Christmas is just around the corner! Crossway+ members can receive 50% off hundreds of books and Bibles in our 2022 Christmas Gift Guide through 12/25.

Podcast: We're in a Strange New World. Now What? (Carl Trueman)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Redefining Sexuality and Human Rights

In today's episode, Carl Trueman explores the history of Western thought with the view of answering two simple questions: How did we get here? How should the church respond?

Strange New World

Carl R. Trueman

Carl Trueman identifies the historical, philosophical, and technological influences that have shaped present-day identity politics and teaches believers how to shift their modern understanding of personhood to a biblical perspective.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | RSS

Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:00 - A Strange New World

Matt Tully
Carl, thank you so much for joining me again today on The Crossway Podcast.

Carl Trueman
It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me on.

Matt Tully
Your new book is called Strange New World, and it’s I think a really perfect title for the topics that you’re seeking to address because I think it captures really effectively the feeling that many of us have when we look at our culture today, when we look at the headlines today, when we look at the controversies today. Things can feel very strange, they can feel chaotic and maybe confusing. I want to get into some of those dynamics and why that is, but first, the title is obviously a reference to Aldous Huxley’s famous book, Brave New World. What was Huxley doing in that book, and how does that relate to what you are doing in your book?

Carl Trueman
Huxley, of course, was writing one of the great dystopian novels of the twentieth century, looking forward to a future where (if we were to try to boil down the point he was making) pleasure has essentially innovated humanity. Everything comes down to the present moment, to pleasure. There’s a sense in which, although he wrote it earlier than George Orwell’s 1984, it represents another form of authoritarianism, or another form of totalitarianism to that which we find in 1984. George Orwell had this vision of a very top-down, brutally imposed dictatorship led by Big Brother. It was clearly the first instance of a knock at Stalin and the Soviet Union, whereas Huxley’s polemic, in some ways, was more subtle. It was a world where we might say personal, individual ambition had been completely subverted and undermined by the provision of pleasure.

Matt Tully
Would that be more in like the Postman Amusing Ourselves to Death kind of vein? Do you see connections there?

Carl Trueman
Yes, that kind of thing. I would say a good case can be made for saying that Orwell clearly exposed classic totalitarianism for the evil that it is. Huxley gets at the more subtle form of authoritarianism that we now find ourselves experiencing. We live in a world where the provision of pleasure has dramatically reduced, I think, the personal ambitions we have, the obligations we feel we have towards others. There’s a sense in which Huxley’s Brave New World is kind of the world in which we find ourselves today. So, I riffed on that for my title on the grounds that I wanted people to be thinking about the Huxley book, and also I wanted to draw out the fact that this has been a rather rapid development for many of us. In the space of my lifetime, if you would like, the Orwellian threats of the brutal totalitarian regime has been replaced by the Huxlian threat—the hedonistic authoritarian regime.

Matt Tully
Would you say that, in what you’re trying to communicate in your book and what you’re seeing in our world today, is there a distinct (to use the Huxley term) a pleasure-oriented character to it that is driving a lot of the change that we’re seeing?

Carl Trueman
I perhaps wouldn’t use the word pleasure, but therapeutic. I think what we see is a therapeutic world, to use Philip Rieff’s language, a world where we increasingly, at least in the West, regard things like oppression and hurt as psychological categories. We expect society to take account of that and to change itself on the basis of that. So, I think what we see in the West is that pleasure has perhaps connotations that are not entirely always appropriate for the world in which we live. I would say it’s more of a therapeutic world whereby the purpose of life is me feeling happy in myself here and now.

Matt Tully
Similar then to Huxley and Brave New World, would you say there’s also this totalitarian dynamic to this therapeutic emphasis that we live in? Where does that fit in to this?

Carl Trueman
We’re seeing that emerge very much with the polemics that are coming out against freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and the way that’s being quietly enforced through the forces of big tech—YouTube, Amazon, etc. I think the banning of my friend Ryan Anderson’s book from Amazon, When Harry Became Sally, simply on the grounds, I think, that it presents ideas that make certain people, certain powerful lobby groups in this country uncomfortable.

Matt Tully
To clarify, it’s a book about transgenderism.

Carl Trueman
It’s a book about transgenderism that runs foul of so many of the modern pieties, not least the idea that you and I are not to say to anybody else that the way they think about themselves, or the way they think about their lives, is in any way wrong or inadequate, because that’s hurtful. Amazon’s banning of Ryan’s book is simply a macro-example of what takes place on a micro level day to day in many of our lives.

06:18 - A Post-Christian Society

Matt Tully
I want to get into the specific issue of sexuality and the change in our culture’s perception and understanding of sexuality that we’ve seen happen very recently in the last few years, but before we get to that, a lot of people would talk about the time that we are living in as a society, perhaps broadening it out to the West in general, as a post-Christian type of society, a post-Christian culture. Do you appreciate that language? Do you agree with that? Is that the way you would talk about the world that we’re living in right now?

Carl Trueman
Yes, I think that’s appropriate language. We’re living in a world that has cast off Christianity as its guiding philosophy, or its guiding ideology; it’s cast off the practical morality of Christianity as a guidance for the way to frame and to structure society. It’s also in the game of very self-consciously repudiating, or erasing, Christianity. It’s not just the case that we’ve moved beyond it, but there is actually an antithetical stance towards Christianity, a despising of Christianity, that is coming to be fairly dominant within the cultural imagination that I think marks this age off as rather distinctive from many previous ages.

