What is the heart of the sexual revolution and who are the key thinkers behind it? Given the tensions about sexuality and identity, how can Christians best respond in our cultural moment? In this episode, Sean and Scott interview Carl Trueman about his timely and important book Strange New World. Carl discusses key historical figures who have helped lead to the sexual revolution and how these ideas are practically manifest today.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is a contributing editor for First Things, an esteemed church historian, and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of multiple books including Strange New World and The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
Sean McDowell: What is the heart of the sexual revolution and who are the key thinkers behind it? Given the tensions about sexuality and identity, how can we Christians best respond to our cultural moment? Our guest today, Carl Truman, has written a fascinating new book called "Strange New World". I'm your host, Sean McDowell.
Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to "Think Biblically", a podcast brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Carl, I love your book. Let's dive right in to cover as much as we can. Tell us, what's the heart of the question you're exploring in the book, again titled "Strange New World"?
Carl Trueman: Well, first of all, thanks very much for having me back on the show, guys, it's very pleasant to be here. And that's a great question and I think the answer is, well, what I was trying to do in "Strange New World" was two things, well, let me say three things. I keep molding them. One, I wanted to provide a decent summary of the larger book I think that you interviewed me about last time, "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self" that would be more accessible and easier for people who don't have time to read a 400 page book. So it's a summary really of a book there that was trying to get to the question of why the statement, "I'm a woman trapped in a man's body", has come to make sense.
Secondly, I wanted to address some of the themes that I'd thought about since writing that book. I'd become more interested in the role of technology in how our understanding of the world has been transformed in recent days. And thirdly, I wanted, of course the book, the original book was written in 2019 before the summer of 2020 when everything went haywire. I also wanted to explore to see if there's something that binds together all of the fragmented political chaos that seems to be engulfing the West at the moment. So the book tried to do those three things, I guess.
Scott Rae: Carl, one of the things I think that's central to the book is your understanding of the notion of the self, and it's a little different than what we hear commonly thrown around culturally. So what do you mean by the self and why is understanding that correctly so important for understanding what your book is about?
Carl Trueman: Yeah, it's a good question. I think most people, when we use the term "self," we tend to be using it in a common sense, very legitimate but common sense sort of way that refers, if you like, to a basic sense of self consciousness that I'm aware I'm me and not Donald Trump or George Clooney. I have an awareness of my own existence, my own history, my own individuality. And often, I think when we use the term self, we're using it in that way. In the book, I'm using it in a more deeper way, I guess. I'm wanting to get at, how do I think about the self me relative to the world around me? What is it that makes me tick? What is it that makes me understand who I am, what I'm here for, where the fulfilled and the flourishing life can be found? We might pose it in terms of a question.
For example, do I understand myself as somebody who has obligations towards other people, natural obligations, or do I understand myself as free and autonomous and only having relations with the world and the people around me to the extent that I choose so to do. So when I'm using the self, I'm really getting at the way of how we imagine, if you like, that center of self consciousness to connect to and to relate to the world around. And my argument is that over the last 400 years, and really dramatically over the last 40 or 50 years, the notion of the self has moved from seeing the self as grounded in external natural relations, fixed natural relations, say to family or to church or to nation or to the place where we grew up, to a much more fluid notion of the self which is grounded in my inner feelings.
And when you move from one to the other, the self that sees itself in terms of external obligations will see its fulfillment in the fulfilling of those external obligations. The self that sees itself as a bundle of inner desires and feelings, will see itself as fulfilled when it's able to give expression to or realize those inner desires and feelings. So that's the sort two notions of self that I'm wrestling with in the book.
Sean McDowell: Now, you talk about the sexual revolution a lot in this book and kind of tell the story of where it came from and the shifting sense of what it means to be a self is at the heart of the story that you're telling. Carl, I've read and written a ton on the sexual revolution, but you have a helpful understanding of what it is, that it's not just the transgression of sexual codes, but it's more than that. So explain what you mean by the sexual revolution, if you will.
Carl Trueman: Yeah, well I think when a lot of people, particularly a lot of Christians or just conservative people in general, when they think, when you say sexual revolution to them, they imagine something usually stemming from the '60s that is involved, put it this way, the transgressing of old standards, and if you like, the expansion of the canon of what is acceptable sexual behavior. So for example, I remember when I was small, my parents weren't Christians, but we went on holiday once to a hotel and my mum discovered that one of the young couples staying at the hotel in the same room weren't married. And that was shocking to my mom. And she would've seen that that's the result of the sexual revolution. People are being taught they can do that and that's acceptable now. And that I think is how a lot of people think about the sexual revolution.
