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Carl Trueman Explains Liquid Modernity

Why are religions and moral traditions dissolving? A brilliant new book makes it clear
Digital Composite Image Of Woman With Dissolve In Water

A book that I’ve been waiting on for a long time has finally been published: The Rise And Triumph Of The Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, by church historian Carl R. Trueman. It was my privilege to write the foreword for the book. Excerpt:

Trueman’s book is in no way a standard conservative Christian polemic against modernity. Those are a dime a dozen. Nor is it a pietistic exhortation to prayer, study, and sober living, of which we have countless examples. Rather, it is a sophisticated survey and analysis of cultural history by a brilliant teacher who is not only an orthodox Christian but also a pastor who understands the actual needs of the flock — and who, unlike so many intellectuals, can write like a dream. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how practical this book is and how useful it will be to pastors, priests, and intellectually engaged Christians of all denominations.

I suspect Carl asked me to write the foreword because I played a small role in bringing the book to fruition. For years I have loved reading Carl’s essays in First Things, and told him that we really need a small-o orthodox Christian to explain Philip Rieff to the rest of us. This book is the result, but Carl ranges far beyond Rieff in its pages. I have been telling everybody I know that they need to get this book — and not just Christians. Again, it is written by a Christian, from a Christian perspective, but culturally conservative Jews and Muslims and others will greatly benefit from it. It explains why traditional religion and moral values systems are dissolving in the acid bath of modernity, and why it is so difficult to counteract this effect.

Carl and I recently did an e-mail interview, which I’ve been holding till the book is available. Well, now it’s out. Read this, and I hope you’ll see why I’m so excited about The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self:

RD: Ken Myers once told me that most Christian apologists try to explain Christianity to the modern world, but at Mars Hill Audio Journal, he sees his mission as explaining the modern world to Christianity. That is very much the spirit of your book. Why is this necessary?

CT: Many Christians operate with the wrong paradigms for understanding what is going on around them, particularly in the area of the sexual revolution.  That means that we may not fully grasp the significance of what we see around us and also hinders our witness.  We assume that the sexual revolution was – is – about expanding the canon of acceptable sexual behavior.  It is not.  It is actually about a fundamental shift in how we understand our humanity.  Sex is now understood as central to identity, not simply an activity.  Unless we grasp that, we will see neither the depth of the problem we face nor be able to engage meaningfully with those who are the revolution’s victims.  My hope is that my book will help Christians, and indeed others concerned about the direction our culture is taking, understand precisely what is going on and what is at stake.  That will hopefully help enable them in starting to formulate appropriate answers.

Many Christians today are embarrassed by traditional Christian sexual teaching, and see it as a ball and chain that the church needs to lose so it can appeal to contemporary people. Why is this wrong?

It is wrong because it assumes that Christian sexual teaching is simply about behavior and, as such, can be relativized as a function of the conventions of particular societies, with no universal significance.  Yet that is incorrect both theologically and anthropologically.  Theologically, it fails to see that sex is an analogue of Christ and the church.  Anthropologically, it fails to see that our sexual ethics are directly related to our understanding of what it means to be a human person.  To buy into the contemporary sexual narrative is to buy into two (not obviously consistent) notions: that sexual desire constitutes our identity; and that sexual activity is nothing more than recreation, the morality of which is not intrinsic to the act but merely determined by the giving or withholding of consent.  Neither of these is compatible with orthodox Christian notions of human personhood.  The former trivializes what it means to be human; the latter trivializes what sex represents.  No Christian can do either of these things and maintain that they still represent orthodoxy.

Why does it seem that when people give up on Christian sexual orthodoxy, they sooner or later give up on Christianity itself?

Clearly, if my point in the previous answer is correct, then this becomes a most likely outcome.  To abandon Christian sexual orthodoxy is not simply to widen the canon of acceptable sexual practices.  It is to revise key theological and anthropological elements of the Christian faith.  And once you do that, you are well on the way not simply to revising the faith but turning it at best into little more than the moral tastes of the contemporary culture.  You might well couch this in the language of traditional Christian piety but you are actually detaching such language from traditional Christian content.  Unfortunately, Christian doctrine and ethics are simply not to be decided by focus groups nor to be reflections or affirmations of popular taste.

So many of my thoughtful Christian friends can’t understand why or how this total revolution in sex, family, and sexual identity has overtaken us so swiftly. But if you look at it in terms of cultural anthropology – that is, on how we think so differently about what it means to be a person now, a self – it makes sense. Why?