Matt Tully
How would you respond to the person who hears that and says That’s an overstatement. That’s alarmism? You look at the polls that are still done in our country, in the US in particular, and you still see that the majority of respondents would claim some kind of Christian faith or identity. If not the majority, it’s still a sizable portion of the population. There is still a Christian dominance in our culture that is, maybe even often in their minds, a problem.

Carl Trueman
That’s an interesting point. I would say that the self-identification of people as Christians does not translate into people living Christianly, people having a Christian impact on the cultures in which they find themselves. Christianity is often used as a kind of tribal label, or a convenient label of identity in a way that’s completely detached not only from historical Christian doctrine but from historical Christian ways of life. Ligonier each year, or every couple of years, do these interesting surveys where they’ll ask how many people identify as evangelicals, and then they’ll ask how many of those believe that Jesus is God, for example. There’s always a staggering disparity between the number of evangelicals there are and the number of people who actually believe that Jesus is God. So I tend to take such surveys with a pinch of salt. It’s often simply a way of trying to provide some kind of historical marker for who we are. It doesn’t necessarily translate into a practical commitment to Christian doctrine or even to a veneer of Christian ethics.

09:20 - Is God Dead?

Matt Tully
I want to get into some of the specific areas where we’ve seen a lot of change, or chaos for many of us, in our culture of late. I think we should start with changes in how we conceive of God himself. One quote you write in your book is, “We might say that the death of God is also the death of human nature, or at least the end of any cogent argument that there is any such thing as human nature.” Unpack that a little bit for us. Some of us might be familiar with this idea of the death of God. Where did that come from? How do we see that playing out in our society today? How does that then impact even how we view ourselves?

Carl Trueman
The phrase “God is dead” is perhaps used most famously by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century. In his work The Gay Science, which is an aphoristic, philosophical book, it’s attempting to rebuild philosophy, or to rebuild an approach to life in the wake of what he considers to be the enlightenment’s devastating criticism of traditional Christianity. When Nietzsche talks about God being dead, he’s making the point that enlightenment philosophers haven’t simply pushed God to the margins; they’ve effectively eliminated any need for God at all.

Matt Tully
How did he believe that they did that?

Carl Trueman
It would depend on the philosophy that you’re looking at, but for example, David Hume and his argument from causation and his polemics against natural theology and natural religion essentially says that there’s no way that you can construct any reliable picture of God based upon the way the world is. One does not need, if you like, God as a hypothesis for the world. Immanuel Kant has no real place for a revealed God in his thinking. God is necessary as a kind of presupposition that keeps everything stable, but there’s no need for a revealed God in Immanuel Kant’s work. Nietzsche calls the bluff on this. He says What you guys have done is you’ve killed God, and you cannot get rid of God in that way and retain all of the morality, all of the things that you consider to be benefits of belief in God, once you’ve actually rendered the Christian God implausible, once you’ve pushed him to the margins. So, when I’m talking about the death of God and human nature, I’m really, I suppose, agreeing with Nietzsche at that point and saying if you get rid of God, then you have to get rid of human nature. What is human nature? Traditionally, human nature is understood as we’re made in the image of God. If there’s no God to be made in the image of, then we’re not made in God’s image. I should probably clarify a little and say that when I’m talking about human nature there, I’m not talking about the biological reality of what makes us human. I’m aware, as Nietzsche was aware, that human beings can only reproduce with other human beings. We are a different species than the other creatures on the planet. But I think what Nietzsche is getting at, and where I think he’s a profound influence on—or harbinger of—modern thinking, is that human nature does not have any moral structure to which we as individuals are beholden. In other words, for me to flourish as a human being does not require me to work out what humanity is, and then conform myself morally to it. There is no humanity, in terms of moral structure out there. All there are are individual human beings and individual moral wills. My flourishing is a matter for my own determination at that point. I think when you think about how modern society thinks about things like ethics and morality, by and large that’s how a lot of people think. I have my truth; tell me yours. If it works for you, great! But some other belief, or some other way of approaching things, works for me. That goes to the heart of the elimination of human nature as something which imposes moral requirements upon us.

Matt Tully
So, when you remove God from the equation, then you, by definition to Nietzsche’s point, you remove any kind of transcendent human nature imposed on us by a higher power. How does that square with the current emphasis that we see popping up in all kinds of ways—the emphasis on human rights? The universal human rights where there is an intrinsic value in humans, there are these intrinsic rights that humans should have—rights to self-expression, rights to be who they want to be. How does that square with this idea that there is no clear standard for what humanity even is?

Carl Trueman
I think what you have in modern human rights discourse is really a rhetorical trick being played. They use the language of universal human nature, and yet when you dig down into the weeds of it, they don’t really believe in universal human nature at all. The baby in the womb has no rights. Often, what’s talked of as universal human rights is the rights of every individual, or every individual community, to self-determination. Well, that’s not traditional human rights. Take, for example, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. What underlay Dr. King’s approach to civil rights? It was the idea that the African American and the Caucasian American were both human beings, and therefore, the African American should be treated in just the same way, by law and by society, as the Caucasian.

Matt Tully
And being human had a theological significance to it.

Carl Trueman
Yes. It had a theological significance, it had a transcendent significance to it. Today when we talk about human rights, we tend to be thinking about the rights about specific communities or specific individuals to determine their identity in any way they wish. In other words, we’re not talking about human rights; we’re talking about individual autonomy. I think that’s the big difference. What we have today in the discourse of civil rights, it appears to be the same language. Human rights appears to be the same language, but actually, what it is is an articulation of individual autonomy and individual rights, not the rights of human beings.

