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The Power and Perils of being Dispassionate

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Posted by Niv Lobo, 25 Feb 2021

Niv Lobo reviews Carl Trueman's "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self", and finds much to appreciate, some to question, and fears concerning the way it may be received and used.

The Rise and Triumph book coverBook Review: Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution (2020)

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution

Sometimes, one’s circles are awash with a book that everyone seems to be reading and recommending, and that has definitely been the case with this book. Christians look askance at what strikes them as society’s ever-hastening hurtle into incoherence—the dizzying array of gender identities, the new degree of permissiveness around unsettling sexual mores—and wonder, ‘How did we get here?’ Carl Trueman’s study offers itself as an answer to that question, painstakingly surveying a range of thinkers, philosophers, poets and critics to show how a self-understanding that feels strikingly new has been centuries in the making. For a sub-culture that feels ever more out of its depth in the 21st century West, this contribution, from an intellectual historian of Trueman’s calibre, has been eagerly awaited.

Trueman’s work speaks to perplexity: what could make sense of the statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body”? He ponders the incomprehension and bemusement that would greet this statement from his grandfather, were he alive. In response, Trueman draws on the work of three 20th century philosophers: Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. He advances a three-step thesis: to arrive where we have, ‘The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must be politicized.’ And in terms of narrating this process, Trueman’s account is largely successful: he masterfully introduces the reader to a succession of various historical figures, dealing (it seems to me!) fairly with each as he summarises their context and contribution. The usual suspects, like Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, are presented, but so too are English Romantic poets, the protagonists of the Frankfurt School and Hugh Hefner (among others). The adjectives strewn through the work’s endorsements—‘amazing’, ‘insightful’, ‘accessible’, ‘fair-minded’, ‘profound’—are not at all misplaced. And even though Trueman offers the work as the careful explanation which necessarily precedes any critique (‘Understanding the times is a precondition of responding appropriately to the times’), by the end of the work, Trueman is able to suggest avenues for further thought and response from the Church.

I am very grateful I read this book. I am very excited that it is being fêted as a must-read, especially among pastors and church leaders. And yet, I have some serious reservations: a few to do with the book itself, and more to do with how this book might be received.

There are aspects to the book itself which just raised questions. I don’t know Philip Rieff’s work, but the category of a ‘deathwork’ seems broad to the point of meaninglessness if it encompasses both pornography and the first few lines of T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. (I clearly need to read Rieff for myself—and this book is a spur to do that.)

There are more significant concerns with Trueman’s work. The first is this: there is a problematic oversight in Trueman’s thesis. He deals well with the psychologising of the self (and what follows in terms of politicising and sexualising) but never deals adequately with where the self comes from. Specifically—and lamentably, given that Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self is a key source for Trueman—the Christian roots of self-understanding in modernity are not drawn out. Where Charles Taylor shows how Augustine’s theology grounds his interiority, or how theistic concerns motivated Descartes and Locke, one can get the impression from Trueman’s account that a focus on the individual arises as various thinkers depart from Christianity. One could be forgiven for thinking that all the Romantic poets were as hostile to the faith as Shelley: Blake’s mysticism and Coleridge’s Christianity do not feature as they should. As Taylor’s study demonstrates, many of the problematic aspects of the modern self arise from within the Christian tradition, and often developed as unintended consequences of genuinely well-intended actions and emphases. Trueman’s neglect of this dimension paints him as an unwilling Prospero, as yet unprepared to claim the Caliban of the modern self as Christianity’s own. The danger of his project is that it leads us to stand apart from the chaos and confusion of modernity, unable to say ‘This thing of darkness I/acknowledge mine’.

This has two knock-on effects. First, while Trueman’s account is clarifyingly dispassionate, it fails to be compassionate, and specifically it fails to echo the compassionate tone of Trueman’s source material in Taylor. Perplexity is the main posture towards the Trans community, rather than any sense that these are people to love. By contrast, Taylor’s work is marked by an overwhelming desire to speak to the inhabitants of a secular age and appeal to the best of their aspirations and desires, commending the pursuit of authenticity even as he shows how untenable such authenticity is on their own terms. Were Trueman to have adopted that posture, he would have produced a truly superb work. Second, the dispassionate approach fails to resource the church with important material for a response. In his conclusion, Trueman warns effectively against the ‘aesthetic-based logic’ of modern self-understanding, urging the church to respond on the basis of ‘deeper, transcendent commitments’. This is undeniably important, but does not go as far as it should. The church needs to discover that the ‘deeper metaphysical reality’ witnessed to in Scripture itself begets an aesthetics. It is not enough for it to be ‘dogmatic, doctrinal, assertive’: our presentation of the Gospel is also called to be beautiful, flowing from the conviction that the Gospel is true, good and beautiful (liturgy and the imagination are relevant categories here). We need, as Glynn Harrison puts it, to tell a Better Story. Not just an accurate story of how we got here, but a better one of where, in Jesus, people can go from here. And what these two oversights reveal is the necessity of complementary accounts.[ii]

