That Data Hurts My Feelings

Carl Trueman, professor of Biblical and Religious studies at Grove City College, has written a fascinating new book entitled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

His thesis, roughly stated, is that popular western thought has evolved over time to reinterpret the meaning of happiness and fulfillment. I'm paraphrasing, but Trueman suggests that historical ideas about human happiness have evolved away from any notion of fulfillment coming from human purpose, and they are now firmly seated upon the concept that the only life worth living is one whose entire focus is one's own psychological satisfaction. He refers to this as the rise of "pychological man".

This fundamental shift in worldview, Trueman says, explains much about a large number of seemingly unrelated upheavals within western culture.  I highly recommend the book but be forewarned that it is a bit of a slog and you need an appetite for thinking about the bloviations of everyone from Rousseau and Darwin to Freud and the poems of Shelley and other romantics.

Once Trueman's ideas begin to sink in, you can see intimations of his thesis everywhere. He calls out the sexual revolution generally but specifically the rise of homosexuality and transgenderism.

It also might explain the desperate search for alternative explanations regarding any kind of data that doesn't comport with one's preexisting ideas about the world.  Much of the current upheaval regarding race is, in part, a manic effort to divert attention away from some heartbreaking data that highlight the toxic effects, on the urban poor, of the ideas that secular culture has been peddling to them for the last 60 years at least. The troubles of the underclass have far more to do with having embraced faulty and even deadly ideas than to any systemic injustice someone may hope to discover.  If you have embraced the lie - that fathers are expendable, that sex can be decoupled from family formation, or that personal pleasure is the measure of the good life - it's a little too late to start pointing the finger at unjust "systems" and random strangers.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently because I'm seeing more and more Christians articulate a point of view suggesting that love requires us to accept a person's interpretation of their "lived experience" as an authoritative statement about truth. The idea is that if someone describes some misfortune in their life and ascribes their misfortune to their race, the only loving response is to assume that their conclusions are manifestly true.

What's been nagging at me about this has been the knowledge that my own interpretation of events is often faulty and sometimes plain wrong.  Presupposing that the conclusions someone draws from their own "lived experience" is always true is...sketchy.  If we love that person, it seems obvious that we would want them to draw conclusions that are true and not merely, say, psychologically satisfying.

One of my favorite books in the bible is the book of Job. Probably because I relate to Job in personal ways.  But also, I think, it resonates with me because the questions that book deals with are surprisingly current. It's a really clever literary approach taken by the writer because the reader understands the entire context of events but the actual participants - Job and others - aren't operating with anything like a full understanding of what's happening to them.  The effect of this is that pretty much everyone in the story has the wrong idea regarding effects and causes. But all the while the reader possesses the proper interpretational lens by which to evaluate what everyone says and does.  Clever.

Job is boldly outspoken throughout regarding his own perspective on what's happening to him. His friends, wrong about almost everything that is happening to Job, hold the view that when bad things happen to someone it's because they did something wrong. Job insists he did nothing wrong and expects God to step up and explain how it is that Job is in any way being treated in the manner that he deserves.

In response God does a kind of peculiar thing: he launches into a discourse on natural history. But if you look at God's explanation through the lens of the ancient near east, you discover that God is explaining to Job that there are larger things afoot than Job's personal concerns. What Job is interpreting in an entirely self-oriented - maybe even self-absorbed - way is actually something much larger than Job: Job has been caught up in the cosmic conflict between good and evil.

The thing is, Job's suffering was very real and his tendency to see it through the lens of self-orientation is understandable.  But it's also wrong. Whether Job deserved to suffer was not even the question that was at stake.

I'm haunted by the possibility that it may not actually be loving to encourage people to always interpret their suffering in a self-oriented way. I have made my own pass through the crucible of suffering, and I'm probably not out of the woods yet. To be honest, the only thing that helped me pass through the fire was to learn to think less about myself, not more.

The harsh reality is that if a person isn't mistreated for their skin color, they will be mistreated for something else. The world is fallen and we're caught up in a spiritual war. Cultivating bitterness or resentment toward others, because you have concluded an ill-defined "system" is against you based on your anatomy, is an unlikely path to personal maturity.   It isn't obvious to me that encouraging such a mindset is likely to do anything other than compound their disorientation and pain.

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