Originally posted here in Westminster Magazine.
Much of what counts for true courage these days is the quiet labor that leads while louder voices whimper for attention. True courage doesn’t demand service; true courage serves. True courage learns and loves while no one’s looking. False courage, in contrast, grasps at power to force change. All this came to light for me in some off-hand jabs regarding identity and sexuality. Let’s start with that basic identity question and then find our way to Christian courage by the end.
THE IRE FOR GOD-GIVEN IDENTITY
I recently read J. H. Bavinck’s The Church Between Temple and Mosque. I couldn’t put it down. His words made minnows in my mind. And of the many sentences that hooked my swimming thoughts were these: “‘Who am I, small mortal man, in the midst of all these powerful realities with which I am confronted and with which my life is most intimately related?’ This very simple question reveals all the problems of religion in a nutshell” (p. 109). Who am I? In our age of sexual identity politics, that little question may well reveal a majority of the problems in the public square.
At a recent conference on apologetics, Daniel Strange suggested human identity will be the topic in the limelight for a few decades. He’s right. That tiny question, the one revealing all the problems of religion, is tattooed on every piece of theology and public discourse. And why shouldn’t it be? Could any question be more formative, more defining, more directing? Could any query have deeper existential roots? And yet, could any question be so deeply misunderstood by the secular world?
That’s why I breathed a sigh of relief after reading Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Endorsements for books notoriously embellish. But when Bruce Ashford writes that this book is “perhaps the most significant analysis and evaluation of Western culture written by a Protestant during the past fifty years,” I’m inclined to agree. Why? Because the book clearly and competently addresses the swirling Christian confusion and anxiety about our culture’s answer to that pivotal question: who am I?
We live in the only stage of human history where our relation to an acronym is the default directive for identity: LGBTQ+. Or, as I saw recently, LGBTQI2A+. (Honestly, how much longer is this thing going to get?) As a thinking Christian, I wanted to know why people in our day can say things like, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body.” I wanted to know why people equate sexuality with identity, to such a degree that questioning anyone’s sexuality or gender becomes a personal attack with political implications.
THE SWILL OF SELF
And to be honest, I wanted to know the answers to these things because I hate conflict, and maybe finding some answers would help me mitigate the discord I’m bound to encounter. I want to engage with culture, but my heart gets lodged in my throat when I scroll through Twitter and tour a venue for vitriol. So much anger, name-calling, self-righteous judgment, pigeon-holing. It’s something I can only describe as demeaning swill. Maybe that’s a new tagline for Twitter: Home of Demeaning Swill.
For the record, I’m talking about Christians, not about the secular world. Time and time again, what I see on social media suggests that the greatest threats to Christianity aren’t outside the church; they’re inside. And I’m not referring to false teaching, prevalent as that is (and always has been). I’m referring to malformed character—to those so focused on touting their vision of truth that they forget to live in the person of truth, the self-giving and humble Godman. Jesus never failed to speak the truth because he always spoke himself. But he did so under abject humiliation by the masses. Jesus, as the truth, suffered in service. He heralded amidst humiliation.
In pockets of the church, especially on social media, we are losing Christ’s example of heralding amidst humiliation. Instead of bowing low and turning to him, we’re standing tall and turning on each other. That’s one of the many reasons why the Christian church is fracturing. And that’s weakening our ability to be a light in the world when every photon of virtue and stability seems to be drifting away from us, like ash in the wind.
The recent, heart-wrenching events in Nashville, TN are the latest to bring every Christian low, down to the dust, knee-to-knee with our humble Christ. It’s there that we’ll receive God’s light and hold it up with open palms to those seeking mercy, comfort, hope—and yes, identity.
It’s in God’s light that we’ll see who we are, and that we’ll be able to show others who they are. Standing in that light requires courage like never before. But that courage rests on understanding, sympathy, and love—not on some forced Christian utopia that crushes and cancels dissenting souls. It’s in Trueman’s work that I found a place to begin.
UNDERSTANDING AND THE SOURCE OF SELF
After reading The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, I experienced two things Christians desperately need in the broken and confused world of identity: understanding and sympathy. These two words are going to be the pillars on which courageous Christian engagement with LGBTQ+ stands or falls.
