Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl R. Trueman. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2020.

Summary: Traces the intellectual history of what Charles Taylor calls expressive individualism and Philip Rieff calls the psychological man that the author argues explains the modern understanding of self contributing to a revolution in human sexuality.

Carl R. Trueman offers in this work something of an intellectual tour de force. It is important to understand the audience for which this book is written. It is written for Christians who embrace classic orthodoxy who are trying to understand the rapid changes in society, moving from Defense of Marriage Acts to the Obergefell ruling granting gay and lesbian couples the right to marry to contemporary discussions normalizing transgender persons in society. These are changes that have occurred in the last few decades, but which reflect a movement of thought spanning centuries, going back at least to the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Trueman derives his thinking from two key thinkers–Charles Taylor and Philip Rieff. Both trace a transformation in our understanding of the self, and of our understanding of culture. Both trace a movement from an understanding of self and culture rooted in a transcendent order, in which the idea was conforming and imitating this order in one’s ethic and the shape of society. Modernity has resulted in the shift from this idea to one in which the self is created and contemporary society is conceived as an anti-culture resisting an oppressive classic order. A particularly important concept for Rieff is that of deathworks which Rieff defines as “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture. Every deathwork represents an admiring final assault on the objects of its admiration: the sacred orders of which their arts are some expression in the repressive mode.”

The assault begins with Rousseau who sees evil not in the fallen self but a misshapen society. He then traces the rise of the modern self through Romantic writers like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake, all emphasizing an emotive intuition of reality. He explains the politicization of these impulses in the works of Nietzsche and Marx and the sexualization of the self by Freud and Wilhelm Reich, where sex moves from act to identity. Finally, Trueman arrives at the present day, the rise of the therapeutic self and the constructs of sexual and gender identity.

I’ve given an extremely truncated version of a long argument (400+ pages with postscript–although shorter than any of Charles Taylor’s books). The history of ideas and their implications offer a credible case for a number of contemporary phenomena. Yet I found it troubling, for all its logical coherence, for several reasons. One is that I could see someone who is a person of color or who identifies as LGBTQ who would say, “You have given the account of our liberation from repressive and oppressive ideas and rationale for our resistance to the powers who invoke them. What you consider a negative development, we consider a triumph–liberation from a repressive and abusive sexuality and racist, colonizing political structures.” And despite the “anti-historical” tendencies Trueman would attribute to these interlocutors, they might answer with historical record of their own. They would agree with Trueman’s basic account minus his criticisms and consider it a narrative of their liberation.

The second thing troubling to me is that, although Trueman disavows that his explanation is either lament or polemic, it comes off as polemical to someone accustomed to work in the public university setting. You will remember that I noted the importance of the audience for which he writes–classic orthodox Christians. While I identify with this group, I also am aware that this account would be received as polemical, and indeed offensive at points to the people with whom I engage. The use of the term “transgenderism” which Trueman considers the outcome of his genealogy of ideas, is not typically a term used by those who identify as transgender, but rather by those who oppose them. I sense, however, that Trueman’s intended audience would be nodding their heads in agreement. To that audience this would not be polemic, but simply a compelling explanation of what has occurred in a culture with which they are uneasy.

Part of the offense of “transgenderism” is that Trueman is writing adversarially and dispassionately about real people whose sense of gender and their assigned sex at birth are at variance. No matter how one construes the self, the lived experience is often deeply confusing and troubling, particularly for the children or adolescents facing this. Only once, in the last few pages, does Trueman mention compassion. Through the remainder, transgenderism is the “other,” a faceless, invidious movement that represents the ultimate expression of the modern self.

Finally, only in the last few pages, does Trueman gesture toward a Christian response. He emphasizes the importance of doctrinal instruction, including understanding the aesthetic logic used by the modern self, the importance of community and a recovery of both an understanding of natural law and a high view of the body. Some of this is similar to what Rod Dreher recommends in The Benedict Option. His recommendations in part reflect the conviction that expressive individualism has invaded the church, with which I would concur. But this feels like circling the wagons to me. I can’t help but think that a better approach would be to start by recognizing the failures of Christian belief and practice that led to the rise of the modern self–a low view of the body and human sexuality, the alliance of the church with oppressive political structures, the exchange Christendom for the faithfulness of Christ, and the justification of the subjugation of human beings that denied the imago dei in all persons. Then, the challenge is to offer a better account, rather than just critique, and models of community that live this account.

What Trueman offers in this survey of intellectual history is an understanding both of how we got to where we are and why we often speak past one another. We really are working from different understandings of the world, the self, and the ground of ultimate reality. Furthermore, a biblically grounded, theologically acute account of a Christian vision has been vitiated by this modern view of the self. I hope in the future this scholar will move beyond explanation and critique to retrieval and re-articulation of an account of Christian truth not merely for a Christian audience but for a public unsatisfied with the modern self. This, it seems to me is both the harder and more important work, for which, as Trueman rightly notes, this book is only prolegomenon.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

  1. Bob, although I have not read Truman’s book I am familiar with his theological polemic and appreciate the critical cautions that you express.

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2021 | Bob on Books

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