July 26, 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).

Comments

  1. Robert F says:

    When I speak of autonomy, I am talking about being free from the control of other human beings. Specifically, I am talking about not having decisions made for me by others in my immediate orbit who do not have, or may not have, my best interests at heart. Autonomy as an absolute state of being does not exist, just as we are not in an absolute sense all born equal.

    But a society and political order that uses those metaphorical concepts, these creative fictions, to express and accommodate the human desire to be free from the direct control of one or a few others, or a class of others, who intend to exploit us for their own profit and to our own diminishing is an advance in human relations. It recognizes that the desires of the used and exploited are as real and legitimate as those who hold and exert power over them, and in this recognition it acknowledges and attempts to give space for the realization of a truth about human nature that previous socio/political dispensations repressed by coercive methods.

    The old lady in the example above may not be her own, she may belong to the Lord, but that also means that she does not belong, as a piece of property to be disposed of as desired, to any other human being in her society, or this world. Her desires about her fate are not less important in determining what is to be done than those of other human beings; in fact, in many or perhaps most cases they are more important for determining the course of action to be taken. Yes, this truth makes it difficult for those of us who are theists and Christians to relate our theological model, which involves a world that has a king and creator, to the a secular order, which recognizes no king or creator of that kind, and gives much accommodation to the project of each person following her own desires toward the life she wants for herself; but as difficult as that may be, it is still true.

    If we literalize the concept of autonomy, then we are talking about something that no more exists than libertarian free will, or liberty for for that matter. But autonomy as the social and political expression and realization of the desire to be free of the tyrannical and exploitative desires of other human beings, and to pursue our own desires and make decisions for ourselves, even though they may not be good decisions, is a meaningful idea that refers to a true facet of human nature, as God has created us.

    It is because we have been created this way that the history and myth of Spartacus, the desire for social and political liberation, speaks to us. Any theology that does not make room for the affirmation, “I am Spartacus”, is an inadequate theology; unfortunately, most or perhaps even all traditional theologies have been inadequate.

    • Robert F says:

      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..

      It doesn’t make people autonomous in any absolute sense. But such an arrangement can free them from the provincial oppression and institutional violence of small village life, which through most of human history has provided no avenue of escape. There may be bad reasons for wanting to escape the world of small village life, with its intimacy and dependency, but there are also good reasons. By making the web of interdependency more diffuse, modernism has provided space to escape to, for good and bad reasons. Am I a young woman being sexually abused by the village elders? I can go to the city, where, if I can find work in the factories, my survival does not depend on the caprices of the very village elders who have been abusing me. The examples could be multiplied over and over again. In this sense, the modern secular world with its cash nexus does provide more autonomy for the individual than the small village, if we understand autonomy to mean freedom from the kinds of intimate, face-to-face exploitation that is pervasive in traditional small village agrarian societies. This freedom-from autonomy is a move forward in societal arrangements, it is a liberating development ; though it obviously has deficiencies (alienation, weakness of social networks, etc.) that need to be addressed, they should not be addressed by going backward.

    • Robert F says:

      Relative social and political autonomy (freedom from others desires, and freedom to follow my own), which can exist, is not the same as complete absence of interdependence (libertarian and absolute freedom, without social or personal contingencies) , which does not and cannot exist.

      • SottoVoce says:

        Well said. I think this post suffers because it is conflating “autonomy” and “interdependence.” Definitions matter.

    • Robert F says:

      I don’t think it’s a mistake that, in Genesis, human life begins in a Garden, but, in Revelation, it finds its consummation in a City. I think the City of God is a place of human freedom, divinely gifted liberty. I think of is a place of music, art, fine and street dining, the delight of discovering and encountering new people and things, and the degree of anonymity required for those discoveries. Yes, I think of the City of God as a place of anonymity, not as a state of alienation, but as the ongoing condition prerequisite to discovering and enjoying the infinitely new in ourselves and others.

      • Some people’s mansions are in the city, some people’s mansions are in the country.

        All Christians are equal. Some are more equal than others, lol

        I like that it ends in the city instead of the pasture or garden.

        • …of course the ancient israelites used a garden as the setting for original creation/paradise…they were living in a very desert environment, so of course they went with the lushest greenest setting they could think of…

          duh. my dim bulb just brightened.

