In this episode, we discuss a powerful narrative that is taking hold of our society. This narrative is grounded in a worldview called expressive individualism. Expressive individualism assumes that personal authenticity is our highest priority, and that moral autonomy is the highest good in life. To use a common phrase, this means we should be “true to ourselves.”

For Latter-day Saints, expressive individualism can be contrasted with Christian discipleship. From the point of view of discipleship, our truest self does not consists of whatever desires, inclinations, or traits we find within ourselves, or in freedom without bounds. Rather, our true identity is found when we make and keep covenants with God, and align our will with His, and live our lives as He guides us.

The hidden worldview: Expressive individualism

Personal authenticity is our highest priority, and is stifled by tradition and religious duty.

The best way to explore expressive individualism is to discuss the work of the famous psychologist Carl Rogers. Rogers played a vital role in establishing a strong humanist branch of psychology. He strongly criticized B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, arguing that it reduces human activity to cause and effect. He was a champion of human agency and autonomy, and developed therapies grounded in this worldview. He also provided a psychological framework that made expressive individualism as guiding assumption of most therapists.

Rogers argued that human discontent stems from expectations of family, church, or culture that lead us to project a false image to the world. When faced with the expectations of others, we put on a facade, and suppress our true selves. This “true self” includes whatever forbidden, hidden desires and aspirations we ignore or pretend aren’t there, or which we feel might disappoint those around us. Living this way, according to Rogers, leads to anxiety, depression, and a sense that we are unlovable and defective. Therapeutic healing, from this view, requires us to break free from the shackles of ‘oughts’ and ‘thou shalts,’ and embrace what we have hidden from others.

Carl Rogers explained, “Over against these pressures for conformity, we find that when clients are free to be any way they wish, they tend to resent and to question the tendency of the organization, the college or the culture to mould them to any given form.”[1] As clients become fully-functioning persons, according to Rogers, they discover that they and they alone are the determiner of value in their own life-spaces. In this view, this moral autonomy represents psychological health and well-being. This involves deciding what is right for ourselves, independent of institutions such as family, church, or society. In Rogers’ view, when social norms make people feel bad for “being themselves,” they undermine human flourishing.

In his psychological work, Rogers offered compelling narratives that have seeped into our broader culture, and can now be found nearly everywhere in modern media. Anytime you hear phrases like, “Be true to yourself,” or “Follow your heart,” you are likely hearing echoes of expressive individualism.

Here is one example: Most of you will have seen the Disney movie Mulan, which explores the conflict between the personal desires and aspirations of a young woman named Mulan and the traditions of her family and community. In the film, Mulan is expected to follow strict social protocols as she prepares for marriage. The beginning of the film depicts her struggling haphazardly to convince others that she has learned the customs and attitudes that will make her a desirable housewife to men in the community.

Now, it won’t spoil the movie too much to say that she fails dramatically and comically. Devastated, Mulan sings what is now a popular Disney song. She feels trapped by the expectations of her parents, and feels that she must “play a role” in a drama scripted for her by society. “Can it be,” she asks, “I’m not meant to play this part?” She frames her inner meditations as a search for her true self. She asks, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” Mulan literally wipes off a facade (created with face paint) from her face during this scene. There is almost nothing more “Rogerian” than this scene and this song.

This story and song resonates with what we call the “Rogerian” narrative. In this narrative, life is a drama where the expectations and norms of society represent the villain. In this narrative, individual identity is defined by our inner desires and aspirations, and societal norms that don’t reward self-expression stifle our true identity. The protagonist of this narrative must strive for self-liberation in his or her journey towards moral autonomy and personal authenticity. (For another media example, think of the movie October Sky, and note how it presents this exact narrative.)

This story can play out in a variety of ways:

  • A socially awkward teenager loves fantasy and writing. But he attends a high school where social norms emphasize sports and athletics, and he finds himself hiding his true passions in order to fit in. But to find true happiness, he must learn to be true to himself and embrace the nerd within himself.
  • A young woman is attracted to other women. But she belongs to a family and a church that discourages homosexual activity, and so she finds herself hiding her attractions from others and squeezing herself into a social template. But eventually, at the behest of a wise therapist, she decides to embrace her true identity and live a more authentic life.
  • A woman struggles with the demands of motherhood and finds herself resenting the norms that led her to have children at a young age. She allowed a social template and fear of judgment to influence her decisions to have children. Too late to change those decisions, she must now find a way to be true to herself while balancing the obligations of motherhood.

These are all “Rogerian” narratives, and they each assume expressive individualism as a central worldview. We can see here the variety of stories that can fit this narrative. There’s elements of it in nearly every “child-knows-best” story in which a young protagonist must challenge the assumptions or expectations of their parents or mentors.

Now, we want to be clear: we are not suggesting that Mulan or anyone else should just go along with whatever their parents or society have planned for them. And certainly not all versions of this narrative are bad — sometimes social norms really do lead us to hide or abandon interests that are harmless or even good (we see absolutely nothing objectionable about a boy embracing his inner nerd rather than be pressed into athletics). Sometimes social templates can be less than accommodating for those who are different. And sometimes, social judgment really does prevent human flourishing.

Rather, I’m simply illustrating the ways that expressive individualism has filtered into our cultural assumptions and collective consciousness. It’s everywhere. And we think that sometimes (but not every time), the Rogerian narrative really does clash with the Gospel narrative on a fundamental level. Expressive individualism, philosophers Steve Wilkens and Mark Sanford explain, “worships the freedom to express our uniqueness against constraints and conventions.”[2]  Thus, expressive individualism makes a supreme idol of personal autonomy and free choice, unfettered by any and all moral or social or authoritative constraints. “In a culture of [expressive] individualism,” Jeremy Treat notes, “fulfillment is found not in relationships but through unhindered personal choice.”[3]

The alternative: Christian discipleship

Christian discipleship involves relinquishing self at the altar of Christ, and becoming new creatures in Him.

