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A Conversation with Carl R. Trueman

Latter-day Saint scholar Jeffrey Thayne interviews the noted theologian Carl Trueman about the "Strange New World" Christians are now living in.

This week, the Christian publisher Crossway has published a new book by Carl Trueman, entitled, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution. The book is a fascinating lay person’s exploration of the philosophical, historical, and political factors that have reshaped the way we think about identity. In the book, he details the rise of expressive individualism as a worldview—with its focus on personal authenticity and “being true to yourself” as chief virtues—as well as the way in which our self-concepts and self-definitions have evolved along the way. The end result is a “strange new world,” in which our social imaginary (the institutions, symbols, and values that shape the way we think) has shifted so dramatically that many of us now feel like foreigners in communities that once felt like home. 

Expressive individualism centers our personal identity on what Philip Rief refers to as the “psychological man.”  In this view, our identities are defined by the contents of our minds—by our thoughts, desires, inclinations, preferences, etc. Carl Trueman explains, “The modern self assumes the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same.” Our identity, in this perspective, comes from within us, and self-discovery is a process of peering into our own souls. Trueman explains how we have come to see our personal identity as infinitely malleable—how we have become “plastic people”—and in the process, we have become disenchanted with traditional institutions and authorities. The sacred order has lost its shine to those in the thralls of these new perspectives on self and identity.

In a more primordial view of identity—which I think is more amenable to the worldviews we find in our sacred texts—we are defined at least in part by our relationships and responsibilities. In other words, our identity is found in that shared space between ourselves and others: I am a son of God, my children’s father, my wife’s husband, my students’ teacher, and a disciple of Christ by virtue of covenants I have made with Him. My identity is found not by looking inwards, but by looking outward and upwards—towards those in my life with whom I am in relation, towards whom I have a responsibility, and to Whom I am accountable. Some of these aspects of myself I have chosen, others I have not. Extending Trueman’s argument in the book, I would add that I am not infinitely malleable—the stubborn facts of heritage, sex, and other aspects of myself are constraints upon my attempts at self-redefinition. But I do have a choice as to which of my various relationships and community allegiances I elevate to the level of my core identity.

I first met Carl Trueman in person in August of 2021, where we both presented at the FAIR conference in Provo. Our two presentations dovetailed with each other in surprising ways, as we both share interests in exploring the history and consequences of expressive individualism in our respective communities. I was subsequently thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Carl Trueman this week and to share some more of his perspectives with a broader Latter-day Saint audience. 

Carl spoke to me from his home in Grove City, Pennsylvania. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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JT: First off, I’m wondering if you can tell our readers and listeners a little bit about yourself. Who is Carl Trueman, and specifically, why have you become so interested in exploring the issues addressed in your book?

CT:  Well I’m a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania, which is an undergraduate Christian Liberal Arts College.  Prior to that, I was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia which is a Presbyterian Seminary and I was also a Presbyterian pastor.  It was while pastoring part-time as a seminary professor I became aware that issues surrounding what I call broadly the sexual revolution were starting to encroach in a dramatic way on the life of myself as a pastor but other pastors as well.

Things such as internet pornography, for example, and questions raised about sexual identity—these things were becoming pressing issues.  So, part of my interest in the stuff I write on identity and particularly sexual identity politics arose out of a pastoral concern of wanting to try to get to the bottom of what was going on in the culture so as to be able to address it all in a responsible pastoral fashion.  I was also just struck as a historian that a sentence as dramatic and counter-intuitive and as repudiating of tradition as “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” had not only become plausible but was rapidly becoming a kind of political orthodoxy—the assent to which is being demanded of us all in such a very short period of time.  

It seemed to me that if a sentence that is so iconoclastic in many ways and so counterintuitive can so come to grip the popular and political imagination in a short period of time that there has to be a bigger backstory. There has to be something going on much deeper and much broader in the culture that has prepared the ground for what I would regard as something that 10 years ago would have been seen as craziness. And furthermore, the thing that motivated my interest was my friend Rod Dreher—a conservative journalist on the editorial staff at the American Conservative—was getting very very concerned about the way sexual politics was playing out in our broader culture. He wanted someone to write a book on a guy called Phillip Rieff who was really a Freudian sociologist but really helpful in understanding the nature of modern culture.  Rod wanted someone to write a book that would open Rieff up to a more broad popular market. That was how my first big book started while working trying to do this introduction to Rieff but it morphed into a much bigger social and cultural history because of the prior two concerns, the pastoral concern and that historical interest in why [these new ideas about identity] become so powerfully plausible in such a comparatively short period of time.  

