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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?
How can Christians distinguish between true claims of injustice and unfounded claims of injustice?
This can be hard because we know that the world is fallen and that injustice is therefore real. But we know that the fall encompasses us, and so our own intuitions on what is and is not just are in themselves unreliable. I would suggest, however, that two things must be foundational in our approach. First, we must acknowledge that all are made in the image of God, and that gives all people an intrinsic equal dignity by virtue of their humanity. Second, this image and this dignity also mean that we are made for something: we have ends, purposes, and obligations, not simply rights. Thus, it is not enough for us to think of justice merely in terms of allowing everyone their individual right to determine the shape of their lives. We must think of it in terms of those things that allow people to shape their lives in terms of that for which human beings are intended—and that includes our obligations toward others. And that ultimately requires us to build an anthropology with reference to the Bible’s ethical vision.
How does the secular understanding of personhood differ from the teaching on personhood found in Christian anthropology?
The biblical notion of personhood does not begin with psychological categories or focus on feelings. It focuses on our being made in the image of God. That means, for example, that the baby in the womb does have dignity despite having very limited or (in the early stages of conception) no self-consciousness. The same applies to the person with dementia. And it places dependence therefore at the center of what it means to be a human person: I am conceived and born dependent on others, a state from which I emerge to some extent in life before returning to it in my later years. We are thus not individuals in some radical sense but thinking, dependent creatures. And that makes a huge difference in how we should think of ourselves and of others.
What is expressive individualism? What does it get right and what does it get wrong?
Expressive individualism is the belief that each person must act based on expressing his or her core feelings and intuition, and in so doing they become “authentic,” or, to put it another way, they become really themselves. It is correct in seeing our “inner space”—our thoughts, our emotions—as an important part of who we are. It is wrong in tending to see the world as thus serving the individual’s happiness. Other people, formal institutions, and cultural traditions all tend to be seen in an adversarial light, as threatening the individual’s ability for self-realization. In trans ideology, even the body therefore becomes a problem to be overcome if it contradicts our inner feelings.
In the book you say, “When it comes to how we think of ourselves, we are all expressive individualists now, and there is no way we can escape from this fact.” Can you explain?
Expressive individualism is the air we breathe. From fashion (“I wear these clothes to express myself”) to church (“I attend this congregation because the worship speaks to me”), we tend to operate as consumers of those things that make us happy and allow us to perform publicly in line with how we feel inwardly. That is a function of freedom (which is a good thing) but also something that comes with a cost.
What challenges do you think Christians will face in the coming years as a result of the rise and triumph of the modern self, and what can churches and individuals do to prepare for them?
In a world of expressive individualism, it is inevitable that not all expressions of the self can coexist. We already know this: if I wanted to express myself by, say, harming someone else, that would not be tolerated, and rightly so. And so somebody has to determine which identities are approved, which are tolerated, and which are outlawed. Given that traditional Christian morality outlaws certain sexual acts that are now considered central to certain identities (e.g., homosexuality), it is inevitable that as the LGBTQ+ movement becomes increasingly powerful as a social and cultural force, Christianity will be increasingly marginalized and perhaps even outlawed.
How do we prepare for this? Teach (and learn) the whole counsel of God. And form strong church communities. We need both the social support systems such things provide and the constant reminder through Word and sacrament that God is sovereign, that He has promised to bring the church safely home, and that He who is with us is greater than all the forces that are against us.
How can the church care for those who have been convinced and burned by the teaching of modernity?
We witness to those outside by being the church—a doctrinally informed, God-worshiping, and loving community whose very existence stands in judgment against the world in general and points individuals in particular to a better way. When it comes to those who join us who have been damaged, we need to catechize them in the basics of the faith, but we also need to provide them with strong and supportive communities where they feel loved and know that they belong. We cannot simply argue our way to a win today. We need to demonstrate the power of what we profess in the way we live our lives.