Expressive Individualism, Embodied Telos, and How to Be an Anti-Winfrey
Appearing on her Apple TV+ series in April 2021, super-celebrity Oprah Winfrey interviewed popular actress “Elliot” Page, formerly Ellen Page. Page made headlines in December 2020 when she announced that she was transgender. Appearing on the cover of TIME Magazine, Page was heralded worldwide for her bravery. But on screen with Winfrey, Page exuded awkward discomfort, even sorrow.
Winfrey began the segment with a monologue:
Before we begin I want to say to you and to our viewers all over the Apple world and on Apple TV+ that my hope is that this conversation can serve as an invitation for all of us to understand, for all of us to appreciate, and for all of us to know that inside ourselves that every human born to the planet wants the same thing and that is to be accepted to be loved and to live in health and safety as our authentic selves. And I really want to honor and celebrate your courage, Elliot, for sharing your truth on social media, then, on the cover of TIME Magazine, and now in this conversation with me, so I honor that.”
Pastor, your job is to love the Ellens or Elliots who show up in your church far more than Winfrey does. Winfrey’s honor and celebration is a fake honor and celebration. It has nothing to do with honoring and celebrating who God created her to be. Just as the apostle John tells us that we’re surrounded by antichrists (1 John 4:19), then, you’re to be an anti-Winfrey—for love’s sake. Your job is to honor and celebrate the embodied persons that God created every man and woman to be, and to teach your congregation to do the same.
EXPRESSIVE INDIVIDUALISM AND OUR EMBODIED TELOS
Winfrey is a pastor in the church of expressive individualism. And her statement offers a near-perfect example of how expressive individualism denies that a person’s biological sex determines his or her embodied telos.
I know I sound like an ethics professor when I talk that way. So let me break it down.
Nearly everyone in history has understood—and the Bible teaches—that our bodies come in two sexually complementary forms, and that those differently formed bodies are part of what constitute who we are and the purpose of our lives. Our reproductive design exhibits purposes essential to the nature of being immutably “male” or “female.” In other words, our biologically-and sexually-distinct bodies possess a “telos”—an end, goal, or purpose.
Therefore, Christian discipleship must account for our embodied telos—who God means for us to be as biological men and women, his purpose in those realities, and how those wonderful realities are significant in the grand project of following Christ together in the fellowship of his church. The fact that we’ve been creating male and female—and why these realities are significant—is part of discipleship 101. Yet this embodied telos is exactly what expressive individualism rejects.
“Expressive individualism” is a way of thinking or a worldview whereby individuals believe their dignity and personhood depend on casting off any and all relationships and traditions—including religion—that get in the way of their deepest and most authentic selves. Expressive individualism posits that our flourishing depends on self-actualization—building our identities on our own perceptions, desires, and choices. It argues that our identities are based not on “nature” but on what one wants or chooses or feels. It is necessarily appetitive. And, along the way, it denies any telos exists for what it means to be male or female. Our biological structures pose no normative authority or say whatsoever in determining who we are or the purpose of our biological sex. We are merely blank canvases of raw biological material on which to paint the portrait of whomever you will yourself to be.
A BETTER VIEW OF THE BODY
So go back to Winfrey’s statement: “inside…every human…wants the same thing…to be accepted…as our authentic selves.” Notice, there is no immutable relationship between the body’s authority and the self’s understanding of its identity. Rather, she offers a form of Gnosticism, where the true “self” is severed from the body. Philosopher Robert P. George notes how, for the pop-Gnosticism of transgenderism, “the body serves as the pleasure of the conscious self, to which it is subject, and so mutilations and other procedures pose no inherent moral problem.”
Winfrey depicts herself as in no position to question the coherence of Page’s claim about herself. She can only defer to the “lived experience” of Page. To do otherwise would be to commit the principal blasphemy law of the age of expressive individualism.
But pastors, as an anti-Winfrey, you must hold out a simultaneously more negative and positive vision of the self. You should help your congregation be suspicious of the fallen self, it’s impulses and desires. But you should also help them recognize that when God created the male and female bodies, he said, “It is very good.” Christianity doesn’t deny the body. It affirms the body—sexuality and all—and God’s good purposes for it.
A BETTER VIEW OF LIBERTY
Pastors must also hold out a better and more biblical view of liberty. A biblical definition of liberty treats it as the freedom and ability to do what one ought. Once you’ve been set free by the gospel, you’re no longer enslaved to sin and obeying its desires, you’re free by God’s Spirit to pursue his righteousness. Knowing the truth sets us free, says Jesus.
