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The Strange New World of Identity Politics

Many of us may look around our world today at the numerous social, cultural, and political movements, and wonder how we got to this point. Identity politics seems to dominate so many facets of our culture.

But if we look back at history, we can see that this seemingly illogical movement has followed a fairly logical progression. So argues Dr. Carl Trueman in his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Dr. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, and he joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss his latest work.

Dr. Trueman argues that numerous hot-button issues today—abortion, LGBTQ issues, etc.—have come about over many decades due to an increased emphasis on feelings “as constitutive of who we actually are, and increasingly downplaying the importance of the body.”

“This idea that the universe really revolves around me, and I’m an autonomous individual, touches how we think about pretty much everything,” Dr. Trueman continues.

Because this individualism and the elevation of feelings as the end-all-be-all of our identities, Christians are finding it harder to speak into the culture, argues Dr. Trueman. “Society is training us to instinctively think that we should not get in the way of other people’s happiness, providing they’re not hurting somebody else. […] What we believe strikes at the very heart of how modern people conceive of their identities, and that makes Christianity dangerous.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Carl Trueman discuss the development of identity politics, and how Christians can navigate this strange new world.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: The Strange New World of Identity Politics

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As we look around our world today, those of us who are a bit older are struck by how quickly our social wars have changed in the past few decades, and sometimes it seems like everyone has simply lost their minds, because many things happening today just don’t seem to make sense. But interestingly, there has been a logical progression that has brought us to this disorienting state of identity politics. Understanding that history can help us think through these issues in a deeper way, and we hope address them in a way that’s worthy of our standing as children of God.

Well, Dr. Carl Trueman has just released a book that dives deeply into these questions. It’s called The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. It’s been lauded as a must-read for thoughtful Christians, and one of the most important works of the decade on these issues. Dr. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He’s joining us today to give us a glimpse into the gems that can be found in this new work.

Dr. Carl Trueman, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: Well, thanks for having me on. It’s lovely to be here.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s dive right in. You argue that while what we see as insanity in the world today is irrational, it’s not necessarily illogical. So what do you mean by that?

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah, well, I think if we take the sentence, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body,” for example, that seems to many of us as quite bizarre; it’s quite illogical in some ways to posit such a dramatic difference between our bodies and our actual identity. But if you trace the sort of history of thought and the history of society over the last 300 or 400 years, what you notice is that we’ve increasingly emphasized feelings as constitutive of who we actually are, and increasingly downplay the importance of the body. So while the statement itself lacks a kind of rationality in and of itself, the story of how that statement has emerged makes a kind of strange sense.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So you argue that feelings have become the ultimate authority in our culture and that anything that gets in the way of acting on those feelings—and that could be parents, the church, any authorities—are to be rejected and sometime even considered the enemy. So tell us why this is important and why this is having such a big impact on everything in our culture.

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: Well, it goes to the very heart of what we imagine ourselves to be as human beings. Essentially, the modern person imagines themselves to be autonomous, self-governing, to be somebody who has no intrinsic dependencies upon others, but is entitled and able to decide who they are for themselves. Now, when you think of that, that’s extremely important—that’s how we imagine ourselves to be. It makes everybody else, and every relationship we have first and foremost potentially—while I would say adversarially—potentially something that stops us being happy. It leads us to treat other people like objects. It has implications for abortion, for example: the baby in the womb ceases to be a person and only has value to the extent that the contents of the womb will either make me happy by keeping them or make me happy by getting rid of them. So this idea that the universe really revolves around me, and I’m an autonomous individual, touches how we think about pretty much everything.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And of course the sexual revolution is one way that we’re seeing a lot of practical impacts in our culture, isn’t it?

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: Yes. I mean the sexual revolution…when you think about sexual activity in times past, there are two things I think that mark it out. One, it was never traditionally thought of as an identity. There was lots of homosexuality in ancient Greece, for example, but nobody identified as gay; sex was something you do. And secondly, it was always carefully corralled or controlled by what we might describe as a natural world. Sleep of the girl, you get a pregnant, there are consequences of that. Sleep with somebody with an STD, you get a nasty disease that you might never be cured from. Technology has meant that now we can sleep with a girl, don’t get a pregnancy. If you catch a disease, we have a drug for that. The technological revolution has really reshaped the way we think about sexual activity as a risk-free recreation, if you like. What we’re really seeing is, if you like, the coming together of two of the answers I’ve given: on the one hand, we now imagine ourselves as being able to determine our own identities and to be whoever we want to be that makes us happy; on the other hand, we have sex that has become just a pleasurable recreation with no consequences, no risks involved.

Well, when you imagine the world that way, when somebody comes along and says, “My identity is grounded in my sexual desire,” it’s very hard to press back against that because we all want people to be happy. We don’t want to stop people being happy. When sexual activity, sexual desire is the means by which an individual realizes themselves, realizes their happiness, it’s intuitively difficult for us to push back against that because whatever our personal convictions might be as Christian believers or whatever, society is training us to instinctively think that we should not get in the way of other people’s happiness, providing they’re not hurting somebody else.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Is this shutting us up then as Christians in our ability to speak into the culture, do you think?

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: I think to the extent that this has become a kind of human rights cause, and is finding its way into legislation, then yes, it is shutting us up because it’s raising the risks of speaking out tremendously. When I was young, the offense of Christianity was that a lot of people thought it was nonsense, but they weren’t particularly worried that somebody down at the corner of the street was in a church that believed nonsense. Nonsense is relatively harmless in many circumstances. Now, of course, what we believe strikes at the very heart of how modern people conceive of their identities, and that makes Christianity dangerous. That’s why there’s so much legislation coming into place; that’s making it very, very difficult to enjoy traditional freedom of religion in the public square.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned that our society or our culture is training us to accept some of these ideas, and that is a dangerous thing, then, if we don’t stop it now. So we do need to be concerned about these things, don’t we?

