Foundations: No.82 Spring 2022

Some Thoughts On Carl Trueman Lecture: “The Other Genevan: Rousseau And The Rise Of The Modern Mind”

Stephen Clark


This article examines the position of Carl Trueman on the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in shaping the modern mind. It argues, that while Trueman provides many helpful insights, the overall historiography presented is not compelling. Other figures, and other influences, have played significant roles in shaping the modern world. However, though God works in and through history, the ultimate explanation for the modern mind is found in Romans 1, and God removing his restraint of society.

I. Introduction

This lecture was given live online on Thursday 4 March 2021 as the Annual Lecture in Church History and Theology of Edinburgh Theological Seminary. It was followed by questions which could be sent in and to which Professor Trueman responded. The lecture is available to watch on YouTube.[1]

II. Main Thesis of Lecture

Noting that Rousseau wrote, amongst other things, Confessions,[2] Professor Trueman compared and contrasted these with Augustine’s Confessions.[3] Although, Professor Trueman claimed, Rousseau was familiar with this work of Augustine and used a not dissimilar example to Augustine’s famous reference to his childhood stealing from a pear tree, Professor Trueman argued that there were numerous fundamental differences between the two works: both deal with the interior life, with psychology, but Augustine, as with the psalms, looks out of himself to God and speaks with God; Rousseau, by contrast, turns in on himself and finds true authenticity within the inner life of the psyche. What goes on inside is the real person.

Professor Trueman contrasted this emphasis upon the real person, the soul, with the emphases of two very different figures: Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Jefferson. The former stressed that at death it is not the person who might enter heaven but the soul of that person. One must await the resurrection of the body before the human being is truly in the eternal state because humans are embodied souls, where both are important. In other words, important as is the soul, it is not the whole story. Thomas Jefferson defended liberty and plurality of religious belief on the ground that if someone believed differently from him, it would not break his leg or hurt his pocket. (The rise of Islamic terrorism rather knocks that idea out of the ground today: such a difference in religious belief can lead to a difference in behaviour and the difference may be extreme. It led to mass murder at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena some years back, and the slaughter at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 confirmed rather frighteningly the teaching of Jesus that from within, out of the heart, proceed all manner of evils. But I shall not pursue this point now.) In other words, Jefferson was considering harm which could be measured objectively in terms of financial loss or physical damage. By contrast, Professor Trueman argued, Rousseau’s approach fastens attention upon how our inner feelings are affected.

This emphasis upon the psyche is seen in its full expression in characters like Caitlyn Jenner, who on “coming out” as transgender, said, in effect, that they felt that they had been living a lie: although having male chromosomes, male anatomy and male physiology, what mattered was how they felt about themselves. The inner psyche trumps the outward body.

This emphasis, Professor Trueman maintained, also has massive implications for morality. Morality has now moved to emotions and how one feels. Even more, it is to do with taste. Someone may be bald but to tell them that they are bald is in bad taste, even though it is true. This point may be granted, Professor Trueman acknowledged. The difficulty arises, however, he said, when someone may feel offended and “hurt” by another’s observation that their behaviour is wrong: what matters is not the idea of an objective standard but, rather, the effect upon one’s feelings of such an assertion. Thus, a kind of “victim mentality” is spawned.

Professor Trueman alluded to other aspects of Rousseau’s thinking: the ideal state of nature; the fact that evil does not arise from within but is the result of certain forces upon one; etc. The main feature which I wish to consider, however, is that which is encapsulated in the lecture’s title: Rousseau and the rise of the modern mind.

III. Critical Analysis

As would be expected from as erudite a historian as Professor Trueman, there was so much in this lecture which was informative, stimulating, thought provoking and, quite simply, excellent. Moreover, the Q&A session was most profitable. I wish, however, to question certain elements of the lecture, including its main thesis.

