The Triumph of the Modern Self: A Conversation with Theologian Carl Trueman

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Carl Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He earned his MA in Classics from the University of Cambridge, and his PhD in Church History from the University of Aberdeen.
Professor Trueman has a distinguished career both as a teacher and author having published several books on reformation theology, historiography and biographies on figures such as John Owen and Martin Luther. His most recent book is The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. It’s a timely, very important book, and it’s the topic of our conversation today. Carl Trueman, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Carl Trueman: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on.

Albert Mohler: This is a really outstanding book. I think one of the books that has contemporary immediate relevance, but I think you’ve written a book that is going to be referenced for a very long time.

Carl Trueman: I hope so. I think the issues it grazes have significance beyond the mere topic of the sexual revolution, which was the culminating point of the book, of course. But I hope it will help Christians to think critically about culture and about some of the broader issues in our culture for the foreseeable future.

Albert Mohler: The title: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The subtitle: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. That’s quite a subtitle. But your title immediately caught my mind, because the three most important conversation partners in your book have been the same for me for 30+ years of my life. And I think you’ve written a brilliant synthesis, but also an engagement of these issues. You’re not just bringing us Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre and Philip Rieff, you’re bringing us a very cogent, orthodox, confessional Christian analysis of these issues. But it all began with a question, and that question was, “How we can understand the statement, ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’” So just tell us why in the world you wrote this book and why that question, as obvious as it might be.

Carl Trueman: That question intrigued me. I mean, I’m, by training, as you know, a 16th & 17th century historian of ideas. So this is new territory for me. But I was at a point in my career where other historical questions were becoming of interest. I was reflecting on that question, relative to my grandfather. My grandfather died in 1994. And I’m pretty sure that if I’d ever said that sentence to my grandfather, he would have burst out laughing, not because he wanted to be offensive or anything, but simply because the sentence would have been utterly incoherent to him. The way he thought intuitively about human personhood, and about male and female, would render that question not just implausible, but completely absurd. I became interested in trying to work out, well, how have we reached a point in 2020, where not only does that statement make sense to most people, it actually makes sense to people who’ve never sat in French post-structuralist seminars. It’s not just the elite intellectuals of society who claim it makes sense. It’s starting to make intuitive sense to that mythical creature, the ordinary man or woman in the street, and I wanted to try to probe how that came about. And of course, there are a whole host of things that society needs to be bought into, what society needs to have decided on before that sentence can make any coherent sense.

Albert Mohler: This isn’t the first time in human history that such a sentence becomes a turning point. And by the way, I regularly go through a list of sentences that could only make sense in the last 10 years. You pointed to, I think, the most glaring example, but there are actually many others. But one of the things I do in talking about the history of ideas is talking about when a sentence would have become plausible, such as “I voted,” or “I am a citizen,” or “I invoke my civil rights.” There are just a lot of sentences that a century previous would have made no sense. No one would have argued whether the sentence was right or wrong, it would have been implausible. And yet, what we’re looking at now is something that has happened at warp speed, because I daresay it’s not just Carl Trueman’s grandfather. I think if you talk to Carl Trueman 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have understood the sentence either.

Carl Trueman: No, it would have been inherently ridiculous to me. In fact, I remember one of my least insightful comments ever was at a Bible study, I think in the early 90s, where somebody raised the issue of gay marriage, and I made the comment, “That will never be plausible.” Well, that’s old hat compared to transgenderism. So I think you’re absolutely correct. For people of yours and my generation, we’ve lived through a quantum leap in the way people talk about sex and gender, male and female that, in some ways, when you look back on it, is absolutely breathtaking. I mean, living through it, it’s all made a kind of sense, I suppose. But when you think back 10, 15 years ago… I remember something you wrote, I think maybe a decade ago, and you said, “Trans rights will be the big issue of the next decade.” And I remember reading that and thinking, Mohler is off his rocker. At this point, that’ll never happen. Well, it’s the big issue of 2020, in many ways. You were absolutely prophetic on that point.

Albert Mohler: Well, the issue that struck me then and now, and you actually confront this in your own way, in the book very well, is the fact that if you just look at LGBTQ, it’s the T that is by far most problematic. It’s the T that is in defiance of ontology. And we’re going to talk about that as we get to it. I want to kind of go back to the title of the book, The Rise and Triumph for the Modern Self. So let me ask you an interesting question. As a theologian and historian of ideas, when did the self become a comprehensible concept?

Carl Trueman: That’s an interesting question. I mean, on one level, one would have to say that I assume that everybody throughout history has had a consciousness of their own individual identity. I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul knew that he wasn’t the Emperor Nero, that he had a self-consciousness. I think the real question is, when does that inner space become decisive for how we understand that self-consciousness. And one could make a case, of course, that Christianity is critical in that development. Paul’s own development of the idea of a man at war with himself when his will is in conflict over the good that he would do and the bad that he would avoid. Paul sort of paves the way for that. So I think that notion of the self as having inner space- really what could make the case rise is, by and large, I think with Christianity. We find a very fine example, of course, in the ancient world in the confessions of St. Augustine. So that psychological space is really opened up by Christianity. It’s radicalized, I think, from the 18th century onwards. That’s when it really starts to become the dominant way of thinking about one’s identity. And that’s what we are the heirs of today.