Matt Tully
I think that hits on one of the things that can make a lot of the change we’re experiencing as a culture so chaotic and confusing so many of us—the issue of language. It seems like certain terms have been subtly redefined or shifted a little bit in their meaning. It can be hard to keep up with that, it can be hard to even notice that. The issue of universal human rights is a great example of that where it has arguably changed in its definition or use. Speak to that. How has that played a role in this strange new world that we find ourselves in?

Carl Trueman
Again, good question. I think it’s proved deceptive and disorienting for a number of reasons. For example, you might say gay couples have a right to get married the same as heterosexual couples. There’s a sense in which under the old regime of human rights, every human being had the same rights as every other human being. Every man had the right to marry a woman. Every woman had the right to marry a man. Now, however, we’ve introduced this new category: the category of gay as a sort of ratified construct, if you like. We’re applying the language of rights to that category in a way that makes us think Well, was that individual over there deprived of a right under the old regime? Well, no. He had the same right as everybody else. He could marry a woman the same as every other guy could marry a woman. But now, that sounds intrinsically unfair to us, I think precisely because that old language is being used in the context of new political identity categories that have crept in. That’s what makes it confusing because yes, we’re all interested in justice, we’re all interested in human rights. What we don’t realize is the rhetoric stayed the same, but the underlying philosophical basis has shifted in a very, very dramatic way.

17:53 - How Has Society Changed in Recent Years?

Matt Tully
Speak a little bit to the issue of society. We’ve already gotten into this a little bit, but in what ways has society—our conception of society—changed in recent years? For example, maybe the rise of the individual—I define myself apart from my social setting, etc.

Carl Trueman
I think one of the things we’re seeing at the moment is the triumph of the authorization of inner feelings. Inner feelings have always been important. You find them in the psalms, you find them in ancient literature.

Matt Tully
We didn’t just invent inner feelings.

Carl Trueman
Inner feelings weren’t invented by the Romantics at the beginning of the nineteenth century. No, they’ve always been around. They’ve always been an important part of who we are. But they’ve always been balanced in relationship to other things. What we’ve seen over the last hundred years, and particularly over the last fifteen or twenty years, is a dramatic acceleration in the authority granted to those feelings so that increasingly institutions and external authorities have been seen to become weaker, have declined in authority, at the same time that our inner drives, our inner feelings have gained ascendancy. The most obvious example is the issue of transgenderism. I’ve used this example a number of times: A hundred years ago if you had said I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body, your doctor would have said to you That’s a problem. It’s a problem with your mind. We need to treat the mind to bring you into conformity with your body. What the doctor is doing there is saying No, your real identity is grounded in your body. If the mind is out of sync with the body, then we need to work on the mind. We would do the same thing even today with somebody struggling with bulimia or anorexia, who comes and says I feel grossly fat when their obviously incredibly thin. We would say Okay, there’s a psychiatric issue here. We need to treat the mind in order to make this person understand the authority their body has for their identity. On the transgender issue, we now say Oh, it’s a problem with the body. We need to adjust the body. We need to use hormone treatment and do surgery in order to bring the body into conformity with the mind. The shift on that issue tells me that authority granted to inner feelings has, in certain areas, become virtually absolute. That’s very problematic because once you deny any external authority on the notion of the self, the whole conception of society becomes extremely problematic. We see this in very practical ways. I was reading somewhere recently in one of the problem pages in one of the newspapers—the problem-solvers, the Dr. Phil types. A person wrote that their child wakes up each day and decides what gender they’re going to be and what name they should use. Well, think about a world where everybody wakes up every morning and decides on that day who they are and what gender they are. They don’t allow any authority other than their own feelings. You cannot sustain a society on that. Society depends on external relationships. It depends upon some kind of external authority or institutional structure to maintain and replicate itself. If the psychological self is taken to its logical conclusion, society will become unsustainable.

Matt Tully
In your book you trace this back to Rousseau, I believe, and the Romantics who would have made the case that society, in some way, had a deleterious impact on us as individuals, that society tended to harm us as individuals and there’s a purity in the individual. Is that a correct summary of what they taught, and how do we see that dynamic at play in our culture?

Carl Trueman
I think Rousseau is the key man here: if we could just live according to the cry of nature, everything would be okay. What, of course, saves Rousseau and the Romantics from the radical, anarchic, subjectivism that I’ve described is they believe in something called human nature. They believe that the cry of nature for you would be the same as the cry of nature for me, or they would coordinate.

Matt Tully
So, in theory, there could be a foundation for a common living based on our ingrained human nature.

Carl Trueman
Yes. Human nature has a moral structure, albeit expressed through that cry of nature. This is where Nietzsche is so critical. Nietzsche comes on and says, No, no, no. You can’t get away with that. This idea of human nature as having this moral shape, that’s theological nonsense, that’s metaphysical nonsense. You’ve got to get rid of that. So I would say today we’re all the heirs of Rousseau in the notion that the inner authentic cry of nature is very powerful. That’s why, for instance, we tend to think of children and youth as wise and authoritative and older people as cynical and corrupted. That’s a very Rousseau kind of position to hold. But at the same time, we’ve also imbibed Nietzsche to think Actually, this human nature doesn’t have any moral structure to it at all. Therefore, it’s plausible to allow our human will to be determinative of identity.

