The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self [a review]
Last year saw the release of the highly anticipated Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman and published by Crossway. It received high praise from many reviewers, being called "The most important cultural book of the year (maybe even decade)" by The Gospel Coalition and "a book of singular importance" that "anyone with an interest in the recovery of Western culture should read" by The Catholic World Report. The aim of the book is to trace the historical developments that led us to a place where "a woman trapped in a man's body" is a concept not just on the radical fringes of academia but does, in fact, make intuitive sense at the popular level. As someone who cares about historic Christian orthodoxy as well as transgender people, I decided I would read Dr. Trueman's book as a way to educate myself and think critically and carefully about the issues at hand.
I am reviewing this not a moral philosopher nor a historian, but as the kind of lay individual it seems Trueman is trying to persuade. I'm writing this review for "average" church folks like me who are deeply interested in the subject matter and those who generally are inclined to pick up a book like this one. As such, I'll be reviewing whether he persuades me rather than on an objective, scholarly level. I'm going to give you a brief overview of his argument and then the bulk of the review will be dedicated to what I found helpful and clarifying, and why I ultimately found the book only kind of persuasive.
So how did the concept of "a woman trapped in a man's body" come to be widely regarded as a meaningful and coherent statement? Trueman believes that pinning it solely on the sexual revolution is insufficient. Instead, he argues, we must look at a confluence of factors over the past couple hundred years: Rousseau's looking within himself to find reality and the psychologizing of the self, Freud's sexualization of the self, and the politicization of sex by the new left. Rousseau's ideas percolated into society through the Romantic movement with poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake, and then this was amplified by Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin, and their "plasticization" of the self (the idea that nature is something to be shaped by the self rather than vice versa).
Trueman suggests that when the locus of the "self" is moved from extrinsic political, economic, and religious communities to the interior, that "self" becomes defined psychologically. Trueman uses the example that what makes his work satisfying is the pleasure of teaching his students, whereas the entire concept of finding satisfaction in one's work probably would not have made any sense whatsoever to his grandfather, a sheet metal worker. For his grandfather, the "self" was defined economically rather than psychologically; he had a good job if it provided for his family and contributed to society, but it did not matter whether it "fulfilled" anything in him.
By contrast, the transgender individual cannot define the self this way; the sense of gender dysphoria only makes sense in a society where we view the body as capable of being molded and shaped by the self, but not actually part of the self. Previous eras viewed the body and its biological sex as essential, defining factors of who one is. One learns to think of oneself as a certain gender because of the body received at birth, while today the belief is that one ought to mold the body to fit the mind.
In the world of the early church, Gnosticism arose as a belief that matter, the material stuff of existence, was something to be escaped from while the intangible world of spirit was the pure ideal toward which we strive. The work of one's life was to disdain the body and all that was created. "Salvation" was being saved from the world and the body into the secret knowledge of the divine. The Church rejected this view, not by way of fiat or simply as a power move, but because it directly contradicts what the divine has revealed. While other ancient near eastern creation stories portrayed the world and humanity as fundamentally servile to divinity, the Jewish scriptures portrayed the creation of the world and everything within it as good. Humanity was very good, and bestowed with the dignity of sub-creators, vice regents, priests in a certain way. Contra the Gnostics, the world is not bad, and the goal is not to escape it. Our world and our bodies were given to us as good gifts from a good God for a good purpose.
This seems to be mostly what Trueman is trying to affirm. Our created, material existence, our givenness, is precisely that: a gift. A gift that provides clarity rather than a curse to be reshaped. And if that is so, the whole of the self cannot be derived psychologically, at least not entirely. But the thing that Trueman does not spend much time on and seems to have little sympathy for is that our given bodies are actually not always an unalloyed good. Even apart from the question of the psychological self, we must at minimum deal with the intersex individual for whom sex and gender is not a simple question of given biology.
