The rise of “self” and the triumph of transgenderism

“Our age will go down in history,” says Dr. Carl R. Trueman, author of Strange New World, “as one marked by the most barbaric moral delinquency of adults, whose role should be to protect vulnerable children, not inculcate and then indulge their destructive delusions.”

Dr. Carl R. Trueman is author of several books, including "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self" (2020) and "Strange New World" (2022). (Images: Crossway)

Dr. Carl R. Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, published by Crossway in November 2020, has been a surprising best-seller: a 424-page, heavily footnoted work of history and philosophy taking on complicated and controversial topics with an admirable combination of clarity and charity. Lauded by Protestants (Trueman, who is is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, has served as pastor of Cornerstone Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ambler, Pa) and Catholics alike, it has been praised by a variety of non-Christians as well.

In her CWR review of the book, Dr. Deborah Savage stated, “Without question, Dr. Carl Trueman has written a book of singular importance.” In my December 2020 review for the National Catholic Register, I noted that it is “a demanding work, full of historical details, philosophical explications, and cultural criticism. Despite that, it is a not only readable (setting it apart from many academic works), it is quite often both elegantly written and downright gripping, a sort of novelistic journey through the pathologies of modernism and post-modernism, a sort of historical and philosophical ‘whodunnit?'”

Now Crossway has published Trueman’s Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, a much shorter (208 pages) and more accessible book that covers some of the same historical ground and cultural terrain. But even while aiming for a wider audience, this isn’t merely some sort of Cliffs Note approach. Dr. Trueman recently corresponded me with about his new book, why he thinks The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self resonated with so many readers, and cultural developments (or disintegration) over the past two years.

CWR: When we corresponded back in November 2020, your book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self had just been published. Since then, it has become a surprise best-seller—a surprise because lengthy, detailed books with extensive footnotes about history and philosophy don’t normally sell well. Have you been surprised? How do you account for the book’s success?

Carl R. Trueman: I was indeed very surprised. I wrote the book in order to clarify for myself some of the strange pathologies of our current cultural moment. Clearly, I was not the only person wrestling with such issues. And, of course, the summer of 2020, with all of the social chaos that was unleashed on streets across the western world, raised the question of identity and meaning in powerful ways that made the book’s themes something of immediate relevance to many.

CWR: This new book is obviously meant to engage an even wider audience. In what ways does it introduce readers to the previous, longer work and how does it present new and additional material? If you had to express the goal of this work in a sentence or two, how would you state it?

Trueman: Much in the new book is a concise version of the larger book’s narrative of how the psychologized, sexualized self has come to grip the West’s moral imagination. But I also deal with some new themes. For example, I look at how Oscar Wilde is perhaps the quintessential sophisticated precursor of the modern self that finds its fulfillment in sexual transgression and public performance. Sadly, of course, most modern selves lack Wilde’s wit and deep grasp of Western culture.’

I also address the issue of the collapsing confidence in the nation state and the role of technology in reshaping our relationship to the world. Both of those are key issues in our current context, as the worldwide appeal of the BLM protests indicated.

CWR: You begin with an emphasis on the modern understanding of “self”. Why is this so key to understanding the sexual revolution in general and the triumph of transgenderism specifically?

Trueman: The self – that intuitive understanding we have of who we are – shapes how we intuitively relate to the world around us and that includes not simply other people but even our own bodies. The modern self sees itself as autonomous, free to shape its own identity and destiny, and not subject to some objective moral universe, conformity to which is required for well-being. That obviously affects how we understand the purpose of sex: is it something that fulfills a larger teleological purpose (sealing a lifelong union between one man and one woman; procreation) or is it simply a form of pleasurable recreation?

As to transgenderism, this is arguably the most radical form of expressivism thus far: even our own bodies are at best raw material for self-creation, at worst obstructions to us being who we really are. Hence, we find that our current culture finds to be plausible such nonsensical statements as ‘I am woman trapped in a man’s body.’

CWR: You provide a short but important introduction to thinkers including Descartes, Rousseau, Hegel, and Nietzsche, among others. Most people today, it’s fair to say, haven’t read the works of those thinkers. So what’s the connection? Is there really a lineage from those men, writing many decades (or centuries) ago, to 2022?

