Monday, November 28, 2022

Never Growing Up

In short, the modern self is one where authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with one’s inward feelings.

Just like a baby.

Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is a contributing editor at First Things, an esteemed church historian, and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

This book is presented as an approachable and concise version of Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.  As you can see, I chose the concise version for my reading.

From the Foreword, written by Ryan T. Anderson, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (and author of the book, When Harry Became Sally – banned by Amazon):

The “self” that Western Civilization cultivated, up until just a few hundred years ago, was what Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel described as an “encumbered” self, in contrast to modernity’s “unencumbered” self.

The encumbered self was a being made with a purpose, a telos.  He was free to live in accordance with this purpose.  He was considered a creature of God.  He conformed himself to the truth, to objective moral standards.  He had in his vision eternal life.

The unencumbered self can’t be bothered with any of that:

Modern man, however, seeks to be “true to himself.”  Rather than conform thoughts, feelings and actions to objective reality, man’s inner life itself becomes the source of truth.

Just as we describe currency which is tied to nothing objective, that can be created at will out of nothing, “fiat,” so is the modern man, who is his own standard, who can create of himself anything he chooses.  Call him “fiat” man.

He is not accountable to theologians, but to the therapists who help him find his true self.  Of course, this leads to finding his deepest and most important inner truth of sexual desires, and being “true” to this as well. 

Meanwhile laws are passed, contrary to traditional family and sexual norms and requiring others affirm any and every new lifestyle.  Objecting to any of it – and especially the worst of it – is now illegal.

Summarizing Anderson’s foreword, quoting the Catholic (sic) Biden: “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.” 

And with this, Trueman begins chapter one:

Many of us are familiar with books and movies whose plots revolve around central characters finding themselves trapped in a world where nothing behaves in quite the way they expect.

Trueman offers Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and The Matrix series of movies as examples.  However, this is no longer confined to fiction:

Things once regarded as obvious and unassailable virtues have in recent years been subject to vigorous criticism and even in some cases come to be seen by many as more akin to vices.

Marriage is between a man and a woman, for example.  Yet, we once found slavery acceptable.  So why not continue this liberating evolution into all areas of life?  Trueman sees the underlying issue as the notion of the self.  And this self connects to three other concepts: expressive individualism, the sexual revolution, and the social imaginary. 

First, to define what he means by self.  In the common usage, he is Carl Trueman, and not Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump.  But Trueman means something else by self:

…the deeper notion of where the ‘real me’ is to be found, how that shapes my view of life, and in what the fulfillment or happiness of that ‘real me’ consists.

He offers two alternatives of how one might understand his self.  First, with obligations toward, and dependence on others; the purpose of education is to train me in the demands and expectations of a wider culture, shaping me to be able to serve the community; as I grow, I learn to control my feelings, act with restraint, and sacrifice my desires for the betterment of the community.  There was a time, not very long ago, where this was the case.

Or, second, I am born free to create my own identity; I am educated to be able to express outwardly whatever I feel inwardly; instead of restraint, I capitalize on opportunities to perform.  This describes normative self of today. 

The modern self assumes the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same.

Just like a baby.

Trueman then further defines and clarifies terms.  Citing Robert Bellah who defines that expressive individualism…

…holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.

It is, as Charles Taylor describes, a “culture of authenticity,” where each one of us has his way of realizing his humanity.  Any attempt to express disapproval of this inner feeling being expressed outwardly is met with disapproval – and even in some cases is illegal.  It is a violation of the rights of this inner baby to hinder in any way their wish to be whatever they wish to be.

Expressive individualism isn’t all bad.  We do have an inner life; we do feel things.  We are, after all, individuals (in a proper sense).  Trueman doesn’t deny any of this.  Yet today we have radical changes in sexual norms, even more radical changes in physical and biological norms. 