I actually think the sexual revolution is far more profound than that. It's not the expansion of the canon of sexual behaviors. It's not a transformational or the changing, the modification of the rules that apply where once we said sex between two adults who weren't married was wrong and now we say it's okay. It's actually a rejection of the whole idea of sexual codes in their totality. When you think about it, what governed the old views of sexual morality? The idea was that certain sexual acts were intrinsically wrong. Homosexual sexual acts, for example, were intrinsically wrong. It didn't matter how willing the participants were to engage in them, the very act itself was intrinsically wrong.
Now, the philosophy of the sexual revolution doesn't believe that. The philosophy of the modern sexualized world essentially says as long as it's being done between two consenting adults and nobody is being hurt against their will, it's okay. Well, underlying those two different views of sexual codes is a completely different view of sex. In the one, sex is a neutral activity, the moral quality of which accrues from the context in which it takes place. Is it a context of agreement and consent or is it not? In the other, in the older view, certain sexual acts were intrinsically wrong, regardless of the context in which they took place.
Scott Rae: Carl, one of the things that I think is most helpful about your book is also, I think, one of the things that's kind of ironic about it, because we get a really helpful synopsis of some pretty important thinkers that were around three or 400 years ago that have continued to have this really deep influence on the way culture views the world today. And how, I guess, before we get into some of those individual figures, what I'm curious about is, how is it that these historical figures who most people have, in fact, I think most have heard of them, but I doubt they've read them, have had such a significant influence on the way our culture sees the world today? Help us understand how that works.
Carl Trueman: That's a difficult question. Of course, you go to the heart of the great battle among historians. Is it material circumstances that drive ideas or is it ideas that change material circumstances? If we were to look at two great philosophers of history, we might say Hegel is the man who sees history as being driven by ideas, his apostate disciple Karl Marx is the one who sees history as being driven by material factors. This is going to sound like a bit of a dodge I suppose on the question. On one level, what I did was I chose figures that I thought represented in a significant way a self-conscious articulation of the spirit of the age and of the direction that history was going in. So when I focus on Nietzsche, for example, I'm not necessarily saying everybody's read Nietzsche, but I'm saying that Nietzsche articulates philosophically many of the things that are now intuitive to us today.
Now, one of the things, for example, that Nietzsche I think is very good at articulating is there's no such thing as human nature. There's no such thing as the world having an intrinsic moral shape. We are just stuff. The world is just stuff. It is for us to create our own meanings. It is for us to impose our will upon the stuff around us to form it into something. Now, many people have not read Nietzsche, but a lot of people play around with technology. What is technology? Technology tilts our minds towards thinking of the world as stuff over which we can exert power in which we can manipulate. Think of the transgender moment. What philosophically lies under the surface of transgenderism is the idea that, well, my body is just stuff.
And if it's out of sync with my mind or my will, so much the worst for my body. I can use technology, my will can use technology to remake my body in any way I so wish. So the question of how do these thinkers become so influential? It's a tricky one and in some ways I don't answer in the book, but what I am trying to get at is these thinkers represent certain pathologies or the spirit of the age, which becomes more and more apparent as the years go by.
Sean McDowell: Well, let's talk about a few of these thinkers and some of them our listeners will totally recognize one or two, maybe not as much, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau, you say, is very influential.
Carl Trueman: Yeah, Rousseau's fingerprints are over so much of the modern world. I mean, you might say to me, "Well, I've never read Jean-Jacques Rousseau", but if your child's been at a school where child-centered learning is practiced, then your child has been taught as part of a tradition of which Jean-Jacques Rousseau's thinking was a very, very important and powerful influence. If you've ever thought or ever heard the thought articulated that it's society that screws people up, then you're touching on a tradition of which Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a very powerful and influential exponent. Rousseau is significant because he's the guy who really puts his finger on the idea that human beings are born fundamentally okay. To the extent that we have problems in society, that's actually the problem, that's actually the result of socialization. When you put people into communities, then you find them getting ambitious, you find them getting envious and jealous, you find them competing.
Their wills, if you like, are perverted by the need to get ahead in the crowd. So what we really need to do is construct a society that allows individuals to develop in a way where envy and competition, et cetera, et cetera, are not built into the structure of that society. And that's why the idea that many of the traditional institutions we have are actually corrupting. Rousseau would say that they feed into this love of self, they cultivate this love of self that leads to this kind of dog eat dog competition that distorts and perverts the human mind. Above all his significance, and for the narrative I tell, he's the guy who says, more than anybody else, you are what you feel. You are your feelings, you are your sentiments. They're very important. And he goes as far as to say, if everybody's sentiments were uncorrupted and finally tuned, we wouldn't need laws because actually we'd be naturally empathetic to each other and we would be naturally moral.