Understanding came when I learned how a skewed sense of identity had grown from Rousseau through Marx and Freud, an ivy that should irk any biblically minded believer. It was captured in quotes like these.
The language of self-expression and the negative attitude to the norms of society at large are entirely consistent with Rousseau and the Romantics. Now refracted through the lens of the post-Freud preoccupation with sexuality and the post-Marx, post-Nietzsche framework of power and oppression, the spirit of the Romantics finds its home in the radicalism of the transgender lobby (p. 355).
I would argue that dignity is itself an inference from the Christian teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God. But in our current climate, this universal dignity has been psychologized, and the granting of dignity has come to be equated with the affirmation of those psychologized identities that enjoy special status in our culture (p. 331).
Ours is the age of the psychologized self. The answer to the question “Who am I?” is assumed to be internal and self-made (poietic) rather than external and God-given (mimetic).
Trueman’s thought accords with that of Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987). Among his many contributions to apologetics and theology was his point that everything is undergirded by presuppositions. Put tersely, what you assume is what you get. Where you start determines where you finish. For Christians, we start by assuming God’s existence and revelation, even while the world starts by assuming his absence and muteness. In his words, “our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition” (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 59).
Now, apply this to the concept of identity in the public square. If we assume with contemporary culture that identity is psychological, then of course we’ll end up equating sexuality with identity. Sexuality, after all, grows from internal desires. But equating the two opens the door to equating anything in our psyche with identity. And if that’s accepted, then those who question claims to identity are liable to judgment, with political ramifications. Assuming a psychological identity at the outset means accepting the political protection of that identity at the end. That’s what we’re seeing today.
In contrast, if we assume that identity is God-given, we’ll arrive at a radically different sense of who we are—something which can only be defined in relationship to God, not our inner self. Our personality, Van Til wrote, “is inherently analogous of God’s personality” (A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 230). If that’s our assumption, then we can’t identify ourselves apart from him. Seeking our identity in a psychological self, in isolation from God, is an exercise in futility. What’s more, it’s inherently unstable, which is probably why letters and numbers keep getting added to that unwieldy acronym. Claiming an identity based on anything other than God is inherently unstable because it’s rooted in creatures whose sense of self changes like the seasons.
A newscaster recently made some comments after the Nashville shootings. I didn’t agree with everything he said, and some unwarranted assumptions were drifted, but he did put his finger on what divides people in our time, and perhaps what’s always divided people: living as if you’re answerable to someone else (God) vs. living as if you’re only answerable to yourself. The latter is a natural extension of the psychologized self. The former is a natural extension of what we call the Creator-creature distinction.
Trueman’s background alone on the historical birth and maturation of this psychologized self is worth the price of the book. It continues to help me understand why and how people act and speak the way they do about sexuality—even though, in following this principle of psychologized self, adherents would say that they are the only ones who can define their identity! I want to understand the why and how.
But (and this deserves its own paragraph) my motive for understanding is encapsulated in two words: sympathy and love.
SYMPATHY LEADING TO LOVE
There are tons of reasons why we strive to understand things—many of them egotistical. But the biblical call for understanding echoes within the louder call to love. To quote J. H. Bavinck once more, “Man can exist in God’s great world only if he loves—loves his Lord and loves the creatures of the Lord. This love determines his place in the Kingdom” (The Church Between Temple and Mosque, p. 153). The Apostle John goes so far as to say that if you lack love, you don’t just lack understanding; you lack knowledge of God. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7–8).
In all of this, we miss that sympathy is a prerequisite for love. But to believe that, you have to take a position on what these things are. Love is biblically expressed as self-giving. “For God so loved the world that he gave. . .” (John 3:16). To love is to give yourself in a thousand ways, none of them still clinging to your ego. Loving is wanting the best for others even if that means you won’t be involved, even when those people are raging against you (Rom. 5:8). That doesn’t mean that people who like you can’t love you. But it does mean that if the only people you love are people you agree with, your sense of love is shallow.
