The Identity of the Expressive Individual

Living Network 2 (Peter Farkas Photo)

The individual is king in today’s Western Culture. I  just finished reading a very enlightening book that made sense of how this messed up world in the West has changed in the last 50+ years.  This excellent book is “Strange New World” by Carl R. Trueman.  While reading it, there were times, I stopped and said to myself, “So that is why those people think that way” and by the end of the book I was also wondering how much of my thinking has been influenced by these ideas. The problem is every good lie has a kernel of truth in it.  That is what makes these false ideas believable for many people.

The expressive individual wants to be authentic and to express the real person they are, so they look inside themselves to find their core feelings and intuition, while dismissing any external influences, such as the surrounding culture. That defines them and gives them their identity. The person then expresses their inner core to be an authentic individual. The authority is only in themselves.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) developed the idea and you can see his influence in the following centuries.  The traditional identity authorities of nation, family and faith would say of me that I am an American, son of Erwin and Irene Hein, and a Christian.  And there are also other ways to identify oneself (e.g. occupation, sex, marital status, etc).  Whereas the expressive individual rejects all that and only looks to oneself as the only authority.

Along comes Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx who both said that morality is society’s way of oppressing or controlling the individual.  In other words, they believe that there is no natural morality. It is only a societal construct used to oppress or control us.  That idea is present in today’s culture.  Also today’s cultural thinking was strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud, who declared sex is fundamental to human happiness.  He considered that the inner self was primarily defined by our sexual desires. Because of Freud, our identity became our sexual psychological self,  His student, Wilhelm Reich, a Marxist, put it all together to form the intellectual underpinnings of today’s culture change.  Only one thing missing was the technology to make it practical.  The birth control pill allowed sex to become much more recreational, and the internet allowed the porn industry to easily reach us and influence us in all things sexual.  (Note the author of the book, Carl Trueman, said the evolution of this culture change is more complicated than his broad overview, and in this post I have significantly simplified it a whole lot more.)

So an expressive individual today will usually look inside oneself and decide one’s identity with the eye on one’s sexual desires. With the collapse of the traditional identities (nation:loss of trust in government, family:high divorce rate, and faith: church scandals), the LGBTQ+ community has stepped in to encourage the individual to consider their alternate sexual identities.  They have become a major influencer, in part, because they also provide a sense of belonging as they praise you and validate your chosen sexual identity.

With the individual being the only authority, it has left Western Culture in a very unstable fluid state.  Your self, your identity, is fluid.  It can change. It can be anything.  Nothing seems to be solid. You get to decide.  With your identity being personal and psychological (and many times sexual) that sets situations where one’s identity can offend another identity. Or one finds a viewpoint to be oppressive to them and an attack on who they are. Dealing with a variety of identities can be tricky business. This is especially true with transgender people. How do you handle a boy who identifies as a girl or vice versa? Do you let a transgender boy, who is biologically a girl, use the boy’s locker room? Or let a transgender girl, who is biologically a boy, use the girl’s locker room?  This is happening today.

Also today’s thinking is that moral codes of society are oppressive and  support the (past) status quo (where white heterosexual males dominate). So then, one needs to rebel against this systematic bias, and oppose all institutions (like the Christian Church) who were part of the old culture.  They declare that they are victims of this systematic bias, and therefore deserve our support.  If this sounds a lot like Critical Theory, that is because it is at least related to it.  Anyone who does not support them is an oppressor who is attacking their identity, the core of their being.  Those whose identity is found in the past status quo could be considered to be a threat to the emerging status quo and must be censored and in this way prevent hurting the feelings and thus the identity of the oppressed victims. Thus, this radical freedom of the individual can end up restricting freedom of speech, in the name of preventing an attack on an individual’s identity and feelings.

As Christians, we need to realize that this emerging culture is not friendly to the Christian Faith. Because of this we need to have strong communities in our local churches. We need solid meaningful worship services. We do have our identity as forgiven and loved children of God, being found in Jesus Christ.  We are his. We need to know that and have a firm foundation in the who, whats, and whys of the Christian Faith.  Though the Bible is our authority, it is not an authority for many people today, so we will need to also use Natural Law to help share our Christian ideas.  Those ideas are quickly becoming lost to Western Culture.  We need to stand firm in the Christian Faith.

The book ends with this paragraph:

The world in which we live seems set to be entering a new, chaotic, uncharted and dark era. But we should not despair. We need to prepare ourselves, be informed, know what we believe and why we believe it, worship God in a manner that forms us as true disciples and pilgrims, intellectually and intuitively, and keep before our eyes the unbreakable promises that the Lord has made and confirmed in Jesus Christ.  This is not the time for hopeless despair, nor naive optimism. Yes, let us lament the ravages of the fall as they play out in the distinctive ways that our generation has chosen. But let that lamentation be the content for sharpening our identity as people of God and our hunger for the great consummation that awaits at the marriage feast of the Lamb. 

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism Genie by Adam Ford

What do Americans believe?  In my last post, I suggested that even though 65% of Americans say they are Christian, I and others believe that many (most?) of them are not. Many of them believe in the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism worldview and not the Christian worldview.  What is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)?  Those with MTD beliefs tend to believe in 5 tenets.

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

This comes from a survey of teenagers (15+ years ago). The survey (Smith, Christian; Lundquist Denton, Melina (2005). Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers) also asked where the teens got their beliefs.  For most, their beliefs came from their parents, so these beliefs cover at least a few generations. 

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not an organized faith, however it is so pervasive in America that some call it the civil or civic religion of America.  Tenets 2 and 5 describe the moralistic beliefs while tenets 3 and 4 describe the therapeutic beliefs. They are considered deists because of the minimal interaction of their creator god with the world (tenets 1 and 4). One can see these beliefs in American culture over the past 50+ years.

Even though many MTD deists will say they are Christian, MTD is not at all like traditional Christianity.  First MTD is very “Me” oriented and is not focused on God and what he has done for us.  For MTD, god is not involved and there is no relationship with us except being ready to help when needed.  In Christianity God desires a relationship of love with him and is very involved in the world.  Life as a Christian is about serving him in love and thankfulness, not as MTD says about being happy and feeling good. In fact, the God in Christianity does not promise happiness, but he does promise being there in the tough times.  

The Christian Faith is about bad people going to heaven, not good people, because we all are bad and in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. We find our identity in the fact that we are loved by God, not in our own goodness.  We can be realistic about our shortcomings because we are loved by God.  

Tenet 2 says “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”   That is true in a broad general sense, but with Tenet 5 it makes MTD into what we do to get to God, not God reaching down to save us as the Christian Faith declares.  It also implies that all major world religions are effectively the same. That is far from the truth, but is a fairly common belief among Americans. 

So what do you say when you are talking about spiritual matters to an American?  First you can not assume they believe what you believe.  Americans tend to pick and choose what they believe.  MTD is a summary of what the common beliefs are.  You need to ask and listen carefully to what they say they believe.  Ask questions and nail down the best you can of what they believe.  And then respectfully share with them what you believe.

Check out this explanation of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in comic form by Adam Ford.