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Why Is Western Society Eroding? – Carl Trueman

Home » Why Is Western Society Eroding? – Carl Trueman

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Trueman about his latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

Topics of conversation include:

  • How has the philosophy of Western society developed and evolved throughout history?
  • In what ways do the works of Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre help us understand the nature of the world today?
  • What level of complicity has the church contributed to this movement?
  • What can we do as Christians moving forward in the current culture?

Dr. Carl Trueman is the professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College. He is the author of several books, including Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015), and The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020). Dr. Trueman holds a PhD in Church History from the University of Aberdeen.


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

It takes no special insight to realize that the world is changing quickly. We’re in a world that is moving from belief in God and the supernatural, to a world that is atheistic and has no solid grounding for morality. We hear phrases like “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body,” which would have been incomprehensible 20 years ago. We see the progress of the LGBTQ agenda, critical theory, and cancel culture. And it leaves us asking one basic question—what is happening? Western society is eroding before our eyes. Well, to help us understand our current cultural moment, we have with us Dr. Carl Trueman, professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College. He is a preeminent church historian, having published extensively on the Reformation, including the book Luther on the Christian Life. Today, we’re going to talk about his groundbreaking work, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Folks, let me just say, if you must sell a kidney to go buy this book, do it. Ben Shapiro even recently tweeted out that this is the most important book of our moment, and I couldn’t agree more. Dr. Trueman, I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for quite some time. Welcome to the podcast.

Carl Trueman (01:27):

Thanks for having me on, Brian. It’s a real pleasure to be here and to get to speak to you.

Brian Arnold (01:31):

So our big question today is simply this—why is Western society eroding? Let me just ask you, as we kick off here, what led you to write this book?

Carl Trueman (01:43):

There are a couple of things. One, just to…sort of a bit of personal professional trivia, I suppose, is that as you rightly pointed out in the introduction, I’m really a Reformation, 16th century, 17th century guy, but in my late forties, I’d pretty much said everything I wanted to say on those topics and was looking for some other historical challenge. And around about the same time I was approached by Rod Dreher of the American Conservative and Justin Taylor of Crossway, to ask if I’d be interested in writing a short introduction to the thoughts of Philip Rieff, the psychological sociologist. So I started to do some work on that. And as I was working on that, I came to the conviction that a more interesting project would be applying Rieff’s thought to some of the distinct challenges that we’re facing today. I was also, at the time, a pastor of a church, and was aware that people within my congregation were getting increasingly disturbed, confused, challenged by the dramatic changes in our culture’s attitude towards sexual morality, identity, those kinds of things. And so that was the sort of the third element that made me think, “yeah, this is a project that is worth pursuing—to try to help people understand why the world is changing in what, to many people, are unexpected and disturbing ways, but which can actually be explained if we do root it in a longer historical vision of what’s going on”

Brian Arnold (03:11):

Well, and you say in your book, “World War II can not explain World War II. You have to have all the events leading up to this to even understand what’s going on.” And I think so many Christians today, they see things unravelling around them at a quicker pace than they could have even imagined 20 years ago, but they don’t have the background in understanding those various streams that led to this place we are now. As a fellow historian, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Do you see any of those even going back into the Reformation? Or where do you see the first pieces of what we’re starting to see now planted?

Carl Trueman (03:47):

Well, some of the critical reaction to the book from conservative Christians has been, you know, “didn’t all this start happening in the garden?” And so, yeah, on one level I want to say, “of course—yeah, we can go right back to the garden here.” The book would be 10,000 pages long, and nobody would read it at that point. But I think that certainly, if we take transgenderism as the specific example of the modern moment, and we think, “well, what has society got to become convinced of for transgenderism to be plausible to the man in the street?” I think fundamentally, the man in the street has to be convinced that feelings are more important than bodies. That what goes on in our head is absolutely foundational to who we are. And I think that’s a trajectory we see in Western thinking and life that begins in the late Middle Ages and accelerates a bit with the Reformation.

Carl Trueman (04:47):

You have Luther spending a lot of time wrestling with his inner feelings, but which really takes off, I think, in the late 17th and early 18th century with the philosopher Descartes, for example, and his idea that the only thing he can be truly certain of is his own thought process. And more specifically, I start the book, of course, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher who really places his finger on our inner feelings before society messes us up. That voice of nature within us as being determinative of who we are. So I think the problem of the modern person, if you like, really begins, or really accelerates, in the 18th century.

Brian Arnold (05:31):

With Rousseau, and then it just kind of continues to progress and mushroom from there, even through people like Freud then, who you talk about quite a bit, and the psychologizing of the self. And then you get Philip Rieff’s analysis on that. I’m wondering if you could even set some of the stage of how this shift has happened, with some of these great thinkers that you kind of read the modern self through. People like Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre. So what ways has Charles Taylor really helped us understand this moment?