Trueman: All of these figures give self-conscious voice in their different ways to assumptions that make up the intuitive notion of the modern self. Examining their thought thus allows the reader to understand the nature and implications of a conception of selfhood that most of us simply take for granted.

What binds them together is a focus on human psychology in a manner that grants authority to our inner space. And it is that authorizing of the inner space, of our thought and feelings, that really marks the modern self off from its predecessors.

CWR: You write about sex “becoming political”. What are some aspects and key features of that process?

Trueman: The key element here is Sigmund Freud’s view of human beings as defined by the nature and direction of their sexual desires from infancy onwards. That move turns sex from something that humans do into something that they are.

Now, very few people read Freud today and fewer still find his arguments compelling. But the idea that we are our sexual desires and that satisfying those sexual desires is central to personal fulfillment is a powerful, plausible and rather attractive myth – and one preached by countless movies, sitcoms, commercials etc. We all know that the erotic is a very powerful part of the human experience – cultural artifacts from Genesis through the Iliad to the latest Hollywood offerings all testify to this.

And once sex becomes identity, then sexual codes move from being rules about what you can and cannot do to rules about who society will or will not let you be. Hence we have the last fifty years of battles over LGBTQ+ rights.

CWR: Technology is, as you note, a huge factor. What are some of the ways that technology, in recent decades, has shaped and facilitated sexual revolution?

Trueman: Technology shapes how we imagine the world and our place within it. And the more sophisticated and all-pervasive the technology, the more we are inclined to imagine the world as mere raw material over which we can impose our will and our control.

Thus, easy access to contraception, antibiotics, and abortion has allowed society to imagine that sex can be just a pleasant recreation. One hundred years ago that was not the case: sex was costly and risky and it would have been impossible to think of it as a mere recreational activity.

And now that we have hormone treatment and trans surgery, we can imagine that we are able to change our genders – indeed, the very concept of gender separated from biological sex requires such a technological context to be in place.

CWR: The term “sexual orientation” is now a common part of modern parlance. But what does it really mean? Or does it mean anything at all?

Trueman: It is a deliberately vague term (though so common that it is hard to avoid) that reinforces the idea that we are defined in a significant way by the direction of our sexual desire without explicitly reducing the person to their sexual desire. It also removes any moral connotations from such. The older language of, say, perversion, carried very strong connotations of being morally pejorative.

It also seems to me that it presses us to thinking of sex in ways that fail to do justice to the fact that sexual desire is intersubjective: it is supposed to exist as desire for another, specific person, another subject. The language of orientation, lacking this notion, tilts toward thinking of sexual desire as focused on general objects (men, women) rather than subject (this man, this woman). And that carries with it a whole philosophy of sexual desire as focused on the satisfaction of the one desiring rather than on the one desired.

CWR: In general, how are “freedom” and “liberty” understood in 2022 as compared to, say, the 1950s or the 1770s?

Trueman: When Thomas Jefferson declared that it made no difference to him how many gods his neighbor believed in because it neither picked his pocket nor broke his leg, he was assuming a notion of freedom that focused on the right to physical safety and the right to own property. His notion of selfhood saw oppression as constituted by a denial or privation of those things.

Today, we operate with a notion of the self that places far more emphasis on our psychological states: Do we feel happy? That rather broadens the notion of oppression to the point where, yes, our neighbors’ beliefs might harm us because they might imply that we are wrong about something. Freedom is now increasingly the freedom not to be offended – something that renders old freedoms (of speech and of religion) far more controversial.

CWR: You point to natural law and theology of the body as two means (among others) of responding to the amoral/immoral fluidity of the current cultural landscape. How can these inform an ecumenical response by Catholics and Evangelicals? And what is the state of Evangelicalism in the U.S. when it comes to addressing transgenderism, expressive individualism, and related challenges?

Trueman: Protestantism’s abandonment of its own natural law tradition in the nineteenth and twentieth century was a disaster. We really are at this moment very dependent upon (and in my case, grateful for) the rich heritage of ethical thought fostered by the Roman Catholic Church.

