Against Autonomy

The modern story is one of autonomy: the path to human flourishing will be found in being most myself. I will achieve actualisation if I am my most authentic self, whoever that proves to be.

At its very simplest it boils down to the Disney princess mantra, we follow our hearts.

If that ruffles a few feathers of less enlightened people, so be it. Their rights to be most themselves end when they start judging me—though my ruffling of feathers is purely coincidental and to suggest that I’m doing the same thing they accuse me of is unfair.

Of course, pointing out the inconsistency doesn’t get us very far. I don’t want everyone to live in solipsistic bubbles not affecting each other’s ability to be their best self. Why not? That’s pretty much exactly C. S. Lewis’ description of hell in The Great Divorce. Playing by the rules of the game doesn’t get us far when the game is broken.

Especially when our desire for autonomy is an intrinsically terrible one. Why should we be trusted to rule our own lives and decide what constitutes our truest selves? Have you met us? To think this is a good idea, a good story to base a culture on, shows that we are terrible judges of character and demonstrates a remarkable lack of self-awareness.

To be as fair to our foolishness as possible, the culture-shaping story doesn’t develop from nothing, if it had it would be obvious what we were doing to ourselves. Instead as allegiance to the Christian story diminishes but our desire to maintain the goods that it has wrought in our societies continues (read Tom Holland’s Dominion or Glen Scrivener’s The Air We Breathe), we have to retrofit a story that allows those goods (like freedom, kindness, and equality) to maintain their grip in our society.

What we’ve done is we’ve kept the story of God’s kingdom without having the Lord as King. We want the benefits of a marriage without the covenant. In essence we’ve swapped the grandest story ever told—the truly breath-takingly epic love story that is patterned in the atoms of the world—and swapped it for a tawdry little tale about a string of destructive and demeaning one-night stands. By replacing Jesus’ position as rightful ruler of the cosmos with ourselves as the rightful ruler of our tiny worlds—and make no mistake, friends, that’s what we’ve done—we’ve removed what made those goods good. We’ve marred what made the beauty we had beautiful. We’ve made the truth into a lie.

Which is why our societies are disintegrating and we’re in the midst of a meaning crisis. Autonomy and the self are not a strong enough story to hang our cultures on. It will tear down the middle and take our souls with it.

There’s plenty in western societies that is not to be lauded, and plenty of that comes from the time of Christendom. There’s more that we’ve left behind and can gladly say a big “good riddance” to. It doesn’t serve us to paint rose-tinted Thomas Kincaid pictures of the past and assumed we ruined it all with the onset of modernity. At the same time, most of what we love about modernity is either directly sourced from or built directly upon that same complicated Christendom. Both things are true.

When we strip a story from its roots, we do gain the benefit of saying that all those terrible things that people did in the past won’t happen now because we have untied ourselves from their faulty moorings. We can instead invent new terrors. However, we also lose all the good things that we hadn’t really realised were based on the same stories we’ve left behind. Then we start to realise that key elements of the stories we’re trying to sail in (is this analogy getting complicated?), like the belief in freedom as a value that undergirds our autonomy, belonged to the old story and have no real basis in the new one. In other words, the boat we’ve chosen to sail off into the glorious sunset it has a hole in it. And we’re far from shore.

Following your heart doesn’t work. Your heart can tell you what you want. It can’t tell you where to go, or whether what you want is good for you. We conflate these at our never-ending peril. If it were up to me then some Disney princess stories would end with the princess following her heart into terrible peril or the slow recalcitrant degradation of the soul that such choices inevitably lead to. Perhaps ending with the eventual inevitability of death and how all our works pass like the wind. Think Disney meets Ecclesiastes. Of course, that wouldn’t be so great for the merchandising budget.

I’m fun at parties.

The world is wider and weirder than our autonomy stories allow for. We are not decision-machines whose choices are our greatest output. We are not robots, though the relentless advance of technology into every corner of our lives is making that contention harder for us to believe. We cannot trust our perceptions of the world well enough to believe that we are free enough from constraints for the story to hold water.

Unless you’re aware of the teeming angels filling the space you’re in as you read this, then there’s a hole in the proverbial bucket, dear Liza.

Here’s the kicker: the gospel says that the autonomy story that flourishing lives are found in being ‘true to ourselves’ is a lie from the pit of hell. Instead, freedom and flourishing are found in being a follower.

Dear friends, repent and follow him. You’ll find struggles and heartache and bruised spiritual knuckles now, along with the delight of knowing the most beautiful person in the Universe as your closest friend, and then in the age of come there will be joy upon joy. Both now and then are better visions of flourishing than those our society can offer.

Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash

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