  2. I’m trying to remember if I have ever used the word “autonomy” in my whole life and so far zilch. I’m trying to think of which of my neighbors would understand what the word meant if I used it with them. It’s an academic word and this seems like an academic discussion. The image of an autonomist that Damaris presents is pretty much a cartoon image and I have never known anyone like that in real life, tho the traits described actually form a continuum and I could place people here and there along it. I’m sure if for some reason I needed to I could find someone at the far right end of the continuum, and I would know where to look for best chances of success, just as I would know where to look for extremes at the far left end. Why would I do that?

    Most people live somewhere in the middle. My neighbors are right of center, but not as far right as the little town to our west and not as far left as the little town to our north. It’s like the three bears, this one is just right for me, and if you don’t like it here, move where it’s more your comfort zone. My neighbors believe in being self-sufficient, but they are nothing like the caricature Damaris presents. You can’t outgive my neighbors and I’ve learned not to even try. Better to do my best at keeping some kind of balance going and give them the gift of being the last to give. I don’t see self-sufficiency as some dreadful slippery slope leading toward a horrible bunker mentality, I see it as a common virtue of responsibility that keeps the social contract running as smoothly as possible. I know I could find instances and examples where things are not running smoothly, but my impression is that in most cases you would also find a lack of self-sufficiency as a positive goal. I’m choosing to live where it seems best to work for me and that is an autonomous choice. Yes, my life here is made possible by the efforts and cooperation of many far and wide, but who doesn’t know that? I am fortunate to live here as I do and grateful for it. These are the best neighbors I have ever had in my whole life and that is a blessing.

    I’m keenly aware that I’m a day closer today to that day when I may not be able to take care of myself. There’s no point dwelling on it and maybe I’ll luck out and just go to bed some day and wake up dead, but in the meantime I’ve needed a ride home from medical procedures twice in the last month and neighbors stepped up to the plate, self-sufficient neighbors who respect my efforts to remain self-sufficient. As to all these philosophers carrying on about this and that, maybe they could stop philosophizing long enough to help me fix my driveway which washed out last night again big time. My main question here is why are we even talking about this? Is this part of the growing effort world wide to establish and finalize tyranny? Autonomy and tyranny are mutually exclusive. I choose responsible liberty.

    • Damaris Zehner says:

      “The image of an autonomist that Damaris presents is pretty much a cartoon image and I have never known anyone like that in real life.” True — autonomists don’t exist. But people judge themselves against these mythic creatures and think they ought to aim for their lifestyle as the American ideal. That thinking, it seems to me, is behind many forms of libertarianism and resistance to governmental action (at least for other people).

      • >> But people judge themselves against these mythic creatures and think they ought to aim for their lifestyle as the American ideal. That thinking, it seems to me, is behind many forms of libertarianism and resistance to governmental action (at least for other people).

        This is true in a very limited segment of the population, one that in no way could force its ideology on the population at large and for the most part is not trying. Are these horrible people your neighbors down in the Indiana cornfields? If not, whose neighbors are they? Certainly not mine. What this mythic caricature does affect in real life is the world view of those who think of themselves as progressive, and their ideology is indeed affecting the population at large in its more extreme forms of anarchy and violence based on your mythic creatures. I prefer to side with my neighbors, who include both conservatives and progressives, both of whom are glad to drink a beer with me, to offer me a hand when I need it and to accept help from me in return. If we have a common enemy, it is the strong, intentional push from above for division and antagonism and rancor. I choose not to be herded.

        • Ronald Avra says:

          Charles, I’m grateful for you that in your current environment you find yourself able to mix with your neighbors in a meaningful manner. However, I have to attest that in my current location, that I experience a great deal the consequences of the mindset that Damaris describes. Enjoy what you have, but it doesn’t exist everywhere.

          • >> . . . it doesn’t exist everywhere.

            This is the point I am trying to make. What Damaris is describing does not exist everywhere, nor is it the norm in most places outside of the media and the minds of fear mongers. Are you saying that the majority of your neighbors are “on the road to Hell” and living “entirely by the fruits of their own efforts, not relying on outside people or society.”? If I were in that situation I would move, and in fact did move three years ago away from people that I had come to call my neighbors from Hell, people from outside with money coming in and taking over the land and local government, driving up prices and taxes, telling you how to run your life, people with an arrogant, elitist, entitled, central control mindset. They are not a majority at large, not anywhere close to it, and mostly exist in isolated pockets and within the minds of people overcome by fear porn and propaganda. This is the most energy I have given them in a long time. They thrive on other people’s energy. Figure out which wolf you want to feed.