The appearance of speed is actually somewhat deceptive.  Sure, the specific collapse of traditional sexual mores has happened very quickly but this is simply the latest, albeit dramatic, cultural outworking of the normative notion of the self which has been forming over a long period of time in Western culture.  The move to inner space, to feelings, as foundational to identity, was made by Rousseau and his heirs in the Romantic movement.  Those feelings were sexualized by Freud and his followers, who saw sexual desire as the most fundamental aspect of our identity and thus transformed sex from something we do into that which we are.  And the last fifty years have built on the work of men such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse who made the obvious move once identity is grounded in sexual desire: sexual liberation becomes a key part of political liberation.  The narrative is, of course, more complicated – technology, popular culture, etc. all play their role.  But the basic point is that the sexual revolution is not an isolated phenomenon but rather symptomatic of deep and longstanding developments within Western culture.

You highlight that social conservatives point to “expressive individualism” as the source of so much disorder today, but they fail to see how they too are expressive individualists. What do you mean, and why does this matter?

Expressive individualism is the idea that we each find our humanity within ourselves and see ourselves as most authentic when we express this outwardly.  Perhaps the most extreme examples in society today would be a transgender person who only feels that they are truly who they are when they can act in public according to the gender they feel themselves to be inside.  But all of us are expressive individuals because it is the very cultural air that we breathe.  The radical libertarian operates with the same notion of individual autonomy.  The religious person chooses to be religious and then chooses which religion to follow.  We all see our clothes and our belongings as expressions of our selves.  We may each find some examples of expressive individualism more acceptable, tasteful, or “normal” than others but we are all, as democratic western consumers, involved in the phenomenon at some deep level.

One thing that comes through strongly in reading this book is how massively important history is to understanding why things are the way they are. I suppose this is always true, but it is baffling to me how uninterested in history so many of us moderns are. Why is that, and why does this hurt the church in trying to form and disciple the young?

Charles Taylor points out in  A Secular Age that modernity presents itself as the natural emergence of what human beings really are.  This helps partially explain, for example, why science has become such a powerful force within our intuitive conception of the world.  But what modernity is really doing is deploying a master narrative that blinds us to the historical construction that is modernity and, for example, the range of identities to which it grants legitimacy, all of which are really historically contingent.  Those brought up on versions of this narrative – whether that which sees history as a story of progress and improvement or a tale of oppression and woe from which the present is now liberating us – will be disinclined to see the past as a source of wisdom and their own identities as less than natural and absolute. It has been interesting that some of the initial hostility to my book claimed that it is dangerous to gay people – yet I was careful throughout to be dispassionate in my analysis.  My crime, I suspect, is that I have applied to the LGBTQ+ movement the approach it applies to others and shown thereby the historical contingency, even novelty, of its constituent identities which it has struggled so hard to naturalize.

Your book highlights three contemporary philosophers who you believe are particularly important to understanding the modern condition. Briefly, could you state who they are, and why they are important?

Philip Rieff, a Freudian sociologist, is key to my narrative because he saw the importance of the rise of therapeutic culture. The “triumph of the therapeutic,” as he calls it, is his term for describing a world which makes the personal psychological satisfaction of the individual the center of its moral imagination.  The result is that the broader culture is reconfigured in such a way that anything which might hinder this – say, the traditional categories of sexual morality – have to be dismantled.  Perhaps the most obvious examples in recent days have been provided by higher education where teachers have found themselves in trouble for making students feel “unsafe” simply because they have introduced ideas with which the students disagree.  The current debates about freedom of speech and freedom of religion are emblematic of the therapeutic nature of our culture.

Charles Taylor gave me the key insight that our contemporary cultural pathologies are functions of the nature of the self – of the way we intuitively think of ourselves in relation to the world around.   His identification of the Romantics as making the key inward move towards feeling and sentiment as defining how think of the self in the modern world is extremely important.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s insight – that modern moral discourse lacks any agreed metanarrative and is therefore really a battle between different emotional preferences – was important to me in that it helped to explain the futility of current moral debates, and why such tend to default very quickly to mutual recrimination and accusations of irrational bigotry.  The Supreme Court’s claim in United States v. Windsor, that religious objections to gay marriage were rooted in constitutional animus, and thus nothing more than homophobia, is a classic example.

Carl R. Trueman

Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin are familiar to many readers as 19th century thinkers who did so very much to diagnose and shape the modern mind. I found your discussion of the Romantics enlightening. How do they fit into the picture?

The Romantics are important because they deepen and elaborate Rousseau’s move to the inner psychological space as the source of our humanity and selfhood.  Interestingly enough, some of them also anticipate many of the cultural tendencies of our day: Shelley and Blake, for example, attack traditional marriage and the orthodox Christianity on which it was then based, and also advocate free love. And the Romantics do this through artistic media – poetry, novel, music, painting – which have a direct, emotional, aesthetic appeals.  In doing so, they begin that process whereby the convictions of the cultural elite begin to percolate down through society, and by appealing primarily to the imagination and to emotions, they have influence in a way far more pungent than any argument or weighty philosophical treatise could ever have done.

