The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: A Review (pt. 2)

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: A Review (pt. 2)

This post is part 2 of my review of Carl Trueman’s new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. With the overview now complete, I’ll offer a few of my own thoughts on the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

To recall, Trueman’s goal is to trace the evolution of the self within the modern West—a transformation which culminates especially in novel views on identity and sexuality (e.g., “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body”).

IN PRAISE OF RISE AND TRIUMPH

From start to finish, the book is well written. And for readers who may be overwhelmed by its 400+ pages, Trueman has since released a slimmer version (Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked Sexual Revolution). I was struck, however, by the sense that a bright undergrad student could still follow the original work without too much trouble.

Maybe the greatest pedagogical virtue of Trueman’s project is its easily-remembered three-part progression. How did we get here? Well, (1) the self was first psychologized (see Rousseau and the Romantic poets), (2) that psychology was then sexualized (see Freud), and finally (3) sexuality became highly politicized (see Nietzsche, Marx, and their postmodern heirs). When dealing with a long and complex history, the ability to simplify these shifts is a fantastic gift to students.

Of course, simplicity and memorability are not reliable guides to truth. Hence the famous quote from H. L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” But in Trueman’s case, I think his three-part progression remains helpful.

Trueman also filled important gaps in my own reading. A danger of book reviews like this is that the reviewer sometimes feels driven to pretend like he or she already knew everything in the text—which then leaves space only for summary and smug critique (credit to Alan Jacobs for that point).

Not so here. Several sections in Trueman’s book filled key holes in my understanding. Specifically, my training in theology and philosophy did well in covering the rationalist underpinnings of the modern era, but it was often inadequate in detailing the Romantic counterbalance to the Enlightenment—which on these questions, is almost certainly the more important set of influences.

Hence, I had never deeply studied the writings of Rousseau in particular. Similarly, though I was familiar with the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, I had not delved into later thinkers like Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and Simone de Beauvoir. In all of this, Trueman taught me much.

Lastly, I appreciated Trueman’s attempt to build bridges between intellectuals and other aspects of contemporary culture. He writes not merely of Freud and Marx, but of internet pornography, Supreme Court rulings, and (yes…) Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande.

Halfway through the book, I anticipated critiquing Trueman’s approach as a quintessential “Great Man History”—as if the world we inhabit was merely the product of some brilliant (if misguided) intellectuals writing treatises in university libraries. I still think the book veers in this direction, but the “bridge-building” sections help balance that tendency.

To further ameliorate this quasi-Great Man approach to modern identity, I suspect Trueman could have allotted more space to the influence of technology, consumerism, the attention economy, and free market capitalism. But of course, that would have made a long book even longer.

SOME QUIBBLES

There were also other aspects of Trueman’s narrative with which I’d want to quibble. None are damning, but each one might have added balance and context to the work.

First, much of the book is taken up with critiquing what Trueman dubs (but never defines) as “The New Left.” The move is not unwarranted since the sexual revolution and shifting views on identity have been driven by progressive ideology. Still, it seems unlikely that other segments of society contributed almost nothing to our modern view of selfhood.

I’ve written previously of the heresy of radical individualism—which (depending on the topic) is quite likely to flow from either Right or Left. Trueman is not completely silent on this point (p. 335), but his critiques sometimes seem one-sided, as if he—like so many others—has been watching only one Cable News network, and is writing to only one side of the aisle.

He speaks, therefore, of how the nation-state no longer provides people with a sense of identity, and how patriotism is assumed to be a bad thing (p. 404). Here, it seems quite odd to glide past the massive global upsurge in nationalism—now leveraged by strongmen of all stripes. In sum, one cannot tell the story of the modern self merely by attending to the progressive antecedents of the “New Left.”

Second, I suspect Trueman’s history could have benefitted from a bit more of what I’ll call “The Holland Principle.” In his popular book, Dominion, historian Tom Holland argues that many secular forces now arrayed against traditional Christian values actually have their roots in presuppositions that can be traced only to the Judeo-Christian tradition. (This is especially the case for the modern, secular concern for victims, minorities, and the marginalized.)

The same is true of what Trueman dubs the modern “inward turn”— the decision to look inward (i.e., inside the self) to encounter truth and meaning. My own PhD thesis explored the importance of Saint Augustine’s influence at this point—and despite Augustine’s brilliance, it was not an altogether positive inheritance. After all, it is no coincidence that Rousseau chose to name his own autobiography after Augustine’s introspective masterpiece, Confessions. Here too, Trueman is too good a historian to be completely blind to such influences (see p. 45), but I wonder if the book would have been more balanced–especially coming from a church historian–if he had noted the pre-modern origins of certain modern, secular impulses—bastardized though they may be.

