The Voice of Tradition and the Unheard Present

Carl Trueman's new book demonstrates that even erudite conservative accounts of our modern moment struggle to grapple with the voices and experiences of ordinary people. Nowhere is this clearer than in Trueman's atrocious treatment of queer and trans people.

Review of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman (Crossway, 2020)

CARL Trueman’s The Rise of the Modern Self: is a work of intellectual history and cultural criticism that aims to trace the currents of thought that gave rise to the sexual revolution and the continuing development of those currents into contemporary political and cultural battles, especially the public discussions about the rights of LGBT people in general and transgender people in particular. The author, a professor of religious studies and a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church who trained first as a classicist at Cambridge and then as a church historian at Aberdeen, retraces an intellectual genealogy through several centuries, taking great pains to elucidate the central arguments being made by such diverse thinkers as Rousseau, Nietzsche, William Blake, and Shulamith Firestone. Indeed, he regards faithfulness to sources as one of a historian’s primary duties, as he makes clear in his introduction, and his readings of these primary sources seem, to my nonprofessional eye, to be fair and judicious summaries of the arguments.


These qualities make Trueman’s book refreshing. The material produced by the publishing houses of the American right is marked chiefly by illiteracy, willful ignorance of the basic terms of arguments, and a stylistic barbarism so pervasive and relentless that I am forced to believe that many of these writers are waging protracted psychological war against their editors, their readers, and all who rely on the printed word. Trueman reads well, treats his texts fairly, and though his style is not always to my taste, it is perfectly adequate. And yet even given these virtues, I cannot say that he makes his argument successfully. The intellectual diligence that Trueman applies to understanding the many authors with whom he disagrees is exhausted by the time he arrives at the experiences of living people, especially gay, bisexual, and transgender people: I wish that he had excercised the same care that he demonstrates reading Nietzsche—who said precisely what he meant to and articulated a series of doctrines loathsome to any Christian—in his attention to people attempting as best they can to tell the truth about their lives and who are, quite obviously, the major targets of his book. The fact that they do not articulate their lives in terms that Trueman’s philosophical and theological commitments will allow him to hear is not, in the end, their problem: he is right that the duty of understanding lies with the historian, and surely someone who can scan and construe ἀνδρὸς παιδοφόνοιο ποτὶ στόμα χεῖρ᾽ ὀρέγεσθαι could have done the same for people speaking in his native tongue.


The greatest obstacle to Trueman’s taking contemporary LGBT people on their own terms is the method of his book. Genealogical argument still maintains something of a sexy academic reputation in the academy. After being brought to maturity by Nietzsche and finding wide application in the social criticism of Michel Foucault, it has lately found expression in the work of Giorgio Agamben, whose heady combination of philosophical erudition with daring and heretical readings of the Christian theological tradition has birthed an enormously influential body of work. But despite its fashionable entry into the intellectual halls of the left, genealogy remains a fundamentally conservative and defensive style of argumentation, and when practiced by Christian scholars it is apt to become especially thoughtless and insipid. Cyril O’Regan notes that this is because genealogy is, for Christians, always a defensive maneuver: to subject an idea to genealogical analysis is already to place it outside the body of Christian tradition, for the authentic fruits of tradition are called authentic in no small part because their pedigrees are well known. To tease out such a pedigree, then, is already to say that the subject matter is, if not fully foreign to Christianity, at least of doubtful provenance.


When done crudely, the result is something in the vein of Ben Shapiro’s book on Western civilization: just a sequence of assertions and citations chosen seemingly at random, a perfect example of Lionel Trilling’s “irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas.” Trueman, thankfully, is a scholar rather than a journalist, and has taught much of this material for years. His book takes the reader from Rousseau through the Romantic poets, Nietzschean aestheticism, Darwin, and Marx toward Freud, the Frankfurt School, and the New Left, arriving finally at modern feminism and the movement for transgender rights. But this sort of sophisticated and competent exposition of ideas is also a way of not talking about them, in that historicizing back to a source commonly thought to be mistaken or heretical becomes an excuse to dismiss a current of thought and to dismiss the people whom one conceives of as its adherents or ambassadors. Explanation of the dead drowns out the exclamations of the living, as becomes clear in the book’s final segment.


