The Rise & Triumph of the Modern Self

How did we get here?

How did our culture become so politically polarized, so sexually obsessed, so enamored with socialism and the deconstruction of almost every vistage of the past?

How did we get to the point where it is not only possible but also culturally celebrated for a biological male to proclaim, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.”

These are the questions that Carl R. Trueman seeks to answer in his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

For those who are looking for some historical context to our present situation, then Trueman’s book is a great resource.

Every age has had its darkness and its dangers. The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately to them. (30)

The Characteristics of Our Age

Trueman describes our age as an age of “expressive individualism.” We live in a culture in which there is a “prioritization of the individual’s inner psychology–we might even say ‘feelings’ or ‘intuitions’–for our sense of who we are and what the purpose of our lives is” (23).

Over the course of history, people have formed their identity within the context of the society in which they lived. Drawing from insights by Philip Rieff (professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania), you can summarize Western history with a movement through four different phases of identity formation.

  1. Political man. Early Greek and Roman cultures developed their identity within the context of the nation-state.
  2. Religious man. In the medieval age, people developed their identity within the context of the church.
  3. Economic man. The Renaissance and Enlightenment led to a period in which a person was defined by their economic power and wealth.
  4. Psychological man. With the rise of Romanticism, and then later post-modernism, people began to define themselves primarily by their own interior thoughts and feelings.

This last shift is significant. Whereas in the first three ages, a person gained their identity from outside themselves and from society at large. In this final age, a person looks inward.

In the worlds of political, religious, and economic man, commitment was outwardly directed to those communal beliefs, practices, and institutions that were bigger than the individual and in which the individual, to the degree that he or she conformed to or cooperated with them, found meaning. The ancient Athenian was committed to the assembly, the medieval Christian to his church, and the twentieth century factory worker to his trade union and working man’s club. All of them found their purpose and well-being by being committed to something outside themselves. In the world of psychological man, however, the commitment is first and foremost to the self and is inwardly directed. Thus, the order is reversed. Outward institutions become in effect the servants of the individual and her sense of inner well-being. (48-49)

Translating this into our present culture…now, the emphasis is not on being a good citizen in the nation, learning how to think and how to live in church and in school, and working hard for the benefit of one’s family and society. Instead, all of these institutions in society exist simply to make me feel better, to affirm who I am, and to reinforce what I already think.

We have moved, roughly speaking, from thinking of institutions as molds that shape people’s character and habits toward seeing them as platforms that allow people to be themselves and to display themselves before a wider world. (49)

Thus, we have become a world where the individual reigns supreme. I am free to define who I am in all aspects of life (e.g., identity, spirituality, sexuality, gender, etc.) and no person, church, school, or institution can tell me differently. If they do, then they are oppressive and hateful and no longer a “safe place.”

This is where we are…but how did we get here?

The Key Developments in History

It is important to realize that we did not get to this point overnight. The worldview that dominates our current cultural thinking, “our social imaginary” as Trueman calls it, has been developing over the past 300-400 years.

Thus, there are no “quick fixes” to our present condition. No political election is going to solve our problems. The challenge we are facing is a clash of philosophies, ideas, worldviews, ways of thinking, ways of seeing history, ways of seeing reality itself.

Ironically, just as Protestant theology owes much of its theological roots to a man from Geneva named John Calvin (1509-64), our present narcissistic, hedonistic culture has its psychological roots in another man from Geneva, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78).

Rousseau’s philosophy could be summed up in one of his famous statements:

Man is born free and everywhere is in chains.

The key idea in Rousseau’s philosophy is that man is purely good in his essential nature and that only the society around him corrupts him. Rousseau wrote a book entitled, Confessions, in which he directly contradicted the views of the early Christian writer and influential theologian, Augustine, who wrote his own Confessions.

We might summarize the basic difference between the two men as follows: Augustine blames himself for his sin because he is basically wicked from birth; Rousseau blames society for his sin because he is basically good at birth and then perverted by external forces. (111)

This is a tectonic shift.

If man is basically good in his essential nature, then the only way to account for all the conflict, corruption, abuse, oppression, and suffering in the world is to ascribe it to the “evil” of external institutions.

I am not the problem. Society is. And the society that is particularly a problem is the one that tries to restrict me or to tell me what is right and wrong.

This is the beginning of “psychological man.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) carries Rousseau’s views further, identifying religion (specifically Christianity) as the societal institution that hinders happiness and the true self.

To Shelley, the biggest problem with Christianity is that it limits sexual freedom which is the pathway to true happiness.

Love withers under restraints; its very essence is liberty. 

Such a statement sounds beautiful and convincing but, at the heart of it, Shelley is arguing for the complete liberation, not of love, but of sex. Shelley hated the institution of marriage and the family structure and sought their destruction. If the purpose of life is personal happiness… and sex makes a person happy… then a person should have sex with whomever he/she wants for as long as it brings happiness. Once a sexual relationship no longer brings a person happiness, they should move on to someone else.