Early in the book, you say that you are not writing in a spirit of lament. Why did you feel it necessary to say so?

Lamentation is popular in Christian circles.  Indeed, that is no monopoly of the present age.  As a church historian, I find examples of the cry of “O tempora! O mores!” to be hardy perennials of church life throughout the ages – probably the result of the fact that Christians always hope for perfection but never find it on this earth.  Today in particular, as the moral imagination of the culture becomes more antithetical to that of Christianity, the temptation to lamentation is particularly acute.  But this is problematic on at least two fronts.  First, it can actually be just another symptom of the wider therapeutic culture.  Lamentation can, oddly, makes us feel better about ourselves by reassuring us of our superiority, that we see the problem and cannot therefore be a part of it.  But it is also rather lazy.  If we spend all our time lamenting, then we never start actually responding with action that might make a difference.  I learned from watching Robby George during my year at Princeton that the answer to setbacks is not to spend time crying but rather to say “OK, this is bad — so what can we do to make things better?  How should we respond?” I therefore wrote my book not as a lament but as a piece of cultural analysis which, I hope, clarifies the issues so that Christians can start to think in an informed manner about what we can expect and how we might respond.

The sociologist of religion Christian Smith has said that if the church wants to have a hope of speaking to younger generations, it is going to have to abandon moralism, and start speaking to their imaginations. I didn’t take him to mean that the church has to abandon its moral teachings, but rather has to present Christianity as something more than a moral code. Based on your work in this book, is Smith onto something?

Yes.  Moralism and, indeed, the martial rhetoric of culture war, do not resonate with the rising generation. To be frank, given how culturally marginalized the church is becoming, the latter is today nothing more than macho posturing, even a kind of therapy which simply allows some to feel they are important and making a difference when they really are not.  But we do better to focus on making our protest against the wider secular culture in more positive ways.  That’s where community comes in: churches need to build community around clear Christian teaching, serious Christian worship, and practical Christian love.  Done well, those things can grip the imagination because they offer a vision of something better than the thin communities and shallow satisfactions of consumerism. Telling people that the way they live is wrong has no plausibility unless it is set against the background of a vision of something better.

You have been a parish pastor, and you have prepared young men for the pastorate. What are the most important things for pastors to know today about ministering to people in this culture? What about for lay Christians? Things can seem so complex and overwhelming.

Obviously, the gospel has not changed, so the first task of the pastor is to teach the whole counsel of God.  But when it comes to ethical issues, particularly those relating to matters of sex and personhood, it is important for the pastor not to assume that everyone in the congregation thinks the way he does.  Clear teaching on these matters which brings out how they connect to the whole counsel of God is vital.  We cannot teach such things in an atomistic way.  As to lay Christians, they too should be encouraged to be informed on these issues.  Few have time to read a 400-plus page book on the topic (!) but there are good places to find good explanations and critiques of the culture today – TAC, First Things, The Public Discourse etc.  Read wisely, often, and well.

Where do you find hope? The standard answer, and the correct answer, is “in Christ alone,” but give us something more tangible. Do you think Christianity can survive modernity?

Yes, I do think the church can survive.  First of all, God has promised as much.  Case closed. But that is no excuse for complacency.  I think community is a big part of the answer, as you argue in The Benedict Option  and again in Live Not By Lies.  If the basic narrative of your work and my book is correct, then we are going to see increasing instability and impoverishment of community life in the future.   And people crave community.  That is where the church, with a definite creed, code, and cult, can truly make a difference to people.  We can be the community that people want, not on their terms, of course, but nonetheless in a manner that will give dignity and meaning to their humanity in a way that other alternatives cannot, however hard they may try.  This will be hard – as an egregious Englishman, I almost shudder at the thought! – but necessary.  After all, Jesus himself said that by this will all men know that you are my disciples: by the love you have for each other.  In other words, community, informed by Christian doctrine, worship, and love, is the best evangelistic tool there is.

The book, again, is The Rise And Triumph Of The Modern Self, by Carl R. Trueman.

Say, readers, I have been writing Daily Dreher, my Substack newsletter, for coming up on three weeks now, and have thousands of people who have signed up to receive it. It’s free for now. I hope you’ll sign up to get it daily in your inbox. It’s distinctly different from this blog, in that I don’t use it for culture war polemic, commentary on current events, or other things that are the bread and butter of this blog, but rather I try to be quieter and more contemplative there, writing about the kinds of smaller things and perspectives that get lost sometimes on this blog. Anyway, I hope you’ll check it out. As I said, it costs you nothing, though probably by year’s end I’m going to start charging a little bit for it.



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