Carl Trueman (06:07):

What I learned from Charles Taylor, and what I think he’s fundamentally right on, is really two points. The first is that the big change in the understanding of what it means to be a human being, the big change in the understanding of our identity, occurs really in the early 19th century with the so-called romantic movements. Which in many ways is…it’s a movement of poets, artists, musicians, who take their cue broadly from the kind of thinking that Rousseau articulates—where it’s very important that inner life, that inner space, that voice of nature, our feelings, are very, very important to who we are. And we can trace that right down to the present day. You mentioned Freud, and Freud takes that in a space, and he makes it very dark and sexual, but he’s really building on what the Romantics have done. And I think Taylor is correct in seeing the romantic movement as a watershed in how the self, how human identity, is understood.

Carl Trueman (07:05):

Second thing, I think, that I found Taylor important on, was highlighting the fact that we tend to think of our identity as a monologue. You know, “I am who I am, because of who I am inside.” Taylor makes the point that it’s more complicated than that. We all want to be free, yes. We intuitively feel we’re free. We want to determine our own identities. But we also want to belong. We want to fit into the world around us. And so identity is always a social thing as well. And that was important for me for understanding why the LGBTQ movement would not be satisfied, has not been satisfied, with the notion of tolerance. You know, there was a time, maybe 10, 15 years ago, when a lot of Christians were saying, “you know, tolerance for LGBTQ people is fine. We don’t want to send people to prison for this— we’re happy to tolerate them.”

Carl Trueman (07:56):

And yet that proved not to be acceptable. And I think Taylor helps us understand that, because Taylor points out that in order to be a person, we want other people to recognize us as having value, the way we think we have value ourselves. And that, I think, is key to understanding why the sexual revolution, the revolution of sexual identity, was never going to settle for “well, we’ll just let people do what they want in the privacy of their own homes.” No, that’s not enough. You have to acknowledge these sexual identities in public in order for LGBTQ people to feel they are valued. So that was the second thing I got from Taylor, what he calls the politics of recognition.

Brian Arnold (08:38):

Yeah. That’s…it’s validation and celebration. I think there was a lot of concession being made along the way, that if we can just at least say, like, “yeah, toleration, and we can live civilly next to each other.” But that shift that’s happening, I think that people recognize, is nothing except full acceptance and celebration is going to be acceptable at the end of the day, which is causing quite a bit of consternation for folks. The book you’re referencing there is Sources of Self, right? From Taylor. Most people would be probably more familiar with The Secular Age from him, where he really puts his finger on what the modern period of secularism is, which is authenticity. Which you kind of have those same flavors coming through of what he thinks the authentic self, in this secular age, is.

Carl Trueman (09:24):

Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And I would recommend actually to listeners, I mean, these are big books and they’re dense books. I took a load of undergraduates through A Secular Age last semester, and they were heroic in getting through it, but it was tough. If listeners are interested in getting Taylor’s thoughts in a nutshell, I think two books I would recommend. One, Taylor did a very short series of lectures published as The Ethics of Authenticity in America, or The Malaise of Modernity was the UK title, that captures his thoughts in a nutshell. And also James K.A. Smith’s book, How (Not) to Be Secular, which is a sort of summary of Taylor’s argument in a secular age. I think listeners will find those extremely helpful in building a kind of framework for understanding what’s going on in the world around us at the moment.

Brian Arnold (10:15):

That’s right. I mean, I found those helpful as well. It’s a great starting place, because Taylor himself can be daunting for people. It’s quite the tome. Well, now let’s talk about Phillip Rieff. So he wrote the book The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Obviously, you kind of tip your hat to him in the title of your book, even, as well. I found it really helpful, even thinking through his distinctions between first, second, and third world. So maybe explain those. And just other ways, just as you did with Taylor, that Rieff has been influential.

Carl Trueman (10:45):

Yeah. I think Rieff has been particularly influential on two points. One is the broad therapeutic notion, that he makes the point that the modern self, unlike the self of, say the Middle Ages or in the Reformation, tends to live with a vision of happiness as being my inner psychological happiness, and everything else must conform to that. Rather than seeing myself as somebody who must fit into a larger reality and learn to behave in a certain way. Now we expect, if you like, society to pander to our needs rather than vice versa. That’s sort of the point that he’s most famous for. But I found his distinction between first, second, and third worlds to be extremely helpful for understanding why the world we live in at the moment seems so unstable and so chaotic. And the distinction is really—he sees first world cultures are those in the past that built their moral orders on the basis of notions of fate or notions of the gods.

