October 16, 2017

The Myth Of Autonomy

There’s been some discussion here at iMonk recently about the value 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.

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, and we’ll see why.  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, 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.

Enough balderdash.  Let’s 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 point of all this?  Am I just criticizing autonomists out of crankiness?  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.

The original discussion of autonomy on iMonk 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. That was a very insightful piece, and a perfect start to my morning in the autonomous world of American business.

    Two comments come immediately to mind as a validation and expansion of the ideas above.

    First, I was listening to James McDonald’s recent series on Hell, and the most memorable point of his sermon for me was that, in Hell, we will all be alone. Isolated. (Now I will add, perfectly autonomous). That, to me, was more terrifying than the fire.

    Second, our pastor spoke yesterday on Matthew 6:25-34. While the whole sermon wasn’t about dependence, he similarly tried to dispell the myth of autonomy by pointing out God’s daily provision. If we can’t recognize that even the smallest gift of life-sustaining bread ultimately comes from God, we are fooling ourselves.

    Thanks for the great essay.

    • I’ve had the same vision of hell. Alone, and exposed nonstop to visions of all the people we harmed.

      • That is probably the clearest description of my “Christian” experience on this Earth, almost from day one.

        • Then I would agree with your scare quotes.

          • It is not a scare quote, rather a sad quote on the reality I have seen, granted I most likely deserved every event, but it still is sad. There was a time I would lean on the Grace of God on such events knowing how He can forgive, but after so many years in the industry, I have learned to repent of such twaddle.

          • Brian — I’m glad you’re posting on iMonk. I hope you stick around and that you find some encouragement, if not here then somewhere.

            Damaris

  2. I consider myself a recovering autonomist. It is ingrained in me, and I have been trying to break it for 10+ years.

    I have been taught that all I need is to “study and listen to God’s word” and that if I am suffering emotionally, it is because I am not spending enough time “in the word”. What I really crave is a network of relationships, and I have discovered it is often better to have those relationships outside the evangelical church, than within.

    • Allen, I am going through the same thing. I’ve always thought church was the place to make relationships and grow and share and be with others. Instead, there’s always distance behind the plastic smiles. My close relationships are with those outside of the church. But I wonder, isn’t that what Jesus did? He hung out with those outside of the synagogue mostly. Granted, he had his close disciples, but they were only part of his network.

      Thank you Ms. Zehner for the excellent, thought-provoking article.

    • Two spiritual goals as a true follower of the Lord Jesus was to be autonomous and anonymous, basically dont need, ever, no mater what. The second thing dont be recognized for anything other then being a vile piece of God hating human filth. I never found much Good News in that, I guess I missed that part.

  3. So is there anything for which we should not depend on others? If we’re capable of providing some thing or performing some act for ourselves, is it better to seek out someone else for that service? I don’t know of anyone who proposes that it’s possible to live without any direct or indirect interaction with others. I do think that it’s bad to leech off others if I’m perfectly capable of doing something myself. And I mean it’s bad for both giver and givee – it’s quite possible for people to become addicted to the pleasure that comes from giving and allow it to override their common sense, just as it’s possible for the recipient to become lazy and contribute nothing themselves. If someone has a genuine need, or someone wishes to offer a gift or service out of friendship, by all means go ahead. I don’t see, however, that total dependence on others is ideal any more than total independence would be.

    Maybe my viewpoint on this is skewed, coming out of a church background where we were routinely exhorted to spend every possible waking moment with the people in our church (not that church down the road, of course).

    • Paul Davis says:

      I agree,

      Where do we draw the line?, I’ve been told I should rely on others more, but to be honest many times I can’t count on them to be reliable. I don’t hold it against them, but it enforces the ideal that if I can do it myself then it’s just easier in the long run.

      Also I want to point out that for myself I make a point to be independent until I know the situation better, that’s because I’ve found that there are people who give but only with strings attached. I make a point to give without strings, but have found others (many others) who do not hold the same value.