Thus, psychological man effectively became sexual man.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) became the central figure to affirm this philosophy as he defined every aspect of a person’s identity and every stage of a person’s life as being sexual in nature. As Freud would declare in his book, Civilization and Its Discontents:

Man’s discovery that sexual (genital) love afforded him the strongest experiences of satisfaction and in fact provided him with the prototype of all happiness, must have suggested to him that he should continue to seek the satisfaction of happiness in his life along the path of sexual relations and that he should make genital erotism the central point of his life. (205)


In Freud’s mind, sex is life. Or to be more exact, genital stimulation is life.

The final pieces to the puzzle can be traced to Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

With Marx and Nietzsche, the very foundations of morality and history are attacked.

If there is no God, then there is no absolute truth. There is no moral standard. Thus, the moral standards that you see in a society are simply the oppressive rules of the majority doing what they can to maintain their power.

Or as Marx put it, the history of all existing society is the history of class struggles.

Thus, everything is political…everything is a struggle for power. And the goal of the oppressed in society (those who don’t have the power) is to revolt and overthrow the institutions, rules, standards, or values of the people who are perceived to have the power.

Everything must be destroyed. History. Government. Education. Religion. Marriage. Family.

What you have is not the shaping of a new culture but rather the ascendance of an anticulture.

Put all of this together and you have the historical progression of thought from the pscyhological to the sexual to the political.

  • My identity is who I feel I am on the inside and what brings me the most pleasure and fulfillment.
  • My greatest pleasure and fulfillment is found in sexual freedom.
  • My sexual freedom is hindered by the societal structures around me (particularly Christianity) which makes rules to preserve their own power.
  • Thus, societal structures are the enemy to my personal fulfillment and need to be deconstructed and destroyed.

The proliferation of technology has fed this progression by giving our culture the illusion that reality is shaped around what I want and feel.

Thus, in this kind of world, it is perfectly natural for a person to say, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” I create my own reality. I create my own identity. My feelings are sovereign. And anyone who doubts this or refuses to affirm this must be phobic, hateful, and part of the hegemonic power trying to control me.

So where do we go from here?

As a Christian teacher and historian, Trueman’s goal is to give us historical context for our present culture so that we can respond appropriately. A good missionary understands the culture he/she is trying to reach.

As believers, one of the things that we have to be careful of is responding to a Freudian-Marxist culture which makes everything about power, personal feelings, and politics with our own pursuit of power, personal feelings, and politics.

…In regarding all history as a political struggle determined by economic relations, Marx makes all intentional human activity political. Everything, from religious organizations to the structure of the family, is politicized. There is no private, prepolitical space in Marx’s world. And that is now basic to the world of today, where all things are politicized, from kindergartens and Girl Scout troops to adoption agencies, sports teams, and pop music. (197)

Ironically, while many Christians see the danger of Marxist ideology in our society, what they don’t realize is that, by responding with a political mindset that sees getting political power as the key to changing the culture, they are inadvertently affirming the basic premises of Marxism.

We certainly are to be involved in the political process as good citizens of our nation but, as Christians, the “weapons of our warfare” must always be spiritual and not political and we must be known by our allegiance to Jesus Christ and our love for one another not our political allegiance, our party affiliation, or even our moral preachings.

Trueman doesn’t pretend to have a full-proof, step-by-step strategy for winning our present culture. In fact, he is brutally honest with the nature of our challenge.

If the message about the self is that of expressive individualism or psychological man, and if that message is being preached from every commercial, every website, every newscast, and every billboard to which people are exposed on a daily basis, the task of the church in cultivating a different understanding of the self is, humanly speaking, likely to provoke despair. (404)

The ubiquitous nature of our sex-obsessed, media-saturated, entertainment-driven culture is impossible to counteract with human methods. Instead we must go back to the mindset and lifestyle of the early believers who lived under the totalitarian thumb of the Roman empire. We must hold firmly to who we are in Christ. We must ground ourselves in the truths of Scripture. We must live authentic lives in loving community. And we must be willing to stand against the tides of the culture.

In a specific sense, Trueman advocates that we need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body (405).

We need to see that there is an authority outside ourselves, above us, which determines what is right and wrong. We can’t live based on what we feel is right or what seems to make us happy (the culture of expressive individualism) but based on God’s higher law, the authority of Scripture.

We do not create our own truth or our own reality. Instead, we submit to God’s truth and learn to live in reality as it is.

We also need to understand the importance of the body in our Christian theology. We are embodied creatures and what we do with our bodies, particularly sexually, impacts us at all levels.

The early church transformed the Roman Empire, slowly but surely.

By existing as a close-knit, doctrinally-bounded community that required her members to act consistently with their faith and to be good citizens of the earthly city as far as good citizenship was compatible with faithfulness to Christ. (407)

May we do the same in our present culture.

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2 Responses to The Rise & Triumph of the Modern Self

  1. BRBarnabas says:

    Forget God = Forget Grace
    Forget Life = Forget Liberty

  2. Steve Metzger says:

    Man continues in his perpetual (and futile) quest to ignore God and to rationalize/justify his sinful behavior. The resulting downward spiral–described above–gives ample evidence that God has indeed “given them over … .”

    I’m a fan of Carl Trueman. Thanks for a clear and concise book summary!

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