1. On the genealogy of ideas: correlation is not causation

This fairly fundamental idea from the realm of the natural sciences is expressed in the realm of logic as the fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”). The fact that event B follows event A does not necessarily mean that A has caused B: one must establish a causal link. Similarly, the fact that a figure in history held certain views and expressed certain ideas does not necessarily mean that that figure has contributed to an outlook which is generally adopted in a society or culture many years later. One needs to demonstrate not only the similarity in the ideas but the causal or contributory link. And even eminent scholars may fall into the fallacious way of thinking that correlation equals causation. I shall illustrate the point I am making from the realm of biblical studies before applying this observation to aspects of Professor Trueman’s thesis.

Samuel Sandmel’s celebrated 1961 presidential address to the Society for Biblical Literature was entitled “Parallelomania”. He questioned the value of collecting “parallels” from a variety of sources to New Testament passages and ideas. As Dick France commented: “The tendency is to look for ‘parallels’ to titles like ‘Son of God’ or to concepts of incarnation or pre-existence, or the attribution of honours to a man, and to regard these parallels as explanations of the New Testament data, as showing the sources from which these ideas crept into Christian language…”[4] In other words, scholars had been confusing parallels in certain titles or concepts found outside the New Testament as then being the source of those titles or concepts within the New Testament. But the thrust of Sandmel’s criticism was that to show a parallel did not necessarily establish dependence. In the same way, parallels between things which Rousseau said and ideas and modes of thinking today do not establish that it was Rousseau’s work which either caused this way of thinking or contributed to it. Let me develop this point.

One of the things which characterises much modern western thinking is the idea of “gender fluidity”, an idea to which Professor Trueman referred: gender is not something which is fixed. It would not be too difficult for me to argue that this way of thinking comes from the work of Sartre. Central to his existential philosophy was the notion that existence precedes essence. In this sense, we do not have a nature or essence which determines who we are. Professor Roger Scruton neatly summarises Sartre’s approach: “What I am is for me to decide . . . My freedom is my essence.”[5] This kind of approach surely chimes in very neatly and nicely with transgender ideas. But it is one thing to assert this; it would be a very different matter to establish and demonstrate that Sartre’s philosophy has contributed to or caused the current emphasis on gender fluidity in the West.[6] But my point is this: if one were to establish this link, it would call into question Rousseau’s role in all this because the formative philosophical influences upon Sartre were Heidegger and Husserl. Indeed, Sartre’s view that human beings determine their essence meshes with gender fluidity far more than does Rousseau’s philosophy, which, as I shall demonstrate a little later, clearly maintained that there was a feminine nature to women which should not be changed.

Of course, there can be real value in demonstrating parallels in ideas because this can have great explanatory power: thus, the emphasis upon the inner self; the idea that authenticity is tied to how we feel about ourselves; that feeling matters more than thinking: none can deny that these emphases characterise much of life in the West today, just as they were ideas fairly central to Rousseau. Demonstrating that such an approach can lead, for example, to current ideas about transgender may be very helpful. What I am questioning, however, is the notion that the rise of this kind of thinking can be traced back to Rousseau, that Rousseau’s ideas have led or contributed to the present state of the Western mind.

2. Rousseau and fixed ideas of gender

Professor Trueman quoted from numerous works by Rousseau but one which he did not cite was the Lettre à d’Alembert. In the course of this work, Rousseau compared the theatre to a large city like Paris, with its reversal of natural values. He was particularly critical of the effect which the theatre had upon women: he believed that whereas “woman was naturally modest and self-effacing, the theatre makes her a shameless figure who transforms love into a public spectacle; the very existence of actresses also sets the example of a completely unfeminine way of life that is characteristic of a society in which women set the tone and rule the salons, reducing men to a condition of abject and effeminate dependence”.[7] A moment’s reflection should soon demonstrate that this is very far removed indeed from the current way of assuming that we are what we feel. I shall elaborate.

In the first place, Rousseau had a view of womanhood and manhood: he disliked the effect of the theatre upon a woman because it changed what she naturally was. One of Rousseau’s big concerns, of course, was with the way that humanity had been changed from its “state of nature”. But in dealing with the theatre, he was comparing women as they were as he perceived them to be at that time – that is, not in a state of nature – with what they became as a result of the effect of the theatre. Moreover, he was troubled by the knock-on effect that this had upon men. But if I am who I feel myself to be; if to be truly authentic is to be like Caitlyn Jenner – I feel like a woman and so to be authentic I must change my body to be like that of a woman – then this surely is the very antithesis of someone like Rousseau telling me what I am really as a man or what a woman really is. In other words, although Rousseau emphasised the inner life, he did not do so to such an extent as to deny what he believed to be certain objective realities. But this, of course, is precisely the issue with transgender.