Carl Trueman (11:43):

So if you lived in ancient Sparta, and you were growing up, and your parents said, “don’t do that.” And you say, “why can’t I do that?” Your parents would say, “well, it’s written in the law, and the law was given to Lycurgus, our first King, by the Oracle at Delphi.” So the law has a kind of supernatural order behind it. Second world is really, in some ways, the world of Christendom, or even the world of Old Testament Judaism. Where the law codes of our societies are seen to have authority, because they reflect the character of God. You know, why can’t you steal? Because stealing is forbidden by God. Because the theft of another person’s property would be a contradiction of God’s character, or murdering somebody would be a contradiction of God’s character. The law has authority because it points beyond the culture to something sacred that grounds it.

Carl Trueman (12:36):

Third worlds. And this is not…when we use third world, often we think of developing world. That’s not what Rieff means. When Rieff uses third world, he means a world that has moved into really a completely secular mode. Where the justification for the law codes we have is grounded in nothing more than the society we now have. There’s nothing beyond this society. And that makes law codes inherently unstable. It puts societies in the position that, you know, parents find themselves in when a child says, “why can’t I do that?” And a parent says, “because I say so.” It’s not a particularly strong argument when you’re a kid hearing that. When whole societies try to build themselves simply on the basis of the fiat of what society at any given point considers right or wrong, when society tries to justify its morality purely on the basis of itself, then the morality of that society becomes incredibly unstable and constantly changeable. And in a way, that’s what we see today, where we laugh about political correctness, and how, you know, today’s politically correct warrior is tomorrow’s victim of the politically correct revolution as the revolution moves on. Well, that’s a function of this lack of any kind of moral stability that a third world culture has, because it doesn’t appeal to anything beyond itself in order to justify its moral order.

Brian Arnold (14:04):

And I think that is really a helpful grid for understanding why we have a hard time speaking to one another. Because those Christians who are in the second world, trying to ground morality and ethics in a higher divine authority, simply can’t communicate across to the third world, because the third world doesn’t see that as having any authority at all. And I think that’s where a lot of the communication breakdown is in our current period. I mistakenly…so my background is Patristics. And so, as these things are shifting, I was tending to say, “hey, we’ve been here before. This is like pre-Constantinian world, in which we know what it’s like to be in a society that doesn’t like Christians.” But I think I’m wrong about that, because it was the first world still. There was still a divinely-sanctioned moral order that now Christians were saying, but we have the right divinely sanctioned moral order. Well, now we’re moving into something that’s totally different. It’s post-Christian, where they were at least in a pre-Christian society. And we’re going to be plagued, more and more, by Flannery O’Connor’s Christ-hauntedness, I think, in this upcoming world.

Carl Trueman (15:12):

Yeah. I completely agree. I do think there are analogies between today’s church and the pre-Constantinian church, you know, where we’re going to be marginal. We’re going to be regarded as immoral, as seditious, because our loyalty is to King Jesus and not to, you know, ultimately to the secular state. Albeit Christians should be good citizens to the extent that we are able to, our ultimate loyalty is not to the kingdom of this world, but to the kingdom of God. So I think there are analogies, but I think you’re also right. And this is where Alasdair MacIntyre, the third figure that I engage with—somewhat less than Rieff and Taylor, but MacIntyre’s the third figure I engage with in the book. And MacIntyre makes the point that so much moral discourse today is simply people talking past each other, because we don’t even agree on what we might call, what MacIntyre…you know, the basic meta-narrative.

Carl Trueman (16:06):

We might put that in more layman’s terms, that we don’t even agree on what the world means. We don’t agree on what the significance of the world is, in order to have meaningful discussions about anything. Abortion. When does personhood begin? We may be at a point now where a lot of pro-life and pro-choice people agree that life begins at conception, but where does personhood begin? Well, that depends on what you understand by a human person. Do you understand it as something made in the image of God, or as something with a certain level of self-consciousness? Again, that will track back to what you think is the significance of this world. Is this world just stuff, or is there a meaning beyond the stuff that the world is made of? And I think it’s a disagreement on that point that, as you rightly point out Brian, means that a lot of our discussions today, we’re just talking past each other. There’s no real communication going on.

Brian Arnold (17:04):

And just thinking through meta-narrative, and another piece that’s kind of been added to all this—I think of Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism as “the incredulity of the meta-narrative.” So as we shut down even the idea that there is a story of stories that explains all of human existence, then we move into these places where truth is now localized. It’s not universal. We see the rise even of critical theory. So even the intersection between the work that you’ve done and the rise of critical theory, all these things seem to be happening simultaneously. Let me ask you this, because you’ve reflected on this stuff a lot. One of the illustrations I’ve used for quite some time now, and I’m probably not alone in this, is society is pushing so far, so fast, in so many different directions, that it feels like a rubber band that’s going to, at some point, break. Do you see this breaking on the transgender thing? I think about people like J.K. Rowling, who are allies on an issue like this, calling for the cessation of this kind of pressing into society. What do you think?