23:32 - A Marxist Culture

Matt Tully
Another source of our skepticism of society—broadly defined, but in particular, institutions and traditional kinds of groups like that—has to do with the way that we so often have politicized so much of our society. You write in your book a fascinating quote that I would love to hear you elaborate on: "[Karl] Marx has won, for as soon as one side in the cultural conflict politicizes an institution, the other side has no choice but to engage on those terms. We are all, in a sense, Marxists now." Unpack that for us. How does that help to explain maybe the widespread suspicion of institutions—organized religion, organized politics, etc.—that we see today?

Carl Trueman
There is a lot that lies behind that statement. First of all, bearing in mind that the whole Rousseau idea that the whole purpose of society is to corrupt you, to remake you in its own image. And then you get Marx in the middle of the nineteenth century who argues that human nature is essentially a historical construct. Human nature changes over time depending upon the relations that individuals have, the relations that society legitimates and reinforces. There’s a lot of truth to that. People in the nineteenth century don’t think the same as people in the first century or people in the twenty-first century.

Matt Tully
That can be a hard realization for people who might have a simplistic view of human nature. Maybe the conservative Christian who thinks My way of viewing myself, my way of viewing the world is just the way that the biblical authors viewed the world. It’s the way that all Christians throughout the centuries have viewed the world. But we read history and we start to see that maybe that wasn’t the case.

Carl Trueman
Yes. I think Marx is a good son of Hegel on that point. One of the things I would say about Hegel and Marx is they’re not all wrong. They grasp ahold of some important truths, and one of them is the way we think is changed over time. For Marx, the key, of course, is that the way we think is shaped by our economic relations. What really drives history and us as a society, what shapes us as individuals is the economic struggle—the class struggle—that underlies everything. That means that everything plays into that. You might say Well, the Boy Scouts isn’t political. A Marxist would say No, no. The Boy Scouts is a way of the bourgeois, middle class society instilling certain values that preserve it, that maintain it, that justify it within the youth. Therefore, the Boy Scouts are political. We have to strip away the veneer of objectivity or neutrality or harmlessness from the Boy Scouts in order to expose what’s really going on.

Matt Tully
Does that explain the politicization of so many companies? We look around at big brands and companies in our society today, and there used to be a time when X company just produced that product that we all liked and we all drank and it was fine. Now it feels like everywhere you look companies are feeling the need to express their political identity, some kind of position. Is that related to this?

Carl Trueman
I think it is. I think when you get a society where everything becomes politicized, then yes, there is a sense in which companies have to play the game. I would be a little cynical about those companies. I think it’s a marketing ploy by and large. I think when these companies adopt political positions it’s a way of playing to that general social imagery, that general way of people thinking about the world that is highly political. When Amazon plays the political card, or when J. Crew plays the political card, when Victoria’s Secret flies the rainbow flag, what they’re doing is they’re—maybe this makes me sound a bit Marxist—but they’re doing what capitalists always do. They’re playing to the market at that point. Of course, it reinforces the politicization of society, but I don’t think they’re simply floating on the surface of politics as a reflection of something. They’re also shaping society and trying to capitalize on the currents that they perceive going on within society.

Matt Tully
Does this obsession with politics and a constant emphasis on the two sides—or maybe there’s more than two sides oftentimes—do you see that extending all the way down to the individual and how we as people think about ourselves and think about our world?

Carl Trueman
Increasingly so, mainly because I think private space is being eliminated in our world. The idea that we live a public life in the public square and at our workplace or our place of learning, etc. Then we have a private space in the family. That’s coming under huge pressure from all directions. Not only from big tech but also from social media. What we’re seeing in the world today, for example, is where people’s private opinions on things are now being made public on social media and may cost them their job, may cost them their place in public society. So, I think the individual is becoming politicized because the public space is becoming all-comprehensive, all-embracing. The private sphere where one could dissent from dominant cultural opinions and trends, that’s being squeezed, that’s disappearing.

29:12 - Who Is Shaping Culture?

Matt Tully
There’s this small contingent of social media, on Twitter—blue-checked Twitters is a phrase that’s often thrown out—and it seems like they don’t represent most people living in the US, or living in the West even more broadly. Most people are more reasonable. Your neighbor next door is not as obsessed with some of these things. But it seems like there’s a certain power that few people exert in kind of shaping the way the conversation happens, shaping the categories that we’re all then being forced into. How does that dynamic happen? How do you see that playing out in all of this?

Carl Trueman
That’s an interesting question. I think a big part of it is institutions of power. The Instagram, Whats—I’m not a social media person, so I’m kind of scrabbling around for the terms here.

Matt Tully
You’ve got Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.

Carl Trueman
These have become focal points for power, for no obvious reason it seems to me. I’ve never seen anything on Twitter that was remotely worth reading or earth-shattering, and yet, the institutions that shape our culture—the media, the movies, Hollywood, the big commercial enterprise, big tech, etc.—these groups have seized onto these things and have made them influential. There’s a sense in which maybe they don’t represent your neighbor, but they represent a significant part of the national economy. Again, not wanting to sound to Marxist about this, but I would say look and follow the money. Where the money is, there you’ll find the power.

Matt Tully
With those influences, there might not be an overt agreement with the guy next door with what they’re seeing plastered up on billboards (figuratively); however, there does seem to be this slow, gradual influence—worldview shaping—that happens that maybe is even under the radar in that person’s own mind.

