Diagnosing the Modern Self – and the Cure

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Several years ago, I asked a friend who worked security for a prominent international evangelical relief organization what he told Christian employees serving in countries threatened by Islamic extremism – where abduction or loss of life were real possibilities. My friend said that his employer explained to their staff that in such circumstances it would be permissible to verbally apostatize in order to survive, because the Christian’s relationship with Jesus is internal and conscientious, and thus inviolable.

I noted to my friend that for early Christians, those who made a public offering to pagan gods and then repented of their sin had to undergo severe penances before being restored to fellowship with the Church. My comment elicited a blank stare.

For Catholics, at least, flesh and spirit cannot be severed or compartmentalized, as if the movements of the body have no bearing on the soul. Indeed, many heresies erred on precisely this topic, viewing the body as evil. Gnostics were emphatically anti-matter, believing in a secret, mystical knowledge that transcended the base material world. Docetism taught that Christ’s body was not human, but some sort of phantasm. These were condemned even in the apostolic era: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist.” (1 John 4:2-3a)

Much of the intellectual and cultural air we breathe, or what philosopher Charles Taylor calls our “social imagery,” is an indirect descendent of these early dualistic heresies. Ours is a hyper-individualistic age in which our self-determined, psychologized “identities” take precedence over the givenness of the world, be it our own bodies or society writ large. Perhaps this is no more easily identifiable than in transgenderism. Transgender persons, like the Gnostics, assert that their true identity has nothing to do with the body they inhabit, which, they claim, obscures, rather than defines them. Moreover, they say, the “heteronormative,” “cisgender” social order deters, rather than enables authentic flourishing for trans people.

Carl R. Trueman, professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, thoughtfully considers this phenomenon in his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. According to Trueman, much of contemporary culture’s individualism and atomization can be traced to several Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers who helped birth a “new understanding of human selfhood. . .focused on the inner life of the individual.” This philosophical transition begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that society and the culture are the problem, inhibiting our self-realization. People need to be free to express their desires and feelings in a way that maximizes authenticity, he argued.

The nineteenth-century Romantics built upon this turn to the self by detaching aesthetics from universal conceptions of humanity or goodness, in favor of pure self-expression and subjective delight. Darwin’s evolutionary theory – whatever its merits – effectively excluded teleology, and convinced many that nothing differentiated men from the rest of creation. Nietzsche in turn sought to attack traditional morality and promote self-actualization via an unencumbered will. Marx was likewise suspicious of authorities, and interpreted history through the lens of oppression while seeking to politicize all of life.

Sigmund Freud also contributed to this paradigm shift by arguing that sexuality is the most important prism through which to interpret humanity and that civilization is in a constant negotiation between individuals (and their sexual urges) and the broader society. Marxist thinkers Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse then politicized Freud’s philosophy by associating sexual freedom with political freedom, arguing that traditional bourgeois sexual norms were oppressive and coercive. And with that, we come to the “triumph of the erotic,” in which pornography is socialized by Playboy as simply aesthetic self-expression, and various sexual behaviors and identities are codified as acceptable by the courts.

It is a sad intellectual history, and Trueman tells it well. Those unfamiliar with the various leading thinkers of “liquid modernity,” as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls it, will find The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self a useful and insightful summary of the roots of our zeitgeist. Trueman also deftly applies the thought of invaluable luminaries like Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Leszek Kołakowski in scrutinizing his “rogue’s gallery” of modernity.

Yet knowing the story of how we arrived at a cultural moment that claims “trans rights are human rights” while actively undermining women’s identity and rights offers us only half of what we need. Understanding all of this is one thing; developing a strategy to resist and refute it is quite another. Trueman offers a few brief correctives and exhortations.

One is to look in the mirror and consider how Christians encourage self-indulgence and individualism, including the tendency to view sexual actualization as essential to selfhood. Another is to ensure that our “core beliefs and practices” take precedence over subjective, emotivist aesthetics. Fostering robust communal networks of fellow Christians is yet another. Finally, Trueman, a Presbyterian, argues that “Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body.”

That last one would certainly be welcome, though I wonder if such things are possible given that Protestants, from Luther to Barth, have been suspicious both of natural law and Aristotelian philosophy, as well as the more physical and tactile aspects of worship and piety. Indeed, the Protestant doctrine of the clarity of Scripture necessitates a kind of Gnosticism in holding that the Bible is clear on the most essential religious truths (e.g., salvation), though only some people (i.e., those Protestants who agree with me) actually interpret it rightly.

Thus, though Trueman disparages a “Catholic triumphalism” that he deems insufficient for combating modernity’s excesses, it seems unlikely Protestantism has the internal resources to accomplish the revitalization project he proposes. As a former Presbyterian seminarian, I have one suggestion for the esteemed Reformed historian, though I know he won’t like it: if you really want to untie this whole knot, swim the Tiber.

Casey Chalk

Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.