Albert Mohler: I’ve been thinking about this for a long time as a view, and it seems to me that the self is very present in the Psalms, where you have an inner conversation that is revealed, which is extremely rare in ancient literature, let’s just put it that way. The Psalms are, if not unique, then singular, at least, in the honest conversation with the self. Anguish, celebration. And then the Apostle Paul, and then Augustine. But what is common to David and Paul and Augustine is the understanding that the self is not its own project. The modern sense of the self is the self as a project. And you can’t get that even in the beginning of the Enlightenment. You could only get that, I would argue, with the dawn of kind of the modern psychotherapeutic revolution.

Carl Trueman: Yeah, I would agree. I mean, thinking about Augustine, one of the challenges I had from students as I taught some of this stuff at Grove City was, “What about the Psalms? What about Augustine’s confession?” Of course, as you point out, the interesting thing is the self is not the ultimate project there. The way I put it in class is, Augustine moves inward, Paul moves inward, simply so that he can then move outward more effectively and locate himself relative to God. I think you’re absolutely correct in saying that the self is a sort of constructed project is a later phenomenon.
It’s not even really there in Rousseau and the romantics. I think the thing that saves Rousseau and the romantics is they do believe that there is such a thing as human nature that has a moral structure, we’re more than what we made off. There’s a moral structure to which we all have to conform in order to be fully human beings. The real move comes in many ways, as you point out in the 19th century with Nietzsche, Marx and Freud- Nietzsche, Marx and Darwin in their different ways. They sort of demolish the notion of the moral structure, a set moral structure of humanity. And then with Freud, of course, you get the final sort of lethal move on that front where the self is a project of the desires. There’s nothing to reach the self is really answerable beyond that which the self desires. So you’re correct, absolutely, on that point.

Albert Mohler: I’ve often put it this way as I’m trying to think it through- and of course this has direct relevance to our understanding of the gospel- but if you look at David, Paul, Augustine, their concern for interiority is the knowledge of how they fall short of the glory of God; it’s going into the interior in order to understand their own sinfulness, their own inadequacies, their own consistencies with the external reality, which is, of course, Christian theism. It’s a holy and righteous God. The modern self goes into the self, and only comes out of the self in order to protect the good self from the evil society, including all of its moral laws. The self is what’s right, it’s the external world that’s what’s wrong. It’s the exact opposite of that tradition.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. And Philip Rieff makes that point in his sort of analysis of therapists. It says, you go to the Middle Ages, or the Reformation, the therapists are the priest or the ministers and their task is to, I think, he puts it rather provocatively, “Their task is to explain to people why they’re miserable.” Their task is to confront them with the truth to which they have to conform themselves. Whereas in the modern era, of course, the therapist is, as you point out precisely the opposite. The modern therapist is the one trying to protect people from the outside, or when it manifests itself politically, trying to transform the outer culture in a way that affirms the self. And transgenderism is a great example of that because we’re now finding we’re in a situation where everybody is going to buy into this because we don’t want people feeling they’re inadequate, or we don’t want to hurt people. So that that therapeutic move is directly connected, I think, to a transformation of the notion of the self and has significant political implications for us all.

Albert Mohler: As a college undergraduate, I wrote a paper on Freud. And I didn’t know a great deal about Freud as a 18, 19-year-old, but I didn’t like what I found. The guide to my understanding of Freud more than anything else is actually Philip Rieff in his book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. And so I must admit that every subsequent reading I’ve done in the primary sources of Freud’s own writings, probably influenced by Philip Rieff, and Philip brief could utter the most ultimate put down. Where he said that if you look at Freud’s corpus, he said, “There are many truths, but there’s no truth.”

Carl Trueman: I haven’t heard that one. That’s great!

Albert Mohler: Yeah. He did recognize the power of Freud. In fact, at one point, he said, “It’s the most important body of thought committed to paper in the 20th century.” And yet, Freud doesn’t go directly to the conception of the self that the average person walking on the street is thinking. It takes an incredible confluence of events to bring Freud into the mind of the average American, as you say, but it has happened.

Carl Trueman: Yes. I mean, I think in some ways, Freud has a lot going for him in terms of getting his ideas popularized because he makes sexual desire at the center of human existence and human beings, a large part of who we are is our sexual desires. As you say, Freud has lots of truths, even if there’s no ultimate truth there. And I think that any thinker who plays up the sexual aspect of human beings is on to a winner. It appeals to the fallen human mind, I think, that sex is the meaning of existence. And it’s a message that’s easy to popularize.
In the book, I pick on Hugh Hefner. I think that the whole Playboy philosophy of sex as a kind of enjoyable, hedonistic fulfillment of life, that’s Hugh Hefner. You don’t have to read Freud to get Freud, you simply have to buy a copy of Playboy. Now, of course, we live in times when playboy is remarkably conservative compared to what’s available at the press of a computer button. But it conveys the same basic message, we are fundamentally sexual beings in our fulfillment as we found in fulfilling our sexual desires. That’s Freud, that’s Hefner, that’s modern Western culture, unfortunately.

Albert Mohler: But Freud was a slipperier or you might say more sophisticated thinker in this sense. When I began my consideration of Freud, the one thing I thought I knew about Freud was that all sexual repression was wrong. But I didn’t have to read far to Freud to recognize that it’s actually not what he’s saying.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. He’s a very conflicted thinker on that point. On one hand, he hates religion, and he knows that religion is the way of maintaining sexual repression. On the other hand- and this is what I appreciate about him over against somebody like Rousseau- for he clearly understands that human beings now are very dark creatures. And understands that the state of nature is not this paradise so much that we can go back to, but it’s actually red in tooth and claw. And I think Freud is much more realistic. I always felt the problem for Freud was he wants to get rid of religion, but he can’t really find anything to replace it with that will maintain the sexual taboos in the same way. So he’s sort of conflicted on that point.