One may defend Professor Trueman’s thesis by saying that this is simply an illustration of the fact that Rousseau, like all people, was at points inconsistent or that he was simply, to a certain extent, a child of his time. Indeed, gender re-assignment by surgery and hormone treatment was hardly available in his day! But this will not really do and that is for several reasons.

First, to wish to try to trace ideas on transgender back to Rousseau when he had clearly fixed ideas about male and female and then say he was inconsistent on this seems, to say the least, a little odd: it is as if one were saying, “Rousseau’s thinking has led to transgenderism. Oh, but by the way, he believed in fixed ideas of male and female.” Again, it would be rather as if one said that the thinking of someone who believes in the fixity of species derives from Darwin’s idea of modification by descent!

Of course, it may be pointed out that Professor Trueman was not claiming that Rousseau’s ideas have led directly to transgender but, rather, that he was simply pointing out that Rousseau’s emphasis on the importance of the psyche, the inner life, is an idea which, in time, can lead others to say that how one feels about oneself is what determines one’s gender. Indeed. But this in no way answers my point, which is this: Rousseau was critical of the theatre because it led to women viewing themselves in a certain way and Rousseau regarded this way of viewing themselves as wrong. In other words, he was critical of their view of themselves because it did not correspond with what Rousseau regarded as a certain objective reality. So, at points, Rousseau’s view of objective reality trumped someone else’s inner psyche.

A second problem with Professor Trueman’s thesis is that the one thing that many transgender people do not do is to say that all that matters is how they feel. The whole point of undergoing hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery is to bring their body into line with how they feel. It is not a case of a man saying, ‘I feel like a woman and that is all that matters. I want everyone to call me Jane.’ No: they wish to look like a woman physically. They feel that they are in the wrong body. The body matters to them; in fact, it matters to such an extent that in some parts of the world they have parted with significant amounts of cash and undergone intrusive surgery to change their genitalia as well as undergone hormone treatment to change their entire appearance. So, the issue is not simply that all that matters is the inner life and that the outer life is of no consequence. Quite the contrary! To say, “I am trapped in the wrong body,” is to say that the outer life matters.

In fact, the third observation at this point is that transgender people not only wish their bodies to correspond with how they feel but they want their bodies to be perceived by others to be in line with how they feel. A sixteen stone muscular red neck with a very strong beard may feel like a woman and believe themself to be a woman and thus not be bothered with changing their physical appearance but it is hardly likely that this will cut the mustard with work colleagues and social acquaintances when they introduce themselves as Mary.

3. Morality: objectivity and emotion

Simply to contrast how we used to think of morality (who is the “we”?) with the emphasis today on feelings-based morality and on the need to be “authentic” by being true to oneself is, I suggest, a huge oversimplification, especially when this is traced back to Rousseau. A brief analysis should demonstrate the inadequacy of this approach.

To begin with, if I were mischievous, I might say that the present approach can be traced back to Shakespeare’s Polonius. In his rather pompous and heavily paternalistic speech to his son Laertes before the latter leaves home, he tells him, “This above all – to thine own self be true.” For Laertes, this is the supreme thing about good living. But I shall not be mischievous!

