From time to time I like to let my readers and listeners in on the books I am reading. This week I concluded a fascinating book by Carl R. Trueman titled ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.” In the introduction to this book Trueman explains his goal captured succinctly in his opening sentence. He writes, “The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’” That statement, only a handful of years ago, would have been considered laughable. Yet, in today’s modern Western secular culture, it is commonly accepted and perhaps expected language. If for nothing more than a sociological discussion on how ethics adjust over time within a culture, this is a fascinating point of conversation.
I have read other scholarly books on the topic of gender and sexuality, but I found this particular book extraordinarily helpful in tracing the historic and philosophic underpinnings that have given way to this cultural phenomenon. The statement mentioned earlier did not arrive out of thin air. In fact there have been centuries of philosophical pressure and slow cultural adjustments that have slowly yet steadily assisted our arrival at this cultural moment. Trueman’s book traces so much ground that a short blog would fail to do a ‘review’ justice. Rather, I want to focus in on a handful of chapters that I found particularly helpful which focused on four well known philosophers & scientists from history whose work laid the foundation for for the modern Transgender Movement. What I provide below is a concise summary of this section of Trueman’s book along with my own commentary pointing us back to God’s Word as I go.
The first of these philosophers was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher who deeply impacted Enlightenment philosophy. Before we dig into Rousseau’s thoughts and conclusions it is helpful to remember the historic world he (and the Enlightenment) spoke into. The world of the Medieval Period and up through the Reformation was largely shaped and dominated by the Church. It would have been very difficult to find a self-identity apart from the cultural norms of a society built upon the framework of God and our place in God’s larger picture. This history cannot be diminished or brushed aside quickly. In order to understand the cultural changes that have happened over time we must train ourselves to think through another person’s worldview.
Rousseau stepped into that world and began to question the “institutions” that were. He was among the first, or perhaps the most successful, to question what a person in their natural state, unhindered and unbridled by all of society’s pressures, might be like. In one of his earlier writings titled ‘Confessions’ (note – this particular work was a direct assault on Augustine’s much earlier book by the same title), he began to form the idea that the core human problems were not primarily intrinsic (meaning a problem that flowed out from within ourselves), but rather were problems mainly caused by our social circumstances. It was social pressure, not our sinful nature that was the root of all evil.
Rousseau imagined a hypothetical primitive man who was somehow free from all the societal pressures of how to think and how to act and what to think of oneself. That person would be free to truly and authentically express their authentic self. However, any person born into a society with historic institutions already in place (as we all are) would never be truly free, they would always be shaped by those institutional expectations and therefore would always be inauthentic to their inner “true self.”
I am skipping over significant portions of Rousseau’s ideas (particularly on his discourse of the two types of love), yet you can begin to get a sense for his place in this conversation. With Rousseau, God-centered society and the institutions that once had been taken for granted and seen as part of the natural world order, were now questioned as hurdles to living out our true authentic selves. The greatest virtue would be to discover your inner true self, not what society told a person they ought to be.
As Christians we can clearly see the unbiblical reasoning and logic behind Rousseau’s worldview. Human beings are sinful. There are genuine problems that flow from within the human heart. While, like Rousseau says, society can certainly place pressures on us that hinder us in some way or that add vice into our lives, the Biblical worldview is adamant that the heart of every human being is sinful. Biblically, there is no such thing as an “innocent authentic self.” In fact a Christian would say that our most authentic self is a rebel to God’s law through and through, and that many of the institutions such as government, education, the Church, and the family structure are in fact support systems given by God in part to protect sinful humanity from falling into the deepest trenches of their sinful state.
Friedrich Nietzche has captured my fascination for a long time. He, more than most philosophers, understood the significance of Rousseau’s hypothesis. What Nietzsche so successfully described was the reality that if the Enlightenment philosophers were correct as to the center of the human experience (man centered as opposed to God centered), then they were incorrect insofar as they understood the consequences of that specific belief. In other words Nietzsche began to truly think about what must be true of a universe where God does not exist in any meaningful sense. In perhaps one of his most important and influential passages we read of the Madman raving in the streets:
“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?“Nietzche. The Joyful Wisdom
What Nietzche captured in that passage is significant. When this madman says, “We have killed God,” his point is that we now live in a world where no such thing as God exists. But the madman goes further and realizes the consequences of that belief. Moving from a god-centered world to a godless world would be like “unchaining the earth from the Sun.” Everything from the world we know was built on the presupposition of God’s existence. Our understanding of self, of ethics, of discourse, of education, of societal norms, were all built to support a world where God exists and is at the center of life’s purpose. But if “God is dead,” then all of those institutions and societal norms need to be rethought from the ground up. Why be kind to another person if there is no God? Why care for the poor if there is no God? Why build roads and have jobs and continue to eat food if there is no God? Nietzche’s madman rages against those who deny God yet live as if the world can basically go on as it always had. It is Nietzche’s conclusion that is most vital to this conversation. As a result of the “death of God” humans must live to overcome. For Nietzche, life ought to be lived in a way that brings about the most personal satisfaction. We must not conform to outside expectations but we must overcome, and determine our own form of the “good life.“
Nietzche is both right and wrong. If, as Nietzche says, God truly is dead, then Nietzche is absolutely correct. Without God there is no meaning or purpose or substantive sense of morality or order. At best, our institutions are conventions made by men to give some form of rhyme or reason to life, yet ultimately they truly are meaningless and we are all simply passing the moments until everything simply ceases to exist. However – Nietzche was wrong. God is not dead. He is as alive today as he was yesterday and will be tomorrow and into eternity future. Therefore Nietzche’s conclusion of the good life is fundamentally wrong. There is no such thing as a “good life” apart from Jesus Christ and His Lordship. The Apostle Paul calls the life under the Lordship of Jesus, “the life that is truly life.” We must reject Nietzche’s “good life” which was rooted in the idea of personal satisfaction apart from God. Yet – we can also see how this idea continues to work its way through our modern society.
