‘Who am I?’ is a big question. A bigger one concerns just who gets to determine my identity in the first place. God? Society? Me?
In March, Prof. Carl Trueman surveyed this issue with particular reference to the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Carl is on the faculty of Grove City College, Pennsylvania, and he was delivering the annual Lecture in Church History and Theology for Edinburgh Theological Seminary. Although only speaking via Zoom, some 300 people tuned in live to hear what Carl had to say.
Rousseau was an 18th-century Genevan philosopher whose ideas profoundly influenced European thought for decades to come – ‘more influential than Calvin,’ Carl said.
Rousseau’s key idea was to idealise and prioritise man in his primitive ‘natural state’.
‘Civilisation’, Rousseau believed, was overrated and served to corrupt the innate innocence of man.
Moreover, for man to know his true self, he must look within. Introspection became a noble and critical pursuit in Rousseau’s philosophy of selfhood. For him (and in line with the Enlightenment era’s scepticism of church authority), psychology rather than theology revealed human identity.
Such subjectivism and introspection caught on, and Carl highlighted how European culture embraced this new paradigm in the 19th century.
‘Antiquated’ assumptions of the innate fallenness of man gave way to a resurgent pride in the raw and individual human self.
Carl suggested that this celebration of self-determination persists and underlies cultural thought even today.
He referenced transgender attitudes as an example. The notion that our gender is ultimately determined by our own personal feelings rather than biology owes some debt to the philosophy of Rousseau.
The point was also made that Rousseau’s thinking flew in the face of biblical teaching, which emphasises the innate sinfulness of man, and that his essential identity is determined not by himself, but by God.
In Carl’s words, ‘The Bible only knows of Christians who realise that their identity does not lie in moving inward to establish who the authentic person is. It relies on them looking outward to the church around them and to God himself in order to establish who they are.’
It was a fascinating lecture; Prof Trueman’s erudition was readily apparent as he effortlessly weaved references to Augustine, Wordsworth, Chopin, Marx, Richard Nixon, Caitlyn Jenner, and Lauren Daigle into his survey.
It remains available on the ETS Lectures Online YouTube channel.