More seriously the oversimplification of Professor Trueman’s thesis concerning ideas about morality can be seen at several levels. In his wonderfully entertaining book, Descartes’ Baby Professor Paul Bloom of Yale University demonstrates how the way we make moral choices cannot simply be put into either/or categories of rationality or emotion. He cites numerous examples where people from different cultures unthinkingly and on the basis of “disgust” gave emotionally or intuitively based reactions to certain scenarios which raised questions of a moral nature. When asked to give a reasoned justification for their responses, most were unable to do so but still held to their moral conviction. Their reactions were gut reactions: they just “felt” something was wrong or right even if they could not rationalise it. Interestingly, the only subjects in this experiment who were able to give reasons were those who would be most attuned to “the modern mind” the rise of which Professor Trueman was exploring in his lecture: students at American elite universities. On the other hand, Professor Bloom refers to an experiment by psychologist Philip Tetlock and his colleagues in which students not only morally disapproved of a hospital administrator who, they thought, made a wrong decision in not agreeing to pay for a life-saving operation for a dying child but also disapproved of that administrator agreeing to fund the operation after he had time to mull the matter over before reaching such a decision. So here were students acting on their gut feeling. Professor Bloom goes on, however, to give examples where clear thought goes into forming a moral judgement on an issue.[8] In other words, it is not a simple either/or, and to suggest that people used to make moral decisions based on principles is to skew the evidence, just as it is misleading to say that today people are simply governed by how they feel.

Further justification for what I wrote in the previous sentence comes from a great work on conscience by the late Kenneth Kirk, a professor of moral and pastoral theology. In this book, he explored the question of whether conscience is informed by emotion or by reason, and traced the various views on this held by different philosophers: over the years some regarded emotion as the determining element in conscience, whereas others thought that reason was the controlling factor.[9] In Some Principles of Moral Theology And Their Application he pointed out that both are involved in the way in which conscience assesses our moral choices.[10] The early twentieth-century Oxford professor of moral theology had certain things in common with the twenty-first century secular Professor of Psychology at Yale!

Moral relativism is one of the corollaries of maintaining that moral choices are purely a matter of emotion. This follows from the fact that my gut feelings may very well differ from yours. But one of the things which surely characterises the modern mind is a belief in moral absolutes, albeit that they may well be very different absolutes from those which Christians have. Thus to suggest that it is morally right to hold that homosexual acts are morally wrong and that it is morally wrong to seek to transition from one’s genetic gender to another will lead to a howl of protest from many in the LGBTQ+ community.[11] If one responds to someone from that community by saying, “Yes but this is how I feel and I am being authentic by telling you what I really feel,” you will be told in no uncertain terms that your feelings are wrong. I may say, “This is who I am and this determines how I feel about people who are different from me,” but I will be told that I am nothing other than a bigot.

Various “conservative” bloggers and commentators have said that the Black Lives Matter movement is tightly tied to the LGBTQ+ community. It is not my purpose here to assess whether this claim is well-founded or not, nor am I concerned in this article to comment on whether that is of any relevance to the legitimacy of the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement. What I do wish to emphasise is the fact that there are certainly those who support that movement who are passionately committed to the protection of the rights of black people. This is, for them, a moral absolute. If they encounter a member of the Ku Klux Klan or a white supremacist, they will be singularly unimpressed to be told, “you feel it’s right to support the rights of black people but I feel differently.” Why? Because they believe that there are certain moral absolutes, even though they may well lack an adequate intellectual foundation for believing in absolutes.

Of course, it is not only the case that the “modern mind” believes in moral absolutes in areas where others sharply differ from them as to what those absolutes are, for example in the areas of sexuality and gender: most people who, according to Professor Trueman, are governed by how they feel will believe that smashing a baby’s skull against a wall is absolutely wrong, as is all child murder and cruelty; rape is absolutely wrong; that a so-called City “fat cat” is morally wrong to embezzle money from people’s pension funds; etc. And these are moral convictions which they share with many who are more “conservatively minded”. My guess is that if one were to pose the questions, “Why do you believe it is wrong to smash a two-year old’s skull against a wall? What are your reasons for holding this belief?” many would regard the asking of such a question as betraying a woeful lack of moral sensibility.

In any event, the discussion about whether we access moral reality through our emotions or by a reasoning process or by a combination of both is hardly an ontological discussion, a discussion about the nature of morality and the content of morality; rather, it is an epistemological one, how we come to know what the nature of morality is and what is the content of that morality. Lest it be said that what I feel is for the modern mind the answer to the ontological question, the reply must be that this cannot be the case, for if it were, those in the LGBTQ+ community could hardly have any beef with those who say that they feel that gay and trans behaviours are wrong and nor could they object to those who say that they feel that such things are disgustingly wrong.