Albert Mohler: He was conflicted on the issue of religion, he felt a loss. I mean, he described himself as a godless Jew. That was his own term. But it wasn’t said with vehemence. It was said with, I think, a sense of loss. But Freud’s concept of polymorphous perversity. You have someone like Foucault who would come along and champion that as his cause to celebrate polymorphous perversity, but Freud didn’t. Freud actually said that the human sexual appetite can be so dark that it takes a society that puts up some parameters, otherwise you get polymorphous perversity, but he had no moral standard. There was nothing. You point out, I think, quite rightly that he had no way to describe how anything could be bounded that didn’t amount to repression.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. And I think that, as I say, that’s the sort of the Achilles’ heel of his thinking. It was also the thing that I think most disturbed me as I was working on the book that Freud, particularly as picked up by Rieff, is making this point that sexual taboos take you to the heart of what keeps a society together. And that raises the very serious question of, well, what happens when sexual taboos get dissolved, when the only thing holding us back is this very nebulous notion of consent. What happens when that’s the only thing that’s holding back the tidal wave of polymorphous perversity? That’s one of the things that I found most disturbing as I worked on the book, because I look at what’s going on in American society, British society, Western society in general and think, if Freud is correct, this is terrifying in the long run, this is a nightmare unfolding before us.

Albert Mohler: Let’s talk about how these ideas did come to have such traction in American culture. And I’ll admit, Carl, one of the surprises to me over the course of the last decade, is how what had been kind of implicit in this society has now become so explicit. And I don’t just mean in terms of sex, I mean in terms of the architecture of ideas. I, in the late 70s, had to confront the errors of the Frankfurt School. But they really were kind of an academic tribe. And they really had even kind of limited influence in American academic life. You could have Marcuse on the west coast, but frankly … And they led a youth movement and all the rest. But I didn’t see how fast those ideas of basically Marxist derivation smashed together as if in a cyclotron with Marx, Freud and Jung and others. How all of a sudden that would become so commonplace that … I mean, Hollywood producers and directors are reckoning with these ideas and putting together the products of mass consumption.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. I mean, it’s a remarkable success story from that perspective. I mean, partly, I think it’s a generational thing, that you have the generation of ’68 rising through the ranks of tenure, et cetera, in universities. Partly, I think you have the recruitments of pop culture for some of these ideas in a very banal form. And partly, I think you have the advantage that these kind of ideas do play to some basic instincts of fallen human beings. They are attractive in their nihilism and their destructiveness, I think so. You have a whole host of things coming together, but-

Albert Mohler: That’s a very Christian comment, I would argue. That’s a very Augustinian comment. In other words, you’re basically saying that many of these ideas are actually quite convenient in order to justify certain moral inclinations that one wishes to set loose.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. In some ways, I think Nietzsche nails it this way. I’ve always appreciated Nietzsche as a very consistent kind of thinker. Nietzsche in the 19th century, essentially saying, “Hey, there are no moral absolutes, there’s no metaphysical order to which we have to be answerable. We have to rise to the challenge. We can invent ourselves.” And of course, that is in some ways precisely the dynamic of the fall. Did God really say? Satan challenges or the serpent challenges there the notion that there is some sort of intrinsic metaphysical framework that gives Nietzsche its moral structure. And Nietzsche is, I suppose, the greatest and most consistent exponent of the idea that creation means nothing, and therefore, it’s all up for grabs. The big difference it seems to be in the world today is between those who think there’s nothing but stuff and we can just do with it what we want. And those who think that there is actually a purpose, that the world is more than just the atoms from which it’s made. There is some order to which it conforms. And as I say, Nietzsche, I think is the man who blows the cover off that. Like a lot of great thinkers, has become more significant in the 100 years, 120 years since his death and during his actual lifetime.

Albert Mohler: Now, I’m tempted, then on that comment to race to the end of your book, where, again, there’s a confluence between your project in this book and one of the major projects of my work right now, which, which gets to the issue of natural law. And you suggest that one of the things that Church must do is reckon with natural law. And by the way, I’m enthusiastically in agreement with it, but not for the reasons that many of our traditional Roman Catholic friends would celebrate. The idea of many Roman Catholic apologists and moral theologians of the last, let’s just say, in particular, the last 100 years, has been that there’s a third way of argument. And I think that third way of argument has disappeared in us in the larger society. I actually think natural law… the knowledge derived from the natural law is actually more important for helping Christians to understand revealed true than for an apologetic purpose in the larger society. So I used to make Catholic friends who will say, “you can’t use scriptural arguments.” I think of people you and I both know very well and respect and are friends, who at least 10, 15 years ago, were writing, you shouldn’t make explicitly theistic arguments,” you should be making natural arguments.” And all I want to say is, where is the one federal judge whose mind was changed by a natural law? Where is the one intellectual figure in the United States you can say who said, okay, they swerved away from affirming same sex marriage because of natural law. I could wish it were true, but I don’t think it is true. And so, to getting back to Nietzsche, just to set it up here, I think what Nietzsche makes clear is theism or nihilism in the end.

