The myth of the modern self | Carl R. Trueman


Jthe pure rage that greeted the Dobbs decision requires reflection. The rhetoric about victims of incest and rape is powerful but does little to explain the anger, given that such cases are relatively rare and exceptional. They are good material for emotionally appealing to people, but they are neither the basis of the philosophy of the pro-abortion cause nor the real source of the outrage we are witnessing. Nor do they explain the violence and vindictiveness now directed at Catholic churches and pregnancy centers in crisis, much less the oddly impassioned response from people in other countries whose laws are often no more liberal than the Mississippi legislation that led the Dobbs Case.

That abortion has become the hallmark doctrine of modern feminism is in itself fascinating, given that it demands a fundamental denial or repudiation of what makes a woman a woman: a body formed around the potential to conceive, to gesture, then to carry a child. Not all women can or bear children, of course, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t women by this biological definition. As Abigail Favale argues in The genesis of the genre, to reject this definition on such grounds is to confuse act and potency. Thus, a feminism that makes the destruction of the child a non-negotiable point of dogma is a feminism that rejects the very essence of what it means to be a woman. It is a perversion of what true feminism should be. This, by the way, is at the root of the current ironic and inconsistent inability of those who are so passionate about women’s rights to define what “women” really are.

And that gives us a hint of outrage. Repealing the right to abortion has two obvious consequences. First, it reaffirms the importance of the physical body to female identity. Second, it strikes deeply and harshly at the idea that human beings are defined by their freedom and autonomy rather than by their dependence and obligation. In short, it contradicts two of the guiding myths of our contemporary culture, at least as understood by the elites. And when the guiding myths of a culture are challenged, one can expect those who are attached to them to be very angry and to retaliate forcefully.

There is an analogy here with the academic world. Academics as a class assume that they run their institutions. I am an academic myself and I can attest to that. I stand in front of a class of students every day, feeling that I am the king of everything I examine. Every intuition in my academic soul whispers to me that my colleagues and I are the most important people on campus. Yet academics do not run their institutions. Administrations and councils do this and, from time to time, these last two groups will line up and assert their authority. At that point, we teachers usually cry out in anger, not only because we disagree with a political decision, but because we have been painfully reminded that our perception of ourselves as masters of our professional universe turned out to be a myth.

What is true in the college groves is even more true in our modern, technologically-advanced world. Western society is built on the myth that individuals are masters of their identity. And when we’re reminded that’s not the case, we tend to get pretty angry.

Rage is evident in other areas of our progressive culture for the same reason. Recent years have seen the excesses of this disembodied, libertarian anthropology become more extreme with the advent of technologically enabled developments such as transgenderism and transhumanism. This has been accompanied by an increasingly angry response to anyone who dares to use language that implies any form of realism. “Mexico” or “dead name” a transgender person can be a career-ending mistake. The disproportionate nature of this reaction indicates the same phenomenon which today greets the Dobbs Decision: Those who imply that we are responsible for bodily reality point to the mythical nature of the modern self.

This raises another interesting question: when does a myth become a lie? Myths capture the imagination of a culture and are internalized by it. Therefore, they generally do not require any direct and powerful imposition by force. Once force and intimidation are required, the myth surely becomes a lie, something that is known to be untrue but to which loyalty is demanded by our cultural brokers anyway.

That would seem to sum up the position we currently find ourselves in in the West. We are furious that our bodies impose limits on us, emphasizing that we have natural obligations to others and that we cannot be what and who we want. That’s why anyone who argues this – and any court ruling that causes society to recognize this fact – is met with irrational fury and vindictiveness. We are in a time where myth becomes intentional lying.

Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a member of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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