One of the dangers facing Christians in the West today is so to focus attention on issues of sexuality and transgender – because these are being pushed to the fore in society – that we end up emphasising the differences between us and fail to identify large areas where we do agree on certain moral issues. This means two things. First, in rightly contextualising the gospel we may very easily end up doing something quite different, namely, let the world set the agenda for us. Secondly, our evangelism becomes adversarial and polemical, rather than warm and personal. To be true, there is a place for polemics and there must be confrontation in all authentic evangelism because the summons to repent inevitably entails the proposition that there are things of which a person needs to repent and, this being so, the call to repent means that their life is not right. But this being the case, it is all the more important that we seek to establish as much common contact with people on the basis of those values which, because they bear God’s image and because of God’s common grace, we share with them. In this connection Romans 2:14-15 are important verses, as is the reality expressed in Acts 28:2 and implied in 2 Tim. 4:13. (The fact that evil people may go from bad to worse implies that at a given point they are not as bad as they might be.) The simple fact is that anyone who spends any time on social media cannot but be struck by cocksureness and the sheer bitterness, not to say nastiness, which characterises some Christians in their engagement with unbelievers and in the way in which they write about the modern mind. I do not of course mean that Professor Trueman is like this – he most certainly is not; but many who may accept his analysis will find that it gives more grist to their mill as they vent their spleen and blog on.

Moreover, to return to what I said earlier about Sartre, he tied authenticity very tightly to personal choice. So why single out Rousseau at this point? Furthermore, although his teaching was radically different from the views of Rousseau and Sartre, did not Jesus emphasise the importance of our interior life? His searching words in Matthew 5:27-28 emphasise that it is not enough to avoid the outward act of adultery: this is to live no differently from the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (v. 20). Life in the kingdom of heaven demands that radical action is required to deal with one’s inner attitudes (vv. 28-30). Of course, this differs markedly from the idea that all that matters is how one feels about oneself and about the world around us, and it most emphatically gives no support whatsoever to the notion that my gender is what I decide it to be. But while needing at points to be adversarial and to demolish arguments which set themselves up against the knowledge of God and thereby take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), in dealing with people is there not wisdom, not to say kindness, in acknowledging valid elements in things which those who are not Christians say and believe? Did not Paul do this, both in addressing unbelievers in Athens and in writing to Titus, on both occasions quoting from non-Christian writings something which expressed important truths (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12-13)? It is something which has characterised Professor John Lennox’s engagement in public debate with unbelievers.[12]

Again, I am not suggesting for one moment that Professor Trueman would disagree with this: he clearly wants to see people brought to faith in Jesus Christ rather than simply analyse contemporary thinking. But again, social media is awash with material from Christians who are always in denunciatory mode, unable to acknowledge that grains of truth may sometimes be found in a pile of rubbish and that unbelievers sometimes say valid things which we need to heed.

4. The Bible and ‘the soul’

I referred earlier to Professor Trueman’s observation that whereas Aquinas said that the final, eternal state awaits the reuniting of body and soul, Rousseau placed all the emphasis upon the psyche. Certainly, the intermediate state, where body and soul are separate, is abnormal. It is not true, however, that the Bible always identifies the person as the body/soul unit.[13] Thus, Jesus could tell the dying thief, “Today you” – not your disembodied soul, though it was the disembodied soul – “will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Paul can say, “We . . . would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) and “I desire to depart and be with Christ” (Philipp. 1:23). Moreover, Peter can write: “I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside” (2 Pet. 1:13-14). In all these passages the essential ‘I’ is distinguished from the body, suggesting that the real person can be distinguished from the body at death. But not only at death: in 2 Cor. 12:2-5 Paul speaks of his “rapture” into the third heaven and paradise as something which may have occurred in the body or as an out of the body experience. One could almost think that Paul and Peter were holding a Platonic, not to say, Cartesian, view of the soul! But this must be balanced with the fact that in Acts 8:2 we read that godly men buried Stephen (not his body) and that in Matt. 28:6-7 Jesus is identified with his corpse. In other words, although the Bible teaches that the constitution of a human being is comprised of a body and soul which form a unit, it can also refer to the soul of the person as the person and the body of the person as the person. Rousseau may have got things out of kilter but so did Aquinas: in wanting to express an important truth, he – or the way Professor Trueman has represented him – did not entirely preserve the biblical balance. Even Homer nodded and so could Aquinas.