            • Robert F says:

              Agree, Charles. The majority of our neighbors in our autonomy-valuing society are not “on the road to Hell”, nor do they think of their autonomy as meaning that they have no interdependence with the rest of society. If the majority of them are not on that road, then what exactly does this post think is wrong with the society with regard to its attitude to autonomy? If, on the other hand, the post is saying that the majority of our neighbors have wrong understanding with regard to autonomy, it is either commending another plank in the Culture War, or Benedict Option withdrawal.

            • Ron Avra says:

              I think by-in-large that I’m surrounded by people who are simply trying to survive and who figure that any unnecessary relationship could possibly pull them under. It’s more a community of the drowning than the masses diving into hell. No lifeboat in sight for a lot of people here.

        • “This is true in a very limited segment of the population, one that in no way could force its ideology on the population at large and for the most part is not trying.”

          Have you *seen* the headlines recently? :-/

          • TWELVE MEMBER MILITIA DEFEAT NATIONAL GUARD, TAKE OVER STATE CAPITOL

            RIGHT WING EXTREMISTS HANG TEN SENATORS OUTSIDE CAPITOL BUILDING

            HOME SCHOOL MOTHER KILLS ENTIRE LOCAL POLICE FORCE

            No, Eeyore, I have not seen these headlines recently. Give me a break.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    Great post Damaris – spot on.

    > 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

    When they could see a chimney it meant it was time to sell! Move west, claim more [essentially] free land, clear it, establish roads, wait for chimneys – sell! Rinse, repeat.

    Under America’s Myth Of The Frontier is the mathematics of real-estate speculation. It was a good gig while the land was free [I will repress pointing out the irony that the “Frontier” was a massive government sponsored redistributive enterprise – oh, wait, I didn’t. sorry].

  4. Burro [Mule] says:

    The central event of the Old Testament, the skeleton to which all the flesh and sinews are attached, is ” I AM the LORD thy God, who brought thee forth out of Egypt.” The illegitimate authority of Pharaoh over the children of Israel had to be broken, and was drowned in the Red Sea. Yet one of the first acts of the people of Israel was to create a fantasy, a golden calf, and they became slaves again to their unruly passions. As Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor pointed out – Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger?

    Not too many generations ago, certainly less than a dozen, I would not have had the freedom to be Orthodox, or,if I had, it would have been predicated upon a change in geography. I still feel compunction about leaving the church I was baptized in, but not enough to go back to it.

    I try not to think of Damaris as someone who is trying to force everybody back into the straightjacket of village life. If that happens, it will be because we have exhausted the ancient sunlight that fuels the fashioning of our own golden calfs, our own flights from reality. Is what is left sufficient to achieve escape velocity? We’ll have to wait and see. Think of Damaris instead as a gentle pressure away from the unsustainable modern project of self-creation ex nihilo in the name of Happiness.

    One thing I know about Happiness. It is an unstable compound with an uncertain half-life. What if your multiply-violated village girl escaped to the city to become a drudge in a factory. Would she be content with that, knowing that she had escaped the torments of her former prison, or would she, in a couple months time, be envying the fine apparel of the factory owner’s wife and daughters, and begin trying to emulate them, at whatever cost?

    • Damaris Zehner says:

      I appreciate your explanation of my motivations, Burro. You’re right. Village life has a lot of down sides, and I do feel more comfortable with much of modern culture — but I don’t think it is entirely sustainable. It’s more the mindset than the culture I’m concerned with here, as you imply.

      • The wifi alone…

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        There have always been two strands in our national DNA – “I can take care of me and mine. Thank you for not meddling” vs. We’re in a tight place, neighbor. We need to pull together. As I said previously, in our history, providentially, either facet of our national character manifested at the proper time, and all was well. But now they have been weaponized against each other.

    • The episode referenced in the above post will break your heart, if you have one.
      Best sci-fi on TV since at least Firefly. Maybe DS9

  5. Radagast says:

    In American society today there seems to be more and more push for autonomy even within families. Our children need to have their own rooms so that they can experience their own space. Newborns need to go quickly into a crib and then into their own room so that they can self-sooth. Elementary school children need to have a plan so that they can begin looking to the future on how to distinguish themselves. Parents look for ways to create that pedestal for their children to be unique.