Carl Trueman: I think that’s absolutely the case. It’s a question of does the world mean something or it doesn’t mean nothing? That puts it rather simplistically, but I think that’s the choice. And by and large people have opted for the, it means nothing. We can impose our own views and values on it today. And I think that leads to precisely the point you made about the purpose and usefulness of natural law. I don’t think it really works very well in the public square. You could point people to statistics of STDs among the gay male community, these kind of things, but they will simply be regarded as technical problems which we have to develop technology to overcome. Where natural law works well I’m finding is among the rising generation of younger Christians. At Grove, I have a lot of great undergraduates. They come from good Christian homes. They want to believe the Bible. They want to honor what the Bible says. But it’s helpful to them to know why the Bible says it. And I think natural law sort of fits into that kind of framework that allows them to understand that God doesn’t just randomly ban homosexuality, there’s a reason for that that is reflected in the world around us. And so to me, it’s a kind of faith seeking understanding project that natural law, obviously, rooted in and chastened by the Bible- we’re good Protestants after all- but natural law has an almost catechetical function within the Christian community in helping Christians to think clearly and understand why some of these things are in place. It’s very tough, I think, for kids today growing up. Many of them will have gay friends. It’s much tougher for them to hold the biblical line on Christianity than it was for people of our generation. They need good reasons to be able to offer a rationale for why God thinks the way he does about these things, if that’s a too crude a way to put it.

Albert Mohler: No. And I think that’s also a Christian way of reasoning. If you consider the Protestant historic opposition to natural law, it was opposition to a theological principle that would stand in the place of Scripture. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a theological principle that explicates and manifests God’s revelation in Scripture. One of the things I point out is that if you have Genesis 1 to Genesis 2, and you have the construction of human beings made in God’s image as male and female, you have the conjugality, even of the establishment of marriage, and you have the reproduction mandate, the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. It actually takes a sperm and an egg to do that. It just so happens that the creation order that is revealed in Genesis is actually still the only way that the human species can continue to reproduce. But you say, and this is the thing, but you say that to the average person on a college campus, not a Christian college campus, and they’re going to say, yeah, but that’s just awaiting a technological solution.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. Instrumental reason is the dominant way of thinking about these issues now. And it pervades Christian circles as well. That’s why I think it’s so important to have articulate expressions of these kind of ideas for the rising generation of young Christians who are not averse to learning. But they do need people to teach them the right things in the right kind of way.

Albert Mohler: One of the projects I’m involved in right now is arguing about the concept of rights, which is so central to our discourse, and has been for a long time. But that rights conversation has to explain why human beings would possess any rights, and if so which rights human beings would possess. And again, that takes natural law reasoning. You don’t have a simple set of Bible verses to set that out. But without that method of reasoning, then there’s no distinction between what rights we really should respect in every single human being and what actually is not rightly described as a right at all.

Carl Tueman: Yes. And again, that’s so points towards the whole notion of teleology as well. Natural law, I think needs to be constructed teleologically if it’s going to make biblical sense, because it has to take account of the fact that we’re designed for a purpose that goes beyond our own individual pleasure, well-being, survival, et cetera, et cetera. So teleology becomes part of that. And again, I think the emphasis on natural law in itself is not enough, because you can have a natural law of rights, as you talked about there, that ultimately become a kind of life, liberty and property. Well, as a Christian, I think we want to articulate an understanding of natural law that goes beyond that and shapes even how we think about those things.

Albert Mohler: You deal with several of the most crucial Supreme Court decisions, not so much because you’re really I think trying to argue legal points, but rather you’re just looking at the history of ideas and how they become represented in those decisions, but also kind of institutionalized now by those decisions- and again gets to my question of transmission- And by the way, sometimes, the Frankfurt School is very interested in this idea of transmission. How in the world do ideas, of course… the whole idea of Cultural Marxism and the Gramsci and the bringing about revolution by means of the culture rather than economic proletarian revolution. I’m fascinated by the issue of transmission. So, since you dealt with these issues so thoroughly in your book, I want to set out a situation and see if you can explain it for me:
Anthony Kennedy, Justice of the United States Supreme Court, author of the majority opinion in every single important gay rights case, as it was called then, going back to Lawrence v. Texas, Windsor, you just get on the entire list, Obergefell, and also the primary author of the Casey decision on abortion in 1992. So it turns out that Anthony Kennedy was born the same year as both of my parents, 1936. Very different social structure. My parents were not born to a Sacramento, California state legislator and lawyer as was Anthony Kennedy. But there’s nothing in that period of time in 1936, and the thought operational in Sacramento, California that is the Frankfurt School. You don’t have this conception of the self evident at that point. He goes to Stanford University, and graduates in 1958 with an undergraduate degree in constitutional, well, you can see where this is headed. And then it turns out that in his last year at Stanford, and this is what I’m looking for, in the last year at Stanford, he went and spent his senior year studying at the London School of Economics. Then he went to the Harvard Law School, and of course, graduated in ’91. Eventually became a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and then 1988 to 2018 on the Supreme Court of the United States. The question in my mind is, how in the world did this moral revolution end up in Anthony Kennedy? And that’s where, to me the London School of Economics jumps out that year. But by the time you have the Casey decision in 1992, Anthony Kennedy, appointed by a Republican president, supposedly a conservative is actually perhaps the most effective singular person in promoting the idea of the self you’ve evaluated in your book.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. It’s an amazing story when you set it up like that, that’s a remarkable odyssey, one might say, that he’s gone through. It’s hard to tell, of course, because so much of these kind of decisions, or so much of this thinking is sometimes shaped by personality. I also think that the London School of Economics may well have played a critical role. But there’s also something in the American notion of individualism that plays to this as well. That there’s something in the American notion of the rugged individual who’s able to carve out their own destiny that is not antithetical to the kind of bizarre notion of selfhood that he articulates in Planned Parenthood. That’s why I think the story is, in some ways, it’s a more complicated one than the left wing radicals take over the culture and transform it. I think there are patterns within Western culture, particularly in American culture, that play to this sort of individual construction of reality.