Next is the sexual revolution.  This is something more than the liberation in the 1960s offered by the pill.  Today no revolutionary sexual idea is to carry any social stigma at all.  Even beyond this, every revolutionary idea is to be celebrated – even with children.  Promiscuity, homosexuality, the use of pornography, transgenderism – all good in today’s world.  Even pedophilia is mentioned, but it is not avoided because of any of the sexual acts but merely due to the issue of consent. 

How did we get here?  Trueman points to a number of intellectual figures: Mary Wollstonecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Germaine Greer and Yuval Levin.  He adds to the list Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault.  But very few are reading these intellectuals, so what gives? This leads to Trueman’s third term: the social imaginary, again citing Charles Taylor:

I speak of “imaginary’ because I’m talking about the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings….

This isn’t expressed in theoretical terms: it is carried in images, stories, legends.  The theory is carried by a few, the many swim in the reality.  Continuing with Taylor:

…the social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.

We live in a story and we want to belong. 


Trueman believes, and will make his case in the coming chapters, that we are in this condition in society due to the “rise to cultural normativity of the expressive individual self, particularly as expressed through the idioms of the sexual revolution.”

And for this reason, the problems won’t be resolved by electing the right politician or getting the right judges on the court.  Trueman doesn’t say it in so many words, but I am reminded: politics is downstream of culture.

To respond to our times we must first understand our times.  That is my goal.


  1. And culture follows diet; the significant thing about the modern human diet is that it is largely made up of foods that are literally painkillers, ( eg sugar ), or contain food opioids, ( eg glutenous grains and dairy foods ), and that the pap most of us eat is “baby-food”.

    Mother’s milk is sweet and contains opioids to ease an infant animal’s passage into life outside the womb. But any young animal that does not move on from that food source, that is unable to step away from it, remains a dependant, and extremely vulnerable.

    Animals that weren’t able to step away from mother’s milk died out because of that vulnerability.

    But human animals seem to be increasingly addicted to and unable to kick baby-food. Most of us never really grow up, never really become adults, as a result. We need to eat every few hours, like babies, and can’t go far from “home”/the mother/the source of food as a result. We are hobbled, tethered, dependants.

    And it shows.

  2. Charles Rice who was a professor of the jurisprudence of Saint Thomas Aquinas at Notre Dame Law School touched on this same theme in his book "50 Questions on the Natural Law, What It Is & Why We Need It" when discussing question 42:

    "Why does the Church put so much emphasis on contraception? I think it enables people to exercise responsible free choice. Why does the Church oppose it?"

    I'll share a few quotes from his multi-page answer:

    "The teachings of John Paul II have stressed relation to others as an essential element of personhood. In this context the practice of contraception is essentially degrading to the person: "When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act a 'arbiters' of the divine plan and they 'manipulate' and degrade human sexuality and with it themselves and their married partner by altering its value of total self-giving. Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid through contraception, by and objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of the conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality."

    "Contraception is so rooted in contemporary culture that it is easy to forget that the Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1930 was the first occasion on which a Christian denomination said that contraception could ever be objectively right under and circumstances."

    ["Contraception is the defining vice of this era. The general acceptance of the morality of the act of contraception is a major factor in the following developments:

    Abortion. Contraception is the prevention of life, while abortion is the taking of life. But both involve the willful separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of sex. The contraceptive mentality tends to require abortion as a backup...

    Euthanasia. If man is the arbiter of when life begins, he will predictably make himself the arbiter of when life ends. Euthanasia is postnatal abortion, as abortion is prenatal euthanasia.

    Pornography. Like contraception, which reduces sexual relations to an exercise in mutual masturbation, pornography is the separation of sex from life and the reduction of sex to an exercise in self-gratification.

    In vitro fertilization. Contraception is the taking of the unitive without the procreative. In vitro fertilization is the reverse.

    Promiscuity. But if, through contraception, we claim the power to decide whether sex will have anything to do with procreation, why should we have to reserve sex for marriage?

    Divorce. If sex and marriage are not intrinsically related to new life, marriage loses its reason for permanence. It tends to become a temporary alliance for individual gratification.

