Carl Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College. He is the author or editor of a dozen books. You can find his incisive essays on First Things where he is a regular contributor.
Moore: This was quite an undertaking. I am curious why you decided to take on this writing project.
Trueman: Rod Dreher and Justin Taylor both suggested back in 2015 I write something to introduce the work of Philip Rieff to the broader Christian public. That was the original plan but, as I read Rieff, I decided a more interesting and useful project would be to apply his thought to the contemporary issues. I also wanted to help people understand why the world is changing so fast, particularly with reference to sexual codes and notions of identity. And then there is just my perennial curiosity: I wanted to know how and why the notion of being a man trapped in a woman’s body has come to grip our social and political imagination.
Moore: I assume (knowing you and your work) that you started thinking about some of these ideas while at Cambridge as an undergraduate, perhaps even before that time. Not so much that you were making the many connections you make in the book because some of the challenges had not yet come to the fore, but certainly paying attention to the challenges posed against the Christian faith by the likes of Wordsworth, Shelley, Nietzsche, et al. Is that a correct assumption?
Trueman: To some extent. I discovered Nietzsche and the Romantic poets while at grammar school but I read them more for sheer pleasure than with an eye to any greater philosophy of life. At Cambridge, my history supervisor exposed me to Marxist theory for the first time and I have maintained an interest in it as a useful foil for my own thinking ever since. But the specific issue I deal with in the book – the notion of the self – is something about which I have only been thinking in the last decade.
Moore: One of your regular refrains is that our present culture’s move away from the Christian view of sexuality and personhood did not happen overnight. It has a longer, much longer history, than many Christians assume. Why is that crucial to keep before us Christians living in America today?
Trueman: This is important for many reasons but perhaps the two most obvious are these. First, as the sexual revolution and the identity politics of which it is a part are symptomatic of the broader phenomenon of expressive individualism, all of us –Christians especially – need to realize we are complicit in this. We need to repent too. And second, as this is so pervasive a phenomenon, we need to realize that it isn’t going to be fixed by a Supreme Court judgment or an election victory. It is here to stay, and we need to understand that. Change, if it comes at all, will come slowly and must start at a local level, with Christians acting like Christians in our neighborhoods and towns.
Moore: Speaking of good old America, I would think your book would be relevant to Europeans, Australians, and Canadians. Are there any other places in the world where we might be surprised to finds its relevance and resonance?
Trueman: Given the interconnectedness of the world today, I suspect the ideas I examine will find some resonance in most developed countries. Where there is growing democracy, American pop culture and the expressive individualism it preaches, will find a foothold. And even a place like China, for example, may be totalitarian in overall structure but its economy is built on consumerism. That is fertile soil for the notion of the self I outline in the book.
Moore: Would you give us a brief idea of who Percy B. Shelley was and why you spend significant time unpacking his influence? I am also curious if there was a contemporary of Shelley’s who offered a cogent critique of his work? It does not have to be a Christian, but it would be terrific if that was the case.
Trueman: Shelley was a firebrand poet who used his mastery of the genre to promote radical ideas, particularly in the realm of sex and family. He also understood that aesthetics shape the way people think more than argument. He had critics in his day – he was sent down from Oxford for a pamphlet he and a friend wrote on atheism. But the most pungent critique came from his friend, the satirist, Thomas Love Peacock, who was dismissive of poetry as a useless exercise. That called forth Shelley’s response, ‘In Defense of Poetry’, an essay defending the art and making the case for the influence of aesthetics in ethics. Shelley for the win on that one.
Moore: Shelley believed Christianity was not only irrelevant, but evil. Shelley wanted to eliminate anything that inhibited or restrained his “freedom” to pursue pleasure. Would it be fair to interpret Shelley’s animus towards Christianity as a sort of left-handed compliment? In other words, was he agitated by Christianity because he tacitly knew it had the power to influence people? If there is any truth to my conjecture, how would it affect our response to Shelley’s attacks on the Christian faith?
Trueman: Shelley saw Christianity as the foundation of an oppressive political establishment, powerful largely because of its policing of sex through the institution of marriage. It is a reminder to us that Christianity was not simply rendered implausible by Enlightenment science but also distasteful by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ethics. How would that shape our response? Well, let us not get too obsessed with epistemology. The reasons for unbelief are often more to do with a desire for moral autonomy than a deep grasp of philosophy from Descartes onwards.
Moore: It would be easy to make this entire interview revolve around the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau, but I will restrain myself. He looms large in your account. You had much familiarity with Rousseau before writing this book, so was there anything new you learned about him that was surprising?
Trueman: I had read much of his work but never looked much at his life. That he could send all five of his children to an orphanage (and thus to certain death) shortly after they were born gave him a monstrous quality I had never noticed before.
Moore: Your book includes extremely helpful insights on the so-called “masters of suspicion.” Even though most of us have not read Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx along with the likes of Darwin, would you briefly describe how we are swimming in their ponds, er oceans of influence?
Trueman: There is so much to say here but I will focus on just one important thing they have in common: each of them, in his different way, demolishes the idea that human nature has some exceptional, transcendent moral structure to which we are all supposed to conform. That provides much of the background to the modern intuition that we can be or act in any way we so choose.
Moore: This and the next question are wrap up questions of a sort.
The word “fracture” is being used quite a bit these days to describe what is happening in America. The political theorist, Yuval Levin, and the eminent historian, Daniel Rogers of Princeton, use the word in some of their seminal works. We are fracturing into many tribes that are bent on destroying anyone else who will not get in line with their agenda. I do not need to remind you that the Christian church is hardly immune to such fracturing.
How can concerned Christians seek to be advocates of a unity based on the truth while being “shrewd as serpents” so the gospel is not accommodated, and thus retains its integrity?
Trueman: Friendships across party lines are important here. The old ecumenism that was top down and relativized key doctrines for the sake of a good public statement or whatever was an elite waste of time that had no impact on the church as a whole. Friendships between Christians at the local or ground level are much more significant. I have good friends across the Christian spectrum and the fact that we are friends means that we can stand shoulder to shoulder on key issues without ignoring or relativizing our differences. I would see my friendship with Rod Dreher as one example.
Moore: I am going to abandon convention, so I have dumped my typical closing question. This question, I believe, is the most difficult to answer, but it is the one I am most interested in. Towards the end of your book you write “To address the symptoms adequately, we need to think long and hard about the causes, their wider ramifications, and our relationship as Christians to them.” Many American Christians are not interested in thinking deeply about their faith. As you well know, J.I. Packer said that Christian education or catechesis, is the pressing need of the church today. How can we persuade fellow Christians to do the kind of study you are advocating here when many of us would rather hunker down in our own private spaces?
Trueman: There is no magic bullet or one-size-fits-all here. But being in church on a Sunday, being part of a worshiping community, is the place where it must start. And having Christian friends to encourage us – and whom we can encourage in turn – to think deeply is vital. As Dr Packer said to me when I interviewed him, we should all read well and read deeply. Let’s just do it, to borrow a consumerist phrase.
David George Moore is the author of the forthcoming Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians (Leafwood/Abilene Christian University Press). Some of Dave’s teaching videos and contact information can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.