    In some ways it is a form of narcissism, but it is inherently American. In faith young adults no longer identify with a God that needs to be worshipped in community. The “I can have my own relationship with my version of God without the constraints and boundaries imposed by religious systems” train of thought pervades many of the youth that I come in contact with. The elderly find assisted living or homecare agencies instead of being taken care collectively by their adult children.

    The frenzy with attention to self, or looking perpetually inward, seemingly pushed by the psychological community coupled with our independent American Spirit pushes this fallacy. And yet, just like social media has proved out, leads one more to loneliness, instead of seeking counsel, soothing, solace, in community. The walling off of ourselves in the hopes of attaining autonomy, whether seen through our suburban living, or through our actions so as to seem independent can be crippling.

    One more point, I have a post college son we are attempting to help as he is laden in college debt. He lives with us but is so focused on the illusion of autonomy that he does not seek counsel and is hurting himself by not tapping into collective experience…. sigh…

    My rambling thoughts…

    • Damaris Zehner says:

      Exactly, Radagast, and clearly put. I wish your son well–that’s a hard situation.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > In American society today there seems to be more and more push for autonomy even within families

      Nah. More: In a particular slice of [almost entirely white] affluent American society…

      This stereotype is something people spend far too much time obsessing over. Does this describe even ~15% of America? Not likely.

      Or should it be worrying or ironic that such people are the only people some people seem to see?

      > but it is inherently American.

      Utterly no.

      > The elderly find assisted living or homecare agencies instead of being taken care
      > collectively by their adult children.

      Are those elderly willing to move? Their children likely live in different places. “narcissism” or economic necessity?

      > …but is so focused on the illusion of autonomy that he does not seek counsel…

      I’ve certainly witnessed this; and this is an argument I have with an acquittance frequently. There is a lot of cultural baggage would up with this – it isn’t necessarily “narcissism” – but what has been portrayed as “success” [often by parents]. I’m in my forties and have lived alone maybe month in my entire life – because doing so makes no economic sense. But to suggest: get a roommate / share an apartment, as a way to deal with fiscal stress and you get a tirade about “…how that shouldn’t be necessary….”. Sigh. 🙁 It is frustrating; and makes for an awkward situation.

      • SottoVoce says:

        “The elderly find assisted living or homecare agencies instead of being taken care collectively by their adult children.”

        My parents, because they love me, are trying to make sure their only child is not forced to permanently sacrifice her financial security and ability to retire by taking care of them, since we live in a society that makes no allowances for caregiving and I would have to leave my job and support network to live in a place where I can’t work in my field and would have no one to help me.

      • Robert F says:

        >being taken of collectively by their adult children…

        But in my fifties I have no children, and I’m not unique; in addition, there are many others who only have one or two children, and those children often lack the tremendous concentration of expensive resources needed to care for parents with more and more needs who are living longer and longer. Are you saying the value of kids is in their willingness and ability to take care of their aging parents? Really? Are we going back to that? And are you saying that we should all have lots of kids to take care of us as we age? Is that the way it works? Really? I think that’s a highly idealized and unrealistic way of looking at the nuclear family, unless you are suggesting going back to an extended family network society, which to me seems even more unrealistic and idealized.

        • Radagast says:

          I acknowledge what you say Robert, my point is that in my experience when I was young (I am also in my fifties) there was more of this, partly because of bigger families and from my experience more first gen, second gen families in the areas I lived in.

          Your comments below that are stretching the point I am trying to make… which is because of autonomy more elderly stay on their own. In other parts of the world (Latin America etc) this is not the case.

          BTW – I tried to have my folks live with me and it was a hugely failed endeavor….

          • Robert F says:

            I’m confused about how Roman Catholics (like yourself, no?) and Eastern Orthodox can argue against the idea that human souls have at least enough autonomy to assent to or decline the grace offered by God in Jesus Christ. How can they have that much freedom in the spiritual sphere without a corresponding freedom in the material sphere?

            • Radagast says:

              Robert,

              Good memory : )…

              I will ponder that question… you all here tend to think deeper than I….

              Regards…

  6. Damaris there are kernels of truth in your comments but also many dangerous assumptions.

    “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.”

    I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
    -John 15:15

    Slaves are coerced by threats. Friends do not coerce each other.

  7. SottoVoce says:

    “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.”

    I didn’t expect the logic of the Spanish Inquisition.

    • Damaris Zehner says:

      Noooobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

      • SottoVoce says:

        I’m not actually joking, Damaris. The logic that it is acceptable to torture and murder people to force them and others to believe the right things is just as morally abhorrent and evil when employed by an all-powerful deity as it is when employed by people. Dressing it up in pretty words does not fix the dilemma.