Notice that in the biblical definition, there is a presumed rationale for why political civil rights are afforded to individuals: for individuals to live according to the truth of their nature. This speaks to the authority and prescriptivity that comes within a teleological worldview.
Individual expressionism, however, redefines liberty merely as license. This redefinition misunderstands human nature. It denies any fixed concept of human nature. It forfeits any sort of bounded notion of teleology or purpose. Not surprisingly, these misunderstandings and denials make their way deep into the heat of American culture and American jurisprudence, as when Anthony Kennedy defined liberty as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” in order to justify abortion. His expressive individualism, in other words, yielded a liberty that leads to murder and death.
In short, expressive individualism undermines an embodied telos, which ultimately yields the elimination of the self through abortion as well as the redefinition of the self through “gender transitions.”
THE BIBLE PLACES OUR TELOS INSIDE OF CREATION
Back to your job description, pastor. Your job is to teach the Bible, and the Bible offers the antidote to expressive individualism’s universal acid. Expressive individualism prizes autonomy above all things, attempting to free us even from the laws of creation. It rebels from something even as basic as the fact that we are of creation. The Bible, however, places the human person suitably inside of a good creation and the providential ordering of a loving God. And inside of that creation and in God’s revealed purposes in it we discover crucial elements of our teleology.
Alasdair MacIntyre has observed, “Every craft is informed by some conception of a finally perfected work which serves as the shared telos of that craft. And what are actually produced as the best judgments or actions or objects so far are judged so because they stand in some determinate relationship to that telos, which furnishes them with their final cause.” As Christians, we should measure human excellence and Christian discipleship (MacIntyre’s idea of the “craft”) by its conformity to God as the ultimate telos, and God’s sovereignty over our nature as the penultimate telos.
Scripture portrays us as gendered image-bearers. Genesis 1 and 2 presents Adam and Eve as teleological creatures placed inside of a teleological order. He gives them a habitable world, and he commissions them to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth. Our purpose for existing, then, must somehow be bound up in fulfilling this commission, which necessarily requires two different bodily kinds. The Bible’s first pages, in other words, offers us an enchanted, teleological order directed by God’s providence.
God does not create by chaos. There is no capriciousness in his ordering of creation. He creates us to act for certain ends. As Matthew Levering observes, “God creates human beings so that they are naturally ordered to preserve the good of their human existence.”
PASTOR, YOU GET TO OFFER WHAT’S TRULY GOOD
The political rhetoric of our present moment makes pastors and Christians out to be the bad guys. And, if we’re honest, sometimes this rhetoric can get inside our heads. “Am I being intolerant? Am I denying people love and joy and the good life?” Church members, at least, can wonder this.
My goal, then, is to hearten you, pastor. You’re offering your church and the non-Christians they bring with them what’s truly good. And I don’t just mean the good of God and the gospel—the greatest goods. I mean the good that comes with the Bible’s teaching about manhood and womanhood and our embodied telos.
To know what is “good” requires a true knowledge of a thing’s nature, of what completes it. To experience goodness, then, requires knowing ourselves as image-bearers of God and accepting our being as created by God and living accordingly. No violation of a creature’s nature can ever be “good.”
Furthermore, knowing the ends of a particular thing allows us to formulate rules of moral action, rules that protect the development and realization of our created purpose. Those rules, in other words, are for our good, and we will experience the good that God intends for us as creatures by obeying those rules.
Expressive individualism, however, offers just the opposite: self-destruction. By denying our God-given teleology, we have created a new class of victims: those known online as “De-Transitioners”—individuals who underwent some degree of “transition” and found no improvement to their underlying psychological pathology.
Yet the ravages of self-destruction extend much farther than these individuals. One Oxford University philosopher, Jacqueline A. Laing, decries this modern idea of liberty that “prides itself on having secured certain rights and freedoms—to destroy one’s self, one’s offspring, and collectively to destroy one’s culture.”
This destruction, in short, is what the Winfreys and all the reigning philosophies of this age, backed by the principalities and powers, honor and celebrate as they laud Elliot Page’s “courageous” decision. Do you risk being the bad guy in this story, pastor? Yes, indeed.
The duty of pastors in an age of expressive individualism is to re-enchant the beauty and wonder of the human person within the drama of a created order. Help your congregation—the teens, the singles, the young marrieds, the elderly—to rejoice at the idea of creaturely limitation and God’s good purposes in those limitations. Help them to proclaim what David says in Psalm 100: “Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”