A Christian scholar and church historian, Carl Trueman is a professor of Biblical and religious studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. His latest book is “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.”
How has the perception of Christianity changed over several centuries?
Trueman’s work examines changes in Western culture. Generations ago, people made an “unconscious decision” to follow God. Trueman said it was the cultural default position, but today, it has become a choice.
“One of the points Charles Taylor makes in his work, ‘A Secular Age,’ is that it’s impossible to believe as a Christian quite in the same way as say 500 years ago,” Trueman said. “The primary reason is we have a choice today. If you were born in England in the beginning of the 15th century, belief in God would have been the air you breathe, and there wouldn’t have been a choice of what church you went to. There was just the one church. Whereas today, of course, the cultural tide is flowing against belief in God. It’s quite easy to choose to disbelieve in God.”
One of the key changes in Western thought is the contrast between what Trueman calls a mimetic and a poiesis worldview.
“The shift from mimesis to poiesis is how we think of the world,” Trueman added. “If you were to go back several centuries, people intuitively thought of the world as a relatively fixed place and had a set meaning, and the purpose of human life was to find one’s place within that already established order. That’s what we’d call a mimetic world, where the task of humans is to discover that set meaning and fit themselves into it. We now live in a world marked by poiesis. It doesn’t have a fixed meaning. It’s just stuff for us to manipulate, use and press into whatever meaning we care to give it. It really makes us think we can make reality and ourselves into whatever we want to be.”
Trueman said this is dangerous because God and His good design are no longer included in discussions related to humanity.
“In times past, we tended to think of the world as ordered in accordance with God’s will,” he said. “Move to the 21st century, in a world that has by and large rejected God or dismissed His importance, then appealing to a sacred order to justify our lifestyle is not a plausible way of operating. Morality has become more pragmatic-oriented … In other words, the reasons for various taboos that were in place for centuries have vanished. They no longer see their task as the transmission of the past, but the overcoming of the past. Everywhere you look, the things that the past held dear are being rejected on precisely the grounds that the past held them dear.”
What’s the domino effect of fewer people looking to God’s “sacred order”?
Trueman said since American culture has abandoned a sacred order and any precedent set by previous generations, it means that individuals are trailblazers in creating a blueprint or foundation for how society should function.
He coins it “expressive individualism,” meaning that the purpose of life is to find one’s authentic self and then to express that to the world even if it’s counter to family, friends, previous generations or religious beliefs.
“We have come to place an increasing emphasis upon inner feelings, that what we feel inside has become critically important,” Trueman said. “I think what we see in society is a general shift toward happiness and satisfaction being thought of as an inward psychological state. It doesn’t necessarily prioritize the individual over the community, but … it makes the individual needs the paramount good for the community. So, language becomes very important. If I use a term that offends or oppresses you, that is considered an immoral thing. Oppression is based on, ‘How does that make me feel?’”
In your book, you talk about the challenges to freedom of speech when people who have beliefs that differ from the majority are silenced. What does that mean for Christians?
Trueman said that one’s refusal to recognize a belief or identity that the majority of society recognizes as legitimate has become a moral offense, not simply a matter of indifference.
“It has an immediate impact on traditional notions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” Trueman said. “These were considered important virtues to flourishing as a society. In a world where happiness is about inner feelings, freedom of religion and freedom of speech actually become problems because those freedoms allow me to believe something that might hurt you psychologically. They allow me to use a word that you might find offensive.”
Trueman said our culture presents preferences or personal taste as truth.
“Increasingly institutions are regarded as instruments of oppression because they were designed for a different notion of selfhood,” Trueman added. “It’s going to become difficult for Christians because the tide of the culture is flowing against them. Many of the things that Christians hold dear and cannot budge on—particularly in the realm of morality—these are things that are going to place them outside the bounds of acceptable taste within the wider culture.”
However, Trueman said this is precisely a believer’s time to shine for Christ.
“Augustine in his great work, ‘The City of God,’ talks about the importance of being citizens of the earthly city, not just citizens of heaven,” he said. “Augustine’s point is there are many goods the earthly city seeks that Christians can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them on: civil order, peace, employment, working hard.”