That’s where sympathy comes in. Sympathy is the bridge between two people. It’s the mysterious ability to see the world from a perspective other than your own, an ability I believe is rooted in the Trinity. To sympathize properly, you can’t just say, “I know.” You must also say, “I see.”
This is deeply incarnational. As Carl Trueman used to say in our Early Church class at Westminster when discussing the incarnation, “What is not assumed cannot be redeemed.” Christ assumed our human nature so he could see the world as a human, and thus could redeem the depths of our humanity through his divinity. Christ assumed. Christ sympathized (Heb. 4:15). Christ loved. And so Christ gave himself. That’s the gospel. In that sense, salvation is as much a blessing of sympathy as it is of love. Logically, we might say sympathy came first. But it was there to lead to love.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self has helped me to understand so that I could sympathize and love those who think differently from me, those who desperately need the gospel to flood their sense of identity so they can float on the buoy of pure grace. But apparently, that’s not good enough for everyone inside the walls of the church.
ATTACKS FROM WITHIN
Today I was taken back by the following tweets I’d seen posted about Trueman and his work—both from prominent rightwing Christians.
- If you can write 400-page books chronicling how “expressive individualism” has taken over our culture, leading to the modern transgender movement. But can’t address CRT in the chapel & a LGBT student club at the very Christian college you work at . . . You’re part of the problem.
- [Sarcasm] Amy Bird’s longtime podcast cohost might not be a paragon of courage?
First of all, maybe work on that English grammar a bit. Second, these comments suggest that Trueman lacks courage because (1) he hasn’t single-handedly wiped out Critical Race Theory (CRT) expressions and LGBT gatherings at Grove City College, and (2) because he used to work with someone (the correct spelling is Aimee Byrd) who now supports positions outside what the traditional church teaches concerning male and female roles.
Now, as a writer myself, I would certainly say that—no matter what others might think about how “easy” or “removed” it is to write a book about something—publishing The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self in our day and age was courageous. But since that was rejected by these tweets, I thought, “What is true Christian courage in the age of sexual identity politics?” And once more I go back to understanding seeking sympathy and love.
TRUE CHRISTIAN COURAGE
Jessica Joustra wrote an article recently for Mere Orthodoxy called “Modern, Yet Faithful: Lessons from Herman Bavinck.” In reflecting on the Dutchman (another one of my favorites), she said something that struck me. “Grace isn’t antithetical to culture, it is antithetical to sin.” I bring that up here because I know from conversations I’ve had with him that Trueman studied classics and currently teaches at a Christian liberal arts school, a place where culture is going to be studied, just as it was in the liberal arts college I attended. Culture in itself is not an evil. And in order to reform and redirect culture under the Lordship of Christ, we have to know what its values are, where it draws its convictions from, why it defends certain positions and decries others. That includes CRT and the LGBTQ+ movement.
It also includes having relationships with those who differ from you theologically. That doesn’t mean compromising your theological values, but it does mean you know how to actually speak to others without caricaturing, condemning, or chastising them. Sadly, in our current cultural milieu, that’s a lost art. People don’t know how to talk to each other. They can talk at each other and around each other, but not to each other. This amounts to a loss of sympathy within Christendom, and thus a loss of love. And that should fill every Christ-follower with embarrassment.
When it comes to true Christian courage in our cultural context, the Bible holds no surprises—just annoyingly ignored principles.
Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph. 4:15–16)
There it is. Speak the truth in love.
I found no animosity in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. I found truth, offered with a sincere longing that people would understand the broader culture historically in order to be better prepared for ministry. But I could see animosity in disallowing someone with sympathies for CRT from preaching the gospel at a chapel. After all, wasn’t Paul excited that people were preaching the gospel purely out of hatred for him? In Philippians 1:17–18, he was happy to have Christ preached “out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.” Paul was content even when people preached the gospel “in pretense.” But I guess it’s somehow worse to preach the gospel with CRT sympathies?