JT: Wonderful. Thank you so much.  I confess I’ve harbored similar thoughts and asked some similar questions.  Like, how can our culture have shifted so dramatically that things that were once seen as common sense, right or wrong, or once seen as common sense are now, even over a short period of a decade, seen as anathema—and impossible to even conceive even for many. Let’s talk more about the book now. This book explores the historical development of expressive individualism, and the consequences of expressive individualism in our current “social imaginary,” as you put it. For those who haven’t read this book, could you briefly—in just a few sentences—summarize for our readers and listeners what the worldview of expressive individualism is?

[Society] is starting to take many of those behaviors which would have traditionally been anathema and it’s making those points of identity.

CT:  Yes. Expressive individualism is this idea about what constitutes us as selves, you might say, what constitutes our identity—the way we think of ourselves in relationship to other people in the world around us.  It really places—expressive individualism places—a great authority on our inner feelings. Personal authenticity is something that is achieved by being able to act outwardly in a manner consistent with those feelings.  If we could take a radical extreme example it would be transgenderism. If you think about the interview that Bruce, now Catelyn Jenner, did with Diane Sawyer, I think in around 2015, the language is very much, “I’ve been living a lie all my life. Society has pushed me into the mold of this macho athletic man. But all of my life I’ve really been a woman trapped in this macho male body.  Now finally I’m able to be myself.”

When you think about what that language implies or what it carries with it, is this idea that all along Jenner was this person hidden inside the body desperate to get out and is now able to do that even though it contradicts the body that Jenner has. And that is sort of an extreme example of expressive individualism.  But most of us can sympathize with that in a less radical way.  Most of us have this idea that the person we really are equals the feelings inside us.  And to the extent that we aren’t able to act out those feelings or express those feelings … or have those feelings acknowledged by other people … to that extent we are not able to truly be ourselves.  So that is expressive individualism. It has ramifications.  One of the ramifications of that is personal-psychological happiness moves to the center of what it means to be fulfilled.  And that, of course, means that we tend towards seeing the world around us, and particularly other people, as good to the extent that they are able to facilitate our personal psychological happiness—and as problems to be overcome to the extent that they don’t do that.  

I could illustrate that with a fairly extreme example.  Think about abortion for example. How a woman who’s having an abortion thinks about the baby in her womb. She thinks of it as an alien presence. A “something” that’s encroaching on her life. It’s something that’s going to stop her from flourishing in the way she wants to flourish. That’s an extreme example but it captures something of that notion that “I am free, autonomous, and unencumbered and everybody else to the extent that they impinge or infringe on my ability to be psychologically happy, to that extent they are a problem that I need to get rid of or overcome in some way.” 

JT: Thank you so much.  You’ve already alluded to this a little bit but you explore in your book how expressive individualism poses deep challenges for Christians in our new secular society. Of course, this is one of the focuses of your entire book. However, if you could summarize those challenges in just a few sentences, what would they be?

CT: I think for religious people in general, expressive individualism poses a significant challenge. When you think about how to be a member of a Presbyterian Church, it traditionally requires a certain code of behavior. I’m sure it’s the same in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s the same in synagogues with Jewish friends I have. You have to behave in a certain way. There are certain things intrinsic to your religious beliefs that touch directly upon the way one behaves. The problem with expressive individualism is it is starting to take many of those behaviors which would have traditionally been anathema, say, to a Presbyterian and it’s making those points of identity. So traditionally, Presbyterians would have said homosexual behavior is off-limits—you can’t engage in homosexual behavior and consistently claim to be a Presbyterian.  Once, of course, that behavior gets tied to an identity then what the Presbyterian Church is really [perceived to be] saying is you’re not allowed to be a certain kind of person as a Presbyterian. And if that kind of person is a person who has been valorized, lionized, promoted by the wider culture …  if accepting that kind of person is made a condition of good citizenship, then those of us who belong to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, you name it, belong to religions that repudiate the behaviors connected to that identity.  

To that extent, we’re placing ourselves in a position where somebody could point to us and say, “You’re seditious.  You no longer think and behave in a way that good members of our society behave.”  That’s why you preach on Romans 1 and somebody is going to claim that you are endangering people because you’re preaching against homosexuality, for example. They don’t hear you as preaching against behavior, they hear you as dehumanizing and delegitimizing a particular identity, a particular person. I think the sexual revolutionprecisely because it strikes at the sexual codes that Christianity, Islam, Judaism place right at their center—puts traditional religions in a very difficult and invidious position at this point in time. 

