…or the problem of the thing being measured being also used as the yardstick.
Indeed, the notion of the self with which we now intuitively operate in the West – that of something plastic that we believe we can shape in any way we wish – is arguably simply one example of a much broader worldview of the whole of reality.
How did we come to this? What ideas shaped western man to the point where there is nothing fixed, nothing certain, nothing objective, no such thing as truth? Trueman offers the thinkers that he considers necessary for us to have come to this point – Rousseau, the Romantics, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Reich.
Necessary, but not sufficient. How many in the West have heard of these men, let alone read anything by them? Some of these were not even influential in their own day; why are they such a powerful force in ours – a century or more later?
Trueman will attempt to answer this question – how did these necessary-but-not-sufficient preconditions become sufficient? He admits up front that even when he is through the reader might conclude that he has done nothing more than pile on a few more necessary preconditions without generate sufficient conditions. Fair enough. But pile up enough preconditions and eventually you will get the right conditions.
What he is after is to explain the how and why of our going from a fixed world to a plastic world – a world in which we have come to believe that we can shape reality to whatever we wish it to be.
Imagine being born a few hundred years ago. Almost certainly you would have lived your entire life in the village in which you were born. You would have married someone from the village, raised a family in the village, been baptized and buried in the village church.
Your children would likely have remained in the village for their lives – and your sons likely would have learned their profession from you while your daughters would have learned how to be a wife and mother from your wife.
Every year, you would live the same cycle – governed by changes in seasons, changes in the time of sunrise and sunset. Not only could you set your watch by it, you could have set the entire calendar by it. Had this village been in western Europe, you would have belonged to the Catholic Church.
In other words, a very stable – even fixed – pattern of life. But not our world. Modern transportation, ease of migration, availability of education, social mobility, technology, science, medicine. All have contributed to the changes in life’s rhythms and patterns when compared to that of the patterns in village life a few hundred years ago – a more plastic world.
I used to have to find my place in the fixed world of the village; now I can create my place in the wide-open spaces of the world. I can shape my world – my being – to my will.
In 1400, the world seemed fixed, stable, and solid. Today it seems as pliable as playdough.
Modern culture sees the world as raw material to be shaped by human will. Trueman sees technology as having played the biggest part in this change. As noted earlier, is technology to be considered just another necessary but insufficient precondition, or was it the sufficient condition that enabled the ideas of the aforementioned thinkers to be put into effect?
Technology reinforces the idea of “individual.” In almost every way today we can individualize our experiences – music, news, videos, recreation. Again, the individual is placed at the center of his reality. The world is seen simply as “stuff,” to be molded and shaped according to the will of the creator – the modern individual.
We are the ones with power, and we are the ones who give the world significance.
Technology is the addition, the rise of something that gives the individual power and authority. On the other side is the collapse of traditional external sources of authority and identity. Trueman offers three examples to demonstrate this reality.
First, the Reformation which fractured the Church in the West. Institutional unity was lost, and with it the Church’s claims to authority. Nations could choose the direction of their faith. Eventually, the choice would be individual – completely upending who had power in the relationship: the priest or the parishioner.
It was now the parishioner who could excommunicate (in a manner of speaking) the priest. Perhaps this also touches on one of the reasons why many churches today cater to what they view as the popular culture as opposed to Biblical (objective) truths.
Next is the traditional family – historically to include multiple generations. The family is presented as oppressive and tyrannical, often dysfunctional. No-fault divorce has lowered the bar for the dissolution of marriage – we just don’t feel like it anymore. Single-parent families, blended post-divorce families, various combinations – all serve to erode the stability and authority of the family.
Finally, the nation. While the nation-state is a relatively new idea, the idea of a stable community – one with known, understood, and accepted traditions and customs – is as old as man. Without these accepted traditions and customs, is there such a thing as a nation? This question is being answered today, with many parts of the West demonstrating that there isn’t.
Religion, family, nation. Once, the answer to the question “Whom am I?” would have been “I am Carl Trueman, a Christian and the son of John, English by birth. Today, almost every one of these traditional identity markers is subject of ridicule and derision.
Without these external markers of identity, we turn inward; as Trueman puts it, institutions are no longer authoritative places of formation, but of performance.
Trueman then goes to the loss of sacred order. Cultures have traditionally justified their moral orders by appealing to traditions rooted in sacred order. Moral codes have authority because they are grounded in something outside of, or beyond, this immediate world. God, for example, or natural law, or the Tao, or created order, or the Oracle at Delphi. You get the idea.
Such sentiments are gone – the Supreme Court says that objections to gay marriage is motivated by nothing by traditional bigotry. Instead, our culture is to be measured by nothing but…our culture. Competing voices battle to create a new order, with no standard or objective means available by which to judge other than who screams the loudest.
Where this self-created and self-measured standard has most exemplified itself is in regards to sex. The advent of the pill is central to the story. No longer did a man need a job, live a clean life, provide long-term security. With the pill, all risks – financial and social – were dramatically lowered for both the man and especially the woman. Marriage and monogamy easily became quaint notions, if not even looked down upon.
Then there is pornography, moving from Playboy behind a brown cover to now easily found and explored on the web. Trueman noted that even a baby’s onesie can be found with the words “Future Porn Star” emblazoned on the front. So much for any notion of the exploitation of those in the adult film industry.
Arguments based on the authority of God’s law or the idea that human beings are made in the image of God no longer carry any significant weight in a world devoid of the sacred.
Instead we have arguments based on the authority of the inner self – creating myself in my own image. Using my self as the yardstick by which I measure…myself.
Why has this played out so explosively in the realm of sex?
Once the authorizing of the inner psychological space happened, it was perhaps inevitable that sex would become more and more significant. Sexual desires are among the most powerful inner feelings that most human beings experience.
The deepest of the inner self, the most powerful feelings of the inner self. Hence, the most important manner by which one can express his inner self. Historically it has been moral codes regarding sex that have been the primary focus across most societies. Therefore, such codes are also the most important codes to kill.