It is vitally important that Christians recognize the atheism of Karl Mark for the simple reason that his ideas populate many of the false philosophies of our day. According to Marx:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people… The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.Karl Marx. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
Marx saw religion as a great lie that suffering oppressed people put their hope in. As a result – he demanded it be rooted of existence in order for humanity to reach their highest ideal. As Trueman notes Marx’s thoughts, “the tearing down of religion is thus the precondition for offering true happiness through the establishment of an economic system that does not alienate the workers from the fruits of their labor (p. 182).” Christian – you can pause and let this sink in for a moment. We cannot attempt to reconcile Marxism with Christianity – they are incompatible. Marx himself knew that. It was Marx who significantly developed the ideas of oppression that we now use in our day to day language, and sought to fix the problem of oppression by revolutionizing the world and redistributing power and wealth.
Marx is famous for taking his philosophy and making it very practical. He envisioned an entire new order of society not built around capitalism & the Industrial Revolution of his day, but rather a new form of state run distribution. As Marx developed his utopian ideals for his brave new economic world, he demanded an end to the old separation of men and women. In the communist manifesto he writes, “Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex.” I’m not sure if Marx himself knew how prophetic this statement would become. He saw a future where gender was a non-issue as it related to the means of production. With the rise of modern day technology however, we can see how this Marxist vision of gender neutrality has worked its way into our current societal norms. Marx would eventually go much further by suggesting (like Rousseau) that we must tear down old religious norms. Our previous “institutions” must go in order to make way for the new economic order. Since Church is an evil institution it must have no place in Marx’s vision of utopia. Since parents raising children threatens to implant potentially false ideas (according to the state) in children, we must remove parents from children as early as possible. Since private or Christian education would teach ideas counter to Marx’s atheistic vision of the world, the state must run all education. Yes – this is Marx’s utopian vision (and we are eerily promoting much of it in our modern political landscape).
Once again – the Bible stands in stark contrast. First, religion is not the “opiate of the people.” The God of the Bible defines what is true. Jesus is Lord whether Karl Marx acknowledges this or not. Secondly, there is a clear God given difference between men and women that must not be eliminated even if modern technology permits us to pretend to do so. God has assigned men to be the head of their family and the Church. In the same way, it is only a woman who can truly be a mother or a wife, just as it is only a man who can truly be a father or a husband. These statements, up until very recent history, were largely considered normal and beautiful. But because of the influential strains of Marxist ideology continuing to pour through the cracks of our society, they are now seen as “oppressive.”
Finally, we must speak of Sigmund Freud. Many today know the name Freud associated with Psychoanalysis. What many don’t realize is the much more sinister and creepy reason for his study into psychoanalysis, namely his obsession with sex.
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.Freud. Civilization and Its Discontents.
To Freud, sexuality was the at the center of human existence. Sexuality was our purpose, our meaning, our core drive, and therefore what all of life (from womb to tomb) ought to point towards. Freud labored tirelessly to work this new ethic of happiness into society. He believed we must “sexualize” our children and that it was wrong to limit a child’s experimentation with sexuality. As Trueman notes as he concludes his section on Freud’s contribution to this conversation, “… 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 (p. 221).”
Freud then used what he called “science” (largely a pseudo-science) to build a support system to his sexualized universe. Like Nietzche and Marx – he saw religion as a great plague upon mankind. He then tried to show how it is our internal psyche that gives rise to the illusion of God. He presses us to get beyond these illusions and onto what is true, namely his science. It is not difficult to see Freud’s fingerprint over the modern hyper-sexualized culture we live in. The normalization of use of pornography among our youth is a direct result of Freud. The normalization of sexually explicit content aimed at children is a result of Freud. And the fact that most of us can’t see how hyper-sexualized our culture truly is, is a result of Freud.
Again – the Christian stands in stark contrast to Freud. We know exactly where our identity is placed and it is not in our sexuality. Our identity is in Jesus Christ, our Lord and savior. He determines what is true. He also gets my full submission and obedience because I know only in submission and obedience to him is there meaning, joy, and purpose in life. Sex and sexuality has a Biblically defined place in the scope of a human life, but it is certainly not central.
As I conclude this post I want to help us see something that is of vital importance. I have only skimmed the work of these thinkers. I pray I have not misrepresented them in my short synopsis. Trueman engages with far more voices and ideas that are also important contributions to the larger story. However – as a thinking Christian we must do our homework and really understand the heart of an idea. Colossians 2:8 says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” What these men proposed was “philosophy and empty deceit.” And their propositions are still floating through our society in full force today. We must see these false ideas and empty philosophies for what they are, and be able to confidently stand on the word of God and point to a better way. The mythology behind the Sexual Revolution is rooted in the concept of a true “authentic self” detached from God’s design and God’s purpose. This idea has become so normalized in American culture that many Christians may not even realize they have adopted these ideas into their own way of thinking. Rather than building their worldview from the Bible up, they have inadvertently built their worldview from the Bible, Marx, & Freud up. This is a tragedy.
May the Church once again speak with courage, clarity, grace, and truth on these topics.