June 23, 2017

Fridays with Damaris: Another Look – The Myth of Autonomy

The Myth of Autonomy
By Damaris Zehner

Americans take for granted, even idealize, the ideal of personal autonomy. Many Americans believe that autonomy is achievable and that it’s the most honorable lifestyle there is.  They believe that people are autonomous individuals.  Even if I’m not as autonomous as I should be, because I lack courage or will, those people over there are — the survivalists, Amish, and Waldenites, for example.  (I’m not saying these people are autonomous, just that we idealize them that way.)

There are a lot of words for it:  autonomy, independence, self-sufficiency, self-reliance, not being a burden, not taking hand-outs, taking care of my own, standing on my own two feet, freedom.  But autonomy is a myth, not a reality.  For the sake of convenience, I’m going to dub the adherents of the myth “autonomists,” even though Spellcheck won’t like it.

Autonomists think that people can live entirely by the fruits of their own efforts, not relying on outside people or society.  They imagine that they can interact with people solely as they choose, not being a burden to them or having them be a burden in return, entering into relationships and leaving them whenever they want to.  They believe that they are entirely in control of their thoughts and choices, that they direct their wills, and that their true moral guidance comes from their own hearts.

This mythology is not a new thing for most Americans.  To some extent our geography has shaped it.  Historically we’ve had the sense that there’s always new land out there, waiting to be subdued, where men are men and women are tired.  There’s room never to have to be part of a neighborhood.  When those mythic Americans, the pioneers, saw the chimney smoke of a new neighbor on the horizon, they could move farther out and wrest an independent living from the land, with no revenuers or government agents breathing down their necks.  Of course this is no longer true, if it ever was, but the mythology of autonomy remains with Americans today.

Philosophy has also shaped our mythology.  Many of the earliest and most influential European settlers arrived during the intellectual ferment called the Enlightenment.  Enlightenment philosophers held, and the common people absorbed, the ideas that there was not a personal god, that mankind was perfectible by its own efforts, and that through reason and science we could break the bonds of oppressive religious, governmental, and personal relationships.  In fact, some of the philosophers believed that the interdependence of people was what created evil in the world, that perfectly detached people would be perfectly good.  Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau even abandoned his own (illegitimate) child to be raised in a convent, feeling that the smothering interdependence of father and son would distort the child’s psyche and prevent his growing up free.  (Whose freedom was Rousseau concerned with?)

The American Revolution seemed to reinforce the convictions that independence and self-determination were the supreme good and were achievable by our own efforts.  According to the mythology, the Civil War, too, was fought over the issue of independence — of states’ rights or personal independence from slavery.  Although the Civil War could more properly be seen as a contest of the cooperative life of the Northern towns versus the autonomous life of the Southern landowner, in which the Northern way of cooperation won, nonetheless autonomists see the war as a triumph of personal freedom.  And so the myth of self-reliance continues until today.

It’s time to debunk this mythology of honorable autonomy and consider the nature of our true relationships with the world, each other, and God.

First of all, we aren’t living the autonomous life that we idealize.  All of us depend on other people every day.  Even the few who look like they’re self-sufficient really aren’t.  The survivalist hunts his own meat and tans the hide, but did he smelt the ore to make his guns and traps?  Amish farmers raise both food and buildings, but they didn’t plant the trees that they cut down for lumber, nor did they mine the iron for the nails.  In fact, they didn’t give the trees the power to grow or place the raw materials in the earth.  They — we — all rely on provisions from outside ourselves for life.

Even the autonomists who say that they’ve worked for all they have, that they’ve never taken a hand-out from anyone, aren’t telling the strict truth.  They may have started their own business, but they didn’t make the economy or customers or infrastructure that made the business possible.  They didn’t create and raise and educate the human capital that keeps their business running.  And ironically, not only do they rely on others for their success, but others rely on them to provide something they need.  Even autonomists are part of a web, not an isolated entity.

One barrier that autonomists erect to preserve their illusion of autonomy is the cash nexus. If I pay you, I don’t have an interdependent relationship with you.  You aren’t another person made in the image of God, you’re an employee, or a nursing home attendant, or a shopkeeper.  I can pay you to look after me when I want you to and go away when I don’t, and then we’ll never be a burden to each other.  But paying for food, education, care, services, and goods doesn’t make people autonomous.  It just moves the relationship they have with the providers of goods and services a little farther away.

Even our thoughts are not autonomous.  All people are products of their culture, time, and place.  We’re not entirely in control of the choices we make nor do we act and think independently of society.  Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson, an undeservedly popular American essayist and contemporary of Henry David Thoreau, the ultimate guru of autonomy.  In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson writes, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.  Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind.  Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”  In other words, don’t let anyone or anything affect your thinking, but rely only on yourself.  The big joke is that now, 150 years later, graduate students are writing dissertations on where Emerson got his ideas, because they understand, as he didn’t, that no one develops in a vacuum.