Albert Mohler: To make your point, I don’t think Anthony Kennedy thinks he’s a liberal.

Carl Trueman: No. I’ve never seen anything to suggest that. I mean, on his last ruling, which I think was the Cakeshop ruling, he came down sort of on the right side in that one, I think.
If you take the Burger Court in the Roe v. Wade decision, 1973 with Blackmun writing that majority opinion, they thought they had solved it. They thought they had created kind of a solution to the issue of abortion with following previous cases on contraception, all the rest of this was right to privacy. And again, it was Blackmun, a Republican appointed justice who wrote that majority opinion. It was presided over by Warren burger. It was a seven/two decision. There were a lot of people who thought themselves conservatives who voted for Roe v. Wade, horrifyingly enough. And then you get to Casey and you go on. But that particular section of the Casey decision turns out to be the actual hinge. It is where Kennedy uses the language of the meaning of the universe, the self’s understanding of the … I mean, it’s almost as if it’s the most quantum statement of autonomous individualism, and there it is right in the middle of his language.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. Just as a general comment, I would say stunningly incoherent coming from somebody who’s obviously pretty intelligent. Generally speaking, real intellectual idiots don’t get onto the Supreme Court. And Kennedy is clearly an intelligent man. And to say that the state has no interest in the definition of the self, I would have said that most of what the state does involves definitions of the self, from laws about murder to decisions about a stimulus packages. It’s a remarkable, remarkable statement. And as you point out, it writes into law, in some ways, a horribly vacuous definition of self into which one could pull pretty much anything he wants.

Albert Moler: Right. I do think that Antonin Scalia’s dissent and his response to Kennedy in the Casey the decision is great literature. Especially-

Carl Trueman: Like many decisions, it’s great literature.

Albert Mohler: That’s right. But when he refers to that paragraph in Kennedy’s Casey opinion as the sweet-mystery-of-life clause, it is. That’s exactly what it purports to be. I think it’s going to be a huge embarrassment to the Supreme Court but not in the short run. That’s going to have to be a long run.

Carl Trueman: No. I mean, the recent Gorsuch ruling in Bostock is not a million miles away from that. I mean, I think it’s more thoughtful, but it’s still operating with very similar premises.

Albert Mohler: And again, from someone who actually is incredibly well versed in making conservative natural law arguments. I mean, his doctoral dissertation at Oxford under John Finnis is a brilliant defense of- I’ll put it this way- a brilliant opposition to, an indictment of euthanasia based upon very principles he violated in this decision. It’s like they’re two different individuals.

Carl Trueman: Yeah, it’s stunning. And again, I think it shows how much emotion often plays into decisions as well. As I say, with Kennedy, there has to be a character, personality aspect to this and probably with Gorsuch too.

Albert Mohler: And a social issue, very much. And you really, I think, very insightfully deal with that in the book, the self is a social concept, it only makes sense as situated within a social context. And you underline that very well. But that also points to the fact that if you’re in a social circle, in which it’s just the thing you do to go to a same-sex wedding, or before a birth may have been a commitment ceremony, or if it’s just the thing you do in your social structure to just basically accept all these revolutionary principles and morality. I think that’s going to show. In fact, someone has pointed out rather awkwardly, that one can predict a lot of votes on the Supreme Court by whether or not the Justice had an openly gay clerk at the time.

Carl Trueman: Interesting.

Albert Mohler: Social context does matter. I want to raise another issue with you, which you point at but don’t deal with in the book. So I’m going to give you a chance to write another chapter here. Does the self require self-consciousness? And the reason I want to get to that is because I one of my theories is that the abortion culture, and the antinatalist culture, all this going on right now, a lot of that is due to the fact that the only humanity that our society now officially recognizes is a self-conscious humanity. So that means the unborn baby, the fetus is not a self. Peter Singer actually says this explicitly, “I think it’s kind of tacit in the larger culture.”

Carl Trueman: Yeah, I would agree. This is where I think you get down to the incommensurability of Christian arguments with the outcomes of the wider culture, because I would absolutely want to maintain the selfhood of the child in the womb from the moment of conception, in the same way that I would also want to maintain the selfhood of the elderly woman or man who is in the depths of Alzheimer’s disease, and has really lost-

Albert Mohler: Or in a coma.

