Calling Nonsense by Its Right Name
Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementant.
Whom God would destroy He first makes mad.
And how! So much I gather from Prof. Carl R. Trueman’s new and justly celebrated study The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Upon turning the last page, the reader (as I testify from personal experience) may very well breathe: “Oh, God.”
Whoever does so likely means the exclamation in dual, highly complementary senses. Let us see what we can make of both. Much can and ought to be made. The topic—pursuant to the famous Latin tag of divine judgment upon society’s present moral and intellectual derangements—seems to invite earnest debate. What else might account for the helter-skelter spread of the notion that who I am and what I deserve in consequence is my own business and no one else’s? It’s nuts. Could anyone who’s right in the head make such a claim? So that must mean . . .?
A splendid entry port for such an urgent discussion is Trueman’s 425-page study, provocatively subtitled “Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.” No airport bookstall entertainment, this. Its goal is, among other public services, to try to wise up such readers as are, in spite of everything going on around them, tuned out concerning our culture’s contradictions and perplexities.
The British-born Trueman, 54 years old, is professor of biblical and religious studies at Pennsylvania’s Grove City College and, I would suggest, less well-known than his considerable gifts as analyst and narrator suggest he ought to be.
Television—and especially the internet—have given us a taste for dividing the challenges of the present day into discrete Events: the assault on the Capitol; gay marriage; abortion; transgenderism; cancel culture; Black Lives Matter; on and on. Trueman means to show us the connections linking these various events and disturbances. Which turn out not to be mere episodes in modern life; rather, culminations in the passage of Western culture from something like intellectual and moral unity to our present state of sovereign disregard for realities of which we might disapprove. This disregard is coupled with widespread fixation upon victimhood as the reality best suited for our present time. A victim is somebody to whom something has been done—by malignant others (e.g., white supremacists) or life itself.
A crucial element in Trueman’s analysis is the ongoing politicized wiping away of norms founded on timeless understandings of maleness and femaleness. And, correspondingly, their replacement with an ethic of sexual identity assumed as personal affirmation. I’m a victim, you see; I get to believe and do what I want!
This state of affairs isn’t what you would call fresh as new-mown hay. The odors thereof, as Trueman reminds us, have floated in the air since the Age of Enlightenment—the 18th century. Messrs. Jefferson and Franklin helped to disperse the scents, and likewise the sense, of liberation from the old and established. We are where we are today because, in large part, the holders of ideas and attitudes regarded as essential to civilization accustomed their nostrils to the new fragrances—seen as appropriate to humanity’s progress from stillness and stodginess to light and joy.
Some snippets from Trueman, setting forth his exhaustively examined premises:
There has occurred, since the Enlightenment, “a revolution in selfhood . . . we are all part of that revolution, and there is no way to avoid it . . .” “‘[E]xpressive individualism’ is our popular creed . . .” “[T]he LGBTQ+ issues that now dominate our culture and our politics are simply symptoms of a deeper revolution in what it means to be a self . . .”
Wherefore “expressive individualism has detached [the] concepts of individual dignity and value from any kind of grounding in a sacred order,” rejecting “the created, divine image as the basis for . . . morality,” with “nothing left but a morass of competing tastes.”
This on top of our ongoing, ever-more-alarming break with the past, whereby we are cut off
. . . from any agreed-on transcendent metaphysical order by which our culture might justify itself. With no higher order to which we might look in order to understand human existence teleologically, we both are isolated from the past, where ends transcending the individual were assumed, and are left free floating in the present. . . . political discourse is marked by the pathologies, and mirror-image counterpathologies, of critical theory: there is a deeply therapeutic aspect to forms of politics that operate on a simplistic them-and-us binary and find easy targets to blame for the ills of the world, whether they be white heterosexual males out to oppress everyone else or LGBTQ+ radicals committed to the overthrow of civilization In such a context, each and every opponent is simply an irrational hate-monger, seeking to present as natural a position that is simply a personal preference.
“Oh, God,” indeed—in the despondent sense. All this has been coming at us for 300 years? Why did not some watchman in the crow’s nest of our national ocean liner cry out, “Iceberg ahead!”? Because time and experience had normalized the frigid temperature of the water, and the appearance of occasional ice floes? It could be.
We know what a mess we are in: things falling apart, nothing steady anymore; nothing stable. Why? How come? Carl Trueman’s answer is that we have been sold a bill of goods, laying our money on the counter with growing enthusiasm. Who has sold us such a bill? Among the names are familiar ones like Freud and Rousseau and Marx and, slightly more surprisingly, if logically, good old William Wordsworth: each in his own way persuaded that society is the great corrupter of human good. Women’s names, like that of Simone de Beauvoir, join the roster in due course. Trueman capsulizes the general outlook of all: “The one who is truly free is the one who is free to be himself.”
By the time of the revolution occasioned by Charles Darwin’s investigation into the origin of species, we have come to agree or suspect that teleology—the embrace of human ends, as overseen by God—is sheer delusion, or else a matter indifferent to intelligent humans. The destiny of mankind? Yawn. “[T]he world as we have it does not need a designer or divine architect. It can be explained without any reference to the transcendent.” Thus Trueman, explaining the new outlook.
The ocean around us grows icier and icier. We hardly notice. Things seem somehow fresher, the north wind more inspirational. More and more thinkers discover the joys of self-discovery; more and more claimants to particular identities arise and demand to be taken seriously, before shutting up those— however many they are—who hold different understandings. The Dr. Seuss saga, which occurred after publication of Trueman’s book, with Dr. Seuss of all people, brought up on charges of racial insensitivity and six of his books suppressed by his own foundation, might be called emblematic of the problem. It shows the preposterous lengths to which an unanchored culture is willing to go in pursuit of individual exaltation.