More generally, the Christian looking at creation must do so not only through the lens of created givenness, but also through the lens of the fall. That is, not everything that is "natural" in our world is actually good. When a child is born with a cleft lip, we perform surgery to conform the child's anatomy to what is seen as the ideal: a non-cleft lip. When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, we believe it appropriate to pump the body full of noxious chemicals and radiation (something that would normally be inappropriate) in order to change something that occurred naturally within the body: the cancerous cells. Trueman prescribes a healthy dose of natural law to counteract modern thinking about the body and the self, but the reason I find this less convincing than he does is because it does not seem that we can draw a straight line between naturalness and the goodness of a thing. Special revelation must be interpreted; so must we also interpret general revelation rather than reading it literally.
If we were able to factor out the fall, would we then be able to view nature's unmeddled state as wholly authoritative? Trueman seems to think so, though even then I'm still not quite convinced. Orthodox Christian teaching often points to the pre-fall cultural mandate in Genesis 1 (to have dominion over the earth) as an imperative to continue the Creator's work of transforming chaos into order, albeit to a subordinate degree. Unlike the medical work raised in the last paragraph where the goal is to fix broken things, this kind of work takes good things and imparts more order. Think of Adam's naming of creatures, or of turning grapes into wine. The best artists and scientists in our world have a certain sort of ex-nihilistic creativity where they envision that which does not yet exist, or a way to combine this and that into something delightfully new.
I bring all this up mostly because Trueman doesn't; his narrative mostly aligns Christian orthodoxy with the belief that nature is something to submit oneself to, while the plastic, psychological man is a product of Evangelicalism's favorite whipping boys: Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, and Marx. While he's correct that Christians have always made much of natural law, and while it certainly is a meaningful category, I'm not convinced it can carry quite as much water as he would like. Trueman admits that the concept of human plasticity and the psychological man stem at least in part from scripture (he points to Paul in particular), but he also says that to treat scripture would blow out the scope of his book, and so he doesn't.
This is a shame, in my opinion, because the ultimate determiner of what a Christian thinks about sex and gender should be scripture, not a narrative that pins the LGBT+ movement on Marx and co. A more interesting, more helpful book would not simply assert natural law as the solution to all our modern controversies, but would explore how and to what extent. Additionally, I wish Trueman had taken the time to affirm what could be affirmed in his non-Christian historical interlocutors. Even if you think Marx is ultimately misguided in making the whole world a matter of power and oppression, what true things about the world was he putting his finger on? In what ways did he helpfully expose patterns of power and oppression in the world as it is? Even if you find Freud's sexualization of the self to be mostly unhelpful, it might be worth it for the Church to examine herself and question whether her Augustinian heritage needs a corrective at all.1
Lest I come across as merely hating on Trueman's Modern Self, let me be clear that I do find helpful his tracing out the intertwining development of various strains of thought. I may be more sympathetic to various strains than he is, but he's still nonetheless persuasive, I think, that they are factors in the formation of the modern self. In chapter 6 he details how cultural attitudes about certain sexual acts (such as masturbation) have shifted over time from being considered morally wrong to medically unhealthy to culturally acceptable. This development almost certainly dovetails with Freud's impact upon the world. I also found it helpful for him to trace out how obscure academic ideas percolate into the mainstream via organic intellectuals, artists, and others who shape the social imaginary.
I appreciate Dr. Trueman, and Modern Self gives me the impression that he wants to engage substantively with the history and the issues at stake here. I love that he was willing to write a book on a topic that conservatives tend to disgustedly disdain! But as it is, I fear that it serves only to justify the priors of social conservatives, who had already decided long before they read this book that the all the world's ills fall at the feet of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Darwin. It does little to challenge the conservative to self-examination, much less charity. As Dr. Anthony Bradley put it, "In 2061, evangelicals will still be calling each other 'Marxists' & 'heartless, cold-blooded' capitalists over some issue X or Y." I hope he's wrong, but despite its merits, it seems like The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self only helps to further that divide rather than to winsomely cultivate common ground for the sake of persuasion.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.
Along these lines, I found James K.A. Smith's chapter on sex in On the Road with Saint Augustine to be generally aimed in this kind of thoughtful, reflective, balanced direction.↩