Carl Trueman: Yeah, or in a coma. I would want to say that, yes, they are persons because they’re made in the image of God. And of course, this is where Rieff goes in some of his later words and saying, “Once we lose sight of human beings made in the image of God, everything’s up for grabs.” He uses a very provocative way of putting it. He says that his, I think, it was his father, his grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor, when he was dying, he said, “Hitler’s won.” And this is a Jewish man who survived the Holocaust saying that. What Rieff says he was communicating is Hitler was the man who really dehumanized great sections of the human race by denying their fundamental humanity. And we now live in a world where we do that too. If somebody has Alzheimer’s disease or you’re dealing with an embryo, a baby in the womb, then you’re not dealing with a real person.
One of the interesting things that … I read this passage of Peter Singer to my wife when I was working on the book. He has this bit where he thinks he’s being sort of kind and he says, “When a baby’s born, parents will start to bond with the child from the moment of birth.” And I read that passage to my wife, and I said to her, “What do you think of that?” And she said, “That’s rubbish. I bonded with the child from the first moment I was aware it was in my womb. And at nine months, I was already loved by children, even though I’d never seen them.” And that struck me. Yeah, that’s an intuition. That’s an intuition that points to the fact that which is in the womb, it’s not a blob of cells, not to the mother anyway. It’s already a person. He or she is already a person loved by the mother.

Albert Mohler: You see that in the language that continues. Singer said that what has to be present to qualify for personhood includes the ability to envision the future, a network or social relationship and that self-consciousness. But you also have people who these days say that the unborn child is not a person. I mean, that’s the entire premise of the culture of death. But if it’s a miscarriage, they lost a baby.

Carl Trueman: Yeah.

Albert Mohler: And we see that shining through even in headlines. I mean, with the Duchess of Sussex, just in the last few days.

Carl trueman: Yeah. Or when Lacey Peterson is murdered carrying a child, her husband is prosecuted not for one murder, but for two murders. The law is also conflicted.

Albert Mohler: But now it’s conflicted between the fact that that murder and trial and conviction took place in California. But according to the law in New York State, the death of an unborn human child by homicide is no longer a separate crime.

Carl Trueman: Peter Singer for the win.

Albert Mohler: Yeah. You know, the scariest question for me to ask you is not how prevalent these toxic ideas of the self are in the largest society, if only. Because the reality is that increasing numbers of people who sit in our churches and consider themselves Christians are actually possessed by and operating out of the very same conception of the self.

Carl Trueman: Yes. That I think is where it’s going to be a real challenge for the church in the coming years. One of the things I talk about in the book is the importance of the church’s community, as a way of forming identity in coming years. But of course, there’s also a dimension of the church’s institution. And it’s that institutional aspect that’s very hard in contemporary culture, because churches are voluntary co-ops now that people opt into, opt out of, travel to find one that suits their needs. The kind of ideas that you and I want to see promoted in churches are tough ideas to promote because some people say they’ll just drive people away. And so they will. So I think the real challenge that church faces is we’ve got to be a community. We also have to be an institution as well. And it’s that second part that, I have to be honest, I have no idea how we get there at this point. That is a real mountain to climb. But again, you’re correct-

Albert Mohler: I appreciate it.

Carl Trueman: As I was told, when I was pastor for five or six years in Philadelphia, a senior pastor said to me at one point, he said, “Never assume that anybody under the age of 35 agrees with you on sexual morality.” He said, “That’s just not an assumption to make anymore.” That was nearly 10 years ago. The situation, I think, has to be much worse in the church now.

Albert Mohler: As you’re thinking about those issues, by the way, I think you make a very important point. When you deal with the very issue you’re now raising about the voluntrous nature of Christian discipleship and church membership in today’s society, you even pointed out that that’s true for the Eastern Orthodox in our society, and for the Roman Catholics as much actually as it is for Protestants because there is no sense that one is socially bound to stay in.

Carl Trueman: We’re all Protestants now, even the Roman Catholics from that perspective.

Albert Mohler: And you cite Charles Taylor, and I think one of the most brilliant of his insights is the fact that, and I have to come back to it again, and again, and again, that believing in God and 1500 is not the same thing as believing in God in the year 2000. And I think that at least one major element of that is in 2000, one decides to believe in God, whereas in 1500, there was no alternative. I think that, again, gets to one of our problems in the church. Is that even many people who were in the church think they’re the kind of people who decided to be the kind of people in church. What’s missing is the objective truth of God and the gospel.

Carl Trueman: Yeah, and it’s very hard to address that. I don’t think I said it in the book, but I’ve said in lectures. That in some ways, the most damaging invention in Western society as far as the church is concerned, is the automobile. Because the automobile frees us up to choose whichever church we wish to attend. It’s hard to know that when we’re all expressive individualists, when we’re all consumers at some level, it’s hard to see how we can break out of this. Thankfully, we have promises. The Lord has said, “The gates of hell will not prevail.” The right church wins in the end. But humanly speaking, it’s hard to see how we can strategize in the short term relative to these things.

Albert Mohler: I define myself in the respect I’m about to raise as a classical Burkean. Again, I found so much intellectual grounding that I found so consistent with what we would call a biblical worldview in many Burke’s observations, including what, this is not a term he uses, but it’s a concept of embeddedness. That one is embedded in a family, in a community. And thus, many of the early British conservatives felt like the train would be the end of village and community and town. The car just makes it that much worse and the plane that much worse than that.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. That’s very true. I mean, community it’s a strange thing. I could have written a book wrestling with the sentence, what is it? How does it become plausible that people can say I have pledged allegiance to ISIS online? Young men in London can say that and doesn’t make sense. And that takes us to the heart of the other dimension of this, and that is technology that I don’t really deal with in the book. But technology makes all of this possible, and in fact, makes all of it to some extent desirable, as well, because it shapes the very desires we have-

