Today, the West groans under the oppressive weight of internal, cultural rot. This is especially prominent and insidious within the global North’s valorizing the autonomous, normative self (as well as obsessing over sexuality, identity politics, intersectionality, and so on).
Carl Trueman, a professor at Grove City College, traces how the intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural developments in the global North set the stage for the societal pathologies noted above. He does so in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020), as well as in Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2022).
What appears below is a distillation, synthesis, and meta-analysis of the architecture of ideas that Trueman examines. This is followed by a summary of Paul’s indictment in Romans 1:18–32 of atheistic, idolatrous humanity, including its wallowing in the cesspool of sexual debauchery.
The author, while operating from a Reformed Calvinist perspective, approaches the subject of how the modern self has become psychologized, then sexualized, and finally politicized. That said, his evaluation and critique resonate with classic, orthodox Christians, including those within confessional Lutheranism.
Admittedly, as with any taxonomy that makes broad generalizations, a shorthand like that put forward by Trueman has its limitations, including the possible oversimplification of complex, multi-causal phenomena. Nonetheless, despite the provisional nature of Trueman’s various classifications, these help to distill important ideas in ways that are cogent and accessible.
Trueman begins by framing his historical narrative about thinkers, philosophers, and poets around three theoretical pillars. First is the concept of the “social imaginary” worldview (as articulated by Charles Taylor). This refers to the complex web of beliefs and assumptions, along with expectations and practices, that are unconsciously shared throughout a culture and shape the lives of its members in dramatic ways.
Second is the notion of the “psychological man” (as articulated by Philip Rieff). This claims that existential meaning and genuine authenticity are only found within a person, not in the outside world (such as one’s community and institutions).
Third is the assertion that there are no moral absolutes. Instead, all ethical discourse in the West is just a matter of a one’s subjective feelings, arbitrary preferences, and whimsical desires (in other words, “emotivism”; as articulated by Alasdair Macintyre).
Trueman uses the preceding triad as the foundation for the superstructure of concepts he sets forth in his treatise. His objective is to sketch how a diverse cast of luminaries—including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud, along with three poets of the Romantic era, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and William Blake—have influenced modern thought over the past several hundred years.
In the process, Trueman outlines the dramatic transformation of the West’s understanding of the self. The author also delineates how this radically new conceptualization dominates the contemporary intellectual and cultural horizon (ranging from politics to the performing arts to literature to music).
For instance, the modern self is characterized by “expressive individualism,” which means that people are truly authentic only when they display outwardly what they are feeling inwardly. Likewise, the modern self equates happiness with an inner sense of psychological wellbeing and satisfaction.
Furthermore, the modern world sees all things immanently. Here there is nothing beyond the material realm to provide it with any significance or purpose. Instead, every aspect of reality is understood by the limits of what can be detected and experienced through sensory information.
The above is exhibited in contemporary society’s notion of moral right and wrong. Rather than being determined by a transcendent, metaphysical, or supernatural authority, ethical thinking is driven by what enables a person to feel happy.
The upending of morality is most explicitly seen by the way in which the sexual revolution now dominates the modern cultural imagination. This development is not just a relaxation and expansion of acceptable ethical standards.
Instead, the sexual revolution is an across-the-board repudiation and overturning of traditional morality. The preceding is evident by the fact that, in just a few generations, there has been a dramatic change in how society understands sexuality and its importance.
The sexual revolution goes beyond a mere fine-tuning of what is permissible behavior. More importantly, the rules of right and wrong have been so attenuated that violating them carries virtually no public stigma.
The current social and cultural movement is an utter break from the traditional notion of human identity. Specifically, sex is regarded, not so much as an activity, but rather as the way in which individuals define and describe their personhood.
Trueman cogently observes that the “sexual revolution, and its various manifestations in modern society, cannot be treated in isolation.” Instead, it “must be interpreted as the specific and perhaps most obvious social manifestation of a much deeper and wider revolution in the understanding of what it means to be a self.”