The journey that Trueman invites us on is a long one, but he does not leave the reader totally unequipped. His introduction discusses the place of the sexual revolution in American cultural history, but he notes the dearth of intellectual histories of this moment, and his book aims to fill the gap. Part 1 of the main argument begins by introducing Charles Taylor’s formulation of the “social imaginary,” “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings…that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.” This is clarifying: Trueman’s contention is that the modern social imaginary is informed by certain currents of thought that are invisible precisely because they have become so much a part of the way we envision ourselves and our relationships to other people and to society as a whole. Part of this contention is an insistence that “the story of this shift is not simply one that can be told in terms of great thinkers and their ideas.”


But “great thinkers” occupy most of the book, and the whole architecture of the book frames modern “expressive individualism,” the idea that public expression of the inner psychological life is a primary source of meaning, as comprehensible only in light of the intellectual moves made by canonical thinkers and their subsequent dispersal throughout the literary, academic, and cultural worlds of Europe and North America. Ordinary people are marginal to this account, and where it gestures at the real concerns of ordinary people, it is only to cast the unease and fear with which trans people are routinely treated as a laudable moral intuition about a culture gone wrong, rather than as themselves the product of a diseased and corrupt human nature that responds to human difference with disgust and derision rather attempting to love and understand that difference.


The other major framework governing Trueman’s account is the cultural analysis of sociologist Philip Rieff, who classifies culture into three types. The first locates meaning and authority in the local political unit; the second sees them in the sacred order of religious commandments and observance; the third in rebellion against the sacred order. Rieff termed the third an “anti-culture,” and Trueman maintains this terminology as well as Rieff’s diagnosis of the modern Euro-American sphere as such an anti-culture. Such cultures are identifiable, he says, by the art that they produce which is destructive to meaning, morality, and sense, and uncritically cites Rieff’s own example of the Catholic artist Andres Serrano’s notorious Immersion (Piss Christ), a work about which conservative culture critics tend to talk a great deal and think very little. Perhaps Trueman is unaware of the long tradition of Catholic theologizing about the body and its ultimate redemption, but the competence he displays elsewhere in his book makes me doubt this: more likely he has refused to think about what it means to take raw material that is normally regarded as dirty and unclean—in this case, human urine—and to use that material to create an image that portrays and emphasizes the beauty of the crucified Savior. This is no doubt controversial, and Christians may disagree about the work’s success, but it is certainly no wholesale rejection of the sacred order. As another famous Cantabrigian classicist might put it, “Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out, but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.” And unfortunately, the entire argument seems to take precisely the same attitude toward the act of thinking: it ought to be discouraged as much as possible in the reader, lest the combined weight of other people’s humanity and Christian moral sense prove to be too much for Trueman’s argument to bear.


Nowhere is this more evident than in the book’s final part, which deals with what Trueman terms the three “triumphs” of the erotic, the therapeutic, and “the T,” by which he means the political and moral dignity of transgender people. I have passed over the middle two parts, because they consist largely of factual intellectual-historical narrative and the occasional connective gesture. I have objections in some places, but they are small and unremarkable, amounting mostly to Trueman’s dressing up lazy regurgitations of potted anxieties about the nuclear family in his Rieffian framework. But his coverage of transgender people is sufficiently wretched as to constitute a near-complete betrayal of his historian’s duty.


