Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and earned his Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Aberdeen. He is a renown church historian and wrote The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution with this thesis in mind: “The so-called sexual revolution of the last sixty years, culminating in its latest triumph–the normalization of transgenderism–cannot be properly understood until it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of human selfhood” (p. 20). While many people acknowledge the sexual revolution’s impact on Western society, Trueman’s argument identifies that this movement has ties to the thoughts and writings of historical figures like Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin and Freud. In fact, the author’s ability to explain the ideas put forth by these thinkers from the past in connection with the current trends of Western civilization–especially as it pertains to human nature and sexuality–is what makes this material helpful for the church living in these confusing times.
Two Theological Presuppositions
Before I provide a summary and analysis of his writing, perhaps two theological assumptions will help readers as they navigate the depths of Trueman’s work. First, we should affirm as Christians that essence precedes existence. To put it another way, the imago Dei and the redemption believers have in Christ, for those who are saved, provides every human being with identity, purpose, and function. Thus, it is not what we do or think that gives us identity, but rather God’s creative act in making all human beings in his image that provides the proper framework for our existence. We have a purpose and identity simply for being made in God’s image, and we are supposed to exist or live out of that image according to God’s design. Trueman’s work seeks to show how the foundations of the sexual revolution reversed the order–i.e., existence precedes essence (cf. 254). The argument of his work centers around the concept that the West has changed its view on human nature in this reversal. Human nature is no longer tied to the “sacred order,” but rather is now bound to the psychological, sexual, and political identities of human beings within Western society (cf. 221, 264, 302).
Second, Christians should not be intimated by this work, but rather embrace Trueman’s thorough analysis of Western civilization. The insights provided by this historian will assist Christians in our ability to witness and engage with those in our spheres of influence. This book will prepare the church for cultural engagement with the gospel, which is the only means of hope and clarity within our fracturing and confused society. To put it another way, Trueman’s work provides readers with insight on how to be salt and light in a world of decay and darkness (Matt 5:13-16). Is this not how Paul addressed the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the Areopagus? He acknowledged their body of literature and their beliefs, but took the arguments of their Greek thinkers and sprinted them straight to the good news of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:28-31). One of the greatest observations that will help us testify to the gospel is for Christians to understand, as Trueman points out, that people are looking internally for purpose and identity. In other words, it is the thought of unrepressed sexuality that people find the ability to express their “true” selves, their “true” identities, and their “true” purposes in life. However, their expression does not remain privatized because it must be affirmed and approved by the masses. So my perceived self and my sexuality inherently becomes politicized. From these two presuppositions, I would argue that our witness strengthens as we engage culture with the gospel.
Trueman’s work is divided into 4 parts. The first part is designed to provide the reader with a framework for understanding the book’s contents. For anyone new to these types of concepts, this is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of this work. Trueman explains the social imaginary utilizing Charles Taylor, the psychological man and third world culture from the writings of Philip Rieff, and emotivism from Alasdair McIntyre. Readers will want to read through these chapters with intentionality because they will form the basis of the rest of the work–at least they will give philosophical, ethical, and sociological categories to understand Trueman’s arguments for the foundations and current setting of the sexual revolution.
Part 2 takes the reader through the works of Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin. Through these writers, a few ideas begin to emerge that pertain to the sexual revolution and all its societal repercussions. First, human nature becomes psychologized. Second, human beings begin to remove themselves from any type of sacred order–in other words, humanity begins to deny any type of transcendent realm. Third, morality becomes subjective and humanistic with the deletion of the created order, any belief in a transcendent being, and any basis of morality built on religious beliefs.
Part 3 explains, using Freud, that human nature is perceived to exist as purely sexual. That to be a person means that “sex and sexual gratification [are] at the center of adult human identity” and Freud’s writings will apply this concept to infants (p. 206). The third part of this book concludes with the notion that all these ideas gave rise to this conclusion about the human self: “The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must be politicized” (p. 221). All three parts of this book are designed to get the reader to this understanding of Western society’s current belief about human nature (Marx and Freud are the foundations for the political sphere).
Trueman’s Part 4 helps the reader understand how society embraced these thoughts and put them into action within Western culture. Many people in our society have probably never interacted with these writers or their thoughts, but have somehow embraced the philosophical principles that they proposed years ago. How did this happen? Trueman analyzes art and pornography as two of the ways in which these views were adopted by civilization. In addition, he looks at higher education, the U.S. judicial system and how free speech has been impacted by this change about human nature devoid of the transcendent truth. Trueman briefly concludes with three ways the church should be prepared to handle “the rise and triumph of the modern self:” (a) aesthetics, (b) community, (c) natural law and a correct biblical theology of the body (cf. 402-07).
Trueman’s research and writing style are beneficial for any reader who embarks upon this four hundred page journey. Readers will not only have a better grasp of how the foundations of the sexual revolution became prominent in the American context, but will also be better prepared to engage with those who have been hurt and are hurting from what this view of human nature is in the process of damaging. Yes, many readers will be challenged by engaging with writers like Rieff, Taylor, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, and Frued, but the time spent in this book will prepare you for critical cultural engagement with the gospel.
In fact, that is my one critique about this book. Trueman makes the argument that Christianity and third world cultures (Rieff’s term that’s not economic in nature) are unable to have meaningful dialogue because no common ground exists (cf. p. 80, 401). Perhaps I am a bit more optimistic, but I would argue it is these types of cultural settings where the gospel shines the brightest (see Ashford, “Tayloring Christian Politics in Our Secular Age” from Themelios 42.3 (2017): 446-51). An askew view of human nature will bring devastation to all those who are involved in the psychologizing, sexualizing, and politicizing of human identity and purpose. This belief system will fail them, and they will be looking for someone to help them pick up the pieces and give them hope.
The idea of the prodigal son in Luke 15 should come to our minds. The Gracious Father allowed the younger son to go and live a life he desired, and the young man experienced true brokenness. The two parables leading up to this parable talk about how people went to search for things that were lost like a sheep and a coin, and I think this parable has the same theme. God allows people to live out their brokenness and sin in such a way that it can be used as a means of grace for them to repent and turn to the mercy, forgiveness, and restoration that only Christ provides. As the sexual revolution destroys lives, Christians have an opportunity to throw the only life line that can save and heal people who are collateral damage from this view of human nature–the good news of Jesus Christ. In other words, the language of suffering that comes from sin is common language that can be used to share the gospel in Western civilization.
I highly recommend this book, and I have provided a link for you to purchase below. By the way, I make no money for promoting these books on my website.
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