IV. Possible response to the critical analysis offered
and rejoinder to the response

There is, of course, an obvious reply to what I have written by way of critique, and it goes as follows. In speaking of Rousseau’s influence on the modern mind Professor Trueman was not denying that other thinkers have contributed to how we have got to where we are. Indeed, in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to the Sexual Revolution[14] he considers, amongst others, the ideas of Marx and Freud and how these all mesh with Rousseau’s philosophy so that Rousseau produces psychological humanity, Freud understands human psychology in terms of sex and Marx politicises everything with the result that today we have sexual identity politics. Moreover, Professor Trueman was not saying that Rousseau was all for transgender; rather, in answering the question as to how ideas which seemed bizarre not so long ago have now become accepted as part of the “main stream”, he is simply identifying Rousseau as a hugely significant figure in the trend to understand humanity in terms of inner psychology rather than in terms of objective reality. In other words, Professor Trueman is not asserting that Rousseau is the cause of the modern mind but, rather, that he was a key player in the matrix of ideas which have got us to where we are today.

My reply to this kind of response is along the following lines. First, I am critiquing the lecture on Rousseau, not the book which Professor Trueman wrote. Secondly, I have already drawn attention to areas in Rousseau’s writing where outward objective reality trumped inner psychological feeling. In the third place – and more importantly – so many tributaries have flown into the stream of modern consciousness that it may be somewhat misleading even to identify Rousseau, Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx and Freud – as Professor Trueman does in his book – as the really decisive influences.

Fourthly – and others have made this criticism of Professor Trueman’s book – to begin with Rousseau and the Romantics is surely to begin too late: Rousseau himself existed in a historical context. Of course, unless one is going to go all the way back to Adam, one has to begin somewhere, and it may be felt that Rousseau and the Romantics is as good a starting point as anywhere. But I think this to be mistaken. And I am not alone: in his magisterial work Inventing The Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Larry Siedentop – who held the very first chair in intellectual history to be established in the UK – goes back to the moral revolution effected in the Graeco-Roman world as a result of the spread of the gospel by Paul and then traces matters from then to the present day.[15] And he is surely right to do so. I shall confine myself to a few comments on the problems of beginning a cultural analysis with Romanticism.

To begin with, Romanticism was something of a reaction against what had gone before: one can hardly, therefore, understand Romanticism without a measure of understanding of that against which it was reacting. The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century had, according to the Romantic view of things, produced the ordered, classical, Augustan age which elevated reason at the expense of emotion, and mathematical ways of thinking which left little room for imagination, and where order had crushed spontaneity. Romanticism was, therefore, a cry to return to a period where “mystery” was prominent (hence the penchant for things medieval and Gothic); where nature was revered (think of Wordsworth’s The Prelude); where imagination played a central role (think of the place of imagination in Coleridge’s poetry, especially in “the magical triad” of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan); and where not only was truth a beautiful thing (as could be seen in Newton’s inverse square law) but where beauty came to be regarded as truth (think of the closing lines of Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn: ‘Beauty is truth . . .’). Not without good reason did the late Sir Maurice Bowra’s superb, published lectures on Romanticism bear the title The Romantic Imagination.[16] But, as Professor Hooykaas pointed out in Religion and the Rise of Modern Science,[17] both the Protestant Reformation and Puritanism, together with other influences, played an important part in the Scientific Revolution. The problem was, however, that by the eighteenth century the universe described in Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica came to be understood in purely mechanical, mechanistic terms and, in the hands of numerous leading thinkers, gave rise to Deism, where God was a kind of absentee landlord, leaving his universe to function on its own in a deterministic kind of way. Romanticism was something of a reaction to this in music, architecture and literature.