Now, when I teach that to students, I say that the thing about Rousseau is, like a lot of disastrous ideas, he's not wholly wrong. We do know that emotions are a part of moral reasoning. If I look out of the window and see a crime, I see an old lady being beaten up and I have to Google what I'm meant to do, or I have to Google is that a good or bad thing? You'd say, Trueman's a psychopath. He's a psychopath because he didn't feel anything. So Rousseau's onto something. The problem I think with this guy, with a guy like him, is he takes a part of the truth and makes it the whole truth.
Scott Rae: Well, I think what you've described here in Rousseau's thinking is a really important first step in how our understanding of identity has changed. How would you summarize how Marx took Rousseau's thinking to the next step?
Carl Trueman: Yeah, Marx is interesting and his relationship to Rousseau and Rousseau's success is the romantics is complicated. Marx, in many ways, repudiates Rousseau. And I think where he repudiates Rousseau is this. Marx would see Rousseau, well, first of all, Rousseau does have a belief in God. His God is a bit of a vague God it has to be said. He's more what we'd call a, I suppose, a vague sort of deist or perhaps possibly theist than a robust Trinitarian Christian. But Rousseau does believe in God. But more than that, he believes in a universal human nature that sort of transcends individuals and transcends time and place. So that for Rousseau, if you can get back behind civilization and culture, you would come to this core of what it means to be a human being that's uncorrupted. What Marx does is says, no. Human nature, there is something that binds human beings together.
We make things intentionally. Beavers build dams, birds make nests, but they don't do it intentionally. They do it instinctively. Human beings can paint paintings, we can make bowls to eat or we can make bowls for purely decorative purposes. We act intentionally and willingly, and that binds humans together across time and space. But beyond that, the moral content of what it means to be a human being is actually socially constructed. And it's socially constructed in a way that favors the economic structure of society. So if you live in medieval England, you'd have a strong sense as a peasant of your obligation, your moral obligation, to the knight who owns the land that you till and work. If you're a knight, you would have a strong sense of [foreign language 00:16:50] of a sort of paternalist need to protect your peasants. It would strike you that that is transcendent morality.
But Marx will say, it isn't transcendent morality. It's a morality that serves the social and economic structure of the time. You move into capitalist society and you have the values of thrift and hard work and doing what the boss says, of having a good solid nuclear family. Again, the temptation, Marx would say, is to think that this is natural morality for everybody. Marx would say, no, it isn't. It's actually morality that serves the economic interest. And what Marx is doing by doing that is he's injecting a note of, we might say, critical philosophy or suspicion into the way the world is at that point.
And Marx is very much a harbinger of the modern world where, for example, these days, typically if a conservative Christian was to say, "I oppose gay marriage," somebody might turn around and say, "You only do that because you want to marginalize gay people. You only want to do that because you want to assert your power over them. You only want to do that because it preserves a certain way of life that you happen to like." So Marx is lying behind that sort of critical edge that we now find intuitive in our modern society.
Sean McDowell: One more piece that in some ways brings this full circle to the sexual revolution are the contributions of Freud and Wilhelm Reich. How do they bring these ideas about the self you're talking about into the sexual realm?
Carl Trueman: Yeah. Well, Freud is in some ways by far more important and interesting of the two, right? Reich is a sort of weird, I'd say again, as I referred to Marx as sort of apostate disciple of Hegel, Reich's a kind of apostate disciple of Freud. In many ways, Freud is part of a movement in the late 19th to early 20th century that comes to see human beings as primarily sexual creatures. That what drives us are our sexual urges. And we're often even not fully conscious of that. And obviously that there are these, there's a drive for sexual satisfaction and a drive for destruction that we have inside.
He's sort of turning Rousseau upside down. And so he's saying, Rousseau is right, that it's our inner feelings that make up who we are, but Rousseau's wrong in seeing those inner feelings as being idyllic. Actually, they're dark and destructive and we press them down most of the time, sometimes in those weird dreams we have where we do stuff that we would even be embarrassed to tell our closest friends about. In those weird dreams, sometimes this dark underbelly bubbles to the surface. But most of the time, we're not even conscious of the fact that it's these dark sexual drives that motivate us.
And what Freud does with that is he produces this sort of framework, this taxonomy for understanding how we grow to be adults. And he looks at the growth of a child from infancy to adulthood and says, at every stage of human development, we can see what's distinctive about that development by looking at the nature direction of the sexual drive that the child, the adolescent, and then the adult has. Now, much of Freud's thinking has been debunked. But the thing that comes, I think, to grip the popular imagination in Freud is this, that sex is identity. It's not behavior. And when you think about it, I mean, if as a Christian you ever referred yourself as straight, you're buying into that paradigm. So I don't like the language of people referring to themselves as straight, because you're immediately buying into a paradigm that says, the fundamental thing about my identity is the direction and nature of my sexual desire.
