I’m reading a recent book by Carl Trueman, recommended by a Cambridge contemporary who read my e-book, Seeing Through Smoke (and generally liked it). It’s entitled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Trueman is a Christian historian who seeks to explain the origin of our contemporary moral confusion. To capture his theme, how did a sentence like “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” come to make sense?
Briefly, the book explains how a human self based on an external source of reality came to be superceded by a self based on personal feelings, the “authentic me” over against a society perceived to crush it by its outdated (for which read Christian) mores and norms. One of his main sources of ideas is the sociologist Philip Rieff, a relatively old but prescient writer. Rieff presents an over-simplified, but useful, idea of the stages in the history of selfhood.
Once, man was “political man,” his sense of self developed from his lifelong compliance with the norms of his social group. One can see this pattern in tribal societies, but even in the writings of Greek philosophers like Aristotle, who saw politics as the highest expression of ethics. It’s the aim of totalitarian regimes as well, of course.
Then, Rieff says, came “religious man,” and of course the example of the Christian viewing himself in relation to Christ and his teaching is the obvious one.
The third stage is “psychological man,” when people began to look inwards to their “authentic being” for meaning, rather than outward to God, or to society. Trueman, as a historian, knows that such developments are not cleancut, and cannot be finally traced to one point in space or time. But he chooses to focus his examination of the origin of this inward-turning to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose idea of the natural human untrammeled by the false values of sophisticated society, and living by the dictates of pure unsophisticated needs, was highly influential. His “noble savage” was not so much a paean to primitive tribes as a manifesto for authentic living in his own time.
Trueman then traces the development of this idea through the Romantic poets, and especially Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose dedicated commitment to free living, free love, and revolutionary politics made him a socially marginal figure at his early death (from irresponsible seamanship) in 1822, but a vanguard of today’s predominant unconscious world-view (or “social imaginary” in the terminology of another of Trueman’s major sources, Charles Taylor).
In retrospect, Shelley’s attempt to live out the “natural man” seems highly conditioned by his social status as an rich Englishman’s son. He lives off a paternal allowance, until he blows his £200,000 inheritance on a trail of failed relationships and fatherless children as he wanders Europe and publishes elevated poetry for the intelligentsia, rather than living off the land by his own uncivilized sweat.
We see the inescapable nature of socialisation now, as well, in the very obvious link between the “authentic discovery of ones true gender identity,” leftist academic theories of the 1960s, and conditioning by social media. The last has generated out of nothing (as one instance) a rapidly growing demographic of pre-pubertal girls being referred to gender clinics, a trend recently questioned for the first time in the British Courts.
But let me make two observations of my own. The first is that Trueman’s book provides, to my great satisfaction, a conceptual bridge between my first book, describing the origin of the pessimistic view of the natural creation through the Prometheus Myth that fascinated the Renaissance humanists, and my Seeing Through Smoke, concerned more with the geo-political trends behind our present troubled world. That bridge is Shelley, whose Prometheus Unbound is referenced in Trueman’s book, and epitomizes the violent antipathy between the “psychological man” and God, and even in these latter days nature, when it denies our feelings.
But I also want here to suggest that this apparently inevitable hatred of religion, once people seek their personhood within themselves, is a perversion of something Jesus himself introduced, just as sin was a perversion of the special relationship that God formed with Adam. This understanding may help us reflect on how to reach out to those in thrall to the religion of selfhood, which is behind its mask of liberty the religion of enslavement to the devil.
If we accept Rieff’s concept of “political man,” then it wasn’t “religion” that challenged it, since all primitive societies have religion as part of their social fabric, but Yahwism. From the start God called his chosen people to be distinct from their host-societies, especially after Moses separated Israel from Egypt in such a radical way at the Exodus. Much of the Torah – such as the food laws, circumcision and the sabbath – were designed to set Israel apart from the nations they displaced in Canaan. Assimilation to the surrounding culture, universal in human people-movements, became a constant threat to Israel’s covenant, resulting finally in exile.
In the subsequent diaspora, the “religious selfhood” of the Jews set them so much apart that, under Rome, the Jews were regarded as a separate entity and accorded both unique privileges and political persecution.
But when Christ called his people, essentially as the “faithful remnant” of Israel, it was as a distinct people within Judaea at first, and before long within every gentile nation in which the church was established. Believers remained loyal to their earthly rulers, and retained most of their cultures, but were committed first and foremost to the Kingdom of Jesus. They were par excellence “religious man” rather than “political man.” Concerned Roman writers even viewed Christians as a “third nation,” neither Roman nor Jewish, despite their lack of either the Jews’ historical nationhood or their genealogical unity.
Furthermore, this unique mode of being led, inevitably, to Rieff’s “psychological man.” Trueman points out virtually the first real introspection in literature in Paul’s Romans 7, and the first psychological autobiography in Augustine’s Confessions. Both these in part reflect the conflict between a self formed by a Jewish or pagan birth-culture, and that formed by Christ.
From the start, too, the need to discern false teachers and false prophets within the church required a new kind of self-examination:
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Cor 13:5).
No loyal citizen of Rome, or any other nation, had to practise such introspection to achieve belonging: it was rebellion that generally required the hard work, to overcome the political self’s lifelong constraints.
Such psychological work amongst Christians reached new levels at the Reformation, when for better or worse the plethora of views within Christianity made a merely religious, or political selfhood, if not impossible then risky.
We can now see the direct link between the struggles of the Christian mind at the Reformation, and the progressive shaking off of the external authority of Christianity altogether by those like Rousseau, once the inner mind became the focus of attention. At the same time, though, the kind of self produced by critical self-examination is the kind of self that is most equipped to worship in knowledge and freedom, rather than simply by the unthinking acceptance of authority. It produces worshippers “in spirit and in truth.”
What is missing today, though, is the willingness to submit in full self-knowledge to such external authority – the legitimate authority of God. This is the example of Jesus, after all,
who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Phil 2:6-7).
The difference of the true Christian mind from the contemporary “psychological man” mindset is that we do not examine ourselves to see how we feel, and then submit to the authority of those feelings, although sadly much modern Christianity has subtly adopted that view. To do so is to deny the inherent deceptiveness of our feelings through our sinful nature:
The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it? (Jer 17:9)
Rather, we check our inward compliance to the unchanging external Lordship of Christ, and pray and strive for reformation where we fail.
I suspect that as disillusion with the pointlessness people find when they live by feelings increases, their running into the brick wall of the gospel of a Christ who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8) may prove more welcome than any attempt the churches make to adapt to the sentiments of “psychological man.”