Carl Trueman (18:07):

It’s hard to predict the future and, you know, societies in the past have collapsed, and some have pulled back from the brink. And the unfortunate thing is, you don’t know which is going to do which, until they actually do it. So it’s hard to predict, but I think I would…I would make some distinctions. I am relatively optimistic on the transgender front. That transgenderism is a step too far. I don’t think that we’ll see much change in my lifetime on this front, but I think transgenderism is taking on too many different vested interests, and fighting too hard against nature, for nature not to bite back at some point. Tragically, when nature bites back, it will only be after a lot of human suffering, and a lot of innocent people have had their lives ruined by this. But on transgenderism, I think it may be a step too far.

Carl Trueman (18:56):

On the other stuff, I just don’t know. And something I don’t deal with in the book is the whole impact of technology. It seems to me that technology is reshaping the way we think about identity and friendships, that don’t fit with the traditional geographical categories—nation, village, et cetera, family, that we have for thinking of identity. So I’m very worried about the impact of technology, stepping aside from the sexual revolution. I think technology is reshaping human relations in a way that I just don’t know if it’s going to be sustainable, or if it will allow human beings to flourish at all in the long run.

Brian Arnold (19:35):

And that just goes to that theory of we’re pressing too far, too fast, and in too many different directions. This thing has got to rupture at some point. Yes, it’s going to be hard to know exactly where that line is going to be. And then what happens? Is it societal collapse, or is it pulling back from the brink? And if we were prophets, then we could probably make some more money predicting the future, but neither of us have that skill, I suppose. Let me ask you this—flipping to, in our last few minutes, the idea of the church. Two kind of questions—what level of complicity has the church had in this? And then—what can we do as Christians, moving forward in this culture that we find ourselves in?

Carl Trueman (20:16):

Yeah. Yeah. The question of complicity is a good one. Of course, one of the things I do in the book, I talk about this expressive individualism, this centering of identity and feelings. And I want to say, that’s not an entirely bad thing. When Rousseau is writing his Discourse, Jonathan Edwards is writing the Religious Affections. We are human beings within a space. Our feelings do matter. So first thing I’d want to say is that there are ways in which the church parallels the broader culture that are good and proper. That bring out the urgency of the gospel, and the need for individuals to believe for themselves. Complicity, however, I think, occurs at a number of levels, and perhaps most obviously in the sexual revolution. I think the easy acceptance of no-fault divorce by the church has really left us hamstrung in terms of responding to the sexual revolution. No-fault divorce really turns marriage into a sentimental bond for the mutual happiness of the contracting parties, nothing to do with the traditional, biblical understanding of friendship, sexual relations, production of children.

Carl Trueman (21:19):

I think our complicity in no-fault divorce, in sitting lightly on that, that makes us complicit. So that would be one example. In terms of how we should respond, I think that we’ve said, you know, we can’t out-argue the world at this point for a number of reasons, but one of them is—we’ve no common ground to engage an argument with them. What we can do, though, is…put it in this way—we could sort of out-narrate the world by providing stronger communities than the world does. If identity is a function of the community to which you belong, then your strongest identity will be a function of the strongest community to which you belong. Protestants have done a great job over the years of focusing upon true doctrine, and we cannot compromise on that. But there’s also that strand of teaching in the New Testament of belonging, of community, of loving each other. And I think the church—and this may look different for different churches in different places—but the church, as we move into this post-Christian, post-Christendom age, needs to refocus on what it means to be a community, and to witness to the world as a community.

Brian Arnold (22:30):

I think that’s very helpful, on both sides of that, whether complicity, or what can we do in the future, because the reality is the church is going to be a stabilizing force moving into the future. For the churches that remain faithful, remain orthodox, rooted, grounded in the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints, it’s going to be an oasis to people who find themselves broken by these various revolutions that are taking place. And I just want to encourage those again who are listening—you’ve got to understand where these things, where these ideas came from if we’re going to have any hope of producing a crop of healthy Christians now, and a stabilizing force for the world. Dr. Trueman, your book on this has just been exceptionally eye-opening for me, I think for anybody who’s read it. And I implore you, listener, to go and grab that book. Well, Dr. Trueman, that kind of concludes our time for today, but I want to thank you so much for coming on to discuss this critical issue with us today.

Carl Trueman (23:30):

Thanks for having me on, Brian. Been a pleasure.

Outro (23:32):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at

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