So what is the Gospel narrative, and how does it compare? The prototype of the Gospel narrative is exemplified in the story of Adam and Eve. The begin as innocents, but are then tempted and deceived by the tempter. As a consequence, they are cut off from God. However, angelic messengers teach them that through Christ, they can be redeemed and their relationship with God restored.

Similarly, we are created innocent before God, but as we are faced with the choices of mortality, we inevitably entertain desires and develop habits that alienate us from God. From there, we find redemption and eventual reunion with God through Christ and personal discipleship. It is a narrative of fall and redemption, of separation and reunion. In a Rogerian narrative, the main characters (you or I) are the protagonists or heroes of the story. But in the Gospel narrative, Christ becomes the hero of the story. The main characters — Adam and Eve, or you and us — are saved as they nurture within themselves His character and are redeemed from the fall by His sacrifice.

In this way, discipleship involves not self-liberation (which is emphasized by expressive individualism), but self-renunciation, where we give up sinful lifestyles at the altar of covenant. This does not mean that we blindly follow tradition, which can also be corrupted and alienate us from God. We live in a fallen world, after all, and societal norms and traditions are often part of that. However, Christian discipleship represents a “third path” in the conflict between self and tradition. Tradition says “follow the rules.” Expressive individualism says, “follow your heart.” In contrast to both, Christ says, “Follow thou me.”

Sometimes, following Christ involves breaking tradition and violating the expectations of family, church, or culture. This is true when those traditions alienate us from God, or when the expectations of family and culture prevent us from making and keeping covenants with God. When this happens, the Gospel narrative will align with the Rogerian narrative rather faithfully (with a different emphasis, perhaps — the emphasis being on following Christ rather than the self). Other times, it involves relinquishing the desires of our heart. This is true when those desires place us at odds with God’s desires for us. When this happens, the Gospel narrative will run counter to the Rogerian narrative in nearly every case.

Consider how bizarre this narrative is in the modern world, and how rarely we see it portrayed in modern media. Hollywood will occasionally give us a redemption story, usually of a non-theistic sort. Occasionally we find characters who come to realize that the desires of their hearts are wrong, and who then remake themselves (with or without God’s help) as persons. (The superhero movie Iron Man and the animated film The Emperor’s New Groove are great examples of this.) But even rarer are stories that pit the protagonist against the expectations of the community or the traditions of a prior generation, where those traditions or expectations are later found to be wise, as the protagonist seeks redemption from their rebellion.

Ultimately, and in total contrast with Carl Rogers’s assumptions, Christ invites us to become “new creatures” through this discipleship. CS Lewis, the famous Christian apologist, explained, “To become new men means losing what we now call ‘ourselves.’ Out of ourselves, into Christ, we must go. His will is to become ours and we are to think His thoughts, to ‘have the mind of Christ.’”[4] Our goal is not to become “true to ourselves,” but to be remade in Christ’s image. This is not a betrayal of our true selves. In contrast, CS Lewis continues,

The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. … Our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and natural desires. … It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.[5]

This truth lies at the core of the Christian message. The Savior taught, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

Ultimately, discipleship means that the self cannot be the ultimate source of right or wrong in our lives — we must seek to know God’s will, not merely our own. Moral autonomy cannot be our goal. Rather, we must rely on prayer, listening to the Holy Spirit, studying God’s word and listening to His servants, and even adhering to traditions (when those traditions are informed by revelation). Institutions such as family and church can help educate our intuitions and scaffold our efforts to follow Christ and his teachings. They can help us form expectations of ourselves and others that encourage discipleship.

For example, in an expressive individualist view, those who don’t really want to serve missions, get married, pursue parenthood, live chastely, etc., are pitted against the expectations of their church community. Expressive individualism encourages those in these circumstances to be true to themselves, despite what their church may teach. They should not only be willing to break the mold, but encourage the Church to embrace them for it. But from the perspective of discipleship, sometimes our personal desires are simply skewed by limited mortal understanding, and we need to unlearn them and take up endeavors and projects we might not originally be inclined to. Our goal is to become new and better people, with holier priorities. Sometimes we are called into ministries we did not choose or might initially not be passionate about. Sometimes we are invited to prioritize things that lean against what we might personally want. But as we work hand in hand with Christ, He can and will sanctify us and make us anew along the way.

In conclusion, we can see the influence of expressive individualism everywhere in society, in popular entertainment and in our politics. We often see the Rogerian narrative presented as if it were the Christian narrative, as if Christ’s goal is to liberate His followers from external “oughts” so that they can engage in true self-expression. Multiple friends have absorbed these assumptions without question and have then left the Church in protest of its support for traditional sexual morality. This is why we think that it is important to recognize and label this narrative when we encounter it, and to contrast it with Christian teachings about the fall, the need for redemption through Christ, and the sacrifices of discipleship. Because the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption is ultimately the most compelling narrative of all — and more than compelling, it is redeeming.

References   [ + ]

1. Rogers, Carl Ransom. On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995.
2. Wilkens, S., & Sanford, M. L. (2009). “Hidden Worldviews:  Eight cultural stories that shape our lives.” Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic. p. 28.
3. Treat, J. (2017).  “Sexuality and the Church: How pastoral ministry shapes a theology of sexuality.” In G. Hiestand and T. Wilson (Eds.), “Beauty, Order, and Mystery:  A Christian vision of human sexuality,” pp. 45-57. Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Academic.
4. Lewis, Clive Staples. Mere Christianity. HarperCollins, 2001.
5. Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. HarperCollins, 2001.