The point to observe, however, as Hooykaas explained, is that the Reformation was not only of enormous importance in allowing space to explore the world empirically, free from the constraints of the Catholic Church but – and, for present purposes, far more significantly – it asserted the importance and the conscience of the individual before God. The individual had been lost sight of in medieval Catholicism, being something of a cog in the vast machinery of the Catholic Church. Once the Reformation liberated the individual from the tyranny of the Church and sought to locate freedom as that which truly exists under the authority of Scripture, it would only be a matter of time before there would be those who would regard Scripture’s authority as simply another form of tyranny and seek to be free of all constraints. This narrative, which seeks to lay the blame for the ills of modern libertarianism at the doors of the Reformation, is one which was first put to me back in 1974/75 by someone who would become a leading Roman Catholic systematic theologian and ethicist, Professor John Saward. It is, of course, the interpretation which lay behind Keble’s famous Assize Day sermon on ‘National Apostasy’ Although I reject that Catholic interpretation – when John Saward first put this thesis before me, he was an Anglo-Catholic and chaplain of the college where I was an undergraduate – there is a kernel of truth to it: once people get a taste for liberty, some will want to uncouple it from Scripture and there is then no saying where things will lead.

If Professor Trueman wishes to see Rousseau, with his emphasis upon the inner life as that which determines our identity, as being one of the sources of the modern mind, then there have not been those of a Catholic mentality (whether of the Anglo or Roman varieties) who wish to see Luther’s emphasis upon the individual as being the source of all the ills of the modern Western mind. Some Reformed writers see things differently. In his 2019 magnum opus, Professor Robert Letham identifies Descartes as a key influence on the individualism which characterises Western society: “Beginning in the Renaissance and gaining ground in the Enlightenment, the focus on the individual has become pervasive and often unrecognized. Descartes’s famous search for certainty began with the assumption of the thinking self – ‘I think, therefore I am.’”[18] Again, referring to Descartes’s famous cogito, ergo sum dictum, Professor Letham writes: ‘Consequently, the existence of the thinking individual became the axiomatic basis of Western thought and culture.’[19] Significantly, Rousseau is not cited in the entire 1072 page volume. (He gets only three brief references in Siedentop’s work.) Thus Professor Trueman, the church historian, traces the rise of the modern mind back to Rousseau, whereas Professor Letham, the systematic and historical theologian, sees Descartes as the major figure. Might it not just be the case that such is the untidiness and complexity of life that it can be somewhat misleading to produce these neat taxonomies and genealogies of ideas? I think so and shall explain why.

Take Descartes, for example. He is generally and rightly viewed as the founder of modern philosophy, his dichotomising of the soul or self of the observing subject from the objective reality of the world external to the self (the body of the self-being part of that external, objective world) being an idea fundamental to modernity, as was his quest for a method to arrive at certain knowledge. But he cannot be understood outside of his historical context, a context in which not only were the rival claims of Roman Catholicism on the one hand and those of Reformation Christianity on the other competing but one in which the Reformation had made possible the claims made by numerous other religious groups. If the debilitating Thirty Years’ War was essentially all to do with the conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Descartes’s beginning with the conscious human was effectively his way of saying, “A plague o’ both your houses,” and a way of seeking a “third way” to ascertain certain knowledge. One cannot leapfrog the Renaissance to Descartes and ignore the most momentous turning point in thought between the Renaissance and the “modern” period, namely the Reformation. And although the Reformation sought to put God, rather than the Church, at the centre of things (locating authority in Scripture, not in the Church), it unleashed certain forces, one of which was to thrust the individual into a prominence not seen in the West for well over a thousand years.

Much more could be said about this, but I must draw this critique to a close.

V. Why does all this matter?

The origin and influence of ideas is an intrinsically fascinating subject. If one thinks that a presentation of how we have got to where we are may have oversimplified things, then it is not a work of supererogation to say so. But that would hardly justify a critique of this length of just one lecture which lasted no more than an hour.

