This Side of History. Right.
It is a very important and relevant question – in many ways the key question of our ‘cultural moment’ as it contains so many other questions about the way in which contemporary western society thinks and operates.
What Trueman accomplishes superbly is to demonstrate for how long the cultural trends have been gestating that have made transgenderism the phenomenon it is today. Tracing the story through the influence of Rousseau, the Romantics, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud and the New Left he demonstrates that transgenderism hasn’t simply appeared from nowhere but is the logical consequence of trends stretching back two hundred years.
There’s a lot in Self that is, certainly from a conservative Christian perspective, profoundly depressing but Trueman is explicit in stating that his aim is neither polemic nor lament; rather it is a history explaining, albeit partially, how we got where we are. As such it is tremendously helpful.
However, a friend asked me another very good question: whether the book itself is digestible. It’s certainly demanding in places. If you’ve read Trueman’s blog posts you might, like me, struggle through parts of Self thinking, ‘I’m sure I’ve heard him say this in a pithier way someplace else.’ That’s the difference between a blog post and a book length treatment of a subject and it might make the book a little off putting to some. For those who don’t have much background in the history and personalities Self deals with I would recommend first reading Luc Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought, which offers (from an author with no commitment to Christianity) a very lucid account of the philosophical currents that have shaped western society. Then I would recommend Michael Banner’s Christian Ethics, which covers much of the same ground as Self but is about a quarter of the length.
I know that many readers of Think are pastors and as pastors we want some practical answers. This is not the purpose of Self but in the final half dozen pages Trueman does make three suggestions about what the church might be doing given his rather bleak analysis. These are worth considering here (and worth reading the whole of the book to understand more fully).
Firstly, that we should not allow the aesthetic strategy of the wider culture to dictate our beliefs and practice. Contemporary beliefs (‘I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body’) are to a large extent based on emotional responses to personal stories – our cultural desire for the ‘authentic’ means that subjective personal narrative gains more legitimacy than objective fact. We must beware this being the paradigm by which we operate in the church.
In relation to LGBTQ+ issues Trueman states,
If sex-as-identity is itself a category mistake, then the narratives of suffering, exclusion, and refusals of recognition based on that category mistake are really of no significance in determining what the church’s position on homosexuality should be. That is not to say that pastoral strategies aimed at individuals should not be compassionate, but what is and is not compassionate must always rest on deeper, transcendent commitments. Christianity…is dogmatic, doctrinal, assertive.
That is a statement that would make many a culturally sensitive pastor splutter on their oat milk latte but it bears careful reflection. Those of us who come from the evangelical tradition, with our emphasis upon ‘giving testimony’, can very easily slide into a form of ministry which is more about the stories individuals tell than the claims the gospel makes. That leads to Christianity as therapy rather than truth claim.
Secondly, that the church must be a community. In an era when expressive individualism is king the church needs to push with more determination into genuine and meaningful community. Trueman notes that contemporary phrases such as ‘online community’ now, ‘make sense because we know how the very idea of community has been evacuated of the notion of bodily proximity and presence.’
At the end of a year in which bodily proximity and presence has been so restricted this feels even more challenging than it already did.
And thirdly, ‘Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body.’ When pastors are faced by questions around issues like transgenderism or surrogacy – which increasingly we are – they need to be able to provide a coherent biblical position. This is a challenge as many pastors are simply not equipped to give such answers. The issues are so complex and fast moving it can be very difficult for the ‘average’ pastor who has no end of other matters to attend to, to know how to respond.
To accomplish these three things feels overwhelmingly difficult in the face of the culture in which we minister. But there is hope. The internal inconsistencies of the current cultural narrative mean that the edifice will collapse at some point – maybe not in my lifetime but it will happen. In the meanwhile our churches can be refuges from the madness of the world where in genuine community and with shared doctrinal commitments we hold together in the teeth of the storm. Rather than seeking to be ‘on the right side of history’ by understanding our history we can build for a better future. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a very helpful tool in that project.