Who am I? Am I being authentic to my true self? Is my identity being oppressed by outsiders? Such questions as these do not seem strange at all in today’s society. Modern culture is obsessed with the notion of the ‘self’. In particular, it is increasingly clear that sexual identity dominates public discord and cultural trends in the West (but also increasingly worldwide). What is less obvious is how these notions and thoughts have come about in the first place, and why they are so prevalent now. In his timely book, Carl Trueman attempts to explain the development of the human search for identity and to reveal how the ‘self’ has become psychologised, sexualised, and finally, politicised.
As Trueman states in his introduction, the origins of the book lay in his curiosity about how and why the statement ‘“I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful. He notes that even less than thirty years ago, that statement would have been considered gibberish and meaningless. In contrast, to deny or question that statement today ‘is to reveal oneself as stupid, immoral, or subject to yet another irrational phobia’.
This book, Trueman explains, is an attempt to make sense of the origins of contemporary sexual and transgender ideology and explain why it has recently become common orthodoxy in Western culture. However, as he makes clear, the book is neither a polemic nor a lamentation; rather, it is an analysis of the emergence of the modern notion of the self, giving guidance for Christians as they navigate the culture in humanity’s ever-changing quest for identity.
The Framework of our Culture
In Part 1 of the book, Trueman sketches out his analysis of the framework that our culture today is built upon. Trueman here significantly draws upon the work of sociologist Philip Rieff and philosopher Charles Taylor. A key term adopted by Trueman from Taylor is the social imaginary. By this Taylor means the concept of the way people think about the world, how they imagine the world to be, and how they act intuitively in relation to it. The way people think about the world is generally not based on a reasoned comprehensive understanding of the universe. Rather, it is based upon intuitions that we have "often unconsciously absorbed from the culture around us".
For Trueman, much of the social imaginary today is built upon the idea of humankind as being an essentially psychologised, sexual, therapeutic individual. This concept is closely linked to another Taylorian phrase – expressive individualism. This is the idea that "each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires". In other words, our culture places huge emphasis on defining our individual identity by expressing and affirming our psychological needs and preferences.
Trueman then utilises a Rieffian concept to further recognise the key features of our contemporary culture. Rieff categorized cultures into three distinct ‘worlds’. First and second worlds "justify their morality by appealing to something transcendent, beyond the material world". First worlds are pagan but find their moral codes rooted in myth or some form of sacred order beyond the natural order, i.e., fate. Second worlds are characterised by faith. A Christian culture, for example, is second world because its moral codes are built upon the will of a transcendent God.
Whereas first and second worlds have moral stability because their foundations lie in a metaphysical sacred order, third worlds are defined by their abandonment of a sacred order and thus a culture justified only by itself. The consequences of this, as Trueman highlights, are that morality tends towards relativity and pragmatism and subjective preference. Third worlds are inherently therapeutic; the psychologised self of the individual is paramount, and it has to define its own reality, morals, and standards.
Whilst this social imaginary is in many ways unique and unprecedented in history, it has not emerged out of nowhere, and Trueman seeks to examine its historical emergence in the next few chapters.
The Psychologised Self
Trueman analyses the development of the modern self in three particular phases. First, the psychologization of self (Chapters 3-5); second, the sexualization of psychology (Chapter 6); and third, the politicization of sex (Chapter 7).
He begins his analysis with the 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Essentially, Rousseau’s thought can be boiled down to a belief that society corrupts the authenticity of the individual. Trueman argues that "Rousseau lays the foundation for expressive individualism through his notion that the individual is most authentic when acting out in public those desires and feelings that characterise his inner psychological life". Already, it may be clear how the transgender movement follows a similar concept; the inner voice and feelings of the individual trump any external influences such as biology and society.
With Rousseau, however, this concept is rather exclusive to an educated upper-class. Trueman argues that it is largely through the Romantic poets of the early 19th century that these Rousseaun ideas become more mainstream. Indeed, poets such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley expressed in their work feelings that human authenticity is to be found in freeing oneself from the alien demands of civilisation and that traditional religious moral codes (the sacred order) were oppressing this liberty. The ideas expressed by these poets helped develop a social imaginary where moral sense is ultimately aesthetic sense; morality is a matter of taste, not truth.
Trueman then highlights three figures who each played a significant part in shattering the metaphysics for the sacred order of the Rieffian second world of the 19th century: Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin. Nietzsche recognised that the Enlightenment pronouncement of God as dead means destroying the foundations upon which a whole world of metaphysics and morality has been built. For Marx, "ethics and moral codes, like religion, are functions of the material structure of society and serve the interests of maintaining that structure by justifying… the status quo". Darwin’s theory of natural selection meant that the world could be scientifically explained without reference to the transcendent. For these men, the world and humanity in itself have no intrinsic meaning. Thus, one must create one’s own meaning and understanding of human selfhood.