      -Paul-

      • Mike (the other chaplain) says:

        Paul, you just demonstrated how interdependent we all really are! We, the slacker-class, are completely dependent on you to carry our load! :o)

      • I completely understand your attitude, I was there. In the end, I did just about everything, because all available help was slow, inconsistent, and didn’t do as pristine a job as I did. And I really didn’t hold it against them either. But as my disability progressed I gained another point of view.

        While I was bustling about and doing everything, while I COULD do that, everything went to my schedule, according to my desires, etc. When it didn’t, that was something I had to work on in my routine or technique. And while much of my service was good work, hard done, it really wasn’t about the people who benefitted at all – it was about me, a big egocentric bubble. And I really didn’t feel like I was missing anything. Given no requirement to stop, I would still be doing that.

        But my disability got worse and worse, and the number of ways in which I could step in and take care of it solo diminished. And so many of those same slow, inconsistent, and sloppy people who I did it all for before are now absolutely essential to my daily life. That means that the daily needs of my life are slotted into and organized around their needs, their schedules, and sometimes I just need to wait. The things I need to wait for vary from wheelchair repairs to a glass of water, the macro to the micro, and I have had to wrestle with resentment in what feels like an endless cage match.

        But I discovered something beautiful here, too! Not only am I more involved in the life of people I lived with all along, but we have a much deeper relationship. I can truly grieve together and be joyous together with their failures and victories. I have real time to listen to their troubles, the same troubles that made them less-than-efficient help when I was looking at it that way, and sometimes I am able to help them.

        So we walk together now, them helping me in my physical weakness, and me buttressing them for their mental and emotional turmoils. It isn’t utopia, and it certainly doesn’t get stuff done on my schedule! In fact, sometimes it leaves me in intense physical need, but I have learned and loved more in this place, then in the more functional place of before.

        • Tokah, thank you for telling us what you’ve learned. You should have written this article, I think.

    • I live in an area where we can expect hurricanes on occasion. Living preparedness is a responsible thing IMO. But it is not at all the same as being self-reliant.

      Nothing that I’ve experienced brings a neighborhood together like enduring the aftermath of a hurricane. Some neighbors are good with chainsaws and they help others remove limbs. We all seem to offer and to ask for help more. We are all in it together.

      In the regular course of our lives we should do what we can for ourselves. When help is offered, we accept it. When we can offer help, we offer. And we do not judge others who need help.

  4. Josh in FW says:

    This topic reminds me of Football.

    I don’t see it as an either/or situation. I think that the problem is that we perceive ourselves as more autonomous than we actually are and we don’t recognize how much others rely on us.
    Football is an incredible team sport. Unlike basketball or baseball one superstar can’t carry the team. The members of a football team are all dependent on their teammates performing their task, but at the same time each individual is responsible for performing his individual task to the best of his ability for the the team to succeed. As the saying goes, a football team is only as good as its weakest link. The best quarterback in the world makes little difference if his teammates (particularly the line) are not taking care of business. So, the locker room speech about football being like life has a lot of truth to it. Each individual must take care of his role, but each is also dependent on his teammates taking care of their individual roles. Our tasks in life are bigger than ourselves. No matter the task, there is a team depending on us.

    I apologize to the non-sports fan for mixing philosophy with sport, but in Texas it is hard to separate football from the rest of life.

  5. The Amish?! That’s funny. The Amish as a group have a high degree of autonomy, but internally are about as far from the idea of individual autonomy as you can get.

    Although they maintain private property, internally, there is a high degree of interdependence, and there is a genuine emphasis on God’s will over personal will.

  6. I’d agree that complete autonomy is a myth, and that the American construct of the “self-made made” is very unhelpful. I guess, though, I don’t think everything that could be defined as self-reliance is evil. If God gives us abilities and talent that enable us to not be an unnecessary burden to others, it certainly isn’t wrong to use those. Even the Apostle Paul continued to work to support himself so he wouldn’t be a burden to the churches he fathered. The key is, I think, is recognizing that even if a paycheck is the result of the work of our hands, that ultimately that our source is God.

    I’ve met plenty of people who need to get over themselves and learn to trust others, but I’ve also met plenty of people who need to grow up and start taking some responsibility.

    • Phil says

      I’ve met plenty of people who need to get over themselves and learn to trust others, but I’ve also met plenty of people who need to grow up and start taking some responsibility.

