The Editors

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: An Interview with Dr. Carl Trueman

Dr. Carl Trueman’s most recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution has been the subject of much positive attention since its release last Fall. The 432 page giant details how we have arrived at our present moment, where “sexual identity has dominated both public discourse and cultural trends.” Throughout, Trueman analyzes “the development of the sexual revolution as a symptom—rather than the cause—of the human search for identity.” Since it came out, some have called the book “foundational for engaging with the current developments in Western culture” and the most important outline to “the historical origins of our modern cultural zeitgeist.” Another commentator considers it to be one of “the most ambitious book[s] that Crossway has ever published in the cultural-criticism genre.”

Dr. Trueman was kind enough to discuss his book with Liam (Editor-in-Chief) and Deborah (Managing Editor) via zoom.

Deborah Cumbee: First of all, we want to express our deepest gratitude for your willingness to be interviewed by myself and Liam for the Gordon Review. Let’s jump right in! Dr. Carl Trueman, you’re a professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College. You’ve previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University and were on the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Dr. Carl Trueman: That’s correct, yeah.

Deborah Cumbee: Aside from your work as a professor, you also hold a Ph.D. in church history from the University of Aberdeen. You’ve either written or edited over a dozen books and now have recently released your new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. While a complex work, would you provide a brief synopsis of your thesis?

Dr. Carl Trueman: Yes, I mean, the book is an attempt to explain why the sexual revolution that we are still living through has taken place; specifically why transgenderism–trans ideology–has become so plausible in modern society. To do that, I explore how the inner psychological space, if you like, of human beings has come to hold such authority. I go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I start with Rousseau, move forward through the Romantics, through Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin in the 19th century, and then on into Freud and some of the significant figures of the so-called new left in the 20th century such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. The book is looking at how humanity became psychologized, how psychology became sexualized, and how sex became politicized. That’s the sort of the basic theme of the book, if you like.

Liam Siegler: In its entirety, both title and subtitle to your book are pretty long. In a way, this expresses the general ambition of what you wrote about. What did you mean by the modern self, as opposed by past conceptions of the self?

Dr. Carl Trueman: Yeah, well, first of all, just to sort of back up a little bit, one of the things that I discovered as I was doing the research for the book was how much of the modern sexual revolution is really a function of much deeper and broader changes that we need to understand, such as modern sexual morality, transgenderism, things like that. We need to understand them as functions of a much broader transformation in what I called the self in the book.

What do I mean by the self? Well, there are common sense ways in which we use the term self. I’m aware I’m not Deborah. Deborah, I hope and assume you’re aware that you’re not me. We have a basic understanding of ourselves as kind of spheres of consciousness––as self-conscious individuals. I’m using the term self in the book in a more narrow or specialized kind of way. I’m thinking specifically of what we think makes us, us. What is it that makes us human beings? What is it that makes me specifically me? What are the things that make me get out of bed in the morning? How do I understand what the flourishing life should be? How do I understand the purpose of being a human? I’m thinking very much in terms of not simply a sphere of self-consciousness, but what meaning I ascribe to me and to my life.

I think what’s happened over the last 400, 500, or 600 years is that we’ve seen a dramatic turn inwards in answering those questions, even in recent times. In the book, I use the example of my grandfather. If I were to ask my grandfather when he was still alive, did he get job satisfaction? Well, he was a poor man. He worked on a factory production line most of his life. He did a job that I would have regarded as extremely boring and extremely repetitive. But I’m pretty sure he would have said, yeah, he got job satisfaction because he earned enough money to put shoes on his children’s feet and food on the family table. He could feed and clothe his family and meet his obligations to other people. If I’m asked the same question, my instinctive response is to say something like, yeah, I get a great buzz out of writing. I get a great buzz out of teaching. It makes me feel good to teach. You can see the difference in the notions of self there. For my grandfather, selfhood was what I say externally directed––directed towards others. For me, it’s an internal thing. Happiness for me, satisfaction for me is a sort of internal sense of psychological well-being. And that’s the big shift, I think, that has taken place.

Deborah Cumbee: The rest of the subtitle of your book is Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Since we’re talking about the title, could you also briefly explain cultural amnesia and expressive individualism as articulated within your book?