What follows is a further development of the ideas covered in brief up to this point. For instance, a more traditional view is that the self and culture are rooted in an external, transcendent, sacred order (as reflected in one’s ethnic group, family, and faith community). According to this understanding of reality, personal, private morality, along with how society is shaped, are meant to conform to and imitate what God originally established in creation before the fall of humankind into sin.
Yet, since at least the mid-twentieth century, secular thinkers have argued that either God does not exist or is irrelevant to daily life. Likewise, individuals and institutions (whether public or private, religious or secular) have jettisoned the notion of God and supplanted it with the dogma that the self reigns supreme as an autonomous, normative entity over every aspect of life.
Moreover, it is said that society exists to resist the oppressiveness of entrenched heterosexual norms. This includes obliterating sexual taboos, repudiating the biblical teaching about gender and marriage, and abolishing the biological family, along with not just tolerating, but also affirming the validity of abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, no-fault divorce, rampant pornography, and other forms of perverse sexual behavior.
Trueman utilizes various labels to trace the historical trajectory of the evolving notion of the self. At its most basic level, human selfhood is the conscious awareness people have of who and what they are. This notion includes the ways in which people imagine their purpose in life, what makes them happy, and wherein their freedom is found.
One label Trueman puts forward is the “psychological / therapeutic self.” The underlying concept is that individuals find real identity in their inner, emotional autobiography.
One’s conscience is informed, not by a heteronormative, patriarchal, misogynistic, and systemically racist society that is cruel, degrading, and inhumane, but by a person’s empathy and sympathy. What a person instinctively feels becomes the sole basis for making decisions that have ethical ramifications.
The above mindset gives rise to the modern notion referred to earlier as “expressive individualism.” It is claimed that everyone has a distinctive core of emotions, intuitions, and sentiments. Moreover, these must be allowed to develop, as well as be publicly voiced and enacted, for one’s identity and potential to be fully actualized.
The “romantic self” picks up on the notion of turning inward, along with going back to an idealized, rural existence. In this way of looking at reality, true morality is determined by what impulsively looks and feels right to those living in harmony with nature.
The “plastic / pliable self” refers to those who affirm the notion of an independent, self-consciousness. They also deny any real dependency on others, a view that leads to an idolization of autonomy.
These individuals imagine they can shape and reshape their personal identity whenever they want. Allegedly, through the utilization of technology (including the alteration of bodily appearance through medical, surgical, or other means), everyone can rise above their innate biology (particularly, their sex assigned at birth) with the intent of redefining who and what they are.
The basis for the preceding view is the conviction that one’s anatomy and physiology are neither fixed nor required to abide by the fossilized, repressive, ethical norms imposed by traditional society. Rather, all aspects of human nature—especially one’s sex / gender—are fluid, malleable, and ever-evolving (particularly in response to trendsetting cues, prescriptions, and norms).
The “sexual self” builds on the preceding ideas by equating personal identity with sexuality and sex (rather than seeing these as a function of who people are). For this reason, people are categorized according to their sexual desires, whether straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, and so on.
Moreover, the sex drive becomes the all-defining center and meaning of a person’s identity. Indeed, those who are happiest and most fulfilled constantly indulge their sexual cravings with abandon.
One’s inner, imagined notion of their “sexual self” even takes precedence over their biological sex. This explains why such assertions as, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” or, “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body,” are now part of a militant social orthodoxy to which everyone must conform.
Because personal preferences about sexual desire and orientation are treated as truth claims, they become the basis for charting the ethical path one follows. So, to be completely free and authentic as a human being, one must recognize one’s distinctive urges and brazenly act on them, regardless of how debased and degrading they might seem to traditionalists.
It is believed that society exists to satisfy an individual’s psychosexual needs and appetites. For instance, schools traditionally were centers of learning to educate, train, and mentor students. Now these organizations have devolved into platforms for seizing recognition, especially through such performative acts as public protest and exhibitionist behavior.