Trueman builds deliberately and perspicaciously on the work of two pioneering analysts: Philip Rieff, the author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic, and Charles Taylor, author of Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, as well as the gargantuan A Secular Age. He renders their analyses clear and understandable. (I myself would have invited to the table the late Christopher Lasch, whose Culture of Narcissism put the subject up for intense national discussion a decade after Rieff’s less attention-grabbing work.)
We’re making things up for ourselves at present. And the final product, to judge from the preliminary versions, may be less, much less, than a thing of beauty, a joy forever. To that rueful understanding Trueman steers us with greater clarity than one would expect to find in analyses of Nietzsche and Darwin. He does a beautiful and non-tendentious job of showing how their thought processes have caused the likes of Charles Reich, Erich Fromm, and Peter Singer to lick their chops as they season their own ingredients for the mischief in their minds. That mischief can justly be characterized as the overturning of the civilization whose ways they find so distasteful, so repressive of personal desire.
“Oh, God!” And here we come again; the old petition, the old plea; however, not this time the cry of despair and take-me-away-from-here. Trueman’s searching account of the civilizational crisis before us necessarily provokes the question: What’s going on here, Lord? And what can we do? Surely it’s not all over. Not Bach, not Aristotle, not Cole Porter; not the baby shower, the family album, the Golden Anniversary bash.
God wouldn’t allow the final dismantling, would he, of the ancient and holy norms and understandings by which many try to live, with varying degrees of success? Might He be induced, prayerfully, respectfully, to drive away the deep shadows? “My flesh and my heart faileth; but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” So the Psalmist put matters. That would count for encouragement, would it not?
My admiration for the scholarly-descriptive work Trueman has done in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self fails to obstruct notice here of a grating element I see in his work—a pessimism much in tune with a current strain of commentary suggesting a great drawing inward among Christians as they perform good works and spread love until the arrival of more fruitful times. This could be right. For my own part I am doubtful. It seems more than a bit odd to think of God’s vision for humanity as more or less played out, due to the rising number of complaints it provokes.
I am minded to suggest that the invocation of divine assistance—“Oh, God!”—over and over against the secularist mode is likelier to bear fruit than the biting of lips and the aversion of gazes. Not that Trueman is unbecomingly silent on these matters after 300-plus pages of bleak analysis. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive, work; yet Trueman does address himself, if a little briefly, to the question of what we do. He suggests that “any return to a society built on a broad religious, or even a mere metaphysical, consensus is extremely unlikely . . .” The sexual revolution won’t so quickly disappear. Not even the constitutional right to free exercise of religion is likely to prosper in this current environment.
Trueman’s brushwork here is thin: no colorful impastos, as with his earlier analyses of the sexual revolution. He rightly recognizes that Christians and traditionalists of one variety or another can’t just sit there. They must do something. Accordingly, he says, they have to affirm the deep metaphysical reality of God and His creation of the world—in community, an ethic increasingly important in our fractionated times and therefore, possibly, recreative. Or so, I think, he can be read as saying.
Then—italics his own—“Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body.” This makes excellent sense, however vaguely sketched and inappropriately confined, in the rhetorical sense, to the Protestants. (Trueman is Orthodox Presbyterian.) Natural law transcends religious boundaries (cf., C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man). The physical body is the work of God Himself, as has been commonly believed throughout Christianity’s—and Judaism’s—lifetime (cf. Genesis 2:7). That’s about as far we get with Trueman in the role of restorationist. He foresees for the church (or churches) an identity not unlike the one he says they enjoyed in the second century, their members living in a pluralist society—“good citizens of the earthly city as far as good citizenship was compatible with faithfulness to Christ.”
I myself, with honor and deep gratitude to our learned friend, don’t buy the essence of this analysis. The second century, so Church of England Canon Michael Green wrote in 1970 (Evangelism in the Early Church), teaches a lesson other than quiet acceptance of the paganism that might have been supposed at the time to envelop the self-described people of God.
Whereas, writes Green, we find among the early Christians “many faults, much that dishonours the name they professed,” yet we also “find an evangelistic zeal and effort, exerted by the whole broad spectrum of the Christian community to bring other people to the feet of their ascended Lord, and into the fellowship of his willing servants . . . Evangelism was the very life blood of the early Christians.” Which sounds rather a different thing from the resignation and quietude for which some moderns call in a mood almost of despair.
The need for non-resignation—for anti-resignation, if you like—arises at least in part from the need to call nonsense by its right name. There are coarser names by which the attitudes Trueman talks about could be described: some of these bearing the odor of the pasture. I think we may let “nonsense” serve the turn. The thoroughly civilized decision to reject nonsense and stand for reality, over against the promptings of our intellectual elites—who have played us false, again and again, in these morally parched times—is the point deserving of attention.
That half-baked stupidity and unreason concerning human life and human responsibilities now dominate public action and belief is a state of affairs hard to credit. Clearly what we need for the 21st century are new prescriptions: or, rather, freshly fashioned, and compelling, versions of the old ones, suitable for times like these, near as they are to losing their precious birthright.
I think Carl Trueman would nod in happy assent to that proposition, as I nod in gratitude for his diligent and perceptive job of showing us how much has gone wrong with us humans, and why we’d better hustle to straighten things out.
William Murchison, a former syndicated columnist, is a senior editor of the Human Life Review. He will soon finish his book on moral restoration in our time.