Carl Trueman
We’ve already mentioned the banning of my friend Ryan Anderson’s book from Amazon. Think about that for a moment. Amazon shifts—what is it something like 50–90%—some huge amount of books in America are shifted by Amazon. If Amazon bans a book, that doesn’t just ban that book. As Ryan has pointed out on numerous occasions, that sends a message to publishers that if you publish a book that takes this line, Amazon is not going to sell it. Which means that publishers aren’t going to be interested in publishing it. Which effectively means that Amazon can exclude from influential public discussion certain views. At the moment, it’s just a handful of books that have been banned, but if Amazon decides to really ratchet up its functional censorship, that’s going to dramatically shape the availability of viewpoints within modern society. That is going to shape how your neighbor thinks. Amazon may not be representative of your neighbor today, banning a book on transgenderism, but the banning of the book may shape the way your neighbor’s children think about these things and may ultimately reshape the way society as a whole thinks about these things. So, I’m inclined to say just because these big tech companies or social media don’t represent the majority of people in the United States, that doesn’t mean they’re not the most influential things in the United States. The power they have to reshape public discourse is quite striking. What’s most worrying about that, of course, is that this is not a first amendment issue. Generally speaking, we’ve always thought in the past that governments do the censoring. Therefore, if you have a constitution that protects you from the power of the government, you’re relatively safe. But what happens when governments are not the most powerful people in our lives? What happens when it’s private corporations?

Matt Tully
That’s one of the big arguments that Rod Dreher makes in his newest book Live Not by Lies. He calls it soft totalitarianism.

Carl Trueman
Yes. It’s the way of tilting people’s minds and imaginations in certain directions, which is bringing us back to where we started with the Huxley thing. The totalitarianism in Brave New World is not really imposed from above; it’s imposed by tilting people towards pleasure and passivity.

33:50 - Who Defines Morality?

Matt Tully
That connects well with the next topic I wanted to discuss, which was morality—notions of what is right, what is wrong, notions of justice. How does the way that we’ve come to view ourselves as the authoritative center of the universe, in a lot of ways, and the denigration of society’s role in forming and shaping us—how does all of that come to influence the way that we think about right and wrong?

Carl Trueman
Think about the language that we often use about right and wrong today. It’s interesting to reflect upon some of the instinctive words we’ll use: That was hurtful. That was offensive. That was distasteful. That’s what I would call aesthetic language. It’s language that really speaks of feelings and emotional response—gag reflex kind of language.

Matt Tully
We don’t say That was wrong.

Carl Trueman
I joke to the students in class that you can say Trueman is a bald guy with crooked teeth. That’s a very hurtful and distasteful comment, but it’s actually correct. That takes us, I think, to the heart of moral discourse today which has tended to default to taste. We see this in the discourse of social justice that’s going on at the moment. What’s interesting is that anybody who dares to dissent from the dominant discourse of social justice is not refuted by argument, but is essentially dismissed as an evil person or a hurtful person or as a mean-spirited person. Those aren’t arguments. Those are gut reactions. Those are emotional reactions.

Matt Tully
It used to be called an ad hominem attack, and it was a fallacy.

Carl Trueman
Yes. Ad hominem was a fallacy. Now, it’s the modus operandi of so many progressives who are very quick to talk about being kind, etc. to those who disagree with them, and yet are rarely, if ever, kind (in my experience) to those who disagree with them. Certainly not to those who disagree with them on their right rather than their left.

Matt Tully
That gets to the issue of moral intuitions. That’s something that you talk a lot about in your book. Others have written about this. I think of Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind where he helps to unpack the distinction between moral intuition and moral reasoning. I wonder if you can unpack that for us in the context of this conversation. One quote you have here that I’ll just read and then you can comment on it: “the way we think about the world is not primarily by way of rational arguments based on first principles. It is much more intuitive than that. And that means that the story of the modern self is not simply the story of big ideas thought by profound thinkers. It is the story of how the way we intuit or imagine the world has come to be. And that involves far more than books and arguments.”

Carl Trueman
It’s a good question. I would go back to the French Revolution to think about this. The French Revolution was an interesting exercise in rationality in Europe that ended in horrendous bloodshed. Even the form of execution in the French Revolution—the guillotine—is a wonderfully scientific and clean way of execution, so say. But we know that this attempt to rebuild society on the basis of reason alone ended in terrible bloodshed. One of the most interesting responses to the French Revolution came from the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller. Schiller’s wrestling with the question, How do we make people moral when it’s very clear that reason by itself is not up to the job? Schiller, building on fairly Enlightenment psychology, said human beings are not just reason. We’re also sensitive. We’re also emotional, or sentimental, beings. The key thing to being a moral human being is to have our reason informed by our sentiments, and our sentiments informed by our reason.

Matt Tully
It has to be a two-way street.

Carl Trueman
It has to be a two-way street. They have to limit each other, effectively, in order to avoid engaging in the kind of bloody, crazy excess that you found in the French Revolution. I think Schiller is really onto something there. There is a sense in which we need to understand that morality is not just about emotional intuitions. It does have a kind of objective content to it. I think where we failed in the present world is we lost our sense of the objectivity of morality and have emphasized purely the emotional nature of morality. It’s all about gut instinct, gut reaction, gag reflexes today. What we need to try to capture is that balance, or that inner penetration of what I would call moral principles or moral intuitions. How we do that, well, that’s an interesting challenge. For a Christian, we start with worship. The worship service is interesting. What is a Christian worship service? On one level there’s a doctrinal content there. The content of the gospel informs the worship service, shapes the worship service. But it isn’t just a doctrinal statement. We sing praise to God. It’s doctrinal praise, but we sing it. It has a form that touches our sentiments, that touches our emotions. I think with Christians, we need to think not simply about arguments that we can develop in order to address the issues of the present day. We need to remind ourselves how important worship is and how important it is that what we say, what we sing, what we hear—the rhythms we experience, we might say, in the worship service—all of these things serve to shape us as whole human beings. Not just as thinkers, but also as emotional beings. So, the two things—thinking and our emotional intuitions—are coordinated.

