I’m really a Reformation scholar. I’m a 16th and 17th-century guy, but in my late forties, I’d pretty much said everything I wanted to say on those topics and was looking for another historical challenge. Around that same time, I was approached by Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and Justin Taylor of Crossway, and they asked if I’d be interested in writing a short introduction to the thoughts of Philip Rieff, the psychological sociologist.
As I was working on introducing Rieff, I came to the conviction that a more interesting project would be applying Rieff’s thought and that of two other helpful thinkers—the philosopher Charles Taylor and the ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre—to some of the distinct challenges that we’re facing today. I was also, at the time, a pastor of a church, and I was aware that people within my congregation were getting increasingly disturbed, confused, and challenged by the dramatic changes in our culture’s attitude towards sexual morality and identity. So, I embarked on a project now published as The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020) to help people understand why the world is changing in what, to many people, are unexpected and disturbing ways. Here is a short summary of some of the things I’ve learned from these three great thinkers:
World War II can not explain World War II. You have to have all the events leading up to it in order to understand what’s going on. But even though many Christians see the culture unraveling around them at a quicker pace than they could have imagined twenty years ago, they don’t have the background to understand the various philosophical streams that led to this place we are now. So, how do we trace back the philosophical threads that led to our present-day cultural sentiments?
Let’s begin with transgenderism as a specific example of the modern moment and ask, “What has society as a whole got to be convinced of for transgenderism to be plausible to the man in the street?” Fundamentally, the man in the street has to be convinced that feelings are more important than bodies; that what goes on in our head is absolutely foundational to who we are. And that’s a trajectory we see in Western thinking and life that begins in the late Middle Ages and accelerates a bit with the Reformation.
Luther, for example, spends a lot of time wrestling with his inner feelings, but it was after Luther that what Rieff describes as the psychological man really takes off. According to Rief, the psychological man is characterized not so much by finding identity in outward-directed activities—as was true for those driven by religion, politics, and economics who came before him—but rather in the inward quest for personal psychological happiness.
In the late 17th and early 18th century, the philosopher Descartes expressed the idea that the only thing he could truly be certain of was his own thought process: “I think therefore I am.” Then, in the 18th century,
Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggests that our inner feelings, that voice of nature within us (before society messes us up), are determinative of who we are. So I think the problem of the modern person—the inward turn that places the inner psychological life of the individual at the heart of what it means to be a self—accelerates in the 18th century and is well established by the end of the 19th century. From Rousseau, it just continues to progress and mushroom through the Romantic period and then through Freud and then to Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and others.
The philosopher Charles Taylor saw these same philosophical threads—especially the turning point that came through early 19th century poets like William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake. But Taylor goes on to talk about how people tend to think of themselves—we tend to think of ourselves—in monologue. You know, “I am who I am, because of who I am inside.” Taylor makes the point that it’s more complicated than that. We all want to be free. Yes, we intuitively feel we’re free. We want to determine our own identities. But we also want to belong. We want to fit into the world around us. And so identity is always a social thing; it always involves dialogue.
Learning that truth from Taylor was important for me. It helped me to understand why the LGBTQ+ movement would not be satisfied—has not been satisfied—with the notion of tolerance. You know, there was a time 10 or 15 years ago when a lot of Christians were saying, “Tolerance for LGBTQ people is fine. We don’t want to send people to prison for what happens in the privacy of their bedrooms. We’re happy to tolerate them.” And yet that proved not to be acceptable.
Charles Taylor, in his book Sources of Self: The Making and Meaning of Modern Identity, helps us understand why. He points out that in order to be a person, we want other people to recognize us as having value. We want to be valued in the particular ways we understand ourselves to have value. This truth is key to understanding why the sexual revolution, the revolution of sexual identity, was never going to settle for “Well, we’ll just let people do what they want in the privacy of their own homes.” No, that’s not enough. You have to acknowledge these sexual identities in public in order for LGBTQ+ people to feel they are valued. Taylor calls this the politics of recognition—it involves validation and celebration. At the end of the day, nothing less than full acceptance and celebration is going to be acceptable to the LGBTQ+ movement.
In many ways, there are analogies between today’s church and the pre-Constantinian church. Like the church of that time, we’re going to be marginal and regarded as immoral and seditious, because our loyalty is to King Jesus and not to the secular state. Christians should be good citizens to the extent that we are able to, but our ultimate loyalty is not to the kingdom of this world, but to the kingdom of God. And this is where the ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre is so helpful. He makes the point that so much moral discourse today is simply people talking past each other. That’s because we don’t even agree on what we might call the basic metanarrative.
We don’t agree on how to tell the world’s big story. We don’t agree don’t on the answers to life’s biggest questions. We don’t agree about what the significance of the world is. And in order to have meaningful discussions about anything, we must. Take abortion for instance. When does personhood begin? We may be at a point now where a lot of pro-life and pro-choice people agree that life begins at conception, but where does personhood begin? Well, that depends on what you understand by a human person. Do you understand it as something inherently made in the image of God, or as something with a certain level of self-consciousness? Again, that will track back to what you think and believe is the significance of this world. Is this world just material stuff, or is there a meaning beyond the stuff that the world is made of? MacIntyre helps us to see that it’s a disagreement on that point that puts up big barriers for communication.
Ultimately though, many false narratives will collapse, because they don’t can’t hold up to reality. I believe transgenderism, for instance, fights too hard against nature for nature not to bite back at some point. Tragically, when nature bites back, it will only be after a lot of human suffering.
With helpful thinkers like Rieff, Taylor, and MacIntyre, we can better understand today’s cultural challenges. But what can we do as Christians to address this fallen culture we’ve found ourselves in. Well, this is where my background in Reformation thinking can help us a little. At the same time Rousseau was writing, Jonathan Edwards was writing his Religious Affections.
As human beings, our emotions do not define us, but our feelings do matter. We need to acknowledge that there are good and proper ways in which Christian teaching parallels the broader culture. Appealing to affections helps us to bring home the urgency of believing the gospel and the need for individuals to have faith for themselves. The truth is that we can’t out-argue the world. One of the reasons—as MacIntyre points out—is that we’ve got no common ground upon which to engage in an argument. What we can do, though, is out-narrate the world by providing a more beautiful story and stronger communities than the world does. If identity is a function of the community to which you belong, then your strongest identity will be a function of the strongest community to which you belong. Protestants have done a great job over the years of focusing upon true doctrine, and we cannot compromise on that. But we also need to emphasize that strand of teaching we see in the New Testament on belonging, community, and loving each other. For the church as a whole, as we move into a post-Christian, post-Christendom age, we need to refocus on what it means to be a community and to witness to the world as the people God has called together.
Carl R. Trueman (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Creedal Imperative; Luther on the Christian Life; and Histories and Fallacies. Trueman is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.