      • Get… THE COMFY CHAIR!!!

    • Dana Ames says:

      There is no rational/logical answer to the Grand Inquisitor, or to Ivan Karamazov. There is only the expression of divine love – the kiss of Jesus – which encompasses All Things. If that’s not enough, then there truly is no hope at all for an understanding of what it means to be human, as regards both ourselves and others; we might as well kill all the old people who make it inconvenient (let’s not forget expensive) for us to care for them.

      Dana

      (By the way, there are plenty of people who hold a whole life ethic for other than religious reasons; do a search.)

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > here are plenty of people who hold a whole life ethic for other than religious reasons

        Including the uncomplicated reason that it is a lot more fun.

      • SottoVoce says:

        I’m not interested in a tangent about euthanasia specifically when I am responding to Damaris’s overall attempt to resolve the problem of evil by smashing her own moral compass, which is an extremely dangerous and unsatisfactory solution. I will say only that I am, in fact, aware of that, the reasons one holds a view have no bearing on said view’s validity, and I am free to find their argument unconvincing and to hold to my own godless ideas on the matter. 🙂

        • Damaris Zehner says:

          I wish I could type with both hands.

          I don’t know how I have smashed my moral compass or how saying that God’s caring about different things than we do leads to the Spanish Inquisition. Am I wrong in saying that God values our salvation and spiritual growth more than our culturally-determined sense of comfort? I have never said — and will never say — that people should claim that they are God and decide for others what salvation and spiritual growth should look like. However, nor will I limit God to our current notions of niceness. Our job is mercy, justice, and humility; God’s is judgment and redemption. The Inquisition got that wrong.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            +1

            You touched the sacred topic of autonomy; radical readings of whatever you say is to be expected. 🙁

          • Robert F says:

            You seem to be making God’s power to effect God’s desired end more central than God’s love and compassion, which makes God seem like a big Inquisitor in the sky for whom any means is justifiable as long as he reaches a morally good goal. That is the God of Calvin as well, you know.

            I’m going to ask you the same question I asked Dana with regard to Eastern Orthodoxy: Doesn’t Roman Catholicism teach that the individual soul may freely accept or reject the grace of God offered in Jesus Christ? Does the individual actually not have such freedom?

            • Damaris Zehner says:

              Yes, everyone has that freedom. The cultural myth of autonomy I’m talking about is something completely different.

              • Robert F says:

                But if there is in fact real individual human autonomy in that choice, then the idea that human beings have some level of autonomy is not erroneous, but a God given reality, and may be accommodated or not by social and political arrangements. No? That’s all I for one am saying.

    • Well, when God *isn’t* willing to do those things, that means He’s left us to our own autonomy.

      See Romans 1 and The Great Divorce to see what the implications of that are. To borrow a phrase from Master Robert Dylan, the phrase “Thy will be done” will be said of everyone’s life. Either we say it to God, or He says it to us.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        +1.

        I feel this post has touched the very live and sacred third rail: the concept of autonomy. Approach with caution.

  8. Robert F says:

    I just don’t see how taking this post seriously doesn’t end up in a type of Culture War mentality (or its passive-aggressive Benedict Option withdrawal/ghetto variant), only one for religious intellectuals instead of religious hoi polloi. I mean, if the attitude of American Christianity regarding autonomy is so wrong because the values of American culture are, how can you not take a position of opposition to both?

  9. Dana Ames says:

    Damaris, I think some people are missing the point. Or, the disturbance your post has caused might be the point…

    Hang tight, sister.

    Dana

    • Damaris Zehner says:

      🙂

    • Robert F says:

      Since you see the point, I wonder if you could illuminate it for me, Dana? What is so terrible in believing that we may have more or less freedom from the actions and desires of others, and more or less freedom for our own? Doesn’t Eastern Orthodoxy affirm that the individual is free to respond or not to the grace that God offers in Jesus Christ? Or does Eastern Orthodoxy no more believe in such freedom than Calvinism?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > the disturbance your post has caused might be the point

      +1,000

      • Robert F says:

        There are only three of us expressing disagreement in the comments, and I’ve been the most voluble of the three by far. Not sure that really counts as much of a disturbance, since everyone else is in line with the position taken in the post.