Even institutions and communities (including churches) must accept and accommodate the above egocentric outlook. If necessary, compliance is ensured through such enforcement mechanisms as updated speech codes, housing regulations, school curriculum, employment laws, adoption standards, and so on.
A failure to virtue signal one’s fealty to the new authoritarian ideology invites outrage, scorn, and vilification (including animus toward Christianity), especially on social media. Supposedly, dissenters suffer from a serious mental illness that is labeled as phobic (for example, homophobic, transphobic, and so on).
Moreover, free speech is condemned as a means of oppression, a tool of linguistic hatred, and an instrument for psychological harm. When free speech runs counter to the narratives lauded by a strident secular orthodoxy, such communication must be policed, censored, penalized, and banished by all available means.
Concurrent with the preceding developments is a marked shift throughout the global North in its cultural attitudes toward Christianity (a development explored and debated by various observers of societal trends). In general, until around 1994, the West seemed largely positive in its sentiment toward Christianity. Then, for roughly the next two decades, the West adopted a more neutral posture. Finally, around 2014, the West embraced an increasingly negative, antithetical stance toward Christianity.
The “politicized self” considers traditional society’s disapproval of one’s sexual desires as a moral offense, as well as a form of assault and tyranny. Those who feel stymied to express their sexual whims claim they have been unjustly stigmatized, marginalized, and victimized by cruel, pharisaical codes of conduct.
Any attempt, then, to challenge someone’s right to personal happiness is labeled as a wicked or even illegal act. So, if traditional society outlaws certain sexual orientations and activities, it is tantamount to the criminalization of particular sexual identities. Stated another way, it is a dehumanizing attack on the core personhood, dignity, and worth of an individual.
The modern self regards the above circumstance as so odious that the authoritarian state, as reflected in longstanding, Western ideals, must be toppled by means of a culture war centered on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. It is claimed that through sexual revolution, all white, male, hegemonic power structures can be demolished, resulting in political liberation.
To further understand the triumph of the idolatrous self, we turn our attention to Trueman’s discussion of two different ways of thinking about the world (as articulated by Taylor). First, mimesis (from the Greek term for “imitating”) considers the world as having a given order and meaning. Likewise, people discover that meaning and conform themselves to it.
Second, poiesis (from the Greek term for “making”) regards the world as nothing more than raw material out of which everyone constructs their own meaning, purpose, and destiny. Expressed differently, the world is comparable to a giant blob of playdough over which a person can impose his / her will.
Here the autonomous self is like a god who is free to explore and create its own personalized reality, yet without any pushback from others. This mindset fosters a cult of individualism, in which the all-out pursuit of happiness and the rituals associated with self-fashioning take center stage in one’s life.
Trueman draws attention to Reiff’s delineation of three different types of worlds. “First world” cultures are predominantly heathen, and devise ethical codes based on widely accepted myths.
In contrast, “second world” cultures are established on some sort of faith in God. Like “first worlds,” “second worlds” anchor their moral outlook on what is transcendent and external.
“Third world” cultures reject moral imperatives being linked to anything metaphysical and sacred. Instead, ethics are defined by each individual. Since there is nothing and no one above the autonomous, normative self, people become the sole basis for their idiosyncratic attitudes, priorities, and actions (all of which are beyond critique, disapproval, and regulation).
In keeping with what was noted earlier, the widespread repudiation of Judeo-Christian moral values has led to an antagonistic view of Christianity as an incomprehensible, dubious, fringe sect. Indeed, biblically-based ethics are not only regarded with suspicion and hostility, but also considered to be an existential threat to the axiomatic views favored by left-leaning radicals (including their desire to usher in a progressive utopia).
The above reality explains why devout followers of the Lord Jesus increasingly find themselves to be social pariahs. This is particularly so among elitists within education, politics, corporations, journalism, and entertainment.