Dr. Carl Trueman: Yes, I’ll take the latter first, because the cultural amnesia kind of flows a bit from the expressive individualism. Expressive individualism is a term that I think was coined by the sociologist Robert Ballah, way back in the 80s and the 90s. It was picked up and used by two philosophers who had a big influence on me––Charles Taylor and Alistair Macintyre. At the heart of expressive individualism is the idea that I am most fundamentally who I am relative to my internal feelings. It’s my inner feelings. It’s my inner psychological states that determine who I am. And therefore, the most authentic me is the me who is able to act outwardly according to those inner desires and impulses. That means, for example, to say a figure like Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner, is a great if somewhat extreme example of that. If you look at the interview that Jenner did with Diane Sawyer in 2015, the language is very much that of authenticity. “I’ve lived a lie.” “I’m finally free to be the person I always have been.” Well, what’s Jenner saying there? Jenner is saying something to the effect of “I’ve always been this person inside and finally, I can actually really be that person by acting out on those inner feelings, inner desires, and inner thoughts.” That’s a classic example of expressive individualism. So that’s what I mean by that. And again, it goes back to that narrative flowing from Rousseau and the Romantics, where we authorize, we prioritize inner feelings as being the real foundation of who we are.

Cultural amnesia is a sort of cultural attitude that in some ways flows from that, because as soon as you make the Rousseau move and say the real me is the me that’s inside, what you’re essentially doing there is saying that culture and society and other people, they’re a problem because those are the things that stop or hinder me from being outwardly who I really am. When that comes to grips with the overall cultural mindset, it becomes something that really sees history and culture as a problem and as something not to be learned from so much as to be overcome. And we see it again in an extreme form. We might see it in gay marriage that around about 2013, 2014, holding to a traditional view of marriage, which was the historic position for many, many generations, suddenly became an act of bigotry. What you have there is a culture repudiating its past, not building on that past, but repudiating the past. We see it in the kind of iconoclasm that goes on in our culture now with the demolition of traditional canons of study, the tearing down of statues. Now, that’s not to say that the tearing down of some statues might not be a good thing, but it’s a much broader phenomenon, the iconoclastic attitude to history than Virginian Confederate statues, for example. It has a much broader scope than that, and has become, I think, something that’s deeply ingrained in a lot of higher education––a lot of our attitude now that the past is something that represents bigotry, oppression, the hindering of individuals from being who they are and therefore is something to be overcome. I call it cultural amnesia.

Of course, we tend to think amnesia is something that we are rather passive in. We get banged on the head and we forget things–that we have amnesia. We’re victims of it. I actually think the cultural amnesia that I’m talking about is a much more positive and intentional attitude of erasing the past. It’s not something that’s happening to us accidentally. It’s something that’s happening to us precisely because we bought into the notion of expressive individualism.

Liam Siegler: Thank you for that insight. Do you think you could summarize your thoughts on what you mean by the plasticity of the self? How you develop that concept throughout your book?

Dr. Carl Trueman: Yeah, I think one of the titles I gave is Crossway may have had the term plastic plastic people in it. There is what I call a plasticity to the modern self, and that is we tend to believe–obviously it isn’t entirely true–but we tend to believe that it’s true that we can essentially be whoever we wish to be. Compare that to if we were to go back five, six, seven hundred years to my homeland of England. My ancestors were probably peasant farmers. If I’d been born 600 or 700 years ago in Gloucestershire where I grew up, I would have been born. I would have lived, I would have died in the same village. I’d have been baptized, married, and buried in the same churchyard. I’d have had no choice of occupation because guess what? My father was a peasant farmer and therefore I am destined to be a peasant farmer. I would probably have met the girl I was going to marry by the time I was five or six. Life was very laid out, very fixed. There wasn’t a lot of room for choice. There wasn’t a lot of room for being my own person. Being my own person was actually learning my role in the fixed structure of the society to which I was born and playing that role to the best of my ability. Today, we believe, of course, we can be anything we want to be. To some extent that that’s much more true of us now than it was in the 15th century. I lived through three and a half thousand miles from home, but I can still talk to my mum every week by picking up the telephone. Technology has allowed me to be a very different person than I would have been 500 years ago.