What’s the problem with an independent spirit anyway, even if maybe we Americans exaggerate our autonomy a bit?  The problem is that autonomy is the road to Hell.  It is entirely contrary to the Christian life.  No one who insists on autonomy can ever know God.

Jesus doesn’t say, “You should try as hard as you can to grow independently and produce fruit.”  He says, “I am the true vine . . . Remain in me, and I will remain in you.  No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.  Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me”  (John 15:1 and 4).  An autonomous branch is a dead branch.

Saint Paul doesn’t say, “You’ve been set free from sin and death, now go do what you want.”  He says, “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. . . . But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life”  (Romans 6:20 and 22).

We’re branches, not the vine.  We’re slaves of God if we’re not slaves of sin; we have no independence to boast of.  “What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not” (1 Corinthians 4:7)?  We don’t create ourselves, we don’t raise ourselves, we don’t provide for ourselves.  We are part of a whole larger than ourselves. We’re a unique part, true, and within the whole we have wonderful freedom, as a train has freedom to operate perfectly on the rails it was designed for.  But we aren’t the master of our fate or the captain of our soul, and as long as we think we are, we’ll think we can ignore the maker of the universe and all he’s done for us.

Some time ago, on iMonk, the original discussion of autonomy involved a hypothetical old lady with a painful, humiliating, and incurable disease.  One commenter offered assisted suicide as a dignified, kindly option to preserve her autonomy and maintain her freedom from being a burden.  I said there, and affirm here, that this woman’s tragedy is better seen as an opportunity for interdependent charity than for perpetuating the myth of autonomy.  I was asked whether I thought that the old woman should suffer just so I could buff up my spiritual life by performing acts of mercy.  Well, yes, actually, though not in those terms.

God’s economy is different from ours.  That old lady is not her own; she was bought at a price (1 Corinthians 6:19 and 20).  She exists for God’s purposes, not her own.  God interacts with her for her own redemption but also uses her for the redemption of others.

Autonomists don’t like that.  Nobody wants to be “used.” Most of us try above all things to preserve our autonomy, our comfort, and our lives.  But God doesn’t care much for those things.  He’s willing to scrap them all for the sake of our growth and salvation.  To us that seems cruel, but the real cruelty would be allowing human beings to remain in their mythology and spend eternity in the perfect autonomy of Hell.  If I were that old woman — and I may be one day — I would have to accept that my suffering might be someone else’s opportunity to grow closer to God, that my pain might be the cost of someone else’s good.  I would have to accept the invitation to be, in that sense at least, like Jesus.  I would be given the true dignity not of autonomy but of being a participant in God’s plans of redemption.

If that seems costly or cruel to you, I understand.  God’s ways have often seemed costly and cruel to me, but by faith I accept that I don’t yet see them as they are.  I can only say with the Psalmist, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness”  (Psalm 115:1).

Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience – Part 8, Chapter 14: Does God Guide and Direct Us?

Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience – Part 8, Chapter 14: Does God Guide and Direct Us?

We continue the series on the book, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience.

Today Part 8, Chapter 14: Does God Guide and Direct Us?

Jeeves student raises the question about how to acknowledge the diversity of views about how Christians get guidance from God for life’s choices.  How much involves using the mind?  How much depends of feelings and emotions?  What about hearing voices and seeing visions?

First of all, Jeeves notes the episodes in Scripture where dramatic guidance is given.  The Saul-to-Paul-Road-to-Damascus experience, Moses and the burning bush, Balaam and the donkey, and so on.  He notes that, as far as he can see, nowhere in Scripture are we encouraged to see these as the norm.  Hearing voices and seeing visions can be strong pointers to psychopathology, and with suitable drug treatment the visions disappear and the voices can be cured.  He noted in the previous chapter (13: Does my Brain Have a God Spot) early researchers noted a relationship between religiosity and epilepsy.  In fact, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, called it “the sacred disease”.  But the most recent research shows a lack of link between religious experiences generally, religious awareness in particular, and selective activity of certain parts of the brain.  Jeeves concludes Chapter 13 with:

Ultimately appealing to subjective experiences alone as the grounds for beliefs is an unsure and moving foundation.  It was certainly never one used by the early Christians.  If you read the accounts given in the New Testament, for example, you will find that the constant grounds appealed to for taking seriously the claims of Jesus Christ are not subjective feeling in time of ecstasy, but the many and varied accounts of the life, teaching and activities of Jesus and his disciples.

