Christian Theologian Carl Trueman Discusses the Culture War: ‘Rousseau Has Won; Aristotle Has Lost’

The author of ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self’ was a keynote speaker at the 2021 Napa Institute.

Professor Carl Trueman of Grove City College is shown alongside his most recent book, ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.’
Professor Carl Trueman of Grove City College is shown alongside his most recent book, ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.’ (photo: Grove City College/Courtesy photo)

Carl Trueman is a Christian theologian and ecclesiastical historian who presently serves as professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. The author, most recently, of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Trueman writes regularly for First Things, among other publications. This month he was a keynote speaker at the 2021 Napa Institute. Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond spoke with Trueman about his new book.


How did a Presbyterian minister become a keynote speaker at the 2021 Napa Institute?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed good friendships with Catholics. 

There are significant differences between us over things that we believe. But as we move into this new phase of cultural engagement, or cultural war, I see significant common ground between myself and my Catholic friends both on the affirmation of the supernatural against those who deny it and on the need to stand in opposition to the dominant mores of the cultural elites — two issues that divide me from my liberal Protestant peers.

Your new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, will surprise readers who trace our culture wars to the mid-20th century and the advent, for example, of the birth-control pill, or radical feminism. 

The sexual revolution is clearly very significant for the way we think about ourselves today, particularly when you reflect on the dominance of the LGBTQ+” movement, how cultural intuitions are attuned to thinking about men and women as sexual beings, and about identity as grounded in or shaped by erotic sexual desires. 

The essence of the self [according to this framework] is my ability to express outwardly that which I feel inwardly. And the purpose of my life is an inward feeling of individual psychological satisfaction. 

The sexual revolution has given a specific sexual spin to that, but that notion of what it means to be a fulfilled individual has existed or has been developing for several hundred years.


You highlight the influential role of 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, among other things, argued that our emotions matter and that human beings would be happier in more primitive cultures. Why is Rousseau important?

My choice of Rousseau was, on one level, a little bit arbitrary. I could have started with Descartes, or with the Reformation. But I chose Rousseau for two reasons: because his influence on political and educational thought continues to be very significant and because he emphasized the importance of sentiments and emotions when identifying the authentic self. 

We live in a world where “authenticity” is so often identified with my ability to express my emotions outwardly, and Rousseau, more than Descartes, identifies the self with the inner psychological life. He also emphasizes the role of what he would call “sentiments” and what we would now call “emotions” in determining who we are as genuine human beings.


Rousseau is also associated with the image of the “noble savage” unsullied by external cultural influences.

Rousseau is the great formulator of the idea that you are born in a pristine state and you get messed up because you are part of preestablished social arrangements. That’s what makes you envious, jealous, ambitious and competitive. Today, that idea lies at the heart of some child-centered educational philosophies and the exhortations of our youth culture. Hollywood movies often depict kids as wise and families, institutions and external authority as corrupting in some way. 

I regard this as nonsense. Aristotle is much closer to the mark when he says that education is about training somebody to fit into society … not to allow you to express yourself. But Rousseau has won, and Aristotle has lost in our culture.


Christianity, particularly St. Paul and St. Augustine, offers its own window onto the inner self that stands in sharp contrast to Rousseau. 

The idea that human beings have an inner life that includes thoughts and emotions was not invented by Rousseau. The Psalmist talks a lot about his inner emotional experience, and so do the great epics. Supremely in the Christian tradition, St. Paul develops this idea of the inner struggle of the believer or of somebody just before he converts. 

In Christian literature, this struggle finds its most brilliant expression in St. Augustine’s Confessions. The difference between the Christian approach and Rousseau’s approach is that the former acknowledges that this inner struggle is a genuine struggle driven by grace [against] the inner sinfulness of fallen human nature. So it’s not that we’re born pristine and society messes us up. Rather, the struggle exists within us from the moment grace invades our lives. 

And when you read Augustine’s Confessions or St. Paul, inward reflections are preliminary to moving outwards toward an acknowledgement of God as Creator and [the author’s] own status as creature. 


Sigmund Freud is another key figure in your story of the modern evolution of the self, though many of his ideas have been widely discredited. 

Freud makes two significant contributions. 

He correctly grasps that human nature is dark and destructive. As Christians, we call it “fallen human nature.” Freud looks at the human nature presented to him on his analyst’s couch and sees that civilization is the thing that helpfully restrains that dark, destructive inner space. 

What he gets [wrong], and what has become so influential in our culture, is that he identifies the dark inner space with our sexual desires, thereby making sexual desire absolutely fundamental to our identity right from infancy. Freud has a taxonomy that sees our development into adulthood in terms of where and how our sexual desires are manifested and directed. 

