What led you to write the book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self?
The origins lie in the suggestion by my friends Rod Dreher, the journalist, and Justin Taylor at Crossway that I write an introduction to the thought of Philip Rieff. As I prepared for that book, it became clear to me that a more interesting and helpful volume might be one that applied Rieff’s thinking to our current context, specifically with reference to the LGBTQ+ movement’s transformation of Western culture.
What do you hope this book will accomplish?
I hope that it clarifies for readers the origins and depths of the revolution in the notion of selfhood that underlies the dramatic changes in Western culture over the last fifty years. The roots are deep, and we are all at some level complicit, so easy fixes—electing the right president, appointing the right judge—are not going to change the situation in substantial ways.
What is the modern secular view of self and personhood?
The self is closely identified with inner psychological thoughts and feelings (hence, trans ideology has become so plausible), and personhood is equated with self-consciousness (hence, babies in the womb and people suffering with dementia are increasingly thought of in nonpersonal ways and thus as not possessing rights).
How has this view informed how the world thinks about ethics?
The loss of an agreed-upon notion of human nature—of what human beings are for—has meant that ethics has become a matter of competing individual rights, typically judged in terms of whatever the current cultural tastes might be. Claims that things are morally right or wrong are now essentially statements of cultural preference and utilitarianism. Whatever makes individuals happy is the dominant ethical approach.
How have the ideas of the sexual revolution come to dominate public discourse in Western civilization and make inroads in the church?
Once sex is equated in some deep way with human identity (a very plausible equation, given that sexual desires are for most of us the most powerful things we experience), then laws and customs relating to sexual behavior inevitably become political—because in corralling sexual behavior, they determine who society allows us to be. And sex sells. Movies, TV shows, the internet, and even commercials shape us to think of ourselves in sexual terms, thus reinforcing the political tendency of the sexual revolution.
As to the church, we live in the wider world and absorb many of its tendencies without even realizing it. Think of no-fault divorce. That assumes that marriage is a sentimental bond between two people that can be dissolved once it stops making the contracting parties happy. That is the world’s view of marriage, not the Bible’s. And how many of our churches have taken a firm stand on no-fault divorces in our midst?