And that's a sort of Freudian slash post Freudian thing. Where Reich fits into this is Reich drinks deeply at the well of both Freud and Marx. And Reich sort of politicizes Freud's thinking. What Reich says is, if Freud is correct, that sexual desires define who we are, that sex is identity and not simply behavior, then laws restricting sexual behavior are actually laws restricting identity. They're laws that inhibit identity. They're laws that tell you who you are and are not allowed to be. And Reich parlays that into its own Marxist frame where he's asking the question, so how do we bring about revolution? Well, the traditional Marxist way of bringing about revolution is the proletariat gets squeezed by the factory owners to the point where they finally can stand it no more and they explode, and we have a revolution and they seize control of the means of production.
In the 1930s, Reich's looking around him and he's thinking, the workers aren't rising up. In fact, the workers in Germany are backing the parties of the far right, the Nazis, the German nationalists, et cetera. What's the solution? Well, Reich says, well, maybe the solution is this. Maybe revolution doesn't begin with the workers rising up. Maybe the revolution, the move to revolutionary consciousness, begins with us smashing the sexual codes that control who people are allowed to be and how they're allowed to think of themselves. And he writes this remarkable book, "The Sexual Revolution". I think he wrote it, he writes it in about 1936. If you read it today, you'd think it was written in the 1960s. Reich writes 30 years too early. His thinking and that of one of his colleagues, Herbert Marcuse, really comes into its own in the 1960s with 1968, and the student revolutions in America and in continental Europe that were often predicated upon sexual liberation and free love. That's Reich and Marcuse. It's therefore having its moment in history.
Scott Rae: So this sexualization turn that Freud and Reich take seems to me to really help us understand a lot of the current tensions between the Christian community and the LGBTQ community. Is that too simple? Is there more to it than that?
Carl Trueman: Well, I think it goes to one of the big issues that I think Christians are becoming more aware of now, but certainly 20 years ago would've mystified them. And that is, we're all familiar with the old approach of hate the sin, but love the sinner. And you'd say to somebody who was gay, I hate homosexual sin, but I love you as a friend and a brother, et cetera, et cetera. Well, that doesn't work when somebody, a gay person, so identifies their activity with their identity, that to say you object to homosexual behavior, that's relying on a conceptual distinction between behavior and identity, between desire and identity, that is simply regarded as illegitimate by the LGBTQ community today. So, when you use that phrase, when you use that terminology, you're really seeing us trying to hide your bigotry behind a pious cliche, if I could put it that way. So I think the way you articulate it there is, no, it's not too simple at all. I think there are more complexities in the relationship between Christianity and the gay community, but that I think lies right at the heart of the tension.
Sean McDowell: You also talk about the tension with free speech. If my identity is rooted in certain behavior, in my understanding of myself, then certain speech can be harmful to who I am, hence, these deeper ideas are beneath the free speech debate itself. So I just want our listeners to know there's so many practical connections you make with the moment that we have right now. We got time for one more question. What suggestions, and you have a big piece at the end, but maybe just give us one or two kind of practical things we should know or we could do kind of responding in this cultural moment.
Carl Trueman: Well, first of all, I think we need to keep our eye on the long game. One of the aspects of modernity that is least helpful to us at this point is we are very short term thinkers. We like to see results immediately. It's part of living in a technological age. I think we need to realize that we're not going to, this revolution's been a long time in coming, and we're not going to turn it around overnight. I don't think we're going to turn it around in my lifetime. That can lead to despair and feelings of impotence. I think that that's not the way it should be. We need to remember the promise that the church wins in the end, that that promise is signed, sealed, it will be delivered, if I put it that way. We need to be faithful in the time and the place that we've been placed.
So we need to focus on being faithful in the here and now, not worry so much about turning things around by the middle of next week. Think about in terms of, we are raising a generation who will raise up a generation who will raise up a generation, and we need to make sure that we're passing something good onto that generation. We need to keep the flame alive, if I could put it that way. The flame of the gospel alive over time. Secondly, I think we need to refocus on, and ties into it, we need to refocus on the local community.
Again, I think technology tricks us into believing that if we put up a tweet or a Facebook post, we can influence millions of people across the face of the earth. I write a lot for things like First Things in World Magazine, but I'm under no illusions that the people I have most impact on are students who come to my classroom or the people I chat to in church on a Sunday. I think we need to refocus ourselves on real human relationships where we can build a goodwill in the capital to have the more difficult discussions that need to take place.
Sean McDowell: Carl, your two books, "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self" and "Strange New World" are two of the more interesting, insightful, and helpful books I've read in a while, and I cannot commend them more highly to our listeners. So thanks for writing great books and just thanks for joining us on the "Think Biblically" podcast.
Carl Trueman: Thanks for having me on guys. It's been a pleasure.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture". The "Think Biblically" podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including the new fully online Bachelor's in Bible Theology and Apologetics. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please consider giving us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thank you for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.