In lectures over the last couple of years, I have frequently mentioned Philip Rieff’s Psychological Man as a helpful concept for explaining the state of sexual identity politics in the West. To find fulfillment, Psychological Man looks not to social relations, nor to religion, nor to his placement in the economic structure. He looks inward.
My assertion of the novelty of Psychological Man has elicited the understandable response that one precedent for the phenomenon is Augustine, whose Confessions is an extended monologic prayer addressed to God. Augustine’s probing of his inner motives and his relentless self-analysis mark a dramatic break from all prior ancient literature, anticipating the modern genre of psychological autobiography. Is it not the case, then, that Psychological Man is not really a modern phenomenon at all, but one with clear precedent in the late classical world?
There is some truth to this challenge. But there is major difference between Augustine’s journey inwards and the journey that has characterized Western thinking since Rousseau. For Augustine, the journey inwards is ultimately the journey outwards. When Augustine probes to the depths of his soul, he finds memory and the existence of memory—the fact that he is able to know at all. This fact carries him outwards to God, his creator and the auditor of his great monologue.
Modern identity, however, knows no such outward turn. The quest for authenticity, cast as psychological well-being, is inwardly directed. My reality is my experience. My happiness is my sense of safety and well-being. Transposed into politics, this model conceives of oppression in psychological, rather than more traditional economic or legal, categories. Hence the current hoo-hah about micro-aggressions and word crimes, and the angst about the legitimacy of freedom of speech on campuses.
Augustine is thus not a man of our age, even in the Confessions. He sees God as the foundation of who he, Augustine, is—and the foundation of his knowledge of all he knows, even his knowledge of himself. Augustine’s identity is not a psychological construction at all. In this, he differs radically from the denizens of our current political culture.
This brings me to the Nashville Statement. Numerous criticisms have been made of this recent statement on sexuality, particularly concerning its failure to situate the ethics of LGBTQ lifestyles within the wider culture of sexual ethics—and the Christian churches’ frequent capitulation to, even complicity in, that culture. Such criticisms are pertinent, even if they do not invalidate the document’s positive assertions. But the Nashville Statement also fails to situate sexuality within another important context: that of the psychological assumptions that underpin modern Western identity politics. The statement operates within the accepted modern categories of identity, never addressing the root of the problem. It deals with symptoms, not causes, and only with the symptoms that play best within the increasingly fragile coalition of conservative evangelical Christianity.
To address the wider psychologized context would place the signatories in a trickier situation, even within their own constituencies. It would entail addressing the psychologized notions of identity and oppression that shape much of the public debate about sexuality. It would entail addressing the sentimentality that often pervades evangelical piety and liturgy, and—most contentious of all—the role played by psychological categories in discussions of racial oppression.
Christian leaders should assert a bold anthropology that rejects the primary political relevance of psychological categories. Such an anthropology would help shift Christian thinking away from the modern secular idea that contemporary notions of sex and gender describe who we are at our most basic level. It would offer a more comprehensive foundation for addressing the major issues of our day, such as sexuality, hate crimes, race, and the threats to freedom of speech and religion. The Nashville Statement’s focus on gay and transgender issues is understandable, as these are the presenting issues for religious freedom at the present moment. But the metaphysics (or lack thereof) upon which such a notion of identity rests are not restricted to the sexual sphere. They need to be identified and critiqued wherever they appear, even—or especially—within the church.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.