We tend to think now that everything about us is really an act of our own intentional self-invention. Reality is more complicated than that, but the myth that grips our minds is that essentially I’m a piece of play-doh attached to a will and my will is able to make that play-doh into anything I wish. Hey, if I wish to become a woman tomorrow, I can do so. I can identify as a woman, I can get treatment from hormones, I can have surgery. I can do all kinds of things to myself that really make me so as little more than a lump of play-doh over which my will is sovereign.

Deborah Cumbee: That kind of leads us to the next question. The crux of your argument within the book begins with the line: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” And it’s your exploration of how the statement has not only become normalized in academia, but also in the average person. What’s the basis for that shift and the idea of self from previous generations?

Carl Trueman: Yeah, it’s a very good question. First of all, it is continuous, I think, with what’s gone on in previous generations, this story of the slow but steady granting of absolute authority to inner psychological states. That’s a long story that doesn’t begin with Caitlyn Jenner. Where this has become different to previous generations is, we might say, in the extremity of its claims–that 100 years ago, the mind was granted significant authority, but the body still had a decisive authority in terms of sex or, as we now call it, gender. If you’d gone to a doctor in the year 1900 and said “I think I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body,” the doctor would respond to you by saying, “OK, we’ve got a problem with your mind here. We need to address the mind and bring it into conformity with your body.” If you were to go to a doctor today and say, “I’m struggling with with my gender. I think I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” or “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body,” the doctor will respond “OK, we’ve got a problem with your body. We need to address your body here and bring it into line with your mind.” The big difference is the radical nature of the authority that feelings now have. It’s been coming for a long time. Why has it suddenly become possible and plausible today? I think technology plays a big part of that. Now we have hormone treatments. Now we have surgeries that allow us to at least think we’re able to make that transition. Technology plays a big part. It’s something that can only become plausible if it’s technologically deemed to be possible. And that’s an important step in the rise of transgenderism.

I think there’s also a broader technological question that Karl Marx points to in the Communist Manifesto in 1848. When Marx and Engels say that as the means of production become increasingly automated, as technology, we might say, becomes more significant for the way we produce things; physical strength will become less significant and therefore the socially demarcated roles of men and women–the difference between them will start to disappear. Again, in terms of our broad social imagination, when you think about it, we do tend to think that men and women are less different today than we did 200 years ago because, hey, women have demonstrated that they can do many jobs as well, sometimes even better than men can. That helps, if you like, soften up the mind for thinking, well, maybe gender is is much more of a social construct than previous generations thought? So there’s a whole heap of factors in play, none of which on its own explains what’s happened. But all of them together have a cumulative force that tilts towards the trans moment, as some people have referred to it.

Liam Siegler: One thing that I think a lot of people aren’t very aware of is the intellectual history leading up to a lot of the phenomenon that we’re seeing in society. So I’m just curious, how did you decide to choose the thinkers that you went over in this book? Some, like Nietzsche, are more well known, but others, like Oscar Wilde, aren’t. Do you think you could go through a brief intellectual history, kind of summarizing the key thesis of your book?

Dr. Carl Trueman: Yeah, as with a lot of books (this more than any other one I’ve ever written), what you leave out can be the hardest thing–trying to make it manageable. I mean, I’ve had people write to me and say “You know, why don’t you start with Descartes?” “Why didn’t you start in the late Middle Ages?” Somebody wrote to me and said, “Why don’t you start the Garden of Eden?” And my answer is that the book’s got to be readable. I can’t write a 100,000-page book and expect people to read it. One has to start somewhere. Wherever you start, there’s always going to be a back story. Nobody causes themselves. Everybody merges into a back story.

I chose Rousseau and the Romantics because they particularly focused on emotions, and I think a contemporary world is very driven by issues of emotional taste. Descartes–obviously key in the development of epistemology, but Rousseau is the man who really puts his finger on the fact that it’s emotions that shape how we think morally and ethically a lot of the time. Rousseau and the Romantics were an easy choice on that. But also, I love the Romantics. Writing a chapter on romantic poetry was not a burden to me–I think that they’re artistically wonderful. Also, though, that made the point that the way a lot of people have their thinking shaped is not by reading Emmanuel Kant’s critique of pure reason. It’s poetry, it’s music, it’s art, it’s culture. In our current world, it’s soap operas, it’s sitcoms, it’s the entertainment industry. These are the things that shape the way we imagine the world to be. It was important for me to have a chapter on it–you might say the artistic profession, in order to make that point.