Matt Tully
Do you think there’s any truth to the idea that perhaps conservative Christians who would hold to these orthodox Christian doctrines have been so focused on maintaining the right doctrines and right thinking that we have neglected—not only in our discipleship inside the church but even in our evangelism outside the church—we’ve neglected the moral imagination dynamic to this that the broader culture has laser-focused in on?

Carl Trueman
I think so. I think one of the reasons for that might be that—to go back to what I said about Nietzsche and his critique of the Enlightenment philosophers sort of living off the morality of Christianity long after God had died—there’s a sense in which society, up until fairly recently, the intuitions of society broadly tracked with the moral intuitions of Christianity. Only in the last fifty or sixty years have we started to see a major collapse on that front. I think that made Christians lazy. We didn’t have to do the moral imagination thing because society did that for us and it connected with what we taught about God anyway. Now we find ourselves in a situation where all of that capital has disappeared, and suddenly we’re—to use a cricketing metaphor—we’re batting on the back foot here. We’re having to put ourselves in a very defensive position on this. I think we’ve fallen behind on this one.

41:22 - The Polarizing Topic of Justice

Matt Tully
How does all of this relate to questions of justice? Personal morality feels connected to justice, but this idea of justice broadly—social justice in our society has become such a big concept that is so often polarizing.

Carl Trueman
Again, there’s no easy answer to that question. I think one aspect of that, of course, is the massive expansion of victimhood. In the past, justice had a certain empirical dimension to it. It involved not being able to vote, not being able to get work, not being able to sit in certain seats at a restaurant or use certain restrooms, not being able to sit in certain seats on a bus. You could point to things. What we’ve seen in the last thirty or forty years is this massive expansion of victimhood where victimhood has become psychological. I feel oppressed. Somebody used a word, and it doesn’t actually stop me from using that seat on the bus, but somebody used a word that made me feel bad. When you expand victim-hood in such a psychological way, you also subjectivize it. Victimhood becomes subjective. Anybody who claims to be a victim, it becomes distasteful to say they’re not a victim. So, I think what we’ve seen on the justice front is an increasing sensitivity in our society to victim-hood, combined with an increasing expansion of the category of victims. That’s what has become so polarizing because there are now so many victims out there with what are, according to the basic social imagining in which we now live, legitimate claims to victimhood.

Matt Tully
Do you think there’s something to it though? Someone might acknowledge that some of these examples that we might see on the news are too extreme, not legitimate, too broad of a definition. But do you think there’s any validity to the argument that some of the categories of “victim” in our society today are legitimate categories? There is a real thing of psychological victimization that can happen that maybe in the past wouldn’t have been characterized that way; it would have been brushed under the rug and ignored. What do you think about that?

Carl Trueman
I think it’s absolutely correct. Like so many of these things, they are only powerful and they only grip the popular imagination because they contain important elements of truth. I’m not a big Rousseau fan in terms of thinking that society is what screws you up, but it would be hopelessly naive to think that society doesn’t have some impact on the way we think and does screw some of us up. For example, words. Can words be very hurtful and harmful? Absolutely. When I think back to my school days, I got in the occasional scrap, I played sports, I got kicked about a bit on the rugby field (I didn’t play rugby very well, but I certainly picked up a few kicks and bruises). I don’t remember any of them specifically—except I’ve got a tiny scar over my one eye that is a reminder of something that once happened—but I can remember words that were said against me that hurt me. So, yes, I certainly don’t want to trivialize the issue of the power of words to do psychological damage. The problem is that once you make psychology the primary category for determining victimhood, it’s very, very difficult to discern what are the real claims and what are the trivial claims. Think of the whole category of spiritual abuse that’s emerged over the last couple of years in the church. Is there such a thing as spiritual abuse in the church? Undoubtedly. But I’ve been talking to pastors recently who said to me, You know, if I preach the law of God and tell people that such and such behavior is wrong, am I going to be vulnerable to an accusation of spiritual abuse? To which my answer has been, Well, if those people enjoy behaving in that kind of way, yes, you might find yourself vulnerable to that accusation of spiritual abuse.

Matt Tully
It’s become an avenue to push back against something that we just don’t like.

Carl Trueman
It’s become an escape route for many forms of authority. Again, to any listeners out there: don’t mishear me as saying that spiritual abuse doesn’t exist, or saying that psychological harm isn’t real harm. It is. What I’m saying is the way we determine what is real harm and what isn’t, and what the degree of harm is, that gets incredibly subjective once we really start accenting the psychological dimension of all this.

45:58 - Sexuality and Modern Culture

Matt Tully
Let’s turn now to the topic of sexuality. This is perhaps one of the most forefront issues in our culture today, it has been for a long time, and it probably will continue to be for a long time in the future. Why is that? What is it about sexuality that makes it so sticky, so central to our conversation as a culture today?

