Christianity Confronted with New Ideas of Identity

Reformation historian Carl Trueman says traditional Christianity and the very idea of being made in the image of God is besieged today in the West. In his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, November), he writes, “The framework for identity in wider society is deep rooted, powerful, and fundamentally antithetical to the kind of identity promoted as basic in the Bible… Any return to a society built on a broad religious, or even a mere metaphysical, consensus is extremely unlikely.”

But the author, a professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College (Grove City, Penn.) and frequent contributer to conservative Christian sites such as The Gospel Coalition and First Things, neither rages nor wails about what he calls a spiritual, theological and cultural crisis. Instead, he calmly examines forces in history, philosophy, psychology and art he says propelled a radical social shift from Scripture’s vision of “male and female He created them.”

PW asked Trueman about where Christianity is headed and why the hottest topic in identity politics today – transgender identity – is so fraught for the faithful.

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity)

What do you mean by “expressive individualism?

As a Christian, I would say we are made in the image of God and this is my God-given identity. My book traces the transformation of human identity into a primarily psychological understanding of personal identity as a state of mind or a state of feelings. What happens if I believe my mind says one thing and my body says another? Expressive individualism would say God got it wrong. But I would ask, what if God got your body right and your mind is what is wrong?

How does the idea of a transgender identity encapsulate your argument that the Biblical worldview is in danger?

It represents a radical shift in how to understand self and identity. There are fundamental differences in the way the gay debate is set up and the way transgenderism discussion is set up. Although the debates are politically connected, the idea of being gay is still based in a binary understanding – male and female roles. Transgenderism says gender is negotiable, not tethered to biology, not absolute.

Why is this more troubling to many Christians than even gay marriage?

Most of us have gay friends, gay neighbors. The battle over gay marriage is over. The L, G, B part of the acronym doesn’t affect how we live our life on day-to-day basis. But the T in LGBT is important; the normalization of transgenderism is the point in the sexual revolution that affects everybody and creates challenges and conflicts in many directions. Think of school sports or bathroom policies tor the definition of “privacy.” We all have a stake in the outcome.

Rod Dreher’s forward to your book charges that “erasing the boundaries between male and female” has led to “a general spirit of demonic destruction that denies the sacredness of human life.” But you don’t offer any “polemics or a laments.” Why not?

Arguing about “natural law” is contentious. And shouting Bible verses at young people isn’t going to persuade them that the Christian way is the best way. I want to look objectively, thoughtfully at how we got here and where we’re heading. I don’t see a peaceful resolution. One side will lose and I suspect it will be the religious side that will lose. We have already conceded the vocabulary – allowing sexuality and gender to be determinates of identity. And once you tear identity away from physical embodiment and to root it entirely in the psychological world you are operating on the same trajectory as transgenderism.

You write that Christians can find a model for the future in Second Century “when the church was a marginal sect within a dominant pluralist society.” Why would that work?

Human beings need to belong, to be recognized, to have a community. So we need new communities, small communities of faithful Christian citizens, living by moral principles, trying to be the church and to build relationships.

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