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The myth of the modern self

myth
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The sheer rage that has greeted the Dobbs decision demands reflection. The rhetoric regarding victims of incest and rape is powerful but hardly explains the anger, given that such cases are comparatively rare and exceptional.

They make good material for emotional appeal to the populace but are neither foundational to 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 being directed at Catholic churches and crisis pregnancy centers, still less the weirdly passionate response of people in other countries whose laws are often no more liberal than the Mississippi legislation that drove the Dobbs case.

That abortion became the hallmark doctrine of modern feminism is itself fascinating, given that it requires a fundamental denial or repudiation of that which makes a woman a woman: a body formed around the potential for conceiving, gestating, and then bearing a child. Not all women can or do bear children, of course, but that does not mean they are not women in accordance with this biological definition.

As Abigail Favale argues in The Genesis of Gender, to reject this definition on such grounds is to confuse act and potency. Therefore, a feminism that makes the destruction of the child a point of non-negotiable 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, incidentally, lies behind the current ironic and incoherent inability of those who are so passionate about women’s rights to define what “women” actually are.  

And this gives us a clue to the outrage. The repeal of the right to abortion has two obvious consequences. First, it reasserts the importance of the physical body to female identity. Second, it strikes deep and hard at the idea that human beings are defined by their freedom and autonomy rather than by their dependency and obligation. In short, it contradicts two of the guiding myths of our contemporary culture, at least as understood by the elites. And when a culture’s guiding myths are challenged, one can expect those committed to them to be very angry and to hit back with force.

There is an analogy here to the academic world. Academics as a class assume that they run their institutions. I am an academic myself and can testify to this. I stand in front of a classroom of students every day, feeling that I am king of all I survey. Every intuition in my academic soul whispers to me that I and my colleagues are the most important people on campus. Yet academics do not run their institutions. Administrations and boards do and, every now and then, these latter two groups will pull rank and assert their authority. At that moment, we faculty usually cry out with anger, not simply because we may disagree with some policy decision, but because we have been painfully reminded that our self-perception as masters of our professional universe has been shown to be a myth.

What is true in the groves of academe is even more powerfully true in our modern, technologized world. Western society is built on the myth that individuals are in charge of their identities. And when we are reminded that that is not the case, we tend to become rather angry.  

Rage is evident in other areas of our progressive culture for much 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 any who dare to use language implying any kind of realism. To “misgender” or “deadname” a transgender person can be a career-ending mistake. The disproportionate nature of this reaction indicates the same phenomenon now greeting the Dobbs decision: Those who imply that we are accountable to bodily reality are pointing out the mythical nature of the modern self.

This raises a further interesting question: When does a myth become a lie? Myths grip the imagination of a culture and are internalized by it. Therefore, they typically require no direct and powerful imposition by force. Once force and intimidation are necessary, the myth is surely becoming a lie, something that is known to be untrue but to which loyalty is demanded by our cultural powerbrokers anyway. 

That would seem to sum up the position we in the West now find ourselves in. We are furious that our bodies place limits upon us, pointing out that we have natural obligations to others and cannot be whatever and whoever we wish. It is why anyone who argues this — and any court decision that moves society toward acknowledging this fact — is greeted with irrational fury and vindictiveness. Ours is an age in which the myth is becoming an intentional lie.


Originally published on First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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