Carl Trueman
Historically, one could point tot he influence of Sigmund Freud and say what Freud does in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is identify our identities with our sexual desires. He does it using a scientific idiom, which is very powerful and very persuasive in the world of modernity. His ideas are picked up on and developed by a lot of the architects of pop culture. The constant presentation in the popular media of human fulfillment as sexual fulfillment, of sexual desire as being who we are. That has helped this idea percolate down into the intuitions of ordinary men and women. Again, to go back to something I said a few moments ago, another reason why it could do that, of course, is that Freud is onto something. For most of us, our sexual desires are among some of the most powerful desires we experience. World literature bears witness to this. Think about the “Iliad.” What’s the dramatic background to the “Iliad”? It’s one guy who has stolen another guy’s wife because he couldn’t control his sexual passion, so he’s run off with her. So, world literature witnesses to the fact that actually, sexual desires are very powerful. The Bible: David and Bathsheba, for example, would be the biblical example. So, there’s a kernel of truth in this. Our sexual desires are very powerful. And also, I think from a Christian perspective, being told that my fulfillment is to be found through fulfilling my sexual desires, that’s a pretty attractive sales pitch for an identity. There is what sociologists call the double hermeneutic effect in play, that when you’re told something is real, you start to treat it as real and behave in accordance with it. Then you have, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the two Kinsey Reports coming out on male and female sexuality. Much has been done to show those reports were highly distorted.

Matt Tully
Junk science.

Carl Trueman
Junk science. But, once you’re told that this is how your neighbors are behaving, this is how X% of American males and females are behaving, you’ll tend to behave that way yourself.

Matt Tully
It pushes you in that direction.

Carl Trueman
Yes. That becomes the expectation that grips your imagination. So, there are various reasons why sex has risen to the top of the pile in human identity, and I think those are some of them.

Matt Tully
We see why sex has become so important to us, but it seems like it’s more than that. For many us—for many people in our society today—sex is an issue of identity. It’s not just something that we do and that we talk about; it is actually who I am. Issues of sexuality come to define us in a really unprecedented type of way. How did we get to that next step?

Carl Trueman
As I say, mainly through cultural presentations: pop media, people telling us that that’s the case, and through an oversimplification of the growing up process. I was talking to somebody just the other day who said that they had been chatting to a local doctor who was telling him that 80% of the nine-year-old girls he came across in his practice now identify as bisexual. What’s happening there? Nine-year-old kids, if you can remember that far back, as you head toward puberty and as you go through puberty, there is a lot of sexual confusion. There is a lot of confusion about sexual desire at that point. What we’ve done, of course, is we now deny children the right to be children. Now, if as a nine year old you feel some sort of erotic impulse towards another nine-year-old girl, you’re going to be told you’re a lesbian or bisexual. That double hermeneutic kinda kicks in, if you like, when it comes to grip the imagination. So, I think there are a lot of things going on in society, not least the over simplification of the growing up process relative to sexual desire that is serving to, I would say, simply perpetuate the confusion that most of us experience at puberty—to make it into something fixed, when actually, it’s much more fluid.

50:56 - The Impact of Culture’s View of Sexuality on the Church

Matt Tully
Speak to the conservative Christian listening right now who would intellectually hold to Scripture’s teaching on the issues of gender and sexuality, the appropriateness of sexual behavior as people. Are there ways in which, in your own experience in a church, teaching students, in your relationships, that you can see the impact of the broader culture’s understanding of sex impacting Christians—maybe in ways we don’t even realize?

Carl Trueman
I would recommend people go look up my colleague David Ayers. I think summaries of his work have been published in Christianity Today and the Gospel Coalition where he’s looked at the sexual behavior of Christian teenagers—Christian twenty-somethings. You’ll see there that, in practical terms, traditional Christian teaching on sexual behavior no longer grips the imagination of young people. There is a difference, I think, between Christian young people and purely secular young people, but the difference is not as great as it was, and it’s certainly not as great as it should be. So, I would say look at some of the sociological work that’s being done to show how sexual behavior is being transformed. Look at statistics on pornography use. Pornography use is not simply something that one watches and then it goes away. Pornography restructures the brain; it rewires neural pathways. Pornography is changing the way people think about sex. It’s changing the way young Christian men—and increasingly, young Christian women—think about sex. I would say open your eyes and look at the world around you and see that this is alive and well, unfortunately, within the church. I always think of the contrast between Genesis 19 and Judges 19. In Genesis 19 you have Sodom and Gomorrah. In Judges 19 you have the rape and murder of the Levites concubine. What’s interesting about those texts is that about a third of the Hebrew is the same in both passages. The writer of Judges is lifting from Moses and making the point that the events that happened in Sodom and Gomorrah, outside of the people of God, they’re happening in the people of God now in Judges. By using that language, he’s very explicitly making that point that what starts in Sodom and Gomorrah doesn’t stay there. It comes within a few generations to penetrate deep within the people of God. I think we’re in a similar situation today. What happens in California doesn’t stay in California. It comes to permeate the whole Christian church at some point.

Matt Tully
Speak to pastors and church leaders broadly. We’ve been talking about a lot of these different changes in our culture that have their roots back hundreds of years ago, but are nevertheless coming to a certain type of fruition in recent years. The change feels chaotic, it feels strange, and yet it’s happening and influencing all of us in subtle ways. What can Christian leaders do when they think about the call to disciple the people in their congregations? What does it look like to be intentional about counteracting some of the negative impacts of this?

Carl Trueman
First of all, I think the basics of Christian discipleship remain the same: teaching the whole counsel of God. I think of worship on a Sunday, proclaiming the Word, engaging in the elements of worship.

Matt Tully
It’s more than just the doctrinal transfer of information. There’s a certain shaping of the imagination that is happening in that context.

Carl Trueman
Yes. And I think that takes place in the whole worship service. It’s not just the preaching; it’s what we sing, it’s how we sing it; it’s what we pray, it’s how we pray. I think that all has its importance. I think the community life of the church is important to recapture. If identity is a function of the relationships we have, then the strongest identity you have is going to connect to the strongest relationships you have. If Christianity is going to be the strongest identity you have, then your relationships in the church need to be the strongest relationships that you experience.