The reason why this matters supremely is that there is another way of analysing where we are at, and it is found in the Bible. Romans 1:18-32 surely is the explanation of things. Without in any way minimising the value of tracing how ideas in one generation may have enormous influence in a later generation, might it just be that what some Christians regard as the disturbing and bewildering shift that has taken place with respect to things like gender fluidity is not at all bewildering or surprising to those who have Romans 1 open before them, or even the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis? Romans 1:18 states that those who hold (or hold down) the truth about God which, verses 19-20 tell us, God has revealed to us are godless and wicked people and God’s wrath is revealed or is being revealed against such behaviour. The result of not glorifying God and being thankful to him is that human thinking becomes futile, and foolish hearts are darkened: it is quite inevitable. The result is that the most important distinction which exists – that between the Creator and the creature – is obliterated as people, claiming to be wise but becoming fools, start worshipping created things (vv. 22-23). The result of this is that God in his wrath removes certain restraints and hands people over to their sinful desires. There is a divine logic in this: since the distinction between male and female is fundamental to humans as God’s image bearers and since this distinction lies at the base of sexual intercourse expressed in marriage, the sex drive becomes twisted so that, instead of becoming the expression of love between a man and his wife, it becomes an impure end in itself simply to be indulged at whim. This is what vv. 24-25 are saying. Sex is worshipped and people believe a lie not because of what Freud wrote but because of what God does in his wrath.

Anyone who takes the trouble to read about sexual behaviour in the classical world of ancient Greece will be left with no doubt that sex in all shapes and forms – pederasty being regarded by many as the ideal of love – was being worshipped long before Freud came on the scene. Indeed, one does not have to read far into the book of Genesis before one sees the same thing. The fact that Leviticus chapter 18 deals with incest, homosexual sex and bestiality demonstrates that the breaking down of sexual boundaries is something which has characterised many societies and is but the outworking of what we read in Romans 1:18-32. Indeed, verses 26-27 deal with same sex behaviour. Contrary to what is often wrongly assumed, Paul does not teach that this is the nadir of human sinful behaviour: in vv. 28-32 he lists many “respectable sins”. Moreover, bearing in mind Leviticus 18 and the ancient world, it may not be amiss to point out that gender fluidity is not the end of the road of aberrant approaches to human sexuality: paedophilia, incest and bestiality may yet become normalised, though, if Peter Singer’s influence persists, bestiality will not be accepted without a fight and that from one of the most secular ethicists of our time.

Moreover, it should also be pointed out that we have not yet reached the end of the road with transgender. At present what drives transgender may well be that someone feels that they are in the wrong body. But I can easily envisage the time when someone will feel that they are in the right body but that they wish to transition for the sheer fun of it and to try out new sexual experiences. Thus, it will not be their view of their sexual identity which is the driving force but, rather, their desire for different sexual experiences. Have we not already seen a difference between those who have said that they have always felt gay and those who have insisted the exact opposite: that they are making a choice to be that way? Why may not the same thing happen in the realm of transgender?

What I am trying to say is this, materialism is a form of idolatry. Now, it may well be possible to trace the rise of “economic humanity” and attribute materialism in the modern world to the influence of certain forces and certain thinkers. But materialism has always been an idol: think of the rich young ruler who went away sad from Jesus; think of the rich fool in our Lord’s story; think of the Pharisees who loved money. The danger in listening to analyses of modern culture, interesting though such things may be, is not only that alternative analyses might be given (I have sought to do that in this critique) but that one misses the really big thing, which is this: God in his wrath hands people over to their sinful desires. He may well use certain thinkers to loosen the restraints on people, just as he used military and political leaders to wreak judgment on his ancient people and other nations. But ultimately it is the Lord who does this as an expression of his wrath. And this being so, there is only one remedy to the situation, and it is that to which Paul refers in Romans 1:16-17: the gospel of God. That gospel was the means of transforming the thought patterns and lifestyles of many in the ancient world. As the capital of Christian belief has steadily drained away from much of Western society and culture, it is quite inevitable that the interest of Christian behaviour which resulted from that capital has also been massively reduced. Only a spiritual awakening on the scale of that which happened in the eighteenth century can possibly reverse this downward spiral. But Professor Trueman is not really that enamoured with eighteenth-century evangelicalism.[20] But that is another story.


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