      Yes. But these are not opposite errors. The person who relies on others for what he might do for himself is making a mistake of conduct. The person who considers himself self-made is making an error of perception.

      The mistaken conduct is more apparent to us than the mistaken perception. We don’t like a lazy person at all, while the person who considers himself self-reliant and is just a little proud of his accomplishments is easier to respect.

      But God looks at the heart, and His judgments are different from ours. Damaris has shown that, at bottom, autonomy is a fallacy. And if it isn’t even true, it can’t be virtuous, either.

  7. All this talk of being interdependent is fine, just don’t ask me to help pay for other people’s health care, or help them when they’ve been laid off. Interdependence stops at my wallet. I’m tired of socialism in areas like clean water, police and fire departments, and public schools.

    For example, people who choose to live in areas with crime ought to take responsibility for that decision and pay for their own security, not lobby for my wealth to be redistributed to them for police protection because of their poor decisions.

    • Poe’s Law in effect here for sure.

    • Living on the moon, are you, Johns?

      Because I can’t off the top of my head think of any area in this world that doesn’t have crime.

      There have been a spate of burglaries in my neighbourhood recently. Should I therefore be chastised for making a bad decision (or rather, for my family making the decision) to move here thirty years ago?

    • Josh in FW says:

      nice sarcasm

  8. I have often said that in giving my life to Christ I exchanged self-reliance for Grace-reliance.

    Obviously we should live within our means, learn to for ourselves and be prepared for difficult times. The trouble comes when we buy into the worldly lie that we need nothing other than self. We need no one and no thing but the strength o our own will.

    As a child I was taught God helps those who help themselves. It is an astonishingly short step from that to Grow thicker skin. Be independent. Rely on no one. Pull yourself up by your own boot straps. From there we are only a very short distance to condemning and judging those who dare to ask for help or admit weakness

    I think it is a very good thing to discover one’s potential to accomplish new things. But to go from that point to self is all I need, is to take a very wrong turn.

  9. Brother Bartimaeus says:

    Sister Damaris,

    I agree with you that true autonomy is a myth, especially for Christians.  What is Christianity without community?  When God makes a covenant with Abraham, it’s a promise to create a community.  Throughout Jesus’ ministry he brings people together into community.  After the crucifixion the apostles huddled together in community, and then after the ascension amassed their possessions together to form a shared community.  Christianity is community.

    However, I guess I must speak out against your association of autonomy and the Amish, as they are not likely to be doing so on their own. 🙂

    First, I’m hoping that your saying “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” and that the Amish consider themsleves autonomists isn’t leading where it logically seems to suggest, that the Amish can’t know God and are on the road to Hell.

    Second, I would disagree with your portrayal of the Amish as autonomists.  As EricT points out above, yes they are separate from the larger culture, but I don’t think they wouldn’t consider themselves as autonomist as you make them out to be.  They interact with the outside world, but the idea is to not be influenced by the outside world.  The idea is to remain faithful to God and community and not swayed by “worldly” things that take people away from God.  Their “autonomy” keeps them closer to God, as opposed to the “autonomy” you are citing in most of this post, that takes people away from God.

    In fact, I think that the Amish are probably the anti-autonomists, as they value the community far more than we do.  The dominance of the family over the individual is very important in the Amish community, as well as the dominance of God’s will over all.  Indeed, strict adherance to a literal reading of the Bible is the guiding authority over the community, rather than the personal interpretation favored in most Protestant Christianity today.

    Peace

    • Good distinction, Brother Bartimaeus. Yes, I was talking here more about people’s perceptions of the Amish. I understand that within their community submission to the authority of their religious leadership is of prime importance. However, many people nostalgic for the independent life imagine the Amish represent that.

      I certainly do believe that the Amish as a group are not on the road to Hell. I confidently expect that in Heaven, provided I reach there myself, there will be many Amish to celebrate with.

  10. Are you familiar with Objectivism and Ayn Rand?

    It seems that people you call autonomists follow a simplified version of this philosophy.