JT:  In the final chapter of the book, you invite Christians to examine their own complicity in the rise of expressive individualism. Could you clarify what you mean by that? And why is it important to be humble as religious people as we approach these issues?

Since when was the worship of God an opportunity to express yourself?

CT:  Yeah, what I mean by that is I belong to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  The Orthodox Presbyterian Church does not stand in isolation from American culture. The way that Orthodox Presbyterians think Monday through Saturday inevitably affects how we think on Sunday; the wider culture inevitably shapes us. One could think of the tradition of Christian hymnody that has tended to focus on individual experience.  I can’t comment on what life is like among the Latter-day Saints, but certainly, in Evangelical Protestantism in America, you’ll often hear that the people go to worship to feel good.  They go to worship to express themselves and worship. That’s expressive individual language.  Since when was the worship of God an opportunity to express yourself?  It was really more an opportunity to adore the transcendent God. So this idea has crept in by those ways. Again I can’t comment on the Latter-day Saints, since I have limited experience with you.  But the tradition in Evangelical Protestantism, [we sometimes see people] drifting from church to church, looking for that church that meets their personal needs, and making religion into a consumer commodity.  And you ultimately go to the church that scratches where you’re itching. Again that’s a kind of expressive individualist approach which places me and my needs at the center of my religious thinking.

I think it’s important we acknowledge that because it shapes how we respond to what many of us would see as the excesses of expressive individualism. If I’m correct, the sexual revolution represents an excessive expressive individualism and a particularly sexually charged one.  It’s important to realize that the advocates of the sexual revolution might be quantitatively different than me, but they may not be qualitatively different than me.  I was listening this morning to a young New Testament scholar who spoke about a section of the gospel of John where the woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus. He noted that the first thing Jesus does is point to the complicity of the crowd and said, “he who has no sin cast the first stone.”  The second thing He does is tell the woman “go away and stop what you are doing. Go away and sin no more.”  That was an interesting ordering.  He, first of all, humbled the crowd, and then He rebuked the woman.  I think anybody addressing the LGBT+ movement who wants to have a clean conscience about doing it has to, first of all, acknowledge their own complicity in the kinds of expressive individualist’s sins of which the LGBT+ community is perhaps only the most controversial and highest-profile example. 

JT: I really appreciate that. In other words, it’s important to examine the ways in which we as a community might be indulging expressive individualism in less noticeable ways but still help to feed that social imaginary from which so many are drawing on the issues. 

CT:  Yeah.  Another good example would be gay marriage.  Most conservatives would say that marriage was redefined in 2015, via Obergefell v. Hodges. In actual fact, gay marriage simply builds upon the logic of no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce is the real redefinition of marriage—when marriage became something that now exists for the mutual psychological happiness of the contracting parties. As soon as it ceases to do that they can go their separate ways and the children, for example, are just so much collateral damage. This is really an expressive individualist’s conception of marriage. Well, that was introduced in 1970 in the state of California by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Again I can’t speak to the practice of the Latter-day Saint community on this but certainly, in Protestant and Evangelical circles nobody really bothered protesting no-fault divorce.  Nobody really took it seriously within our own ranks. So the logic of gay marriage was something we accepted as perfectly reasonable when it was a heterosexual couple.  It’s become problematic now that gay couples are on the scene.  But I want to say yeah the Church has really hamstrung itself because of the issue because of the easy way we accepted no-fault divorce in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. 

JT: That’s a fascinating example. Basically what you are saying is in this past decade we really have been taking to the logical conclusion world views we might have embraced several decades ago. I know for a fact that many Latter-day Saint leaders at the time were critical of these new developments such as no-fault divorce. If I talked to many of my peers today I would be hard-pressed to get people to strongly criticize some of those movements, perhaps not realizing what they’ve led to down the road.  

JT: You traced the history of this worldview in an earlier book—“The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.” Since the release of that earlier book, have events caused you to refine or reconsider your analysis?

