JToday, as in Plato’s time, it is rhetoric that moves crowds. But as Plato knew, truth, not rhetoric, is the task of philosophy and philosophers. This is why these are so important. Unfortunately, many in today’s class of philosophers – the intellectuals – seem to have forgotten about Plato. They now find rhetoric more appealing than truth. Last week provided another example when a number of British religious leaders signed a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on transgender people to receive the same protection from ‘conversion therapy’ as other LGBTQ+ people.
The letter is a good example of how sentimental mush has come to replace careful moral reasoning in the minds of so many. The usual therapeutic patois is honored. The language of whole becoming, of safe place, of affirmation, is scattered throughout the play, and the postmodern ethicist’s empty but persuasive word of choice, “journey,” appears twice, once even qualified with the adjective “sacred”.
The letter is light on actual theology, but makes a particular comment on conversion therapy and prayer: “To allow those who discern this journey to be subjected to coercive or undermining practices is to make prayer a means for one person to manipulate another”.
The logic of this phrase seems to imply that praying for a transgender person to feel comfortable with their biological sex is a form of “conversion therapy.” As such, prayer should be equated with coercion and intimidation. Do these religious leaders think that prayer does not change this and that any claim to the contrary simply makes it a tool to exert psychological power over others? Or do they think the only petitions that should be made on behalf of trans people are those that confirm their self-diagnosis? If it’s the first, then why bother praying for anything? If the latter, what about the growing number of de-transitioners, many of whom would no doubt have been grateful if someone had prayed for them and also intervened in some other way before they permanently mutilated their body ?
Yet, as confusing as this sentence is, it’s not the most unsettling aspect of the letter. This honor must be given to the presence of the signing of Rowan Williams.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Williams’ story that he supports the LGBTQ+ movement. His views on homosexuality, for example, have been liberal since at least the 1980s. What is surprising is that he put his name to a document whose moral reasoning is not, as I have noted above, than a sentimental porridge. It’s no shock to see Steve Chalke’s name on such a letter. Chalke is a popular church leader but a light intellectual. The former Archbishop of Canterbury is, however, a very serious scholar.
Williams wrote substantial books on Arius, Dostoyevsky, and Augustine. He also recently wrote a dense volume on the classic Triune God, Christology and Creation. This is only a foretaste of its scientific production. He is an educated, well-educated man with a mind-boggling range of interests and intellectual skills. Yet here he lent his reputation as a serious thinker to a waking fantasy whose strength rests only on emotive rhetoric that suits the tastes of the time. After all, the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is rationally empty. But its emptiness belies its power, a power drawn from the fact that it expresses the Western notion of individual freedom and self-determination. And that power appears to have co-opted Williams to the trans cause.
This is a serious development. When the intellectual elites of our culture allow feeling to supplant reason, then the discourse of public life is in serious trouble. We should know this by seeing what happens when sentiment comes to dominate other branches of our culture. Art becomes kitsch. And ethics becomes a matter of responding to the latest gory story and the immediate appetites of the moment without thinking about larger social needs, goods or consequences.
That’s why it’s helpful to have elites who stand apart from that, who understand the present moment in the larger context of history. Their task is to preserve society from the fleeting nonsense of the present moment, not to assert its latest excesses. As noted by Philip Rieff, in traditional cultures, the role of elites is to transmit the values and beliefs of society across generations, ensuring continuity and stability; in our modern age, however, he observed that the elites had adopted the opposite vocation, that of irresponsible iconoclasts who saw their task as one not of conservation and transmission, but of demolition and negation. And we have a great example in Williams’ complicity in demolishing even what it means to be an embodied person, turning it from a given goal into modeling clay, the raw material of a sacred journey – or perhaps better, sacrilege.
A few years ago I was sitting outside a pub in Cambridge having a drink with my youngest son when Rowan Williams, then a university professor and no longer an archbishop, walked past . “There is a man who is back doing what he does best,” I commented. “To waste talents not trying to govern an ungovernable church but writing profound books and teaching great ideas.” Unfortunately, my judgment was premature. Facing the trans moment, Williams seems to have abandoned serious thought for feeling. Learned he may be, but the letter to Boris Johnson reads little more than the death notice of a former great mind. And if he is representative of our intellectual elites, he could well be the obituary of our once great culture.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a member of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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