    • I just received the new Ayn Rand study bible, containing the compete text of Atlas Shrugged. It’s very popular. Just another example of how God works through the strangest people: an atheist, in this case.

      The 10th commandment, of course, forbids government regulation and taxation, but it took Rand to really expand upon the concept.

      🙂

      • I really hope you’re not serious, Fish!

        Yes, Ayn Rand followers would be good examples of the autonomists I’m talking about.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        You know, Fish, as the American economy melted down, all these John Galt Celebrity Impersonators started crawling out of the Internet woodwork quoting Atlas Shrugged literally chapter-and-verse. (Usually before Endorsring Ron Paul for President.)

        I distinctly remember one who claimed either the bank or GM bailout had been prophesied/predicted by Ayn Rand, and started literally quoting “Atlas Shrugged, Chapter X, Scene Y,” claiming the bailout was prophesied directly in that scene.

        This was so much more surreal than even the usual on whichever blog or LJ it was on, I was half-expecting an Altar Call & hymn —
        “Every knee shall bow,
        Every tongue confess,
        AYN RAND IS *LORD*…”
        (Oh, and Death to All Statist-Collectivist Heretics.)

        • Of course the most influential objectivist of recent times, Alan Greenspan, seems to have decided that totally unregulated markets may have a few issues that can be bad for everyone.

          Too bad we had to have the melt down before he figured this out.

  11. Auto-nomous actually means “self-ruled”. The first two example of self-rule in Scripture were Satan and Adam and Eve in the garden. It is the most basic aspect of the sin-nature. People designed to be God-ruled and consequently Scripture-ruled seeking to avoid such and seek self-rule.

    So while it has bearing on independence, that is not the true definition of the word “autonomous”. Or am I way off base here.

    • No, you are right. At the root of every other sine lies pride. We don’t want any god ruling over us – least of all one with the sovereign freedom of the God portrayed in the Bible.

      • There is a big difference between “God Ruled” and “Church Ruled” where by Church Ruled I mean constrained by the specific and narrow interpretation of scripture adhered to by ones church leaders. There must be room for Jesus to act in our hearts, and the Spirit to lead us, often in directions surprising and dismaying to Local Church Leadership.

        Sometimes what may look like “Autonomous” behavior is following a calling.

        All the great historic leaders of the Church started their carriers looking very “Autonomous”.

  12. cermak_rd says:

    I agree that autonomy is opposed to the Christian tradition and way of life. I would argue it is not, however, opposed entirely to the Almighty. Certainly Jews have responsibilities under halakha to others. We are to give and to serve our common humanity. We are not, however, able to impose religious belief onto others. So while autonomy is something we do claim for ourselves, it is, more importantly, something we grant others.

    So if that old lady (I believe the theoretical ailment was ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) chooses to continue living, I certainly am obliged to assist her, to visit her, to help her financially via taxes and charity. However, if she chooses to kill herself, and if she is in sound mind and under her own will (no heirs breathing down her neck) then I would not try to stop her because my understanding of the will of the Divine and her understanding may not agree and mine is neither inferior nor superior to hers.

  13. While I understand the point of the article, there is a dark side to interdependence. People are naturally lazy. If you make a person comfortable by constantly providing for them, they will come to depend on that comfort and provision and cease to strive for the benefits of others.

    As a disabled man who is very much dependent on others, I have been in that mindset of laziness and comfort and only when I broke away and sought as much autonomy as I could muster, that spirit of individualism and independence, did I find that I had plenty left to give to others in the form of prayer and ministry. A mindset of lazy dependence actually hindered my walk with God and with others.

    So I encourage people to be as independent as they can, though not at the expense of recognizing the needed help from others, so that they will have more to give when needed.

    To care for the poor in their misery is good. To join the poor in their misery is foolish.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I think this echoes the “Are We Coveting Poverty?” thread a week or two ago.

      And Interdependence without Individuality IS the basic philosophical root of Communism. “The People” become All, the individual person Nothing. We’ve seen where that kind of Interdependence without Autonomy can lead, just as we’re seeing now where Autonomy without Interdependence leads.