CT:  Not in any fundamental substantial way. I have a little short book just coming out this week (“Strange New World”)—a shorter version that summarizes the bones of the argument of the big book but also moves into a couple of other areas.  I’ve been very struck with how these ideas surrounding expressive individualism have become plausible? You can trace the intellectual genealogy. Most people don’t read Rousseau. Most people don’t read Freud.  Most people don’t read Nietz​​sche. So why do they think like them? Why do they behave in a manner consistent with their thinking? One of the strands that I think needs to be addressed is the weakening of traditional institutions and the transformation of traditional institutions. We live in a world where the old markers of identity we might broadly say were family, church, and nation—certainly for the last 150 years. Family, church, and nation have been significant components of how people have thought of themselves. They provided that external, relatively stable framework by which we can navigate our own identities. All three of those, if not in crisis, have certainly become rather unstable if not “liquid” at this point in time. If you got a dozen young people in a room and you ask them to define family you’ll get a dozen different definitions. 

We know from the power of the internet that events overseas, for good or for ill, often grip our imagination more powerfully than events down the road.  It was very interesting in the middle years of the decade how many young men (and some women) from good middle-class homes in London where they want for nothing, “pledged allegiance to ISIS online.” They felt more identity with something seen on a screen from thousands of miles away than with their own families and neighbors. That indicates to me that traditional institutions are no longer gripping the imagination as they once did.

What you have there, I think, when old communities die away, old identities get thrown into crisis.  And that’s where new strong communities can fill the vacuum. Why do so many young kids want to join the LGBT+ movement? Because it does give a sense of belonging. A sense of value. A sense of identity. And we have failed to provide them with a stronger alternative.  Because the institutions that you and I grew up with have become very very weak in the last 10-15 years.

JT:  This new book, “Strange New World,” is written for a broader audience. In your view, what does this book offer beyond your previous book? What made this new book necessary?

CT: I’m a reformation historian. So I had to write the earlier, bigger book with all of the footnotes to establish my credibility—also to get the deep, broad narrative clear in my own mind. The shorter book is really designed for a broader audience.  It was prompted by  Ryan Anderson, who is a colleague of mine at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in D.C. and famous for being banned from Amazon for his book on transgenderism, “When Harry became Sally.” Ryan had read the big book and dropped me a note, “I really enjoy your big book but there is a huge problem.” I said, “What’s the problem?”  He said, “Nobody is going to read it. I’ve got to give a book to DC staffers. I want to give books to policy wonks.  They aren’t going to read a 400-page book. They might read a shorter 200-page book.”  

And my publisher, Crossway, at the same time, was thinking we need to turn the big book into something that could be used in Sunday School (something in Presbyterianism where a book can be read together as a church and studied with discussion). So the book is designed to be much more amenable to that kind of thing, with youth leaders, Sunday School teachers, etc.  I spoke to so many parents, including at the FAIR conference when I spoke, who are confused and lives are being torn apart because their kids think differently about this stuff than the way they do.  They don’t know why. They want some kind of map that helps them understand this tremendous gulf that exists between the older generation and the younger generation. Between parents and children, this gives some way to find some kind of common ground for engaging in discussion. So, the book is designed to meet that kind of need. 

JT:  You are absolutely right.  I’m talking to people left and right who are just bewildered by these changes in cultural attitudes. They are searching for a road map which I think your book does very well, which is why I’m going to recommend it to everyone. 

Carl, to zoom out a little now, we are watching our nation polarize over a host of cultural issues. This new book spends a great deal of time exploring philosophies and perspectives we might associate with the political and cultural left. Do you see similarly dangerous trends on the right?

Events overseas, for good or for ill, often grip our imagination more powerfully than events down the road.

CT:  Yes. I think we just happen to live at a time where left-wing individualism is in ascendance. But I think that right-wing individualism can be just as dangerous. It really depends on who’s got their hands on the levers of cultural power. But the problem, I think, is at root, modern humanity has the conception of ourselves and our destiny as being unencumbered and autonomous. That fits as easily with right-wing Libertarianism as it does with left-wing Progressivism. It may play out slightly differently in terms of how the central government referees what’s going on.  But I think the real problem is that we think of ourselves as autonomous. We don’t think of ourselves as first and foremost those who exist in relationships of dependency and obligation towards others.

So, if I were presenting a positive vision of the way forward, I think it would be a vision that would upset both right and left—on the grounds that I would want to talk first and foremost about responsibilities. Not about rights. I would want to talk about obligations. Not about rights. I would want to talk about how we are only ourselves when we are serving other people. I think that is something that is an anathema to the radical libertarian rights and to the radical progressive left at this particular point in time. 