Also noteworthy is Reiff’s concept of deathworks. This is described as an all-out attack upon anything considered to be of utmost importance to the entrenched culture.
So, for example, Reiff labels “third worlds” as being an “anticulture.” In keeping with what was stated above, the moral frameworks and civilizations connected with the “first” and “second worlds” are so oppressive and restrictive to the freedom of the idolatrous self, that they must be renounced, dismantled, and invalidated.
In a similar vein, Rousseau claims that at birth people are inherently moral creatures whose instincts and sentiments are misshapen by their environment and culture. Put another way, it is a corrupt society, not a fallen self, that is the repository of and catalyst for evil.
There are also such Romantic writers as Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake, who each emphasize an emotive intuition of reality. It is alleged that for the autonomous self to be genuinely authentic, it must discover and freely act on the inner, pristine voice of one’s (sexualized) nature.
Yet, by throwing off all moral restraint, those championing pervasive self-indulgence have unwittingly spawned the destructive forces of ethical nihilism, chaos, and anarchy. Then, as competing factions battle one another for power, privilege, and cultural dominance, every part of society is reduced to a toxic, tooth-and-claw hellscape.
To revisit what was described earlier, Trueman discusses what Taylor calls “expressive individualism” and Rieff labels the “psychological man.” These notions of personhood contribute to the radical redefinition of human sexuality.
Furthermore, Trueman spotlights the works of Nietzsche and Marx, who politicize the concept of the autonomous self. Freud and Reich go further by sexualizing the self.
The result is that sex moves from a physical act to the basis for defining one’s inner identity as an innately satisfied and fulfilled human being. In brief, homo eroticus (“sexualized man”) replaces homo adorans (“worshiping man”).
Each of the above thinkers pave the way for the rise of the therapeutic self, along with the constructs of sexual and gender identity. Those who adopt this view of reality experience cognitive dissonance between how they perceive their gender versus the sex assigned to them at birth.
To reiterate some previous observations, gone are any notions of people being created in the image of God as either male or female, who, though fallen, are redeemed through faith in Christ. Embraced is the mantra of being liberated from allegedly repressive and abusive forms of sexuality, as well as the racist, colonizing political structures imposed by an obsolete and impotent moral order.
Stress is placed on one’s feelings and psychological impulses. These become all-defining, especially as each person looks inward to indicate who they are as unique, sexually liberated, and self-determining individuals.
Furthermore, true personhood is equated with self-consciousness (in other words, the ability to operate as a sentient, free, and intentional agent). According to this view, since an unborn fetus, a newborn infant, and people suffering from severe forms of dementia, do not possess a minimal degree of self-consciousness, it is lawful to deny them any rights and treat them in nonpersonal, inhumane ways (including abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia).
Classic, orthodox Christians view reality (both physical and metaphysical) quite differently. Instead of making the autonomous self the measure of all things, believers consider God to be the sovereign Creator and Scripture to be the highest revelatory authority.
The preceding stance is validated by a summary of Paul’s indictment in Romans 1:18–32 of atheistic, idolatrous humanity. This includes people wallowing in the cesspool of sexual debauchery.
The apostle explained that God, who reigned from heaven, made known His “wrath” (vs. 18) against all forms of wickedness. Manifestations of His righteous judgment in the present anticipated the final day of reckoning.
The lost used profane thoughts (especially about God) and debased behavior (especially between people) to hold down the “truth” about God’s eternal existence and sovereign rule. All such efforts were futile, for the Creator would never permit anyone to restrain the knowledge of His character and the reality of His invisible qualities from being disclosed in creation.
In verses 19–20, Paul declared that God has made the truth of His existence obvious to humankind. Scripture reveals that the Lord, who is “spirit” (John 4:24), is invisible (Col 1:15; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 11:27); yet, even though the physical eye cannot see the Creator, His existence is reflected in what He has made.
Moreover, Paul explained that since God brought the universe into existence, He has made His “invisible attributes” (Rom 1:20) plainly clear. This included the Creator’s “eternal power” and “divine nature.”
