Excerpt from Carl Trueman's JCS Article

The Journal of Christian Studies is pleased to publish Carl R. Trueman's article, "Plastic People, Liquid World." Below is an excerpt of the forthcoming article. It's not yet too late to subscribe and receive this issue!

"Plastic People, Liquid World"

When faced with the rapid changes and apparent volatility of the current political and social climate, numerous issues present themselves as particularly potent and divisive: abortion rights, the rise of pornography, the growing acceptance of euthanasia, the resurgence of radical racial politics, and issues such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Parents are perhaps under particular pressure, faced with a world that, morally and technologically, seems far beyond their comprehension and control. The temptation at such a moment is to panic, to despair, to go into a knee-jerk reaction. These are not ultimately helpful. We are called to live in the times in which we live, not to spend those times wishing we had been born in the past or the future. But if we are to respond to our times correctly, we must first understand our times accurately. I want to offer some thoughts to facilitate that understanding by arguing that at the heart of our current cultural conflicts lies an underlying notion of the self that we all share and that is transforming our world, from our institutions to our understanding of morality. Understanding this point will allow us to think about how we might act towards the future.

What is the Modern Self?

By the term “self” I do not mean the common-sense way in which we often use the term to refer to our basic consciousness of being individuals whereby I know that I am me and not, say, Joe Biden or Mitch McConnell. By “self” I am referring to the way in which I understand my identity and how I relate to wider society, and to how I understand happiness and flourishing. This understanding is set within an intuitive framework established by the society around us; we might say that society encourages individuals instinctively to think of their selves in particular ways. Our understanding of selfhood is not, therefore, the result of conscious reflection but rather a function of the intuitions which society cultivates in us. This is what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls the social imaginary:

I want to speak of “social imaginary” here, rather than social theory, because there are important differences between the two. There are, in fact, several differences. I speak of “imaginary” (i) because I’m talking about the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, it is carried in images, stories, legends, etc. But it is also the case that (ii) theory is often the possession of a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imaginary is that it is shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society. Which leads to a third difference: (iii) the social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.[1]

The social imaginary cannot be reduced to a set of conscious ideas or principles. Rather it is a combination of ideas, intuitions, and social practices that serve to reinforce a sense of the self.

As to the specific nature of the modern self, this is what Robert Bellah terms “expressive individualism”: “Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.”[2] Charles Taylor, too, sees this expressive individualism as the normative modern notion of selfhood in the West. He specifically connects it to what he dubs “the culture of ‘authenticity”’ and describes it as follows:

[The culture of authenticity is one where] each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.[3]

Expressive individualism assumes the authority of inner feelings in what it means to be an individual, which has a number of implications. First, to be truly oneself requires behaving outwardly in a manner consistent with those inner feelings. Second, this is reflected in the rise to prominence of the notion of authenticity, since the failure or inability to behave in such a way means that the outward, social self is not a true reflection of the real, inward self. Third, expressive individualism carries with it a set of moral priorities that serves to shape the individual’s moral imagination and therefore the nature of a society composed of such individuals. Fourth, happiness and human flourishing tend to be identified with the individual’s inner sense of psychological well-being or peace....

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard Belknap Press, 2007), 171–72. [2] Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 333–34. [3] Taylor, A Secular Age, 475.