The Sexualised Self
Now that the self has been sufficiently psychologised, Trueman explains the subsequent sexualisation of psychology and the self. The most significant figure for this is the notorious father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Freud argued that sexual desire and its fulfilment were intrinsic to human nature. His belief that true happiness is true sexual satisfaction stood in opposition to contemporary religious sexual mores which put boundaries on fulfilling sexual desire: "before Freud, sex was an activity, for procreation or for recreation; after Freud, sex is definitive of who we are as individuals, as societies, and as a species". Furthermore, Freud argued that religion was infantile and motivated by irrational human desire, as opposed to sexual desire. Thus, the self became psychological and the psychological became sexual: "The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual".
The Politicised Self
The next stage concerns the politicisation of sex and the self. For the connection between sex and politics, Trueman goes back to the synthesis of Freudian and Marxist theories in the work of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, writing under the heading of ‘Critical Theory’ in the first half of the twentieth century. Marx’s belief that society is formed and maintained by the powerful oppressing the weak is refracted through Freud’s notion that sexual repression is psychological repression. Consequently, for Reich and Marcuse, sexual prohibitions from religion and government are merely forms of those in power oppressing and repressing the desires of the individual, hindering psychological well-being. Therefore, "socio-political reform without sexual liberation is impossible".
Critical theory has come, argues Trueman, "to shape the social imaginary of Western culture at large in profound ways". It has "established the framework of today's psychosexual politics" manifesting itself most significantly in the LGBTQ+ movement in the hands of the New Left. Because of the psychologising of sex, any suggestion to prohibit certain sexual activities is seen as an oppressive act against the authenticity of individuals.
Having analysed the origins and development of the modern social imaginary, Trueman goes on to highlight some of its key features and issues in the final section.
The Triumph of the Modern Self
As we saw earlier, third world cultures are defined by their belief that meaning and purpose must be created within, rather than being founded upon an external metaphysical reality. One of the consequences of a world view where psychological well-being is the purpose of life, Trueman writes, is that "therapy supplants morality… anything that achieves that sense of well-being is good, as long as it doesn’t inhibit the happiness of … a greater number of others". In light of this social imaginary, it should perhaps come as no surprise that if a biological man feels that he is a woman, the popular view of current culture would recognise this as genuine truth, disregarding any external realities.
So-called ‘Queer Theory’ (a branch of critical theory) has indeed recently attempted to separate gender and sex in a revolutionary way. Gender has been moved into the realm of the psychological. Perhaps the most significant scholar of queer theory is Judith Butler, who believes that gender is a performance and possesses no prior ontological status. On this view, male and female are only social constructs and one’s external biology is an inhibition on the authentic self. Evidently, as Trueman argues, "Transgenderism is the function of a world in which the collapse of metaphysics and of stable discourse has created such chaos that not even the most basic binaries can any longer lay claim to meaningful objective status".
Moreover, the underlying ideology and principles of expressive individualism have led to numerous cultural phenomena: the widespread availability and increasingly positive stance on pornography; ‘hate speech’ laws (words can be psychologically violent, context and intention are increasingly irrelevant); safe spaces (disagreement threatens my identity). Trueman is clear that these beliefs and phenomena do not merely affect a minority. "The revolution of the self is now the revolution of us all". Trueman borrows a term from Rieff to describe the present age – the anticulture: "a repudiation of the various regulations and regulative practices that characterised Western society until recently – particularly, though not exclusively, in the realm of sexual ethics".
Response to the anticulture
The aim of this book was predominantly to give an in-depth, detailed analysis of the development of the ‘self’, and this Trueman does excellently. Consequently, there are few actual practical applications suggested for Christians living in the anticulture. However, as already stated, Trueman is clear that neither is the book merely a polemic nor a lamentation of modern culture. Indeed, Trueman emphasises how many Christians are in fact entrenched in the social imaginary of the rest of culture; Christians today are unfortunately often a symptom of the anticulture, not opponents.
Thus, he encourages Christians to be aware of the underlying beliefs and concepts that have constructed contemporary culture. Knowing this will mean that one can better recognise the threats and dangers of our culture and therefore enable one to better hold fast to true Christian faith amidst opposition. Trueman analogises our current situation with the church in the second century: Christianity was then, as it is again now, a marginal sect within a dominant pluralist society. Therefore, Trueman exhorts, let us imitate the early Christians: exist as a "close-knit, doctrinally bounded community" that requires us to act consistently with our faith; do not compromise on Biblical and natural truths for the sake of maintaining popularity with the world. The consequences are and will be severe.
 Carl Trueman, Rise and Triumph of the Modern self, 19.