Book Review

How a new definition of “self” led to the sexual revolution

January 29, 2021

A physician that merely diagnoses a problem is not particularly helpful. When we see our doctors, we expect the diagnosis as well as a treatment plan. Typically, effective treatment includes a correct answer to a “how” or “what” question. How did we get to the place we currently are? Or perhaps, what caused this problem in the first place? The answers to these questions take us to the problem’s source. If these questions are answered, then the future—the treatment—seems more plausible. 

Imagine we are not talking about your physical health, but our culture’s social imaginary—what our culture has accepted as normative. For example, how did we get to a place where the sentence, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (19), is understood as coherent and meaningful? Carl Trueman’s latest work, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, like a good physician, goes beyond a diagnosis and explains the origins of our cultural moment. 

The path of the revolution

Trueman’s thesis is that the modern (or post-modern) view of “self” is the cause of the moral and sexual revolution (22). He believes it is near-sighted and without context to suggest that somehow the sexual revolution appeared out of nowhere in the 1960s. Instead, he argues, the ideas of particular intellectuals from the 18th and 19th centuries have become mainstream, even if undetected. They are the source of this new definition of self which, in turn, is the cause of the sexual revolution. The path of the revolution, according to Trueman, follows three simple steps: (1) the “self” must be psychologized, (2) psychology must be sexualized, and (3) sex must be politicized (221).

Step One: The self must be psychologized

For a culture to conceive that a man can, in any real sense, become a woman, a psychologizing of the self must take place. The statement, “I am whom I think I am; whom I feel I am; whom I say I am,” must somehow be considered sensible. For this thinking to become part of our social imaginary, the teaching and writing of four 18th– and 19th-century men had to be believed, even if unacknowledged—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin. Though most do not know these men’s specific teachings, and some may recognize their names, their ideas have seeped into our culture’s understanding of the world. 

Rousseau taught that men and women are essentially born good but social conditioning has corrupted all (111). Therefore, only through authentic self-expression, no matter the expression, can man and woman be made whole again and find true satisfaction and happiness. In other words, there exists no objective human purpose in this life; each is required to self-create. Toward the same end, Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to persuade other enlightenment philosophers of the consequences of “god’s death.” He convincingly taught that without a god, there is no telos to this life, and therefore the individual must create themselves, including their meaning and purpose (174). 

In contrast to Nietzsche, Karl Marx believed in a human nature; however, he taught that human nature is always in a state of flux based on cultural context. Additionally, according to Marx, because history is a story of the powerful oppressing the powerless, and because traditional morals were a tool of the oppressor, human nature does not include a responsibility to obey any “so-called” objective morality (191). Finally, Charles Darwin, perhaps the most well-known of the four, who was beloved by Nietzsche and Marx, obliterated the telos of mankind. If human life on Earth is not contingent on a creator, as Darwin opined, then the idea of an authoritative purpose to life is unnecessary. 

Trueman summarizes their contribution this way: “Darwin strips the world of intrinsic meaning through natural selection; Nietzsche, through his polemic against metaphysics; Marx, through . . . a radical and consistent materialism . . .” (191-92). In other words, for all of these men, meaning is created, not given, and therefore the modern view of self need not include the material, but only the psychological. Consequently, while “self” used to be defined by a creator’s purpose, a physical body, and one’s responsibility to a community, now it is defined by only a person’s will. 

Step Two: Psychology must be sexualized

Trueman then turns to Sigmund Freud to explain how the psychological man has been sexualized. He explains the main prod of Freud’s teaching as a polemic against civilization’s attempt to socially condition morality in order to curb sexual expression. For Freud, sexual gratification is the highest good for humans; therefore, sexual repression is not morally right, but morally evil. Additionally, he believed that a culture’s sexual ethic leads to inauthentic living. Hence, if “self” is psychological and true happiness is found in my unfettered expression of sexuality, then my true self—my identity—is nothing more and nothing less than the sexual expression I chose for myself. Trueman persuasively shows that before Freud, sex was an activity, but after Freud, sex was an identity. 

Step Three: Sex must be politicized

Perhaps the genius of Rise and Triumph is how Trueman detects the foundation of the politicization of sex. It is no secret, especially for those on social media, that the pre-political no longer exists. Today everything is politicized—education, morals, religion, pandemics, and especially sex. Trueman points to the Frankfurt school of the early 1900s to explain the existence of what he titles the “New Left” (229). He calls this the “shotgun wedding of Freud and Marx” (230). Marx’s ideology was economic, however the Frankfurt school, particularly through Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse’s writings, amalgamated Freud with Marx, resulting in a cultural Marxism where oppression can be, and often is, psychological. 

By combining the philosophies of Freud and Marx, a new victimhood was created. Instead of the oppressed being laborers who are exploited for cheap labor, the oppressed are those whose sexual preference, sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on are not recognized and celebrated by the culture at large. These sexual minorities are now victims who ought to be fought for—enter the political scene with legislation to do just that. The process is complete. How did we get to a place where misgendering someone can get you fired? Where schools allow biological men in women’s bathrooms and locker rooms? These were accomplished in three easy steps: (1) the “self” has been psychologized, (2) psychology has been sexualized, and (3) sex has been politicized (221).

Trueman’s end is not just a diagnosis or an explanation of how we got here, but an exhortation to the church—a treatment plan, if you will. He briefly suggests three things that should mark a church in our present moment: (1) the connection between aesthetics and core beliefs and practices, (2) a renewed emphasis on community, and (3) a recovery of natural law and a high view of the physical body (402-7). 

A standard procedure for book reviews is to summarize, praise the good, and charitably critique the deficient. In this case, at the risk of sounding overly flattering, my critique is only that the book was not longer. Though much historical and philosophical ground is covered, Trueman’s mastery of the subject allows him to write in a way that the historian and philosopher respect, yet the layman understands. I am hopeful that Trueman will endeavor to write a sequel, possibly undertaking the practical side of how Christians might speak generously and convincingly to a culture that has redefined self. I could not recommend this book any louder. Every Christian who is paying attention to our cultural moment should have this book in their hands.

Ryan Welsh

Ryan Welsh serves as lead pastor of teaching for The Village Church (Southlake) in Southlake, Texas. He also teaches as an adjunct instructor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Ryan is co-author of Raising The Dust (with Gregg Allison). He earned an M.Div. at Western Seminary and a D.Min. in homiletics … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24