I see some very hopeful signs. There are Protestants who beginning to think seriously about natural law and the theology of the body but we have a long way to go. Ecumenically, I am encouraged by, for example, the Ethics and Public Policy Center in DC, where I happen to be a Fellow, that provides a great context for thinking through these issues in an ecumenical context.

CWR: Finally, how would you evaluate where we are right now when it comes to what I call “the tyranny of trans”?

Trueman: I see some signs of hope. People seem to have been galvanized by the Lia Thomas issue and the apparent evidence that trans ideology is being used in schools to confuse children and subvert parental authority. I hope that we are witnessing the beginning of significant resistance to this lunacy.

Nevertheless, the trans lobby currently enjoys support from powerful politicians and from the medical establishment. Those are formidable enemies. And it is also certain that, even if the reaction is successful, countless young people’s lives will already have been destroyed by hormone treatment and genital mutilation.

Our age will go down in history as one marked by the most barbaric moral delinquency of adults, whose role should be to protect vulnerable children, not inculcate and then indulge their destructive delusions.


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About Carl E. Olson 1178 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

20 Comments

    • To Deacon Peitler:

      Trueman is a Kool-aid drinker when it comes to the Reformation and basic Protestant beliefs. In January of this year, Casey Chalk wrote an article for CWR that properly challenges Trueman’s views against him and past thinkers like Maritain regarding the errors and legacy of Luther, and I also commented on Chalk’s article to add a few more insights into proud Protestant Trueman’s anti-Catholic beliefs. A few highlights from those comments are appropriate here as well.
      Referencing an article in First Things, I quote Trueman and then comment accordingly.

      Trueman:

      “As a Protestant, I rejoice that the Reformers carried the day in many places, with their appropriate emphasis on biblical authority, divine grace, and the finished work of Christ. They recovered the gospel and paved the way for many of the freedoms we in the West now take for granted.”
      __
      Comment:

      Trueman’s outlandish declaration is so far off the mark that he is, as they say in the scientific world, “not even wrong.”

      Falsehoods broken down: “appropriate emphasis on biblical authority, divine grace, and the finished work of Christ.” Egregiously wrong on all three accounts and a direct, maliciously false attack on the Catholic Church regarding the proper place of the Bible in teaching the Faith, the Catholic Church’s correct teaching on Divine Grace, and the Catholic Church’s correct understanding of Christ’s “finished work” that is necessarily quite different than the incomplete and intellectually weak Protestant claim pushed by Trueman that actually diminishes Christ as all of the myriad forms of Protestantism do in one form or another.
      Next falsehood: “They recovered the gospel.” Nonsense. From whom did they allegedly recover the Gospel from? Just another vicious lie and outrageous attack on the Catholic Church and its rightful preservation and protection of the Gospel….”
      ____________________________________________
      So as I also pointed out, Trueman is an ally in the fight against secularism, but he remains a dishonest enemy of Christ’s One True Church.
      _________________
      Regarding the current interview that also uses words like “transgender” without quotation marks which suggest an unthinking acceptance of such faux terms by CWR, I find it telling yet again that Trueman appears to be in an ongoing state of denial regarding the significant role (he cops to a smaller role) of Protestantism in falsely promoting the self. In fact, a most insightful book from 1970 lays bare the significant role of Luther and Protestantism in general in elevating the self in a way that lacks proper Christ-like humility. The book is “The Ego in Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion” by scholar Paul Hacker (The preface is by a fellow known as Joseph Ratzinger). The book also goes by the title “Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion.”

      So long as Trueman remains convinced of what he believes is the legitimacy of Luther and the Reformation, he cannot see the ultimate beauty and truth of the Catholic Faith no matter how much he praises some aspects of it from time-to-time.

      • I don’t think Trueman is a fan of Luther per se. He blames the corruption of the Catholic church in the sixteenth century for Luther. Would he consider, for example, Luther’s diatribe against the freedom of the will or his antisemitism legitimate? I don’t think so. Luther is very problematic and not some kind of exemplary figure to Trueman. The Reformation was an enormous event which cannot be adequately described by Trueman or anyone else with two sentences. But I have never seen Trueman take issue with any of the actual teachings of the Catholic Church.

