How do we make sense of modern culture?

An interview with Carl Trueman about "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self"

May 18, 2021

Our modern culture seems to be changing at a dizzying pace. Issues of selfhood, sexuality, and religious liberty continually dominate the national conversation, prompting us to wonder how we got here and how we are to move forward. Carl Trueman, in his recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, helps us to understand and answer these questions. For Christians seeking to make sense of Western culture, his book’s survey of the past helps “bring clarity to the present and give guidance for the future.” 

To that end, Trueman spent some time recently answering our questions to help us do just that — understand our present moment and live faithfully in the midst of it.

In the opening chapter of your book, you discuss how the sexual revolution has a broad historical context and isn’t a revolution chiefly about sex or sexuality but “a revolution in how the self is understood.” Can you tell us why the contemporary misunderstanding of “selfhood” is so dangerous? 

The contemporary understanding of selfhood grants decisive authority to inner feelings. This ultimately fosters both a plastic sense of what human nature is and reduces morality to a matter of personal taste in the service of personal happiness. That creates a situation where society’s moral codes are inherently unstable (and thus societies tend either to chaos or authoritarianism).

As you close your introduction, you say, “The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately.” How would you say Christians in the United States are doing in this regard and, moreover, how would you advise Christians who would like to understand and respond to the problems in our moment more faithfully? 

It is hard to generalize. If social media is representative, then Christians on the left and right seem angry, bitter, polarized, and engaged in a civil war over everything from race to sexuality.  But my experience of Christians outside of that social media world is that, while they are concerned about developments in the wider culture, they are actually interested in thinking through these issues in a more careful manner because they face them in their everyday lives with reference to co-workers and beloved family members. 

As to advising such, I would say: stay away from being pulled into social media debates as much as possible — they seem to serve more for the self-promotion of the protagonists than the advancement of understanding — read widely and thoughtfully on the key issues and resist the temptation to treat other people as labels rather than as individuals made in the image of God.

In a day when tensions are high and charity seems to be waning, your book seeks to represent the views and opinions on the other side of this argument with fairness and integrity. Can you talk about why this is important?

In part, this merely reflects my approach in the classroom. I always try to think myself into the skin of whichever thinker I happen to be teaching in order to present their thought as carefully as I can before offering any critique. But in a day as polarized and laden with distracting rhetoric as ours, it also helps to lower the polemical temperature and allows a proper, more dispassionate focus on the issues. In addition, it is important because my purpose is to persuade my audience, and that requires me to show that I take seriously the positions I reject and do so for good reasons, not simply out of bigotry. Of course, in a therapeutic age, some will always see an alternative view as offensive, and, rather than engage the argument, they will resort to claims that their critic is setting up a straw man. The important thing is to make sure such claims are incorrect.

In Part 1 of the book, you spend time talking about first, second, and third-world cultures, which are categories, in this context, that describe the grounding for a society’s moral values. Identifying much of our Western culture as third world (denying any sacred order), you discuss the difficulties present when a second-world representative (one who believes in a sacred order) “clashes with a representative of a third world,” a common situation here in America. For Christians engaging in these “clashes” that you describe, is there any hope of winning over persons who subscribe to a third-world view? If so, how?

We need an approach that acknowledges this difference and adopts a strategy that goes beyond the normal intellectual apologetics to which Christians typically default. The third-worlder may have repudiated sacred order but he cannot rid himself of the basic human desire for those basic goods, freedom and belonging, even if he has no idea what they might look like or how a definition of them might be justified. This is where the challenge lies for Christians. 

We need to demonstrate in our church communities that our love for each other is practical proof that freedom is belonging and belonging is freedom, in accordance with biblical teaching (belonging to Christ, one is made free). In short, the Christian apologetic must be as much practical as it is theoretical. Indeed, the practical is necessary in order to make the theoretical plausible to the third-worlder.

You mention that virtually no one today or in recent history is/was reading the philosophers that you identify as foundational to our current predicament. And yet, here we are, buying into the worldviews that they put forth, some of them hundreds of years ago. How did we get from Karl Marx, for instance, to the cultural norms that we’re witnessing today?

To ask that is to raise the perennially vexed question of how material factors and ideas interact in the shaping of history, to which I can offer only a very simplified answer here. In brief, matters such as technology, world wars, globalization, immigration, etc., have shaped social behaviors that have cultivated intuitions in us which resonate with ideas of those such as Marx. For example, Marx’s abolition of the pre-political is now the default intuition of us all. We may not have read Marx but the presentation of erstwhile pre-political institutions such as family, church, or even the Boy Scouts in popular culture as having political significance has served to make Marx’s point an intuitive part of how we think about such things.

Likewise, you cite the power of media and art in shaping a viewer’s worldview. Why do media and art possess such formative power over whole societies? And considering their power, how should Christians proceed with consuming these art forms and others?

