How the Person Became a Self

Published April 5, 2022

First Things

The following is adapted from the foreword to Carl R. Trueman’s new book Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution. Used with permission of Crossway Books.

In 2020, while the world was on lockdown due to COVID-19, Carl Trueman published one of the most important books of the last several decades. In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Trueman built on the insights of contemporary thinkers such as Philip Rieff and Alasdair MacIntyre to show how modern thinkers and artists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Percy Shelley, and William Blake gave expression to a worldview—what Charles Taylor called a “social imaginary”—that made possible and plausible the arguments of the late-modern theorists who shaped the postmodern sexual revolution, people like Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, and Herbert Marcuse. It is a penetrating analysis of recent intellectual history that shows why people are willing to believe ideas today that our grandparents would have rejected out of hand—without need of argument, evidence, or proof—just two generations ago.

The only problem? The book is over 400 pages long. And most people have never heard of many of the names I listed above. I knew that many of Carl’s potential readers would not have the time or appetite to wade through so many of his finer, nuanced discussions. So I emailed Carl, praising the book as essential reading. But I also suggested that he consider writing a shorter, more accessible version of the basic argument for non-specialists. Carl has now produced that volume with Strange New World, and it sparkles on every page. It is the primer for every American who cares about a sound anthropology and healthy culture.

At the risk of oversimplifying what Trueman accomplishes, I would summarize the broad arc of his work as an account of how the person became a self, how the self became sexualized, and how sex became politicized. Of course the narrators of the psalms, of St. Paul’s epistles, and of St. Augustine’s Confessions were also “selves” in the sense of having interior lives. But the inward turn of the biblical tradition was at the service of the outward turn toward God. The “self” that Western civilization cultivated was what Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel has described as an “encumbered” self, in contrast to modernity’s “unencumbered” self. The person was a creature of God, who sought to conform himself to the truth and objective moral standards in pursuit of eternal life. Modern man, however, seeks to be “true to himself.” Rather than conform thoughts, feelings, and actions to objective reality, modern man regards his inner life as the source of truth. The modern self finds himself in what Robert Bellah has described as a culture of “expressive individualism”—where each of us seeks to give expression to our individual inner lives, rather than seeing ourselves as embedded in communities and bound by natural and supernatural laws. Authenticity to inner feelings, rather than adherence to transcendent truths, becomes the norm. 

This modern self, then, is not accountable to the theologians who preach on how to conform oneself to God, but to the therapists who counsel how to be true to oneself—giving rise to what Philip Rieff described as the “triumph of the therapeutic.” And it is this therapeutic self that then becomes sexualized. Whereas for most of human history our sexual embodiment was a sheer given, allowing us to unite conjugally and form families, the modern therapeutic turn inward counsels people to be true to their inner sexual desires. What was once simply self-evident, that a boy should grow up to be a man, become a husband, and assume the responsibilities of a father, now entails a search to discover an inner truth about “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” based on emotions and will, rather than nature and reason. Historically one’s “gender identity” was determined by bodily sex, as was “sexual orientation”—a male’s “identity” was a man and he was “oriented” by nature and reason to unite with a woman, regardless of where his (fallen) desires might incline him.

If our sexuality is our deepest and most important inner truth, and politics is about the promotion of the truth, then it was inevitable that sex would become politicized. Whereas cultures used to cultivate the virtues that made family and religion flourish, in modernity the law would be used to suppress these institutions. They stood in the way of sexual “authenticity,” and politics sought to create a world where it was safe—and free from criticism—to follow one’s sexual desires. Hence, the push to redefine marriage legally was never really about joint tax returns and hospital visitation, but about forcing churches to update their doctrines and bakers to affirm same-sex relationships. Affirmation of the sexualized self is the key to our new politics. And our new language. What was once called sex “reassignment” surgery is now known as a gender “affirmation” procedure. And federal mandates will punish you if you object.

None of this is to suggest that ideas alone explain our current cultural moment. After all, without plastic surgery and synthetic testosterone and estrogen to “masculinize” and “feminize” bodies, few would seriously entertain the idea that sex could be “reassigned”—since it was not “assigned” to begin with. The idea that the will should master nature—creation—is, after all, only plausible under certain conditions. 

Any effective response, then, needs to challenge those long-brewing conditions, both intellectually and culturally. Trueman calls on the church to preach sound doctrine boldly, to live in an intentional and counter-cultural way according to biblical and liturgical seasons (to embody and promote an alternative social imaginary), and to challenge the sexual revolution both from above and from below. From above by exposing the various misguided preconditions that make the sexual revolution plausible, and from below by demonstrating the truth about the human person and the body—so that there is no tension between faith and reason, science and revelation. Most importantly, Trueman calls on the church not only to bear witness to the truth, but to be a place of belonging for the broken. Families, in particular, will need to consider what this means in the formation of their children. Simply attending church each Sunday will not cut it anymore (if it ever did). Socially embodied ways of living in conformity with ultimate realities will prove essential. 

In 2018, I published the book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. The title was meant to suggest two things: that transgender ideology was not the truth about man but was the result of various cultural forces producing this “moment” in history, and that within one generation popular culture had gone from questioning whether a man and a woman could be “just friends” in the film When Harry Met Sally, to declaring there was a civil right for a man to become a woman. In Strange New World, Trueman uncovers and describes the underlying social and intellectual forces that explain why his grandfather would have rejected such a claim without a second thought but President Biden can declare that “transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.”

I have long admired Carl’s popular essays and academic books. Strange New World is the best of both, combining his accessible writing and deep learning. May it bear abundant fruit.

Ryan T. Anderson, a former First Things assistant editor, is the President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.

Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., is the President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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