Indeed, since the dawn of time, people have an instinctive awareness—which is reinforced by observing creation—that there is a supreme being. So, they cannot justify their decision to reject the Creator and refuse to submit to His will.
By seeing the intricate design of the universe, people—who bear God’s image—can innately understand certain aspects of His nature (vs. 21). Regardless of pagan humanity’s mental prowess and educational attainments, the Creator’s assessment is that they are morally deficient (vs. 22).
Verse 23 draws attention to a descending hierarchy of idolatry, beginning with the veneration of humans and moving to the worship of birds, animals, and reptiles. Expressed differently, the lost invent gods and goddesses patterned after various forms of life (Deut 4:15–18; Ps 106:20; Jer 2:11). In turn, unsaved humanity’s enslavement to idols leads to their alienation from the one, true, and living God.
Because of idolatry, God deliberately abandoned the Gentiles to their depravity (Rom. 1:24). So, instead of attempting to restrain their wickedness, God simply allowed their vile behavior to run its course. Specifically, the Creator removed His influence and permitted fallen humanity’s willful rejection to produce its natural and inevitable consequences, which in this case were deadly.
Paul was writing from Corinth, the location of Aphrodite’s temple. At the time he penned Romans, this shrine housed hundreds of temple prostitutes who were used sexually as an act of worship to pagan deities. These degrading acts were believed to provoke the gods and goddesses into doing similar acts, which resulted in increased crops and larger families.
Such religious prostitution was common in Roman culture. In this way, the unsaved traded the truth about God’s existence and rule for a “lie” (vs. 25), particularly when it involved idol worship.
As noted earlier, through people’s attitudes and actions, they revered created things, rather than the all-powerful Lord. As a counterweight to humankind’s perverted acts, Paul burst forth in praise to God and sealed the exclamation with an “Amen.”
In verse 26, we read for the second time that God intentionally abandoned humankind, but in this case it was to degrading passions. Yet, unlike the immorality committed by the cultic prostitutes, these sexual sins were private.
Individuals perverted God’s gift of physical intimacy in the context of marriage by shamelessly engaging in homosexual acts. Men and women exchanged “natural relations” (between men and women) with “unnatural” relations (men with men and women with women).
Indeed, Paul literally said those of the same gender “burned with intense desire” (vs. 27) for one another. As a result of such indecent behavior, people received the divinely-sanctioned “penalty,” namely, the scourge of wallowing in their perversion.
In verse 28, we read for the third time that God actively abandoned people, but in this case it was to a morally reprehensible way of thinking. People not only refused to acknowledge the Creator’s existence, but also to submit to His will.
Expressed differently, the reprobates put God’s sensible boundaries out of their thoughts, and He responded by surrendering them to a warped view of reality. Out of this mindset arose all kinds of evil deeds.
Verses 29-30 list the indecent behaviors condemned in verse 28. Paul categorized the conduct of the morally degenerate into four clusters of active sin: wickedness (the opposite of righteousness), evil (the profound absence of empathy, shame, and goodness), greed (the relentless urge to acquire more than one needs), and depravity (a constant bent toward immorality). These four basic kinds of deliberate, odious behavior in turn express themselves in specific ways.
Those whom God abandoned are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God haters; they are insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless (vss. 29-31).
The despicable conduct of these individuals was not due to ignorance of God’s commands (vs. 32). Rather, they sinned despite their limited awareness of God, making them all the more culpable.
Even worse, these reprobates applauded these reprehensible practices among others. Perhaps seeing their peers do these debased activities filled the instigators with a sense of self-justification. In any case, they received what they deserved, namely, death or eternal separation from God.
Short bio: Dan completed his doctoral studies at North-West University. He is widely published and has a particular interest in intertextuality between the testaments, Biblical ethics and spiritual care in professional settings. Dan has extensive experience in tertiary education and a passion for scholarly excellence.