Every now and then an important and insightful book is published almost without trace. Just as the best movies often do not win the Oscar, so it is with books: The most helpful can be those that few people pay attention to at the time of publication. One such is Theological Negotiations by the Canadian theologian Douglas Farrow. It is a rich volume, with reflections on topics such as nature and grace, justification, the atonement, and transubstantiation. A Roman Catholic, Farrow expounds his faith with clarity and power, and Protestants like myself who dissent from some of his conclusions will still find their own thinking sharpened as a result. And for a bonus, he includes a meditation on the fear of God, from which we could all benefit in this age apparently marked by fear of everything and everyone but God.
I was reminded of Farrow’s book this week when I read Justice Gorsuch’s opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County and surveyed the shock and outrage surrounding this Supreme Court ruling. Many of us knew in 2017 that Gorsuch was not a religious conservative, whatever his personal politics or judicial philosophy might be. That he has taken the critical theory bait and formulated his judgment in Bostock on the assumption of the stability of the gender binary, yet done so in a manner that will fatally undermine such, should be no real surprise. He’s a lawyer, not a cultural theorist; and he’s an Episcopalian layman, not a Dominican philosopher. Yet many seem to have been caught off-guard by this. It is a reminder that we Christians often tend to think symptomatically about such things. Mesmerized by the surface appearance of cultural phenomena in isolation, we consequently fail to see how specific breaks with previous social norms—say, views of morality or gender—are functions of much deeper cultural changes.
It is here that Farrow’s book is so singularly helpful. The essay “Autonomy: Sic transit anima ad infernum” is worth the price of the book all by itself. In it he traces with both remarkable depth and enviable conciseness the rise of the modern self: the autonomous self-creator to whom reality must bend or, better still, for whom reality is merely what works best for the individual concerned. With roots in Rousseau and Nietzsche, this self lies behind Anthony Kennedy’s oft-cited fantasy of selfhood in Casey and lurks in the background of all the subsequent Supreme Court rulings on matters involving sexuality, up to and including Bostock. Indeed, Farrow makes the necessary point:
The autonomous will really has no choice but to attack the body as well as the mind. For the body is the most obvious locus of the given, the most stubborn impediment to the power claimed by the will.
Transgenderism is the logical outcome of all this. In fact, the annihilation of gender as a stable category tout court is the logical outcome—a point that seems to have eluded Justice Gorsuch, who apparently wants to keep his binary categories while not realizing the metaphysical depths of the revolution he has now placed into law.
The shock and awe surrounding the Bostock ruling perhaps indicates that the old task of apologetics is now being oddly reversed. The pressing pastoral need of the hour for the church is not to explain the faith to the world but rather first to explain the world to the faithful. If Richard Rorty’s famous quip—the truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying—works as a descriptive rather than prescriptive principle in terms of cultural dynamics, in terms of which arguments work and which do not, then it behooves us to ask in what kind of culture the stated logic of the Bostock decision has come to make sense. If Christians do not understand the wider context, then they will continue to underestimate the true depth of the cultural problem, be perplexed at the speed of apparent change, and be disturbed by new developments. And that will make it very hard to navigate this world as both good citizens and good stewards of the gospel.
The full story of the politics of the sexual revolution, of which Bostock is merely the latest legal iteration, is a long and complicated one. It embraces everything from philosophy to the consumer economy to technology to the cultural traumas precipitated by two world wars. But the significance of all these things lies in the way they have served to reconfigure the notion of the human self as radically autonomous—free and self-determining and committed, in Oscar Wilde’s words, to the notion that all imitation in morals and in life (and so everything we might ever learn from the past) is wrong. Anyone wanting a summary analysis of where this has come from and where it appears to be heading should purchase Farrow’s book and reflect long and hard on his argument about autonomy, for it takes the reader to the very heart of our cultural confusions.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. His forthcoming book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, is due to be published in November.
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