Carl Trueman

Moral Autonomy and the Threat to Freedom – Part 2

Rick Plasterer on October 14, 2020

An earlier article reviewed Reformed theologian Carl Trueman’s analysis of the comprehensive and radical challenge to Christianity caused by the sexual revolution, and its basis in the moral autonomy of individuals rooted in modern psychology. He then discussed the problems he sees with moral autonomy and how Christians should respond.  

Trueman sees a problem in the psychologized self, since it leads to “social fragmentation.” When meaning and value are determined by human desires “there are potentially as many ends as there are people … All frameworks of meaning” supplied by church, nation, or family “cease to be plausible as soon as they fail to fulfill the hopes and dreams of any given individual or group … Even history” which is focused on these traditional institutions, can no longer provide a framework of meaning against the social fragmentation caused by the psychological imperatives.

Trueman asked “how should Christian respond.” He observed that while the psychologized self may be a feature of very anti-Christian movements in the world, everyone, including Christians, is affected by a world in which individual self-determination is necessary. People, even “cradle Catholics” must choose what religion, if any, they are part of. “We should not underestimate the depth of the changes that we are witnessing.” It is not some isolated problem such as “cancel culture” or attacks on free speech by “hypersensitive snowflakes” that is the source of the problem. Rather these changes in the world are “historically deep rooted and culturally comprehensive.” 

This results in a transformation of public life which is based on “the transformation of the self.” For the rising generation committed to the psychologized self, there is now an “intentional break” with the historic liberal commitment to freedom. Acceptance of the value of questioning the orthodoxies of the past made the sexual revolution possible, but the same revolution now sees the need of a new orthodoxy. The psychologized self “is intimately connected” with historic ideas of freedom of religion and speech, but “these things are far less plausible as social virtues now.”   In view of a rising generation that sees freedom of religion and speech as tools of violence, their “robust defense” by politicians who will be increasingly dependent on their votes will be “less and less of a priority.”

Trueman believes that Christian life for the foreseeable future will concern “small things.” It is here the Christian life can be lived, and conflict with the rival orthodoxy of moral autonomy will be engaged. The psychologized self is “the result of a long and comprehensive revolution.” It will take generations to overcome it, if ever, Trueman thinks.  “Christians need to have modest goals … A world where orthodox Christianity is considered not just implausible but also immoral is a world which we will need to navigate in a manner perhaps not seen in history since the second century.” Then Christianity was “little understood” and seen to be “subversive of the wider social good.” Yet Trueman noted that “the church has been in a similar situation before, and has not only survived, but has ultimately thrived.”

Trueman maintained that the “modus operandi” of the church in persecution was not “culture war so much as it was fidelity” to the Christian church and its message. Only “when necessary” was there “dissent from the decrees of Caesar … [the church] became attractive by being faithful to her message.” Trueman believes that the church must be a strong community “oriented toward the transcendent.” Only then can the church “show a rapidly destabilizing world of expressive individuals that there is something greater, more solid, and more lasting than the immediate satisfaction of personal desires.”

In answer to a question, Trueman said that contemporary appeals to the effects of the environment and the need to alter social structures, rather than individual responsibility, is an outworking of Rousseau’s objective of returning to primeval innocence.

Another questioner asked how the psychologized self has affected the contemporary Christian world. Trueman said that one place that he sees it “is in philosophies of worship.” For a significant number of Christians, worship has become primarily “about expressing myself to God.” The term “church shopping” is another example, which suggests that churches are “a kind of consumer item.” Trueman observed that while secularization in Europe involved the church being “very rapidly marginalized,” in America the church was secularized rather than marginalized. By contrast, Trueman observed that “when you’re Russian Orthodox under the Soviet Union for several decades, you’re tough, and I think we’re just at the beginning of that kind of process.” Trueman agrees with social commentator Rod Dreher that we need stronger Christian communities. But he thinks that given the current environment, individual self-discipline is what is needed most. “The pressure to compromise in small things is coming … we mustn’t speak things we don’t believe in.”

Citing Philip Rieff, author of the classic work The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Trueman said “if you go to the Middle Ages, the therapists, well they’re the priests, and it’s the task of the priests to bring you into conformity with God’s will. The parents might be of assistance; the task of the parents is to teach you to conform with the structure of society in which you find yourself placed. Today, of course, we tend to think of society as something that we can remake.”

Trueman concluded by contrasting Augustine’s confessions with those of Rousseau. Rousseau’s confessions are entirely a move inward, whereas Augustine’s confessions are a move inward, which prompts him to move outward to God and his revelation. Thus, he seemed to suggest that a world of self-defined selves will never be workable. People must lead their lives in view of a wider reality, and finally they want an ultimate reality to justify a righteous life.

This writer would comment that Trueman’s lecture has provided a better understanding of the turn toward socialism by many young people and why it is entering the American mainstream. There must be some controlling agency to coordinate the various liberations held to be imperative. But since liberation is supposed to have priority over everything else, power struggle among an elite must determine supreme state power, as was seen in communist dictatorships.

But from a Christian standpoint, moral autonomy is in and of itself sinful, since it is an attack on the sovereignty of God. And the sovereignty of God involves pursuing the narrow gate of obedience to God, which will always conflict with our sinful desires, and in particular with our sinful sexual desires. A faithful Christian community will necessarily be in conflict with a collection of sovereign selves. But a collection of sovereign selves is necessarily in conflict, with the strongest self dominant. While Trueman rightly says that Christians must contend with deep changes in the contemporary world, and we cannot expect to return soon to a society which is congenial to orthodox Christianity, we can still point out that the psychologized self is an unworkable basis for culture. Hurt feelings don’t establish injustice. The right not to be offended is the right to tyranny.

But whether Christians are persuasive with the wider world or not, our duty is always to heed the confession of Augustine, look inward to our sin, and outward to God and his salvation.

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