Albert Mohler: And accessible. There’s no safe place on planet Earth from the ideas we’re talking about here, and the products of a consumer culture and entertainment. When I had an opportunity to come so long ago to down before I was in this job, so about 30 years ago, during the Madrid Peace talks, I was a part of a delegation that went to the Middle East. And we met with folks ranging the Bedouin to, well, just everyone. The Druze militia, everyone. But you know what, I found cable TV, by satellite, I should say, in a Bedouin tent, in the middle of the Negev. And that was a generation ago. There is no safe place on planet Earth. And when I asked the question, “Aren’t you concerned about bringing this in?” And he said, “Well, if we didn’t have CNN, which was then the dominant,” he said, “that’s how we know where it’s safe to be.” I thought, that’s interesting, but the other thing is, your teenagers are watching the stuff that goes on. So your whole world’s about to be transformed in ways you don’t recognize.

Carl Trueman: Now we have cell phones. I’m glad that I grew up as a young man without access to a cell phone. At least, I had something of a classical background from that perspective.

Albert Mohler: Let me ask you another pressing question, which is raised in your book. And I’m thinking about the responsibility of the Christian church and our sense of self, our sense of gospel, our sense of ecclesia, the conception of the autonomous individual, and more than that just identity is, I think, a far more insurmountable problem that many Christian theologians and pastors recognize. Because people are now showing up at our churches, and it’s not that they are demanding so much that just what they do be accepted, but it’s who I am. I want to ask you to parse that out a bit. Because if everything like this is what I am, and the implication is you have to receive me as I am, or you hate me, there’s no possibility of a gospel people.

Carl Trueman: No. I thought a lot about the old chestnut, “we hate to sin, but love the sinner” idea that I think is a good one. Except, of course, it doesn’t compute in today’s society, because if the sinner sees the sin as a fundamental part of their identity, then preaching against that sin is actually preaching against that person’s identity. It’s one thing to say “You’re a greedy person, I hate your greediness, but I love you as a friend, a great guy.” That works. But to somebody involved, say in the transgender world or the lesbian or the gay world, to say to them, I hate your sin but I love you as a person, that’s incoherent. Because who they are as a person is from a Christian perspective, the sinful desires that they have and expressions they give to that.
So I think that preaching the gospel is going to be very difficult at this point. In some ways, it might make it easier on the grounds that the lines are going to be much more clearly drawn. On the other hand, it’s going to make it far riskier, because what we will be doing is challenging people’s identity at a level that is protected by law. And that makes it a much more interesting exercise for the Christian church and a much more challenging exercise. But I don’t see any way of soft-coating that. Seeker sensitivity isn’t going to work at this point because the whole point of the church has to be, don’t come as you are and leave as you are. It’s come as you are and be transformed, be changed, be changed into somebody different. And that’s going to be tough in the coming years, I think.

Albert Mohler: I think that’s a prophetic word in itself. I mean, I think we see it right now. And so just to think of the kind of landscape that you and I encountered as young ministers and young theologians, Protestant liberalism, prosperity theology, the kind of psychotherapeuticly-directed leftist evangelicalism and all this, none of that’s going to work. I mean, you and I know it doesn’t work because it’s not true. But in this society, there’s really not much traction for that once the issues become clear.

Carl Trueman: No. None at all. And of course, a lot of that, I think, was motivated by the idea of wanting to try to conform to those things in society which were perceived to be good. That’s very hard for Christians to do now, because so much of what is controlling or dominating society at the moment is something we simply can’t go along with. Rod Dreher, of course, argues The Benedict Option, which by some has been understood to be run up the hill and form a monastery. I don’t think that’s quite what he’s saying.
But I think his point that the if change is going to come, it’s probably going to come at a local level, at a level where individuals have relationships with other individuals. I think that’s where that the sign of hope comes. Because what we say as a church is simply going to be increasingly obnoxious to those who make public policy in this and in other Western countries.

Albert Mohler: The premise of all those movements we were just talking about is that basically, we can say what the community around us is saying, and still remain Christian and call this the gospel and call it the church. That’s just becoming more and more implausible. Partly because I’ve noticed a turn, Carl, I’ll test this with you, I’ve noticed a turn in the last five years in which fewer and fewer of the cultural and moral authorities in our country are willing to go along with that. I mean, on the other side. And so they’re just simply saying, no, Christianity is the implacable foe.

Carl Trueman:Yeah.

Albert Mohler: And I think that’s a candor that I want to underline in the larger society. Like I mean, eventually you got to recognize Christianity is either true or it’s damnably false, and horrifyingly injurious to humanity. There’s no middle ground.

Carl Trueman: Absolutely. I think that however much you give the radicals will never be enough. In fact, if anything, they’ll see it as a sign of weakness and demand more. And to go back to a point the two of us were making earlier on, I think it ultimately comes down to a clash between those who think the world means something, and those who think we give the world meaning. And there is no ultimate point of contact between those two points of view. And I think that sets, I mean, not just Christianity, but anybody who holds to a religious system that sees the world as having an order and a moral structure is going to find themselves clashing with a world that is increasingly dominated by technology, instrumental reason, and the idea that, hey, if we can do it, we should be allowed to do it.