Finally, since questions of sexuality and identity are so fraught within the current culture wars—I’d want to balance Trueman’s able dissection of the history with some pastoral sensitivity. Indeed, when approaching LGBT+ questions in particular, conservative Christians like myself must continually remind ourselves that we are dealing with people—not just issues, ideas, or partisan politics.

Perhaps this critique is unfair to direct at a work on intellectual history. Nonetheless, if I were assigning the book to my students (and I would assign it), I’d want to balance it with other readings that strike a more empathetic and pastoral tone—even while maintaining a biblical foundation that does not shrink from conclusions simply because someone labels them insensitive.

CONCLUSION

Despite these quibbles, I found much to appreciate in Trueman’s book. The ideas he tackles regarding identity and and the transformation of the modern self are among the most important facing the church today. And as he rightly notes, we can’t think through them without a sense of how we got here.


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WWJV?

WWJV?

WHO WOULD JESUS VACCINATE FIRST?

As the first precious drops of the COVID-19 vaccine roll out across America, a pressing question swirled in prior weeks: Who gets them first?

In my state, as in most others, the majority of those doses will go to extremely vulnerable residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. (Though front-line workers will deservedly get some too.)

After all, nursing home residents are amongst those most likely to die from COVID-19. So we might be tempted to think that putting them first is nothing more than a common sense deduction that any civilization would make.

It is not.

And we should take a moment to recognize that fact—and then give thanks.

CRATERS ON THE MOON

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes the lingering influence of Christianity on Western culture like craters on the moon.

What he means is that the impact marks of the gospel are still visible, even if the theological beliefs which formed them are no longer so widely held. We are seeing one of those “impact marks” now in the decision to give our first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to people who may have little time left to live, even without it.

After all, one study showed that the average length of stay in a nursing home before death was about five months (here). Other studies differed slightly (here).

But by any tally, it’s not long.

So is our distribution plan “correct” by a purely utilitarian metric?

THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT

I listened recently to the Yale scientist, Nicholas Christakis, as he explained why giving our limited supply of COVID-19 vaccinations to those in nursing homes might NOT be the best approach.

He suggested that it could be better to distribute the vaccine “upstream” amongst citizens who are more likely to spread the virus, and thereby yield an exponential case-load reduction.

I have no epidemiological opinion on which approach is best; and even if I did, you shouldn’t listen to it (because getting your science and medical “takes” from unqualified people on the Internet is like calling a plumber for an appendectomy).

My point is NOT to say who SHOULD get the vaccine first, from a medical standpoint.

My argument is that our culture’s default assumption that “The last should go first” is influenced by theological factors that go beyond utilitarian ethics, economics, or default human behavior across millennia.

And I give thanks for that.

A HISTORIAN WEIGHS IN

Historian Tom Holland argues that one of the most enduring marks of Christianity has been the elevation of individuals who would have previously been seen as “less than” or disposable.

As an atheist himself, Holland does not believe the theological claims of Scripture, yet he admits that Christianity is the biggest reason “why we [in Western culture] assume every human life to be of equal value.”

When studying the ancient Greeks or Romans, he notes:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.

Why did I find this disturbing?

Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in those assumptions].

Tom Holland, Dominion, 16-17.

Of course, both Christians and secularists have often been terrible in consistently applying this ethic.

To choose just two examples: On one extreme sits a naked refusal by some to recognize the full humanity of brown-skinned kids in cages at the southern border. And on the other rests a stubborn inability to condemn the killing of unborn babies in the womb. Hypocrisy abounds.

Nonetheless… the assumption (at least in theory) about the intrinsic value of the vulnerable has seeped into the cultural groundwater.

And at the end of that long historical trajectory sits someone like Margaret Keenan—the 91-year-old British woman who was the first person in the UK to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

CONCLUSION

What was the reaction to the choice of Margaret Keenan, and others like her?

Not a single person I heard said, “Why save her? She’s going to die soon anyway.” Not a single person said, “Give the first doses to the powerful, the top-earners, and the ‘old-but-not-THAT-olds’.”