In other words, for those who are willing to examine the evidence with an open and critical mind, the evidence—or perhaps better, the testimony—is open and available.  It’s important to say that it is open and available, and does not require any presuppositions, although many agree that there is more evidence for the existence and the life of Jesus Christ than for other historical figure around the same time that most people take for granted, such as Julius Caesar.  As Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote recently in his 1161-page magisterial volume Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, “There is, however, an important aspect of Christianity on which it is the occupation of historians to speak: the story of Christianity is undeniably true, in that it is a part of human history.”  Ultimately, however, at no point, as far as I can see, is the claim made that people are to be argued into the kingdom of God.  Rather the main thrust of the message is that Jesus Christ is alive and offers the opportunity of entering into a personal relationship with him.

Paul on the road to Damascus

Jeeves cites the groundbreaking study by neurologist Antonio Damasio on studies of individuals with injury to the orbital frontal cortex of the brain, explored in detail in his book: Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.   According to Damasio’s theory, our life experiences help our minds develop automatic responses to events.  At moments when our consciousness lacks the relevant knowledge for a decision, we are guided by subtle emotions and intuitions.  The implications of Damasio’s theory is that emotions deliver many of our most complex and rational judgements about the world, guiding us in our moment-to-moment decision making.  Without knowing why, we often just feel that this or that is the right thing to do.

Jeeves mentions this an example of the artificiality of thinking we can totally disconnect mind and emotion.  That’s not the way we are made.  That is not how the brain works.  The question remains how to keep a proper balance.  There are no simple answers, certainly not from within neuropsychology.  When I have shared my story (especially on-line) of how I moved from atheism to Christianity I always get criticized by the atheists for “letting my emotions play too major a role”.  Conversely, I can’t hardly count the “deconversion” stories I have read where the interlocutor insists they have disconnected their emotions and made a decision strictly based on the empirical evidence and their rational thought.  That’s not the way we are made.  That is not how the brain works.

So, does God guide and direct us?  Of course to the materialist the answer is an emphatic NO!  All such claims of guidance and direction are simply an exercise in self-delusion.  The consensus of Internetmonk over the years, I think, would be termed “apophatic”.  We know how God DOESN’T lead us and guide us, let us count the non-ways: liver shivers, warm fuzzies, spine-tingles, goose flesh, words-of knowledge, prophecies, Bible roulette, proof texts, dreams, visions, coincidences… I like how Jeeves puts it:

St. Ignatius 1491-1556

I also believe that too often we fail to learn from wiser Christians of former generations such as Saint Ignatius, who had much of importance to say about guidance.  He reminded us that, at times, a careful and deliberative process must be involved.  It includes weighing up certainties and doubts, consolations (things that see to draw us closer to Jesus) and desolations (what seems to draw us away from Jesus), what attracts and appeals, what seems to be highlighted and what isn’t.  In this way, gradually, we sense God’s calling and we make a choice.  This is Saint Ignatius’s preferred way.  Keep the mind fully engaged and then, because of how we are made, our emotions will play their proper part…

And in the context of our present discussion I would add that it is together that we can be guided as, in love, we give frank advice to our fellow Christians who face choice points in their lives requiring, at times, difficult decisions.  It is so easy to deceive ourselves with wishful thinking that we need to test our thoughts against the sounding board of fellow believers.  They may bring a wider perspective on an issue with which we have become so preoccupied that it has grown out of all proper perspective.

Ordinary Time Bible Study: Philippians – Friends in the Gospel (1)

Art from the Orthodox Chapel at the Gangites River. Lydia and women at the river as Paul approaches.

Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
Study One

Ask any number of people to name their favorite Pauline letter, and the majority will say Philippians. For good reason. Whereas we meet an erudite Paul in Romans, a bombastic Paul in Galatians, a sometimes caustic Paul in 2 Corinthians and a sometimes baffling Paul in 1 Corinthians, here we find a very personal and warm human being who pours out a heart of affection for his friends in Philippi. In short, many of us like Philippians because we like the Paul we meet there.

• Gordon Fee

• • •

The first book of the Bible I preached as a pastor was Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I had fallen in love with it in Bible college, and could think of no better way to start my ministry. Of course, my understanding was minimal and I was as green behind the ears as a young minister could be, but looking back, I think my instincts were correct. This was thirty years before I heard Michael Spencer use the phrase “Jesus-shaped spirituality,” but that kind of spiritual life was what I found in this delightful epistle.

  • Jesus the Christ is mentioned three times in the first two verses of Paul’s greeting.
  • Paul looks forward to the Day of Christ and the harvest of righteousness that will come through Christ.
  • He says he loves his friends with the compassion of Christ.
  • His perspective on his current imprisonment is that it is for Christ.
  • Despite wrong motives of his competitors, he can still rejoice that Christ is being proclaimed.
  • For Paul, to live is Christ.
  • To depart is to be with Christ, which is far better.
  • He expresses confidence that their prayers and the help of the Spirit of Christ will lead to his deliverance.
  • He wants to share in their joyful boasting in Christ when he rejoins them.
  • Paul urges them to live worthy of the gospel of Christ.
  • He reminds them of the privileges of believing in and suffering for Christ.