In the 19th century, I could have picked on a whole heap. I could have looked at John Stuart Mill or other figures out there. Again, what I wanted to do was show how while Rousseau and the Romantics went inward, they still believed in human nature. They still believed that there was a moral structure to being human, and I wanted to show how that had come under severe strain in the 19th century. I thought that Marx, Nietzche, and Darwin each gave me a different angle on that. Marx is coming at it from a kind from a Hegelian slash economic point of view that was very important and very influential–so much of what Marx taught has become basic intuitions of the way we live today. Nature was critical because he, more than anyone else, blew the lid off morality as taste. He sets up the play for the modern ear and says what you think is good and evil is merely a matter of taste. That’s where he was important, and although I don’t think Darwin is intentionally setting out to do the damage that the other two guys were setting out to do, Darwin puts in a scientific idiom, a notion consistent with Marx in nature, that human nature is not morally exceptional. Morality within a Darwinian framework becomes a function of what pragmatically is useful for the survival of the species, that there is no necessary moral structure to human nature.

Then as we move to the 20th century, the choices became considerably easier. Freud is the man who makes human beings essentially sexual, and in doing that, he not only paves the way for the kind of world we live in today, where sex is identity. Before Freud, sex is not identity. It’s an activity. Sometimes it’s legitimate, sometimes it’s illegitimate, but it’s not an identity in the way it becomes until after Freud. The whole underpinnings of the LGBTQ movement really depend upon that Freudian premise that sexualization is what it means to be a human being. He paves the way for the politicization of sex, because once you make sex identity, you make the regulating of sex a regulating of who people are allowed to be. You’re effectively legislating identities at that point, and that gets refracted through the new left: Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and company. But it’s not restricted to the new left. They’re particularly useful examples of theorists of what I’m putting forward, but it’s part and parcel of modern political intuitions that somebody’s sexual identity is a fundamental part of who they are. The government is required not simply to tolerate that, but also to affirm it as well.

So that was how I sort of made the choices as I went through.

Deborah Cumbee: Also in the book, you provide a detailed history of the sexual revolution as just the ghost of the broader revolution of the self. So what specifically compelled you to write on this subject as opposed to others? And who is the intended audience? Because it is a complex work that could be read by people like us–college students–or by pastors.

Dr. Carl Trueman: The sexual revolution was my initial point of interest. I was at the time, not only a professor at Westminster and then a fellow at Princeton, but I was also a part-time pastor. As a part-time pastor, of course, I’m dealing with people who are very confused, disturbed, sometimes frightened by the speed of change that’s taking place in society, particularly the generational shifts on sexuality and the chaotic nature, as it seems, from a conservative perspective, of sexual politics today. That was what triggered my interest.

The intended audience––it’s funny, when I write a book, I suppose I have an audience in mind, but it sounds very selfish. I always write as much for my own enjoyment as anything. That’s a very, very “psychological man” sort of approach, but what I wanted to do was write a book that would provide some people with a foundation for talking to others about these kinds of issues. I suppose I’m thinking yes, college students, colleagues on faculty, thoughtful pastors, thoughtful laypeople. But I’ve also got in the back of my mind a shorter book–that I’m actually just completing in the next few weeks–that will have hopefully a much wider reach, that people who don’t have the time to spend reading a 400-page book would be able to read, maybe on the commute to work and grasp the kernel of my argument. But I felt I couldn’t write that shorter book until I’d written the longer footnoted one. I’m a Reformation scholar by background. This has not been my field and I thought I really need to earn my spurs in the field with the longer book, that I’m then free to write a shorter book where I can refer people to the longer book if they want more stuff. But I can then write the pastorally helpful shorter book. The shorter book is the one that that was the kind of the target, if you like, even as I wrote the longer one.