Media and art affect us in numerous ways, too many to recount here. News, movies, soap operas, etc., present narratives, and narratives easily come to grip our imagination. I often use the example of gay marriage. How did gay marriage come to be so widely accepted so fast? It was not because vast numbers of the public were reading books on the philosophy of sexual relationships. Rather, it was the power of the positive narratives of programs such as Will and Grace that helped to shape the public’s moral imagination. 

Further, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram serve to increase the scope for self-creation and for life as a public performance. The Nietzschean ideal of acting out one’s life as a work of art is thus something everyone can achieve; more than that, it is something we are all encouraged to achieve. My advice to Christians is therefore: be very careful about such things, and be very self-conscious about how they can shape our thinking.

You mention Charles Taylor a lot in your book and his use of the term “social imaginary.” This is a concept many Christians are unfamiliar with. Why is it helpful or important?

The social imaginary is Taylor’s term for the set of intuitions we have that make society possible.  We all have a large number of shared convictions, beliefs, and practices that are not things we have consciously worked out from first principles but have in a sense simply absorbed from the culture around us. It is therefore a helpful concept in both making us aware of how intuitive many of our beliefs are and therefore allows us both to reflect upon them and to see how complex the relationship of our beliefs to our cultural milieu is.

Near the end of Part 3, you make the statement that “when we address matters of sexual morality, we are actually addressing questions about the nature and purpose of human beings, the definition of happiness, and the relationship between the individual and wider society between men and women.” Can you expound on this? What does sexual morality have to do with the nature and purpose of human beings? 

The fact that sex has shifted from being an act, something we do, to an identity, something we are, clearly indicates that modern notions of sex are intimately wrapped up with what we consider to be the purpose of our lives and the nature of fulfillment. That this shift has taken place, therefore, also indicates that society has changed its view of our purpose and fulfillment.  Think about it: if sex is primarily for procreation or confined within the bounds of marriage, then it is about somebody else — my children, my spouse. If it is primarily about my identity and my pleasure, then it is a self-directed matter, with others only being significant to the extent they facilitate these things. Look at how a society thinks of sex and you can see how a society thinks about the purpose of individual existence.

In discussing how psychology has come to trump biology, you state that nowadays “the personal “sense” of the body is important, and if that “sense” is out of step with a person’s “deeply felt” identity, then the body can be modified. So the reality of the body is not as real as the convictions of the mind.” With this in mind, how important is it that Christians recapture and promote a biblical theology of the body? 

Extremely important. The Christian distinction between body and soul (to which I am committed) can tend to lead us to think of the soul as the real thing and the body simply a house or a machine which we inhabit. We need to stress the integral unity of body and soul, that we do not ‘inhabit’ our bodies as we might ‘inhabit’ a house; we are our bodies. This is very helpful when it comes to a matter such as trans ideology which is predicated on the notion that some people are born ‘in’ or ‘with’ the wrong body. No. If your body is an integral part of you, then it is nonsense to say it is the wrong body. 

But the implications go beyond the trans question. A rich theology of the body underlines our dependence upon others, shapes our understanding of life, from conception to physical death. I would go so far as to say that a biblical theology of the physical body is the most important need in Protestant ethics at this time.

You argue that “when it comes to how we think of ourselves, we are all expressive individualists now, and there is no way we can escape from this fact. It is the essence of the world in which we have to live and of which we are a part.” How does this typically play itself out among Christians? If “there is no way to escape this fact,” is it possible to be a healthy Christian in a culture of expressive individualism? 

We need to be nuanced here. Not all aspects of expressive individualism are bad. Some emphasis on inner feelings, for example, is necessary to do justice the existential demands of the gospel. Further, if I witnessed a crime — a mugging, for example — and felt no inner revulsion, then I would arguably be morally deficient. And Christian praise should acknowledge feelings as well — as we find in the Psalms. 

Where it becomes problematic, however, is when those feelings become the final authority. Christians too can be vulnerable to the ‘It feels so good, it must be OK’ kind of moral logic. We can come to identify human flourishing with simply ‘feeling happy’. And we can allow our worship — our praise songs, our prayers, our sermons — to degenerate into reflecting that kind of therapeutic, human-centered thinking. Our problem is not that we are not feeling happy; it is that we are in a state of rebellion. 

How to handle this? Well, that would take another large book, but I would say that being aware of the problem is the first step.

The book closes with a discussion of what the future may look like. On the topic of religious freedom, you envision a clash between the rights of religious conservatives and the rights of sexual minorities, conceiving it as nearly impossible that both sides can be accommodated. This could potentially put religious freedom as we understand it in jeopardy. What, if any, measures can the church be taking now to ensure that religious freedom endures for people of all faiths?

We should use our civil rights and liberties to press for legislation to protect religious freedom.  We should be co-belligerent with those who share the same concern but who may not share our faith. And we need to remember that religious freedom, even in the Constitution, is not an absolute, unconditional right. Sacrificing children to Moloch is not, for example, protected under the First Amendment. Religious freedom is protected to the extent that it is seen as a social good. And so we need to comport ourselves in our communities in a manner which indicates that the practice of the Christian faith is a beautiful and beneficial thing for society as a whole.

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author