The only contemporary transgender person allowed to narrate her own experience is Caitlyn Jenner, in her first public interview announcing her transition. Trueman takes this as paradigmatic of trans people’s experience, never considering that it is possible for a person’s understanding of themselves, of their place in history and culture, and even of their own past desires to mature and change. The other people who are allowed to comment on transgender experiences are people like Janice Raymond and Germaine Greer, whose deep hostility to trans people is a matter of public record. Their presence serves to confirm for Trueman that trans people’s public existence is somehow causing a crisis in modern feminism. This is true only in the sense that an extremely vocal minority is given enormous press coverage: a historian interested in the facts would be able to discover in short order that Raymond and Greer have been repeatedly disowned by mainstream feminist organizations, but it is clear that Trueman is not particularly interested in the facts about any LGBT people.


But beyond this, Trueman’s book seems unable to conceive of trans people in particular as moral actors in a Christian sense—people attempting to live in a truthful way that their upbringing has not given them adequate words to talk about, but which nonetheless must be lived out because of the way in which living a lie corrodes a person’s ability to live with others and with their self. It does not imagine that rebelling against a supposedly sacred order may in fact express sacred order more deeply by shattering a human social order’s claim to divine warrant. Most of all, it does not seriously contend with the possibility that the social codes of past days were the wicked inventions of a fallen society, and that full destruction was what they deserved. Instead, Trueman repeatedly invites readers to imagine themselves as people who live by older codes rooted partly in the sacred order. He leaves open the possibility that a reader’s disgust with gay or trans people may express moral judgment rather than personal prejudice, or that viewing the AIDS epidemic as a problem of communal sexual mores is wholly divorced from a person’s view of gay men’s humanity. He always leaves his reader an avenue of moral escape through which they might preserve their own moral self-image. A brief epilogue in which he reminds readers of their own embrace of the expressive individualism that he has historicized and critiqued does little to remedy a fault baked into the argumentative structure of his book.


And this, finally, is the most profound weakness in Trueman’s argument: he is insufficiently Augustinian, insufficiently rigorous in his application of the venerable doctrine of depravity to our fallen human institutions and ways of living. The Christian doctrine of sin is not principally about what other people are doing, but about ourselves and the ways in which we not only do wickedness but actively desire it. To continually allow one’s readers the possibility of moral exoneration is also to deny them the opportunity to look at sexually active young people, at gay and lesbian people, at trans people—all of whom, according to Trueman, express the destruction of the Rieffian sacred order in ways that conservative Christians consider sinful—and to see in the putative sins of others the signs of their own sin and the need for their own repentance, for these are the people against whom they continue to sin.

It would have been difficult to write this book differently, and it probably would not have been nearly as marketable. But it would have been a better book, and a more Christian book, if its genealogical perspective had not been used to cover up the very real modern people toward whom Christians have concrete, non-negotiable obligations. A Christian may have misgivings about the kind of sex through which a gay man contracted HIV and wound up being treated in the hospital for AIDS complications; that Christian nonetheless has an obligation to visit and care for the sick. A Christian may be uncomfortable with a trans person’s articulation or expression of their gender—wrongly so, because attempting to tell the truth about oneself and one’s life is not a sin—but that has no bearing on the Christian duty to ensure that a trans person is fed if hungry, clothed if naked, and sheltered if homeless.

And these traditional works of mercy are only a beginning, because we are not meant to stop at them. Christ’s commandment is love: the works of mercy are an education in what love looks like and a program of formation by which we come to see that those whom we see as other, as excluded, as objects of our outreach are bound to us as intimately as our friends and family—often more intimately, since baptism marks gay and trans people as members of Christ’s body as readily as anyone else, and to exclude them from our number is to deny the work of the Holy Spirit. We must not become lost in history, for Christ is present to us now in all people who are outcast and in need of physical and spiritual help, and to explain or qualify this is to invite damnation. One may be tempted to dismiss Trueman’s book as wholly un-Christian, but it is Christian in the same poor way that we so often are: it is by turns negligent, lazy, full of moral excuses, and fundamentally lacking in charity. To redeem it, and all of us, would take—has taken—a miracle.

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist.  He spends his non-work hours thinking about Catholic socialism, musical theatre, and the Michigan Wolverines.


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