        • Heather Angus says:

          The post is a very good one, Damaris, but I must admit my resistance to its message grew by the paragraph. However, that’s me (and three others here, I guess).

          I wonder if it’s possible for us to agree to disagree? I’m not sure it is, really; your message seems pretty, uh, firm and clear. You say of the suffering old lady: “She exists for God’s purposes, not her own.” That statement, of course, is the unassailable answer to any and all suffering, ever. The children dying right now of cancer, the African babies starving, the Syrian refugees sleeping in the stinking mud, the 79 or so people burned alive in the Grenfell fire — they exist for God’s purpose, and if He wills their suffering and death to accomplish something great, well, His will be done.

          As Robert, IMO correctly, said, “You seem to be making God’s power to effect God’s desired end more central than God’s love and compassion, which makes God seem like a big Inquisitor in the sky for whom any means is justifiable as long as he reaches a morally good goal.”

          As I said, I don’t think we can agree to disagree, but I certainly do disagree. I disagree so strongly that I will only put it in one sentence, lest I get all rude and ugly (which certainly neither you nor your fine post deserve, Damaris). Here is my one sentence: Any God who uses the torture of even a single child, or old woman, to achieve His ends, whatever they may be, is not a God but a demon, and I will be damned, gladly, rather than worship Him.

          My own very non-intellectual understanding of God, in Jesus, is that God wants us to do everything we can to alleviate suffering. (Indeed, you hint at this yourself by saying ” I said there, and affirm here, that this woman’s tragedy is better seen as an opportunity for interdependent charity…” ) Certainly Jesus didn’t wander around the Near East thrusting suffering upon those he came in contact with; he relieved their suffering.

          If we truly loved our neighbors as ourselves, the old woman would get all the palliative care she wanted (up to and including unconsciousness) as well as the love and friendship of other Christians. So would the cancer-stricken kids. The starving African children would be well fed — IF we actually loved our neighbors as ourselves. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel put it: For the price of one battleship we could feed and cure all the children in Africa. The Syrian families would be sleeping each in their own clean, spacious rooms or tents or whatever, provided by us Christians who actually loved our neighbors as ourselves. The Grenfell fire, of course, would never have happened, since the people who built and clad the tower would have used the very safest materials, knowing that human lives depended on it. I see our job in this world as carrying out God’s will, to relieve suffering, not to “use” it for some grand divine purpose far beyond our ken.

          OK, off my soapbox and ending with something a little more mundane and practical. I see that, AFAIK, the people supporting your views, Damaris, are members of the Roman Catholic church or of one of the Orthodox churches. My guess is that such views of God as totally sovereign, beyond questioning, far beyond our understanding, seated on high, majestic and lofty, etc., are linked closely to your church’s views. (Duh.) Such views may indeed be the right ones, but it’s also a fact that they are tied to a basically medieval society, where a monarch and an aristocratic hierarchy was indeed totally sovereign, beyond questioning, etc.

          Protestants are tied to a basically modern, capitalist, and egalitarian society (hence our dreadful “autonomy” ideas), and it is natural for someone like me, Protestant to the bone, to recoil from the idea that “the collective is all” and that free will is essentially a hellish illusion.

          So I agree to disagree with you, whether you agree back or not. I think we’re both just doing what comes naturally to us. And I have no doubt whatever that, if we were both brought into the presence of that suffering old lady, there wouldn’t be the slightest disagreement between us on what we’d do about it.

          • Damaris Zehner says:

            Lovely comment, Heather, and I expect we agree in almost every particular. Let me ask about this: “Any God who uses the torture of even a single child, or old woman, to achieve His ends, whatever they may be, is not a God but a demon, and I will be damned, gladly, rather than worship Him.” I expect what are saying is that you don’t believe that God inflicts evil, and I share that belief. However, since torture and war and illness and suffering and violence do exist, should not the loving creator of the universe use them to achieve his ends? His ends are plans to prosper us and save us. I’d rather believe that my suffering has a purpose, that God is using it for the good of myself and others, than that it’s random.

            I don’t mean to play on your words, but I think it needs to be said.

            I will also say that, if my beliefs are shared by the apostolic churches (EO and RC), I notice that many of those who understand them as I do have spent their lives working to alleviate suffering. My views aren’t contrary to the practice of Christian charity, although I don’t measure up myself. As you say, “And I have no doubt whatever that, if we were both brought into the presence of that suffering old lady, there wouldn’t be the slightest disagreement between us on what we’d do about it.” Bless you.