Then, my fears as to its reception. My issues from this point on are not really with Carl Trueman, but with how I fear his work will be used.[iii] Here’s why I wanted to write with these cautions: I think many of us will reach for this book to make sense of a world that doesn’t. Trusting Trueman as we do (and, in many ways, should), the critical faculties we regularly employ elsewhere might well be under-exercised as we read. So, what am I afraid of? First, that we read this book to find a silver bullet. Compelling genealogies of our opponent’s position—such as Augustine’s subversion of Imperial Rome in The City of God, or Nietzsche’s of Christendom in The Genealogy of Morals—can be really valuable. But they need to be carefully handled, and a mere understanding of where ideas come from or how they have developed is not sufficient to refute them. I certainly don’t lay any blame at Trueman’s door for this, but I have already seen a few on social media so enlightened by this book that they speak in very sweeping generalisations about historical figures and processes they barely understand (let alone have actually studied). The right response to Trueman’s achievement is humility and a desire to read the figures he’s mentioned for ourselves. The wrong, and easy, response is to assume that we have a silver bullet, the narrative to show how and where the rot set in. This cannot be. For one thing, any attempt to narrate such a complex process will feel a little arbitrary in the figures and movements it treats. Why the Frankfurt School rather than Foucault? Why, despite the allusion of the chapter entitled ‘Concluding Unscientific Prologue’, no Kierkegaard? Trueman himself acknowledges his account necessarily ‘limited and provisional’, which is eminently fair. This book is really helpful, but no such account can be a silver bullet solution.

Second, I fear that the dispassionate approach Trueman offers may feed our worst instincts when it comes to responding to the LGBTQ community. In the Gospel, we are not seeking to turn the clock back to the 1950s—we are turning it forward to the New Creation, and embodying, in our singleness and marriages, a sexual ethic rooted in the union of Christ and the Church to which marriage points. We are inviting anyone and everyone to come to know Jesus and, yes, the transformative work of His Spirit in every part of their lives, as we deny ourselves to follow Him. My fear is that the posture and tone of this work encourages us to view members of the LGBT community as hapless products of the sexual revolution, rather than priming us to love them and listen to them and invite them into our churches. (Dare I say, it might not help us recognise the extent to which the sexual revolution has shaped us…) In particular, from some conversations I’ve had, the statement on which this book turns, ‘a woman trapped in a man’s body’, reflects an already obsolete model of Trans self-understanding among many young people today. The reason why Charles Taylor is so important for us to read is that, at the level of tone, he models the compassionate engagement in which the Church needs to become more skilful.

I repeat what I said earlier. I am very grateful I read this book. I am very excited that it is being fêted as a must-read, especially among pastors and church leaders. I hope it finds the readership it deserves—and that, if you’ve read this, the reservations I’ve shared help you make the most of Trueman’s achievement. It is considerable.

I should count myself as one who eagerly awaited it. It’s worth acknowledging that I have been a huge Carl Trueman fanboy. My response to his (entirely valid) protest that celebrity culture has infected American Christianity was, basically, to accord him celebrity status. For much of my twenties, Trueman and American Presbyterianism in general were a major influence on me, and I am not ungrateful for that. Compared to conservative evangelical Anglicanism, Trueman and the institutions with which I associated him were intellectually rigorous, enviably clear in their understanding of the importance of gathered worship and the sacraments and radiated a real confidence in engaging with the academy and culture. Of late, I find myself increasingly aware that I am actually an Anglican, however, and even that Anglican thinkers lie behind much of what I’ve found so helpful in certain streams of Reformed thought. I consider many hugely stimulating theologians plying their trade who were shaped under John Webster’s supervision, or how JI Packer and Arthur Bennett (who collated The Valley of Vision) have been so helpful in popularising the Puritans at their best. I am very excited by the vitality, maturity and acuity of English Presbyterianism, but I’ve lately realised how I have unthinkingly looked to US Presbyterianism as some kind of ideal. 

[ii] For instance, it would be excellent to read this alongside Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story, or Dale Kuehne’s Sex and the iWorld, or Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem to name a few. Butterfield’s testimony is a perfect example of the compassion I wish Trueman’s work modelled. It’s worth saying that plenty of churches and Christians in Trueman’s own traditions, and in mine, have done a good job of being ‘dogmatic, doctrinal, assertive’: for all that, our young people are no less vulnerable to the fallout of the sexual revolution, since we have not helped them see the way of Jesus as life-giving and beautiful in its sexual ethic.

[iii] I should add, I envision myself as the potential misuser of Trueman’s account, and am sketching in what follows ways in which I might wrongly apply this study.

This review was first published on the author’s blog and is reproduced here with permission.

Niv Lobo is an ordinand at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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