#151 Expressive Individualism

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#151 Expressive Individualism

Individualism is aligned with God’s design, expressive individualism is not.


Homo economicus is a Latin term that explains what happens when humans are reduced only to economic maximizers.  Unfortunately, we are headed toward the eventuality at a frightening speed.  It’s explained in maybe the best book I read this year, titled, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, by Carl Trueman.  Throughout the book, he continually asks how a person can say, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body.”  I’m old enough to remember when a comedian named Sid Caesar said something that silly, we would all laugh and wait for the next punchline.  But Trueman helps us understand, not only why we take such an objectively untrue statement – not only seriously – but we are encouraged to HELP the person discover the woman inside the man.  



As Grandma Ginger says, “One of our grandsons claims to be Spiderman half the time, but we don’t believe him.”  Then why are we forced to believe the obviously false statement, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body?”  Because who OWNS the body determines what we can do with it.  If God owns it, we ask Him.  But, increasingly folks are taking only the economic, self-interested view, and are claiming they can make of their bodies whatever the economic environment demands. 

It’s really the nadir of relativism, which says, “My idea – that all ideas are equal – is better than your idea.”  Okay, that makes no sense, at least to a rational economic decision maker.  That’s what economists assume we are.  But, as Trueman writes, “When the agreed-upon rational basis for debate is gone. All that is left is emotional preference.” He explains the philosophical under-pinnings this way, “With Nietzsche we see clearly two pathologies of our present age receiving philosophical explication: the tendency to be suspicious of any claims to absolute moral truth, and a rejection of religion as distasteful.”  

Look, when Abraham decided there was ONE God, the world changed, and it’s never gone back.  His idea – or God’s idea – was planted into an environment of multiple gods.  They still exist.  I’ll do a podcast sometime where I review the book God is not One by Stephen Prothero.  For brevity’s sake today, let me just summarize that the one god believers, mono-theists as they are called, started with Judiasm, which fathered the other two popular monos: Christianity and Islam.  The world’s five major religions are rounded out by the two polytheist belief systems: Buddhism and Hinduism.

So what Trueman is helping us understand here, is that expressive individualism is when EACH person is their own God.  Well, people have tried that since Eve.  The serpent told her that God didn’t want her to eat the apple, because she would become like God.  Tricky little guy, that serpent.  And, he never takes a day off.  He’s still encouraging people to try to become their own god.  It never works, but people keep trying. 


God creates, Humans Discover

This key assumption of the Christian Worldview is best explained by Albert Wolters in his rather theologically based book Creation Regained.  He says that God created the world, and our job as humans is to discover his creation.  He writes, “There are two kinds of law: laws of nature and norms. We are familiar with the laws of nature, the regular order in the realm of physical things, of plants and of animals. These include the laws of gravity, motion, thermodynamics, photosynthesis, and heredity.”   He goes on to explain that these are God’s “natural laws” which we humans DISCOVER in the disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology.  But the norms of nature, we are not so sure about.  These include the social sciences like psychology and economics, which we call norms.  The problem is this: Humans are trying to take God’s place by creating, instead of discovering.  

In economics, I have termed this Economic Humanism in podcast #21.  We think the Government through fiscal policy, and the Fed through Monetary policy create the economy.  They don’t.  They discover ways of applying it.  Just this week, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell announced a slowing of the interest rate increase, and the stock market went up 1.5% in one day.  That’s artificial.  That’s not a true representation of the reality of the market.  It’s Wizard of Oz pretenders acting like God.  

This is what Carl Trueman calls Expressive Individualism.  It’s when individuals feel so empowered to express themselves, that they think they can create their own bodies.  Here’s Trueman in his own words, “Expressive individualism thinks of creation more as a case of raw material that we can manipulate by our own power to our own purposes.”  He continues to write, “These are the philosophical claims of Friedrich Nietzsche, in which human beings are called to transcend themselves, to make their lives into works of art, to take the place of God as self-creators and the inventors, not the discoverers, of meaning.

In the relativist way of thinking, the world has no meaning.  So, significance can be given to it only by the actions of human beings – meaning is created by humans, not given by God.  As Christians, we believe the opposite: God creates, humans discover.  