Matt Tully
Would a natural application of that be that it might be wise and good for Christians to prioritize relationships with other Christians? We want to have that be the dominant influence in how we think about the world.

Carl Trueman
Absolutely. Jesus himself says, “By this will all men know you’re my disciples, by the love you have for each other.” On the other side, Paul says, “Bad company corrupts morals.” So, if you want to be a powerful witness to the world, and you want to be a good disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, then I think being part of a vibrant church is absolutely foundational to all that goes on. I do think we may want to think about how we preach. The expressive individualist world in which we now live, stories resonate particularly powerfully. The danger with stories it can become just a case of, You tell me your story, and I’ll tell you mine. The Christian story is powerful because it’s ultimately true. It’s declaring truths. But I think that story form of preaching speaks powerfully to people today. I think pastors, particularly when dealing with the damage done by the sexual revolution, should have at their fingertips good, solid, secular statistics on these things. The young person who says, What does the Bible teach about homosexuality?, pointing them to Bible verses may well be enough to convince them of the Bible’s position on homosexuality. But they may still worry, God’s just commanded that because he wants to hurt my gay friends. If you can back that up with statistics that show, for example, the male gay lifestyle dramatically shortens life expectancy, raises issues of physical damage, raises issues of disease—which it does. If you can back it up, then you’re able to say to them, God wants people to flourish, and it’s very clear that this lifestyle is no way of flourishing. So, I think that pastors might want to have more in their pastoral arsenal than just the relevant Bible texts, or the relevant arguments. It’s hard to argue with facts, and I think pastors having access to those kind of statistics can be very, very helpful.

57:30 - Advice for Parents

Matt Tully
Drilling down to a more specific category, speak to parents. I think parents are often on the front lines of this. They’re seeing this because their kids are in schools, they have friends, they’re consuming this media—the new media—in a lot of ways that many times parents aren’t even familiar with and don’t even know what’s going on. Speak to the parent who has their kid coming home to them expressing ideas, concerns, opinions that are just so beyond anything that they’ve ever considered. It feels very strange to them.

Carl Trueman
The first thing I think parents need to realize is that institutional authority is the least of their concerns. Often, Christian parents tend to be focused on what—

Matt Tully
They think of the schools.

Carl Trueman
What are the schools teaching? I want to suggest that actually, whatever your kids are learning, the most important things they’re learning are probably not from schools these days. It’s from the Internet. It’s from TikTok, YouTube, whatever. One of the things I’ve become acutely aware of in the last year just talking to students at Grove City College is the authorities many of them look to are not the traditional institutional authorities that I worry about. They are the informal ones that I didn’t even know existed—these forums, these discussions, etc. So, I think first of all, don’t assume that because your kid is going to a good school, or that you’re homeschooling them, that they’re not being taught really bad stuff by powerful authority figures. They are. They’re getting it from the Internet. Be aware of that.

Matt Tully
What would be a wrong way to respond to that kind of warning? I could see some parents saying, Yeah, okay. I’m clued into this concern. I’m just going to cut off the Internet access. No more.

Carl Trueman
Well, that might be an appropriate response in some situations. I’m not going to say that that’s a wrong thing to do. I would regard as insane giving a smartphone to any kid at school. And frankly, I wouldn’t care if it makes them look geeky and square to their pals. I would rather that my kids did not have access to the garbage that smartphones give them access to than that they fit in with the core crowd at the school. My argument on that point would be parents, you need to be grownups. Your calling is not to be the friend of your child or be a neighbor of your child; your role is to be the protector of your child. So, that may not be the wrong reaction in some circumstances. But setting that aside, be aware of the situation. Be aware that the way they think about the world is very different to the way that you think about it. On that front, talk to other parents. There are going to be others who have gone through, or are going through, similar experiences. In the most extreme circumstances, a kid comes out as trans or something like that. There are forums and there are groups of parents all going through the same thing. Draw on the wealth of resources that is out there. Read the best books on these subjects. Don’t cut off lines of communication with your children. If they’re not talking to you, who are they talking to? Try to keep those lines of communication open. Pray. Pray the promises. Ask the Lord to look after them. Then, behave responsibly as a parent.

01:00:53 - Hopeful but Not Optimistic

Matt Tully
When you look at the future of America and the American church in particular, do you feel optimistic as we look to navigate these strange waters that we’re living in?

Carl Trueman
I think optimism is the wrong term. I’m mindful of my friend Rod Dreher’s comment that he’s not an optimist, but he is hopeful. I think optimism has connotations of, Well, everything is going to turn out okay in the end. We’re all going to be alright. I think that is rather naive. I think I’m hopeful. That is, I’m not sure that I’m going to be okay. I’m not sure that I’m going to see much improvement in my lifetime. I’m not sure that my denomination or my church are going to make it through to the end faithfully. But I am confident that God is going to honor his promises, and I am confident that any contradictory suffering that the church goes through in the interim before the return of Christ will be subverted by and used by the Lord for the extension, expansions, and improvement of his kingdom. So, I would say I’m hopeful. That doesn’t mean that it’s going to work out okay for me in the end, but it does mean that everything will ultimately be consummated by the Lord at the end of time.

Matt Tully
Carl, thank you so much for helping us to understand this world that we live in and for giving us your time today.

Carl Trueman
Thanks for having me back.


Popular Articles in This Series

View All

Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)

Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.


Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.