Now, if you read the Bible, sex is behavior. Some of that behavior is considered legitimate, some illegitimate. But it’s always [framed as] behavior. 

The intuition of our modern world is that my sexual desires are fundamental to who I am. That is really the legacy of Freud.


Then Karl Marx comes along and reframes sex in political terms. 

Marx reduces all human relations to political relations. Every human relationship feeds, supports, justifies a political status quo, and therefore all human relationships are politicized. That’s the world in which we now live, where the idea of [non-political] mediating institutions has vanished. The Boy Scouts are now political. Cake baking is now political. Marx is the harbinger of the politicization of all human relationships.

Marx, among other influential 19th-century figures, also helps to abolish the idea of human nature.

To be clear, Marx understood that there’s a biological commonality that makes us human and separates us as a species from other creatures. But Marx also argued that human nature did not carry a necessary moral structure: So the very fact that we’re human beings does not mean that we are required to behave in certain ways in order to flourish.


So how did Western culture begin to embrace these ideas with such intensity? Most people don’t read Marx, and they don’t read Freud. So how is it that their thinking has become the default intuition of so many people? 

A number of factors play into it. For one thing, Freud is onto something: Sexual desires are among the most powerful experiences we have as human beings. And today you have what some sociologists call the “double hermeneutic effect”: Once somebody describes the world as being a certain way that we would like the world to be, the world starts to be that way. 

Commercials tap our sexual desires. Technology facilitates the idea that there is no such thing as human nature to which we have to conform. The birth-control pill curtails the risk of pregnancy, and antibiotics deal with sexually transmitted diseases. 

It isn’t that everybody is reading Marx, but we live in a world where technology tilts us to thinking that human nature has less authority over us than it did 100 years ago.


Over the past decade, same-sex unions have been legalized, and transgender rights have emerged as “the civil-rights issue of our time.” How do these new developments pay homage to Rousseau, Freud and Marx? 

Gay marriage is a watershed, but I would set that against the background of no-fault divorce. The 1970 California law, signed by Ronald Reagan, is a significant moment for the redefinition of marriage. Marriage becomes not so much a sacrament, as you would have in Roman Catholicism, or a lifelong covenant, as you would have in reformed Protestantism, but a sentimental bond that exists for the satisfaction of the two persons contracting the bond, to be dissolved as soon as that satisfaction ceases. 

Marriage is profoundly trivialized by no-fault divorce. Gay marriage plays to the logic of that: Why should a sentimental bond for personal satisfaction be limited to one man and one woman? Or two men or two women? 

Once you have redefined marriage in that way, you profoundly relativize the sexed nature of bodies and open yourself up to transgenderism because you’ve turned the subjective person into the ultimate person: I am who I feel myself to be. I am my psychological desires and convictions. I am no longer the body that I inhabit. And even the language of inhabiting a body or the language of being born in the wrong body speaks profoundly of how one prioritizes emotions, thoughts, etc., over the physical.


Why has the advent of sexual rights been accompanied by a growing hostility toward institutions, including organized religion? 

The psychologizing of the self is always ultimately going to collide with any notion of external authority. Transgenderism collides with the external authority of the body, so in some ways it stands on a continuum. But any other institution — the Church, the nation, the family — anything that demands that the individual change or shift is going to be problematic. 

The role of the elites also changes when you have the rise of the psychological man. Their traditional role was to take the individual and to cultivate and shape them so they could fit into wider society. Now, their role has been flipped on its head: They protect the individual from the demands of society and institutions, including the Church.

We have a great example of this in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 judgment in United States v. Windsor, which overthrew the Defense of Marriage Act and dismissed objections to gay marriage as irrational bigotry. 

Two thousand years of Christian Church teaching are simply repudiated as irrational bigotry. How can you get away with that? You get away with it by being in a world where there is a natural and instinctive suspicion of any form of institutional authority, of which the Church, in terms of marriage, is the most prominent example.


What should Christian leaders and believers do now? 

The temptation is to lament, and that’s appropriate when we’re faced with a society that’s repudiating everything that God considers to be good. 

But we also need to reorient our imagination to the local. If we are going to transform the culture, it’s going to be local cultures where people can see how we live, how we react, and how we engage with our neighbors. The local has to grip the Christian imagination in a way that perhaps it has not had to do before. 

We also need to embrace our marginalization, not just lament it. Marginal communities, historically speaking, are strong communities that know who they are, what they believe, and why they believe it. 

Will the world around us be grateful for that? Probably not. But our call as Christians is to be obedient to the Lord, ultimately, and not obedient to the tastes and the predilections of the culture in which we find ourselves.