To be clear, I have no doubt that there will be inequities in vaccine distribution, especially in underdeveloped countries and underserved communities. But the very fact that we have chosen (in theory) to prioritize those who, by worldly standards, can contribute least to our economic and materialistic future shows a small glimmer of grace in a dark year.

That grace comes, as René Girard noted, from a Light that “has revealed so many things for so long a time without revealing itself that we are convinced it comes from within us.”

It’s a ray of sunlight on the craters of the moon.


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Quiet heroes

Quiet heroes

A tragedy in our age of spectacle is that we often make morons famous while courageous people labor in quiet fidelity.

“Quiet” is the key word there.

And Good Friday reminds us it’s not new.

The Roman historian and politician Tacitus (c. 56–120 AD) famously remarked that

“Under Tiberius, all was quiet” (Hist. 5:9).

There were apparently no Messianic news stories during those years that demanded the intervention of the Roman legions in Palestine. Hence, as far as Tacitus was concerned, little happened.

But of course, something happened under Tiberius: Jesus lived, died, and rose again.

And a later historian (and atheist) Tom Holland claims that no event would have more impact on subsequent centuries than the “quiet” one that failed to appear on Tacitus’ Newsfeed.

Even in those days, the algorithms had other priorities.

Holland:

To believe that God had become man and suffered death of a slave was to believe that there might be strength in weakness, and victory in defeat.

HEROES

I’m reminded of that truth today (Good Friday) as I hear of my former students, both nurses, who are now headed into crowded, virus-laden hospitals—in New York and New Jersey.

One of them (Amanda) has blogged her experience beautifully (here).

And another (Jo-Nieca) has volunteered to leave her young family in Oklahoma and serve in an overrun New Jersey hospital.

Pray for them when you think about it. And pray for other quiet heroes placing themselves in traumatic situations for the good of others.

“Good” is the key word there, on a day (Good Friday) that redefines that concept too.

 


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Christendom, the coughing ghost

Christendom, the coughing ghost

“Christendom,” says Mark Sayers, “is like Hamlet’s ghost; it may be dead, but it still acts in the play.”

That line could form a summary of the book I’m reading during this time of global tumult: Dominion, by the British historian Tom Holland.

Dominion

The subtitle is “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.” And the work represents a shift from Holland’s early scholarship. Having written histories of Julius Caesar (Rubicon) and the Persian empire (Persian Fire), Holland once claimed a fairly negative view of Christianity.

He remains an atheist.

But he eventually arrived at an unsettling conclusion: The values he held most deeply were the product of a faith he could not hold. To quote Sayers again, the secular project is itself an attempt to have the Kingdom (values, or at least some of them) without the King.

Dominion is Holland’s long attempt to trace how that happened.

The dust jacket tells the thesis:

Christianity is the principal reason why, today, we think it nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering; why we assume every human life to be of equal value.

From Babylon to the Beatles, Moses to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the world.

GHOSTS ON VENTILATORS

Meanwhile, down in Texas…

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick stuck his cowboy boots in his mouth last week when he seemed to suggest that America should value the economy over the potential death-toll on the elderly by COVID-19.

“Let’s get back to work,” Patrick proclaimed, “let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

After a media firestorm, Patrick sought to “clarify” his comments by adding the “at some point” qualifier–a move that is about as bold and specific as suggesting that “at some point” we should restock our national supply of toilet paper.

It’s easy to make political hay of such soundbites. I’ll let others do that.

My goal is merely to relate Patrick’s original faux pas, and the related ones of many others, to Holland’s Dominion.

ECONOMIC PAGANISM

Holland’s claim is that we now call callous and barbaric viewpoints are actually the more common ones in world history: a lack of concern for the weak, the sick, the poor, the old, and those with disabilities.

The very need for the Lt. Governor to “clarify” his comment signals something strange in world history.

Holland writes this of the ancient Greeks and Romans:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.

Why did I find this disturbing?

Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in terms of ethics].

Of course, Holland is focusing on only one set of Christian values—an error that is common amongst both liberals and conservatives. Yet the atheist historian and the Lt. Governor bring us to a final, unsettling question:

What if the ghost of Christendom is getting “sick”—not just in the secular cities of New York, London, and Los Angeles, but in the Bible belt as well?

“Christendom” is not the same as “Christianity.” The former has more to do with cultural power and privilege. The latter is about worship, service, and mission.

Still, the former is not unimportant–and especially for the way our culture treats the least of these (the elderly, the poor, the unborn).

This is what it sounds like when Hamlet’s aging ghost begins to cough.

 


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