum that has been eating away for centuries at the moral foundation that guided Western civilization for sixteen hundred years. Despite its utopian rhetoric to the contrary, the ascendant culture offers no alternative moral vision to replace the one it is destroying. Its central moral principle is wholly negative: we must remove all limits and destroy all oppressors and oppressive structures. Supposedly, once all oppressive structures are removed, the authentic human self—hitherto suppressed—will be free to find complete happiness in expressing itself in uninhibited external activity.

The Secret

However as I will argue in this series, a principle that defines all limits as oppressive will also destroy the self, efface the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, wisdom and folly, reason and impulse, and being and nothing. The secret of the ascendant culture—supposedly progressive and enlightened but actually primitive and dark—is nihilism, the universal critical principle, the enemy of all being. In principle it negates God, creation, nature, moral law, community, and every other objective structure that it thinks constricts the self from becoming whatever the imagination envisions and desires. The arbitrary human will to power over itself and all being is its god. This god can create nothing, but it can destroy everything.

I’ve written on this subject in previous essays, and I want to incorporate some of those thoughts into this series. On April 04, 2014 I began an eleven part series on “Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis.” I see no need to rewrite those essays. So, I will begin this new series by reblogging edited versions of the essays in that series. Interspersed with and following those essays I will post new material that expands on some theoretical points and addresses our new situation seven years later.

New Developments

There have been four developments in the intervening years that I found surprising, though in hindsight I can see that they were predictable seven years ago and indeed inevitable. (1) The racialization of all social interactions. In the last few years, the liberal ideals of a colorblind society and merit-based economic advancement have been rejected by the ascendant culture as manifestations of white privilege. (2) The mainstreaming of the intersectional notion of personal identity. Since proving that one is a victim of oppression has become a ticket to recognition by progressive culture, the more oppressed groups to which one belongs the higher one’s status in this culture.

(3) The exponential growth in the popular acceptance of the complete disjunction between biological sex and gender identity. Of course, acceptance of transgenderism and gender fluidity was preceded over the last 30 years by acceptance of LGBQ identities and inevitably will be succeeded by other gender identities and those that transcend other boundaries. Again, given the moral nihilism at the heart of modern culture this development is perfectly understandable. For in principle, progressive culture finds all limits oppressive, and there are many boundaries that have not yet been recognized as limits. And for progressive culture only the oppressed have the right to identify their oppressors. No one is allowed to argue with them.

(4) Most surprising and disheartening is the rapid acceptance of the three developments mentioned above by people who claim to be Christians, especially from younger generations. In the 1960s there was a movement within academic theology called “Christian Atheism.” What I am seeing now is a popular as well as an academic movement I call “Christian Nihilism.” These people and those tempted to join them are at the center of my target audience. I hope I can help them see what they are doing. Perhaps they will reconsider their path.

Once you recognize the nihilism at the heart of progressive culture, all becomes clear. And there is no escape from the iron logic of nihilism from within progressivism. For to escape it, you would need to limit it. And that cannot happen because progressivism admits no limiting principle! There is only one way out: we must reject nihilism completely and rediscover the Creator.