Liam Siegler: You know, a lot of the issues that you talk about in this book are very applicable and necessary for Christians to understand in a very practical context. I’m going to quote you. You write that “Careers are made right and left in Christian circles through adopting stances on matters such as race and sexuality that ignore proper historical analysis for frameworks built on a simple zero-sum game, operating within the binary categories of power and impotence. In such a context, each and every opponent is simply an irrational hate monger seeking to present, as natural opposition, simply personal preference.” So I’m just curious if you can elaborate. What are some of the mistakes that you see Christians making in our current sociopolitical context and what are potentially ways forward that we can engage in a way that can be persuasive and potentially make a difference?

Dr. Carl Trueman: Yeah, that’s a huge question. I mean, how long have you got? I could give you a shopping list of issues. I think first at a very broad sort of cultural level, I would say one of the things that I find most problematic about Christian public discourse at the moment is how vitriolic it is. It’s very, very hard to raise certain subjects. As I am sort of saying in that piece you quoted, it’s very hard to raise certain subjects without the mere raising of that subject being taken as a sign that you’re a fundamentally bad or immoral person, followed by the hurling of invectives at the one you wish to demonize.

One of the things I try to do in my book was to write fairly about the people I wrote about. I was pretty strong about Nadia Boltz Weber, the liberal Lutheran pastor who wrote, I thought, in an incredibly irresponsible way on the issue of pornography. But she’s the only person that I punch on the nose in the book, so to speak. What I wanted to do was write a book that took those with whom I disagreed seriously and laid out their views in as accurate a way as possible. I think that’s something that’s lost in a lot of Christian discourse. If you even raise a question about critical race theory, you can render yourself liable to being accused of being a racist, as I have been myself at points. That’s a bad position to be in when there are important issues out there like race and sexuality that we need to be constructively discussing, where actually the lines have been drawn so hard and fast that I’m not optimistic that we can have those constructive debates. I would add as a sort of a bonus on that, I would say Twitter strikes me as an incredibly bad place to discuss these things. The title of my book barely fits into a tweet. I would think one could hardly articulate the content in a set of tweets.

Secondly, I think a lot of Christians have bought into the idea–and it would take a long time to elaborate this–but I think there is something afoot in our culture at large which has been picked up in Christian circles, and that is that if somebody somewhere is doing well, it’s because somebody else, somewhere else has had something stolen or taken from them. I think that’s a real problem, because what that does is it immediately grants unquestionable authority to anybody who can claim to be a victim, because if you’re a victim, it has to be the fault of somebody else somewhere. It’s also a real problem because it just isn’t true. Life is a whole lot more complicated than that. My father was an orphan and ended up as the equivalent of a CPA, and he made the move out of poor working class to being a middle class guy. I don’t think he did that on the back of exploiting other people. I think he did that on the back of working very hard, against all odds, to make something of his life. I think we need to be very careful as Christians that we don’t adopt views of social issues today that are simplistic in their analysis of causes and which fail to take account of personal responsibility at some level. That’s not to say that some people aren’t dealt a bad hand in life, that some people aren’t born with more privilege than others. Certainly that’s the case. But I think we need to be careful and make sure that we never we never allow the system, as such, to overwhelm our understanding of individual responsibility and agency.

Deborah Cumbee: Perfect. Thank you. So one final question to close out this interview. Your work’s been praised by Dr. Bruce Ashford as, “perhaps the most significant analysis and evaluation of Western culture written by a Protestant during the past fifty years,” as well as by Dr. Andrew Walker, as having “written arguably the most sophisticated work of Protestant social analysis since David Wells and perhaps Reinhold Niebuhr before that.” Did you expect these reactions within academia?

Carl Trueman: No, not at all. I was completely staggered. I mean, both Bruce and Andrew are being very kind to the book, I have to say. But I was and I’ve been happily shocked by the reception it’s received. I mean, as I said, I just did it because I thought it was something useful and interesting to do. I’ve been quite amazed at how many people–other people–seem to think it something useful and interesting to do as well. Whether my name should ever be put in the same sentence as David Wells and Reinhold Niebuhr I don’t know, but I’m flattered that Andrew thinks so, whether it’s true or not. As long as that isn’t like saying I’m the tallest building in Topeka, Kansas.


Deborah Cumbee: Thank you so much for having this interview with us at the Gordon Review. We deeply appreciate it.

Categories: The Editors

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Are podcasts of your interviews available?