        • “But I have never seen Trueman take issue with any of the actual teachings of the Catholic Church.”

          See my post above wherein the definitive position of Trueman in direct contradiction to Catholic teaching is set forth. Also see Casey Chalk’s article in January and my comments in support of him as he rightly challenges Trueman’s positions regarding the Reformation, Luther, and the Catholic Church.

          We can all appreciate some of the work of Trueman against the secular world and its many irrationalities, but we cannot gloss over his anti-Catholic views no matter how benignly he may state them, or the fact that he appreciates some aspects of Catholicism.

  1. Perhaps the individual finds she or he has somewhat more power against the 1% than in previous generations. Technology, information, other seekers after freedom–it’s not that these aspects don’t get infected with selfishness and sin–but if the Church were to truly follow its Lord, we might find more grace being allies with the downtrodden and needy.

    That first quote, “Our age will go down in history as one marked by the most barbaric moral delinquency of adults, whose role should be to protect vulnerable children, not inculcate and then indulge their destructive delusions.”

    I’ve never been a fan of either extreme praise or criticism of any age. Our age has its particular problems, bullying being a constant. Fearful people clutch at power, be they at the top of the middle school food chain or an oligarch. Immaturity is part of the human condition. We’ve seen it in predator Catholic priests and the bishops they groomed. People claim foul on gender surgeries, but it’s been going on for centuries in infants and who ever said anything about it?

    The so-called “Rise of the Self”? Please. Look up Genesis 3. That was the rise. We’ve never gotten over it. It has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with the human aspiration to usurp God and control those who are weak or needy.

    • Todd Flowerday wrote: “People claim foul on gender surgeries, but it’s been going on for centuries in infants and who ever said anything about it?”

      Todd, Todd, Todd. There you go again.

      Correction of an infant’s hermaphroditic condition is *not* an attempt to “transition” a normally formed male to a female, or female to a male.

      You are comparing apples and emetics.

      * * *

      Todd Flowerday wrote: “Our age has its particular problems, bullying being a constant.”

      I don’t really understand your fixation on bullying being a “particular problem” today.

      Did you ever hear of the Macedonians? The Romans? The Ottomans?

      Xerxes? Genghis Khan? Vlad the Impaler? Henry VIII?

      How about Lenin? Stalin? Hitler?

      Ty Cobb?

      The British class system?

      If there is any constant throughout human history, it is cruel and senseless coercion.

  2. God bless Dr. Trueman (could a more appropriate name ever be imagined?), Mr. Olson and CWR.

    In future centuries, when historians sift through the detritus of our present cultural insanity, articles like this — and volumes like Dr. Trueman’s — will be of particular interest, demonstrating that not everyone succumbed to whatever hallucinogenic ergot has caused Democrats to forsake science, logic and even reality itself in favor of so many peculiar — and devastatingly destructive — manias.

    • brineyman: please see my earlier comments regarding Trueman for a better perspective as some of his significant and definitive positions do not reflect the truth and are in fact anti-Catholic in many respects. Even his analysis of the current problem involving problematic individualism tries to rescue/promote some aspects of Protestantism when it is the Protestant rebellion in its essence (praised by Trueman – he actually has a most inappropriate name) that is a primary contributor to today’s problems with the self uber alles.

      • DV — I have seen your comments about Dr. Trueman’s problematic views regarding Protestantism, and I certainly wasn’t complimenting those.

        However, in this interview he is quite incisive in his analysis of the “gender” delusion that has erupted on the left.

        The fact that Protestant excesses helped give rise to the excesses of the unfettered, independent, “gender-fluid” self apparently does not deter him from pointing out the senselessness and illogic of it all.

        My hat remains off to him for his very convincing analysis.

        • brineyman: I stand more in line with Fr. Morello who points out in his comments the lack of convincing/complete analysis by Trueman for his abject failure to properly emphasize the moral evil involved, plus Trueman’s commitment to a seriously flawed ecumenical approach regarding natural law and the theology of the body reveals a lack of respect for objective truth (especially involving natural law) regardless of how it may or may not affect ecumenism which has no legitimate standing whatsoever concerning natural law.