So what’s this have to do with economics?  A lot.  Private property is a key plank in the Christian economic belief system.  But, obviously, it’s taking the idea too far to say that an individual has the freedom to change their gender.  We believe that’s a part of the creational order, that we don’t have the power to change.   There’s also the idea of markets.  America has a market for religion, says Benjamin Friedman in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.  During Colonial times we didn’t.  There were state churches.  Some pesky Baptists wanted to cross into those states to preach, so they appealed to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the famous line in a letter about the separation of church and state.  Since then, we’ve had a highly competitive market for religion in America that has actually favored Christianity.  That’s because the Christian worldview of Creation, Fall, Redemption, is really the way the world works.  

Where does expressive individualism fit in?  IT doesn’t.  It’s not only way out in left field, it’s beyond the bleachers in left field.   It’s just not consistent with reality.  Trueman again, “The ancient Athenian was committed to the assembly, the medieval Christian to his church, and the twentieth-century factory worker to his trade union and working man’s club. All of them found their purpose and well-being by being committed to something OUTSIDE themselves. In the world of psychological man, however, the commitment is first and foremost to the SELF and is inwardly directed.”  That’s what Trueman calls Expressive Individualism. 

In response to a recent article by Trueman in the WSJ, someone wrote, “Church is not relevant to me nor many of my friends.”  I responded, “Oh….so, it’s all about you, isn’t it?”  See, this is so clear.  Serving yourself makes you unhappy, serving others makes you happy.  That’s why one of my most often stated phrases about Christian economics is, “If you love your neighbor, you will supply her with products and services she demands.  If you love yourself, you will make a profit while doing so.”  Note that Trueman is making an accurate description of the current world, where people only serve themselves. 


The Present, Not the Future

John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”  I have unpacked the self-serving assumption of that statement in previous podcasts.  But here’s how the ideas of Keynes are inherent in post-modernity, as explained by Trueman, “Expressive individualism focuses on the present, on the here and now. One of the pathologies of our present age is that the pleasure of the instant, the psychological satisfaction of the individual in the here and now, has become primary in how we think about human purpose.”  So, young women are encouraged to chop off their breasts, because in the present moment, they might FEEL like a boy.  They are not able to delay gratification.   Our world is really starting to look like the Brave New World described by Aldous Huxley, a place where life is lived merely for the present.

Delayed gratification might be the best predictor of economic success.  It’s explained by Walter Mischel in The Marshmallow Test, and produced in more practical form in a very good book by Warren Farrell titled, The Boy Crises.  His summary conclusion is that it takes boys longer than girls to gain self-control, so they fail at their academic studies at a higher rate than girls.  


Political Freedom

There’s a libertarian buried deep inside of me, but the more I study Christian Economics, the deeper it gets buried.  The assumptions of unlimited human freedom are good in theory, but they don’t work in the real world, where we have to get along with others.  Guns are a good example.  I think the discussion is mostly political grandstanding.  Look at both ends: Everyone agrees that people should be allowed to own a B.B. gun, but no one thinks we should be able to own a bazooka that could shoot down a low-flying airplane.  Regulations will move the needle a little bit left and right of center, but we won’t go to either end.  

Drugs are another example.  Everyone agrees that we should be able to own aspirin, but no one thinks we should be able to obtain fentanyl without a prescription.  The needle moves a short distance left with marijuana, but it’s not that far.  

Here’s how Professor Wolters explains it in Creation Regained, “To the religion of the Renaissance humanism that has shaped the secularism of the West, humanism defines freedom as obeying no law but one’s own. Biblical religion contends that the very opposite is true: people are defined by their servanthood, when they obey the law of the Creator. Humanism considers law to be the contradiction of freedom; the Bible considers law to be condition of freedom.”

Individualism is good in Christianity.  We believe we only gain salvation as an individual.  It’s good in governance, because we favor a democratic government over a monarchy.  And, it’s good in economics, because it is individuals making decisions that make a market.  Individualism is aligned with God’s design, expressive individualism is not. 



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