As for the LGBT community group referenced in the tweet, it seems some rightwing conservatives are only up-in-arms about freedom of speech for themselves. This person is saying that such freedoms shouldn’t be granted to all people. Perhaps he would say, “At least not at a Christian college.” But isn’t that worse? Shouldn’t Christian institutions be the models for civic engagement? What’s more, wouldn’t the targeted removal of free speech for dissenting factions feel more like the tactics of a communist government than those of a Western democracy?
I suppose if Trueman tried to ban this chapel speaker and shut down the LGBT group on campus, then he’d be courageous in the eyes of these critics. He could have “canceled” them. But I don’t think that would portray biblical courage. It certainly wouldn’t resonate with those bowed down knee-to-knee with Christ.
Sure—biblical courage speaks the truth. And yes, I believe that truth opposes the secular principles that ground CRT, just as Trueman unpacks their Marxist and Nietzschean roots in his book. And I believe that biblical truth opposes the LGBTQ+ agenda, along with its values and its perception of identity as primarily sexual. The question is, how am I going to speak that truth? If I’m told to speak it in love, is love expressed by cancel-culture? Is canceling people the biblical response, the way we set up a Christian sense of “justice” in the world?
Samuel D. James says no. And I agree with him. The title of his recent article sums up the position: “Cancel Culture Is Not Speaking Truth to Power. It’s Just Speaking Power.” He says,
Cancel culture is an expression of power, not virtue. . . . Online cancellation mobs are instruments of injustice. They don’t protect victims, they create them. They don’t create change. They stay in their digital plot. And they don’t just harm the targets. They harm the participants. They poison the imagination, they dehumanize, and they reinforce a self-righteous sense that such a fate must be deserved.
Put differently, cancel culture is all truth (justice), no love. (Though you can argue in most cases that love isn’t even present.) It’s all critique, no relationship. It’s all power-leverage, no listening. And that’s a big problem, because leveraging power to cancel people is never going to lead to the sort of change Christians envision, the sort of change Paul advocated for in that Ephesians passage. For that to happen, there has to be truth in love.
The Christian linguist I studied once wrote, “Sharing is prerequisite to change.” The idea is that change doesn’t happen in communication without there being some overlap, some point of contact, some shared value. We can also say, “Listening is prerequisite to change.” In the context of sexual identity politics, we’ll fail if we shout, “Agree with God, or get out!” Instead, we need to listen and learn so that we can sympathize, love, and lead. We need to point to the amazing truth, for instance, that the all-powerful God has identified and given value to every human being—not because of sexuality, but because of something far deeper: their constant pull toward communion with him. Doesn’t everyone want to be completely known and completely loved in unceasing relationship, and isn’t God the one who knows exhaustively and loves prodigally? Rather than canceling people, wouldn’t it be more helpful in our discussions to draw out the hidden values of those we disagree with (e.g., a longing to be known, loved, and accepted) and show them how the God of Scripture offers a wealth of personal love that would dwarf Mount Everest?
As Christians, we’re called to courage, especially when it comes to our identity and destiny. We need to affirm who we are in God and where we’re headed by his grace. We need to re-hear that ancient call to Joshua: “Remember that I have commanded you to be determined and confident! Do not be afraid or discouraged, for I, the Lord your God, am with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). As with Joshua, the presence of the personal God is our assurance. When people question their identity, God is here. When people lose themselves in the winds of secular philosophy, God is here. When Christians troll their brothers and sisters in embarrassing displays of self-righteousness, God is here. And because he’s here, because he’s with us, we will have the courage and the patience not just to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love.
We need to be courageous. What we don’t need is to be divisive. In fact, the latter epitomizes cowardice. What is a coward, after all, but someone who refuses to address the real issues on the gospel’s terms, spending time instead drawing attention to alleged shortcomings in others? Real courage is worked out in real life, in real writing, in real teaching, in real self-sacrificing relationships. You won’t find real courage behind brand-building tweets. Because it isn’t there. Real courage is with anyone out there fighting the real enemy, leaning on the presence of God and speaking the truth in love with humility.
If you can throw a fellow Christian under the bus for writing a 400-page book on expressive individualism, maybe you’re part of the problem. And maybe the solution is something a tweet can’t get at.