          • DV — With respect, the fact that Dr. Trueman stands squarely against the left’s “gender” insanity is the salient point, in my opinion.

            That his objections don’t totally align with yours or mine or John Paul the Great’s is of less consequence.

            This illustrates one reason the left is more effective in the public square than conservatives. The left will align with anyone — anarchists, racists, Islamists, even the devil himself — to further their agenda. They do not require their allies to pass an ideological litmus test before cooperating with them against their mutual enemies.

            Now, I am not urging conservatives to cooperate with evil the way the left is always willing to do.

            I’m just saying that it’s hardly productive to demand totally pure motivations before we decide to accept the help of potential allies.

  3. “Oscar Wilde is perhaps the quintessential sophisticated precursor of the modern self that finds its fulfillment in sexual transgression and public performance” [Trueman] is the springboard to the mod deviant psyche.
    Performance linked to [once] outrageous sexual behavior is the entree to American showboat mentality, a quest to become somebody.
    Result, “The most barbaric moral delinquency of adults, whose role should be to protect vulnerable children, not inculcate and then indulge their destructive delusions” (Trueman). Nowhere does Dr Carl Trueman say immoral, or evil. Only editor Carl Olson. Trueman responds with that sense of loss, the unawareness of immorality and evil, with a required reliance on Roman Catholicism [an admission by more than one prominent Protestant].
    Trueman’s thesis [for his own reasons perhaps not to limit his audience] is objectively couched along the lines of psychological virtually clinical observation. His closest admission of moral evil, a spiritual reality in its most egregious form is his singular recognition of “The most barbaric moral delinquency of adults, whose role should be to protect vulnerable children”, from perverse homosexual dominance furthered by government sanction, protection, even the travesty of this administrations advancement as a good.

  4. “Performance linked to [once] outrageous sexual behavior is the entree to American showboat mentality, a quest to become somebody.”

    Sounds like a lot of our celebrity politicians, possibly presidents #42 and #45. When it begins at the top, it doesn’t take much for people to jump on the big bandwagon.

      • Seldom disagree with you Father Morello, but when did very clear indications of changes of moral outlook in a man, a former reprobate, become unwelcome and subject to implicit disparagement in a Catholic forum? #45, as you agreed to second an intent to demean the life of President Trump, a man who saved more unborn lives than any other individual in the whole of history, merits a bit more respect than how some Catholics, who routinely have no problem aligning themselves with the mass-murdering political left, would prefer.

        • It was intended as sarcasm and with a nuance of truth. Sarcasm intended for Todd Flowerday, who never seems to pass an opportunity to take jabs at conservatives. Although I backed Trump, who as you allude rose up beyond his past to become a great president achieving more in defense of Christianity, the economy, and humanness, [the latter achieved in programs to develop industry in minority communities which Dems never did except to provide the less fortunate with more abortion clinics] – than any other president I’m aware of. And in so short a time. The nuance of truth was that Donald Trump was also an insufferable braggart, who would carry on about himself endlessly. Despite that he achieved remarkable things for us. At any rate for those reasons I’d gladly suffer the braggadocio again.

  5. brineyman:

    Most unfortunate strawman attempt by you to miscast my position regarding Trueman. Note that I clearly state Trueman is an ally albeit limited, so who are you referring to regarding ideological litmus tests since this is not my position which, again, lines up more with Fr. Morello in pointing out that Trueman is not as strong as weaker thinking individuals believe him to be because of his Protestant perspective that fails to analyze the issue in greater depth. Once again, since you appear to have missed or ignored it, my first comment on this thread clearly states, “Trueman is an ally in the fight against secularism, but he remains a dishonest enemy of Christ’s One True Church.”

    I don’t care if you wish to disagree with me in a healthy exchange, but please state my positions honestly and accurately instead of mischaracterizing them and also attributing false motivations to me.

  6. Iran, and others, have referred to the United States as the “Great Satan.” When that rhetoric first started after the Iranian Revolution, I thought it laughably preposterous. Today, I am afraid we are doing everything to live up to what these enemies are saying about us. Both sad and demoralizing.

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