  14. I am a post-evangelical still living in an evangelical world. The thing I’ve noticed the more is the great aspiration by my evangelical brothers and sisters to be completely culturally autonomous, yet they are deeply culturally controlled.

    They struggled very much to “not be influence by the world” or what they refer to as the humanistic, secular society. However, their thinking, attitudes and tastes are precisely dictated by the extra-Biblical (not implying that it is bad, but just human culture and not Biblical mandates) American Evangelical subculture. So they are not autonomous at all. You hear the same Evangelical clichés in Biloxi as in Billings as in Barrow.

    The second issue, which others here have commented on, is the sense of Christian community. What appears to be Christ example is dependence on Him and a inter-dependence on each other. Our pastor often preaches that people leave the church because they desire autonomy where as the Bible is clear that we are to accountable to each other.

    I believe he is right on half of that . . . the Biblical example. However, if I ever come to the place of leaving the church (not capital C) it would because my un-met thirst for community, to know and to be known, has driven me to do so, not for autonomy. In our church setting, the community and accountability is a pretense and shallow. No one knows what is happening in the private worlds of the person they share a pew with . . . nor do they want to.

    I think Dickens captured this personal alienation and “autonomy” well in the beginning of a Tale of Two Cities:

    This is from the chapter Night Shadows.

    A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbor is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      They struggled very much to “not be influence by the world” or what they refer to as the humanistic, secular society. However, their thinking, attitudes and tastes are precisely dictated by the extra-Biblical (not implying that it is bad, but just human culture and not Biblical mandates) American Evangelical subculture. So they are not autonomous at all. You hear the same Evangelical clichés in Biloxi as in Billings as in Barrow.

      Internal Conformity in Non-conformity is nothing new. You saw it all the time in Sixties Counterculture, which eventually ended up as internally conformist as the square world they rebelled against. Conformity in Non-Conformity.

      “What if everybody ran away from their problems? What then?”
      “At least we’d all be running in the same direction.”
      — Charles “Sparky” Schulz, Peanuts

      In my experience, I’ve found the small independent Christian Fellowships (TM)/”splinter churches” to demand the most conformity from their members.

  15. One time not long ago, I was kind of mad at God because He didn’t give me the rosy life to which I felt entitled. So for a moment in time I sat on the couch and thought about giving up this whole faith thing. I have never felt so lonely in my life. So, autonomy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  16. Very well written piece. It has a very good identification of the problems and genesis of autonomy. That said, I can comment a bit.

    1. Non-autonomy should never be used as an excuse for laziness or apathy. “I’m this way because of where I live, how I was raised, and what the economy is like” for instance. The Bible still condemns sloth as a sin, even if it does not teach the myth of autonomy.

    2. The more I learn about businesses ethics and the world of marketing, the more I understand that such a world is anything BUT autonomous. People tend to endorse teams, seeking the other persons good will, and building relationships in order to get projects completed, and profit made for everyone.

    3. Though I recognize that the hunter did not make his smelt his spear, the musician did not make his own instrument, and the logger did not make his own ax, I still believe in the a the fundamental Lockean premise: When you mix your labor with nature, what is produced now belongs to YOU (after it belongs to God). I believe that because it is still an important premise for justice: whether that be for musician who deserves to get paid royalties or the poor migrant worker who deserves wages for his labor.

  17. I think if you substitute Locke for Rousseau you have a point.

  18. We are simultaneously individuals and members. When we become members only and cease to be individuals, the group suffers from myopia and a lack of creativity and self-criticism. One must be able to stand apart from the group to lend objectivity. Heteronomy suppresses individuality and ones humanity. Cults are a good example.

  19. Denise Spencer says:

    Wonderful piece, Damaris.

    I have always been a very independent person, and have come to realize that with me, it springs from my introversion. It makes me very uncomfortable to have to depend on others. But now that I’m alone, I know I’m going to have to learn to let others help me in many ways. I’ve already begun taking some baby steps — and it definitely puts me outside my comfort zone. I have to remind myself that God made us to need and help one another, and most of all to need Him.

    It’s not easy, but it’s His way.

    • I’m sorry that you’re learning this the way you are, Denise. I hope it gets easier for you as time goes by.