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: Yes. I mean, the real problem is I could give you a genealogy of where we’ve got, looking at people like Rousseau and Marx and Niche and Freud, but most people don’t read them—that’s not where they’re getting their ideas from. They’re getting their ideas from the way that their imaginations are being shaped. Their intuitions are being formed by soap operas, sitcoms, conversations with friends. So we need to resist this move, but it’s very difficult to do so because it permeates all of the things that shape us as human beings within our wider culture.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So basically, we’re talking a lot about worldview, aren’t we? We talk a lot about that on our show, of the importance of having what we call a Christian worldview. Can you talk about what a worldview is, how it’s formed, and how that affects everything we do?

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah, a worldview is essentially an overall way of thinking about the world. How you think about yourself and your place within the world? Does the world have a moral shape and a meaning, or is it just stuff? It’s that sort of thing. How a worldview is formed? Well, formal education would be one of the most obvious, though if what I’ve said about imagination and intuition is correct, it’s not just formal education. It’s also things like how we intuitively relate to technology. It’s the culture we consume, the soap operas, the sitcoms we watch. It’s the conversations we have. It’s the friendships we have. All of these things, I think, shape the way we think about the world. So obviously for somebody like me, the educational aspect is very important, but I don’t think that simply attending a course on a correct worldview will correct somebody’s worldview. It’s part of a way of life as well that has to be addressed holistically. And that’s where I think something like the church is very important because it’s in the liturgical rhythm of the church—it’s in the worship of the church, it’s in the singing of God’s praise, praying, hearing the word preached—that minds, hearts, and imaginations are formed, often in ways we’re not even aware of as it’s happening.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You’re at Grove City. It’s a Christian liberal arts college, and I would imagine as you’re confronting these undergraduate students—most of whom probably come from Christian backgrounds, if they end up at Grove City. What do you think about the worldviews that they’re coming in with, and what do they think about some of the things that you’re teaching as far as the history and how far we’ve come so quickly?

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah, I think many of them from conservative backgrounds are pretty shocked at what’s gone on and, and hopefully my courses help them to understand why what’s happened has come about. I think that with the younger generation, my own take on teaching is when I teach essentially my book, I place a lot of emphasis upon what we love at the heart of it. So, you know, there are things that we believe—the ideas we grab hold of—but a lot of our lives are ultimately motivated by love. So I present my courses as, “Okay, this course is a quest to find out what we need to love in order to be properly fulfilled, what we need to love in order to feel free and to belong.” So I found a kind of existential take on this sort of material has been very helpful with the students. Not simply a case of saying this idea is right, and that idea is wrong, but this idea is right because actually when you see it, it, it really reflects who we are as human beings in this world. It touches our desires; it touches our identity at a deep level.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And that’s what you mean by natural law, right? That Christians need to have a better understanding of natural law?

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: Yeah. I think that one of the things that particularly Protestant Christians have not done well is emphasize the fact that the world has a moral shape to it. We are comfortable with the idea of the world having a physical shape to it—if I jump off the top of a building, I plunge to my death; I’m not a bird. It has a natural shape, but it also has a moral shape as well—that if you behave sexually in certain ways, you’ll damage yourself, not simply physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. If society pits itself against demolishing the natural family, it will not go well for society. There is actually a structure to the world that we need to respect and conform ourselves to in order to fully flourish as human beings.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: One of your book reviews stated that the tone of your book was gentlemanly, which I thought was such a contrast to the way it seems like most people communicate on these issues these days. Why do you think that was important?

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: Well, there were two things. One, I wanted to write a book that I would not be embarrassed to hand to a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender person. I wanted to write a book that if they took offense at it, it was because they wanted to take offense; it was not because I’d said anything offensive. And secondly, the same applies to my students. I’m aware that my students may not think as I do on some of these issues, and I’m aware that many of them may have passionate convictions on these issues. I wanted to write a book that would make them think. They couldn’t dismiss it because of its tone; they’d have to wrestle with its actual narrative and argument. And also I think it’s just appropriate for Christians—we have to obey the ninth commandment. We have to be very careful in how we speak about other people, including our enemies. And so I wanted to model something of that in what I was doing as well.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, sometimes we look around at our culture and I think we feel like, “It’s hopeless. How can we walk this back?” But do you feel like there is hope?

DR. CARL TRUEMAN: Yes. I mean, clearly from a Christian perspective, there are promises to the Church. We know the Church is going to win. So, I think we can have great confidence in the long run, but I also think there’s plenty of hope in the short term, maybe not on the national level, but certainly at a local level where we have real relationships with really damaged people. People who have been really hurt, really messed up by their lifestyle choices, et cetera, et cetera—individual personal friendships, love and care can be very, very powerful. So, I’m not so hopeful about the national context at the moment, but I think at a local level, many local churches have a great opportunity here to be a place where people can come and belong.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, I am very grateful that you took out the time to speak with us today. Thank you very much, and of course, people can go to learn more by getting your books—The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is out now. It’s the longer 400-page book, and then a more concise version that has some study helps in it—Strange New World—is coming out in March. So, thank you very much for being with us, Dr. Carl Trueman, on Family Policy Matters.

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