And that’s just chapter one!

Also, although I’m sure I had no understanding of this as a novice pastor, Philippians was an excellent place to begin because it portrays a pastoral figure (Paul) and a congregation of people who, for the most part, get along and are engaged in a vibrant “partnership in the gospel” (1:5, NIV). They had their problems, and Paul had to exhort them pretty directly at times (when was the last time your pastor pointed out people by name from the pulpit? — see 4:2). But he could do this because of the quality of their relationship, which had been shaped by acts of mutual service and love. On the whole, the church of Philippi appears to have been one of the healthiest and stable churches in the New Testament. What better place was there for me to start in a new ministry than with this positive, uplifting, encouraging letter?

As we study Philippians together during Ordinary Time this year, I hope we will all be buoyed up by the Spirit of God and refreshed in our faith.

For my primary resource in this study, I will be consulting Gordon Fee’s brief but excellent commentary on Philippians in the IVP NT Commentary Series. NOTE: You can read this commentary at no cost online at Bible Gateway. Fee also has a longer, more scholarly commentary on Philippians in the NICNT series.

I will supplement this by referring to one of my favorite New Testament studies, Gerald F. Hawthorne’s Word Biblical Commentary on Philippians (43).

If anyone would like to read along with a good devotional, pastoral guide, I recommend Tom Wright’s volume on the Prison Letters in his NT for Everyone series.

Of course, there are many other good commentaries out there, including two that are usually rated highest as the best seminary level texts: Peter T. O’Brien’s The Letter to the Philippians (NIGCT) (out of print) and Moisés Silva’s Philippians (BECNT).

• • •

I have entitled this study “Friends in the Gospel.” 

In previous studies, I used the phrase “Partnership in the Gospel” as my main theme, building upon Phil. 1:5, as Tom Wright does in his guide. However, Gordon Fee has persuaded me to change my approach from “partnership” to “friendship” based on his discussion of the genre of Paul’s epistle.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, letters followed certain forms depending upon the writer/recipient relationship and the content of the letter. Without repeating the details, Fee notes that Philippians reflects the characteristics of (1) letters of friendship, and (2) letters of moral exhortation. Philippians is rather unique among Paul’s epistles in following the friendship form, and this is why many people find it so attractive. Paul followed the forms of his day, but he also transformed them into distinctly Christian communications by filling the forms with Jesus-shaped content.

Fee cites one scholar who found seven general characteristics of Greco-Roman friendship letters, which we see in Philippians:

  1. Address and greeting (cf. 1:1-2)
  2. Prayer for recipients (cf. 1:3-11)
  3. Reassurance about the sender and his circumstances (cf. 1:12-26; 4:10-20)
  4. Request for reassurance about the recipients and their circumstances (cf. 1:27-2:18; 3:1-4:9)
  5. Information about the affairs of mutual friends/intermediaries (cf. 2:19-30)
  6. Exchange of greetings with third parties (cf. 4:21-22)
  7. Closing wish for health (cf. 4:23)

But this is mere form. Paul fills out the letter with effusive expressions of friendship (matching the ideals of friendship accepted in his culture) such as their working partnership, joy in their relationship, the mutual affection they share, the generous and practical help they have given each other, their mutual desire to see each other face to face, and their mutual desire for each other’s well being.

One interesting feature of Philippians as a “friendship” letter is that, even though it contains exhortations and appeals, Paul does not appeal to his apostleship and authority but rather to their mutual faith in Christ and the example he and others have set for them. There is a remarkable sense of egalitarianism in their relationship, especially when contrasted with letters such as Galatians and the Corinthian correspondence.

Gordon Fee ultimately casts Philippians as “Christian hortatory letter of friendship.” Each of those terms is key. Philippians is about friendship. It contains appeals and exhortation. The letter is centered upon Christ and their union with Christ and therefore, with each other.

The marks of the letter of friendship are everywhere. Philippians is clearly intended to make up for their mutual absence, functioning as Paul’s way of being present while absent. …Thus he informs them about his affairs, speaks into their affairs and offers information about the movements of intermediaries. Evidence of mutual affection abounds. The reciprocity of friendship is especially evident at the beginning and the end, and thus is probably to be seen in the other parts as well. Moreover, in the two sections in which Paul speaks into their affairs the letter functions as moral exhortation, which is tied very specifically to exemplary paradigms.

…He is altogether concerned for his friends in Philippi and their ongoing relationship with Christ.

• Fee, pp. 20-22

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