    Homosexual activity. If sex has no inherent relation to procreation, and if man, rather than God, is the arbiter of whether and when it will have that relation, why not let Freddy marry George and Erica marry Susan? The contraceptive society cannot say that homosexual activity is objectively wrong without condemning itself. Objections to the legitimization of the homosexual "lifestyle" are reduced to the pragmatic and the esthetic. Homosexual activity, like contraception, also frustrates the interpersonal communion that is intrinsic to the conjugal act. And where that act should be open to life, homosexual activity is a dead end. It rejects life and focuses instead on excrement, which is dead.

    It is increasingly obvious not only that contraception is contrary to the nature and dignity of the person but also that it is hostile to the common good."]

    1. In 1968, Pope Paul VI wrote that contraception would lead to more abortion, out-of-wedlock babies, divorce, broken families, and civilizational anomie. Reading those words years later, even as a reasonably faithful young Catholic, I was skeptical. I did not see the connection.

      *Post hoc ergo propter hoc* is a logical fallacy. But it sure seems the pope's words have come to pass.

  3. "To respond to our times we must first understand our times. That is my goal."

    To understand our times, I must first understand myself. That is my goal. It may be the hardest thing I have ever done.

  4. I see parallels between this article and those many you have published in which the individual is contrasted and at odds with the community. I have come to understand that "rugged" individuals cannot survive on their own, but must have their place in the community, blending in, and becoming part of it, not through force, violence, or power, but through love, sacrifice, and hard work. This understanding is transformative.

    Would you not say that all of the individual "aberrations" mentioned above fall into this same way of thinking as the individual who eschews the polite company of society and determines to go his own way, and f*** the person who tries to stop him. As I see it, modern man, individual man, in his rebellion, has to outdo everyone else around him, therefore his actions become worse and worse, spiraling ever downward into the immoral pit of depravity. It is not so much that he wants to divorce himself from community, but that he wants to debase, debauch, and destroy it.

    Community suffers from such actions, but can do nothing. The most important issue here is that the individual, rugged or not, is allowed to be himself and there can be no restraints on his behavior. I have been there. I know.

    It is my belief that if a person refuses to control himself, sooner or later, someone else will. Since our society is shot through with people who do not control themselves, we are finding that tyrannical control is being ceded to another authority, this one far more dangerous to the concept of liberty, which all licentious persons claim to desire. They simply mistake license for liberty. We all pay for it.

    1. After 2020, I *really* don't think that the "polite company of society" is much of a standard by which to judge anything.

      Individual ruggedness is never enough. As humans we need community to survive and thrive. I don't really see that as a problem, because it's such a powerful thing that it cannot be ignored for long.

      The *opposite*, though - when people come to believe that social reality overrides material reality - THAT is dangerous, because it can be sustained long enough to cause enormous harm.

      Absent social approbation of dissolute lifestyles, those lifestyles could not sustain themselves for long at all. The man who says "f*** everything and everyone" is a minor problem. Tragic, to be sure, but it is self-correcting. Those who praise and sustain and defend such a man when the consequences of his selfishness and shortsighedness catch up with him - those are enabling the problem to endure and grow.

      Or, to use a more modern example: the man who triple-masks and refuses to go to work for fear of a virus is the minor problem. People in positions of authority elevating this sad creature to the status of mandatory role model, and those blindly following along - they are by far the bigger problem.

    2. Roger / Cosmic, this idea of having to conform to the broader society struck me several years ago. We all do it - and would do it even in a libertarian world. There will never be a society that fits exactly my notion of utopia, unless I choose a society of one - me. Each unique "libertarian" society would not look libertarian to those outside it (Hans Hoppe has driven this point home wonderfully).

      Of course, the other side of this coin is to ask how heavy is the weight that allows dysfunctional and destructive behaviors to survive and thrive? Sadly, we are in a time when that weight is almost infinitely heavy. The state, educational institutions, media, and even many churches.

      Yes, we have God (and natural law) on our side. But the first will work in His time, and the second often takes years or decades to do its cleansing work.