Albert Mohler: In the beginning of the Enlightenment, you had a figure like Immanuel Kant, who was very concerned about ethics. Very concerned about ethics, and had the concept of course of the categorical imperative. His great concern, in many ways, was to explain the moral sense within, as he said, as well as the starry heavens above. But to explain the existence of the “ought.” And the thing that I want to point out is that I think that the ought is still there, Carl. I just think the ought’s been transformed. And so even we’re in Scripture, we come across a phrase like “one ought not to think…” Well, but that’s exactly what the society is telling us. I mean, you transgress the LGBTQ revolution when you’re told you ought not to think that way. There’s still an ought.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. I mean, human beings, I think made in the image of God, we have an instinctive moral sense. That sense can be perverted. It can be inverted. It can be given content that should never be there, but it’s still there. And I think we see this in something like the #MeToo movement, ironically. You have a movement there that clearly understands that offenses of a sexual nature are more serious than some other offenses. I say to students in class, “I could slap your face or I could penetrate your body by sticking my finger in your ear.” And you intuitively know that that is less serious and less damaging than a sexual assault.Guess why? Because a sexual assault strikes you at the core of who you are in a way that those other things don’t do. And I don’t have to teach you that, you intuitively know that. And I see that as evidence that, yeah, as you say, human beings, we have a mole structure as much as we try to defy it. Nietzsche himself fell in love with every woman he ever met, has a nervous breakdown trying to protect a horse being beat by a man in Turin. Nietzsche himself couldn’t escape ultimately some kind of moral sense. So that gives some cause for hope that people do understand right and wrong at some level.

Albert Mohler: I agree. But the Romans 1 indictment is just horribly chilling. And so for example, you mentioned the artificiality of a mere sexual ethic of consent. We both want to be very clear, consent is a crucial and non-negotiable sexual category for ethics. Any sexual act of violating consent is wrong. But that’s not enough. That’s not enough. So I’ve been looking into some of the cases, especially on college campuses and university campuses, where now there is the kind, and this is part of what kind of splitting the MeToo movement. Now there’s the concept of consent subsequently withdrawn.

Carl Trueman: Yeah.

Albert Mohler: Well, you look at that and you go, okay, so now the self is so contemporaneous, that the self is who I am now. And I say, I really retrospectively don’t consent. And you look at this, you go, the logic to this is never ending. It’s an infinite regression.

Carl Trueman: Yeah. And I’ve wondered that with transgenderism. I mean, let’s just say that that Caitlyn Jenner, we find out that Bruce Jenner in 1980 committed a murder. Could we charge Caitlyn Jenner with that murder today? Or would the fact that no Bruce is gone, Caitlin’s a new person. Would that be a cogent argument at law? I suspect it wouldn’t. But I can’t imagine that there’s any basis in law for saying that.

Albert Mohler: It’s not fully tested. I point out that one of the one of the central issues in the reasoning of Thomas Aquinas was that untrue claims don’t eventually work. Again, that’s just a natural law principle summarized there. And so if you take this transgender theory, and- you’re from the UK- one of the books I read many years ago and then read other books by the same author was James Morris, The Pax Britannica-

Carl Trueman: Yes.

Albert Mohler: Died just days ago as Jan Morris. But James Morris was in the British Army, was an adventurer who was with Edmund Hillary on Mount Everest. You just got to realize you can’t go back and put in Jan Morris there, it doesn’t make any sense. There was no Jan Morris in the British Army at the time, there was a James Morris. And then you had the actor, actress change gender identity in Hollywood very famously, just in recent days, but had been a lesbian by self identity and in a partnership with another lesbian. Well, is that other lesbian now straight?

Carl Trueman: I think what will probably happen here is that queer theory will ultimately be the default because once you start messing with the sex binary, the gender binary, you get yourself into all kinds of problems. I have an example in the book that I drew from feminist text where a lesbian woman’s partner transitions to being a man and her friends are now telling her she’s straight. And she has this dilemma, do I affirm my lesbianism, deny their transgenderism? Or do I affirm their transgenderism, deny my lesbianism? It’s incoherent. It’s crazy.

Albert Mohler: But being incoherent is evidently not a problem in American society right now. But long term just to make Thomas’s point, it won’t work. And that’s one of the reasons why I think you see, and you mentioned the generation of ’68, that’s a little older than both of us. But they’re being fired by the people they hired. They’re being hounded down on the campuses by younger faculty and students. That old liberalism is being consumed by this nihilistic… I mean, the New York Times editorial page, wherever you look. But I hope with you that the Christian church, local congregations of the body of Christ can be oases of biblical sanity in the midst of all of this.

Carl Trueman: Yes. I think that in a world where the old ways of community have collapsed, but people still want to belong, and I think the church can be a stellar example of communities to those who are crying out for love, crying out for meaningful relationships. Obviously, there’s more to being a Christian than just joining a church community. Trust in Christ is absolutely central. But I think the church could ironically make itself a rather attractive place for those who are lost and wandering at the moment to come and hopefully then find the truth once they arrive.

Albert Mohler: And what we want to say to everyone, both those who are believers and those unbelievers to whom we get to speak is, we have a rival message to you about the self, which has the extraordinary benefit of being true. I thank you so much for your work. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, I want to say every intelligent, thoughtful Christian needs to read it. It’s really an incredible achievement. And I’m very thankful you wrote the book. And Carl, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

Carl Trueman: Thanks very much. I’m delighted to be here.

Albert Mohler: Many thanks to my guest, Carl Trueman, for thinking with me today. And if you enjoyed today’s episode of Thinking in Public, you will find more than 100 of these conversations at under the tab Thinking in Public. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For more information on Boyce College, just go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.