JT: I absolutely agree with you on that. From my own perspective, I really think that who we are is kind of bound up in the relationships of duty and responsibility that we have with those around us. Which is a kind of contradiction of the ideology we’re seeing on both sides of that spectrum. Could we end with some recommendations for parents and church leaders?

CT:  Yeah that’s a tough question because the causes of the problem are so complex that it’s difficult to say, “here’s the silver bullet. Put this in your gun and pull the trigger. Problem solved. Here’s the vaccine.  Just stick it in their arm and they’re okay.”

I think constant vigilance is very important. I would say this, one piece of practical advice: Don’t give kids smartphones. I think if you give kids smartphones it’s game over at that point. The evidence that’s emerging at the moment, it’s anecdotal but highly plausible as it stands, and I think it will be confirmed. Namely this: For children immersed in smartphones, the most important influential people in kids’ lives are not their parents and not their teachers. That means being a good parent and making sure your kids are put in good schools or homeschooling your kids is not going to solve the problem in and of itself. 

It’s the TikTok influencers. It’s the YouTube influencers.  These are the people who are shaping the minds of the young at the moment. If you give your children untrammeled, unhindered access to those people, then you are giving them unhindered and untrammeled access to your kids’ minds. So, I would say as hard as it is—and I sit here as a father whose kids thankfully reached adulthood before smartphones became an issue (so I can’t sit here and lecture everybody else and say I did this, “yes it’s tough. I did it so you can do the same.”)  But I hope that if I was a parent of younger children I would have the strength to do it. I think if you want to keep your children as inoculated to this stuff as you possibly can then you have to police their access to the internet and the kind of stuff they can get to via the internet.  There’s just no way around that.  I understand how that can be hard because increasingly we all have to have these gadgets, and so much is done on a smartphone. It’s difficult to do this but I think we have to try to resist it as much as we can.

JT: Thank you. I agree. I teach psychology and I actually do a unit in my psychology class on social media. The truth is they are detecting definite correlations between social media use and a whole host of other similar negative factors.

CT:  Yes it does not surprise me.  I would recommend to your listeners to get hold of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage. It’s an incredibly depressing read.  It’s about the trans craze among young teenage girls. One of the things that comes through so clearly is when she talks to these girls who think they’re trans, time and again it’s the internet that triggered it for them. She’s a liberal Jewish figurenot a figure of the political right or religious right at all. But I would strongly recommend that book as a  must-read if you want to understand the world that your teenagers are living in at the moment.

“I know we are going to lose but still we’re going to meet them on the field of battle.”

JT: Never in any previous generation or decade have we been able to allow our children access to the voices of total strangers of whom we know nothing. These unknown people are now influencing young minds and we’re allowing them to.

CT:  Yes. There’s a reason why the tech gurus in Silicon Valley don’t allow their own kids to use technology. They know what it does to kids’ minds.

JT: Okay, one final question. If you could convey a single message to a broadly Latter-day Saint audience who are grappling with the consequences of expressive individualism, what might that message be?

CT:  Don’t give up. Particularly when it comes to your children. There’s a temptation to be overwhelmed by what’s going on and just abandon everything we hold dear in the face of the wall of water that’s heading towards us. I’m admittedly resigned to not winning any of the significant cultural battles of the west in my own lifetime.  I’m in my mid 50’s. I’m going to lose every single battle I engage in in the next 20 years if I live that long. 30 years. But I’m not engaging in those battles for me and my generation. I’m engaging in those battles to make sure there’s something left for the next generation to fight on and the next generation after that. I don’t know how often Tolkien is cited in Latter-day Saint circles.  He’s very trendy in the circles that I mix in. Theoden of Rohan, at one point of the story, tells one of his bodyguards, “I know we are going to lose but still we’re going to meet them on the field of battle.”

I would say our generation has the responsibility to future generations to fight the fight even though we are going to lose many battles in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.  But we still have the responsibility to fight those battles no matter what the cost because we are laying a foundation for our great-grandchildren and their children. 

JT: That’s actually an excellent example partly because we’re still finding strength and inspiration today from them J.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others who were writing a couple of generations ago. They were planting seeds that are still bearing fruit today in the lives of people who read them. 

CT: Yes, who doesn’t love Tolkien? Wonderful stuff and inspiring as well as entertaining. 

JT: Well thank you so much for your time.  I am thrilled to have been able to talk to you.

About the author

Jeffrey Thayne

Jeffrey Thayne blogs at ldsphilosopher.com, and is the coauthor of “Who is Truth?” He has a Ph.D. from Utah State University in Learning Sciences
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