iWorld: Understanding the Transgender Philosophy

Vaughan Roberts | July 3rd 2019

The following is an extract from Transgender by Vaughan Roberts. How Christians can think biblically, act wisely, and relate lovingly over transgender issues. Throughout this month we're giving away the ebook version for free. Click here to read it today

A significant part of Steve Jobs’ success was his genius at marketing. He wasn’t just able to produce great products; he also had an acute understanding of the spirit of the age, which enabled him to create a brand that appealed to our culture's deepest longings. The names of his Apple products—the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad—are striking. Jobs knew that we live in the iWorld, in which everything revolves around the individual. 

The roots of the profound individualism that marks our culture go back to the period of the Enlightenment 300 years ago, when intellectuals began to assert the primacy of human reason over divine revelation. Most people have never read the works of philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, but their influence has gradually trickled down into our whole society so that it affects us all.

The Enlightenment began with great confidence that reason could lead us to the truth, but that optimism gradually disappeared. Even the greatest human thinkers can’t agree on fundamental issues. And so, having rejected revelation and lacking confidence in reason, our culture has now largely rejected the concept of objective truth, at least when it comes to big issues, such as meaning and morality.

Where does this leave us?

With ourselves as individuals. If we think that truth is subjective, then we certainly won’t let any external authority tell us what to think or how to behave—whether it’s the government, a religion or our family. It’s up to us to draw our own conclusions and live our own lives. As the boys from Boyzone put it in one of their songs:

No matter what they tell you;
no matter what they say;
no matter what they teach you;
what you believe is true.

All this explains why autonomy is so highly valued today. The iWorld teaches me to resent any challenge to my individualism. As the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, the founding father of modern Western liberalism, wrote:

Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. 

I’m free! Free to think what I want and live as I like. Free to be me.

The next highly prized value today: authenticity.

Above all else, we must be true to ourselves. Jonathan Grant has expressed it well:

Modern authenticity encourages us to create our own beliefs and morality, the only rule being that they must resonate with who we feel we really are. The worst thing we can do is to conform to some moral code that is imposed on us from outside—by society, our parents, the church, or whoever else. It is deemed to be self-evident that any such imposition would undermine our unique identity … The authentic self believes that personal meaning must be found within ourselves or must resonate with our one-of-a-kind personality.

Grant has commented that “this culture of expressive individualism has become the moral wallpaper of the modern world.” Over the last few decades the primacy of self-expression has become an unquestioned assumption of many. No one has the right to question or challenge how each individual chooses to define themselves.

It should be obvious by now how these changes in our cultural values have impacted the way that many view gender. If we are free to define our own identity without being bound by the old conventions, then that will include the outdated, constricting, binary, male-or-female understanding of gender.

Here is how American feminist writer Camille Paglia puts it:

I consider myself neither gay nor straight, neither male nor female, neither human being nor animal.

Judith Lorber, a radical feminist, writes that she longs for the day when gender distinctives have effectively disappeared:

When we no longer ask “boy or girl?’” in order to start gendering an infant, when the information is as irrelevant as the colour of a child’s eyes … only then will men and women be socially interchangeable and really equal. And when that happens there will no longer be any need for gender at all.

Change is already happening quickly. Facebook recently started allowing users to customise their gender: “male”, “female” or “other”. The “other” category listed 71 options, including bi-gender, transgender, androgynous and trans-sexual. An employee of Facebook at the time said, “We want to help users to be their true, authentic selves”. But things have moved on so quickly that Facebook’s “other” category has now been changed to “custom”, with a blank field allowing users to opt for any gender label of their choosing.

How can we respond?

How do we explain the extreme reaction against those who dare to raise their heads above the parapet and question any aspect of the new transgender consensus? The answer is surely that this debate goes far deeper than scientific and medical arguments. It involves a clash of worldviews. We may have rejected the concept of objective truth as a culture, but we still expect everyone to hold to certain fundamental convictions—and one of them is the absolute right of each individual to define themselves as they wish. Any perceived challenge to that right is regarded as heresy and is strongly resisted, no matter what it’s based on.

Behind the different points of view are not only different worldviews but different gospels: different understandings of what leads to freedom and fulfilment. The “gospel” story which the world tells us goes something like this:

For years our spirits have been suffocated by restrictive traditions and morality. But now we must have the courage to follow our own light. We must resist anyone or anything that stands in our way. We must discover the hero inside ourselves and enter into the freedom that comes when we become who we really are.

What does Christianity have to say in response to this? Sadly, so often all we’ve been heard to say is the repetition of a set of laws—“Do this!” “Don’t do that!”— which sound like the very opposite of good news. But the Bible tells a different story of oppression, liberation and freedom—a true story. But in the Bible’s story, we are not the hero; God is. But, wonderfully, as we find our place within his story, we can discover our real identity, as well as true freedom and lasting fulfilment.

Vaughan Roberts

Vaughan Roberts is a popular conference speaker, Rector of St Ebbe's Church, Oxford, and Director of the Proclamation Trust. He is also a member of the executive committee of 9:38 Ministries, and the author of many books, including Talking Points: Transgender, God's Big Picture, and Battles Christians Face.

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