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How to Think about the Gospel of Autonomy

By Nathan Greeley 

Why does Christianity seem to have such a poor ability to resonate with people in modern Western countries? This has been an operative dynamic in Europe for a long time, but it is increasingly apparent that the United States too is finding it difficult to harmonize the basic tenets of the Christian worldview with the ideas and values that shape the culture at large. I find myself wondering whether there is a primary explanation of the situation, despite the many different and complex factors contributing to this situation, some unifying, fundamental catalyst at work here.

For example, nearly everyone in Western societies today who has thought much about Christianity knows that the three most difficult issues facing Christianity in the minds of most modern people are (1) the problem of evil, (2) the question of the origin of species, and (3) biblical criticism. Yet not one of these problems is even close to being insuperable. The problem of evil is of course ancient and has been a topic of discussion since the very beginnings of monotheistic religion. In spite of the fact that life for most people in premodern times was much more difficult than it is for us today, very few people living in areas under the sway of the different monotheistic faiths came to the conclusion that the problem of evil warranted disbelief in God. In recent times, work on the problem of evil by philosophers and theologians has only made it more evident that it is no real barrier to faith, which is not to say that it isn’t important, or should be blithely dismissed, but only that it should not prevent anyone from having faith in God.
The question of the origin of species and the matter of biblical criticism are uniquely modern problems for Christianity, due to the fact that the theories and practices which led to their emergence did not exist in the Western world prior to modern times. But the amount of ink spilled in addressing these problems by Christians in the last two centuries is staggering. Today a plethora of varied and sophisticated strategies are available for answering the difficulties raised by Darwinian evolution and higher criticism of the Bible. My preferred strategy among these alternative solutions likely depends on what I understand to be precisely at stake, but many of these strategies mitigate the problems posed for the Christian faith. Simply thousands of Christian intellectuals today have found ways to maintain a rational grip on an orthodox version of the faith while forthrightly facing these issues in their research and writing.
Suffice it to say then that I don’t believe the problem of evil, the question of the origin of species, or higher criticism of the Bible, on adequate reflection, constitutes a legitimate barrier to faith. So the question remains: why is the modern Western world such poor soil for Christian faith to flourish? Why is there such a great contrast between the reception of Christianity in modern times and the way it was received in premodern times? I think the answer has to do more with general mindset typical of modern Western people than it does with any specific problems having to do with particular doctrines of the Christian faith. What is this mindset?

In a word, I would say it is autonomy, or the mindset of autonomy. Autonomy is a word that means self-rule, and I believe that most modern Western people have become unable to think of autonomy as anything but a great and irrevocable good. This perspective that autonomy is a great good and represents the reality of the human situation has a long history. Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton argues that it was the mentality behind original sin. More recently it reared its head in seventeenth century Europe, reaching full flower in the eighteenth century. Historians generally refer to this period as the age of the Enlightenment, because that is how many of the intellectuals of that era understood the times in which they lived. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is considered by many to be the greatest mind of the era, described this new perspective as the achievement of a higher level of maturity than any human culture had previously attained. Some, like Jeff Murphy, have argued that Kant, contra the interpretation of James Rachels, wished to emphasize that moral autonomy should be analyzed in terms of the responsiveness of a moral agent to the best available moral reasons, and not autonomy more expansively construed. Many modern Europeans, though, went further and adopted the viewpoint that autonomy construed most expansively was a great good, a true fact about human existence, and that the celebration of it represented a true and objective advance for humanity. Not only were other cultures that did not see autonomy as a great good viewed as backwards and childlike, even European culture itself prior to the age of Enlightenment was regarded as similarly stuck in a period of embarrassing immaturity best left behind.

Our culture today tells us in myriad ways that our autonomy is real, something that naturally belongs to us, and something that is to be cherished and defended at all costs. Everyone thus is encouraged to think that their life belongs to them, that it is theirs to do with as they please. So we find vociferous advocates of everything from abortion to polygamy to assisted suicide, all in the name venerating sacrosanct autonomy. Most people in Europe and North America resistlessly succumb to the temptation to think about themselves and their lives in these terms, regarding the few around them who don’t do so as strange and benighted at best, even hostile to their self-understanding at worst. As such, there is often a certain animus that those who relish and revere autonomy feel towards those who do not.

Christians of course are an example. They are unable to regard autonomy as the great unqualified good it is extolled to be, because Christians simply don’t believe in autonomy such an ultimate or absolute sense. While Christians are typically quick to affirm personal responsibility and the right of people to make many of their own choices, they think that some of these choices are definitely misguided or wrong, involving acts contrary to the will of God, the true ruler of all. From the Christian point of view, people might be free to engage in such acts, but they certainly have no ultimate right to do so, because they violate natural law or divine law, and so are sinful.

For people who have accepted that autonomy is an unqualified good and a great truth, this view is difficult to conceive, much less tolerate, for it seems to bespeak sinister motives and a suspect character. This is because from the perspective of the true believer in autonomy, such people can only be regarded as being interested in controlling and limiting the rightful autonomy of others. And this is not just unfortunate or unhelpful in their eyes; rather, it is a perspective that constitutes a real threat to what is true and good. Christians, from this point of view, are either duped or dupers; in either case, they can hardly be regarded as a force for truth and goodness in the world.

So a rather stark conflict ensues. Advocates for autonomy and advocates for Jesus as Lord cannot ever truly make peace. They can, and ideally should, tolerate other views and even love each other as human beings, but any kind of genuine rapprochement between their perspectives is out of the question. A disconnect and incommensurability seems inevitable and intractable. Many people in our society are unaware of how deep this cleft goes, however, and many people who regard themselves as Christians give more credence to what is peddled under the banner of autonomy than they realize. As I said earlier, it promulgation is ubiquitous, perpetually inundating us in countless ways. For those who have come to revere autonomy, it really becomes a gospel, a source of good news, and such people will naturally want to share it with others, even if they are not fully aware of what they are doing. Sometimes, simply by telling people that they “need to be true to themselves,” for example, or by iterating similar statements which have taken on the character of axiomatic platitudes in our culture, is to proselytize the gospel of autonomy. The idea, though often not made explicit, is that each individual is the master of their fate, the captain of their soul, and this is an important reason why some ethicists still insist that any form of authoritative theistic ethic violates autonomy.

To return to the opening question, I think it clear that this conception of autonomy is the fundamental difficulty that Christianity faces in the West. It is this guiding belief in and reigning plausibility structure of autonomy, understood expansively, that often makes Christianity appear vulnerable, vapid, even vitiated. If one doesn’t want to lose her belief in her own autonomy, then it is perfectly natural to make every difficulty for Christianity seem as immense and insuperable in one’s mind as possible. It is even possible then to see Christianity not as a great buttress to morality (something that even most philosophers of the Enlightenment conceded), but as being in fact a threat to it. But by refusing to bend knee to autonomy, by resisting its sacred status, many of the ostensible difficulties with Christian faith and theistic ethics go away.

The assignment of primacy to autonomy may help explain why even sophisticated apologetic efforts so often have such little impact. It’s why people oftentimes don’t even seem to care much whether or not apologetic arguments are good. They already have their religion, and they think they’re satisfied with it.

Autonomy, though, can be seen by its adherents as a way of making available goods not otherwise achievable. Giving it up is not easy. This is why I am inclined to think that the gospel of autonomy will have to undermine itself and exhaust its own appeal by revealing its impotence to provide long-term human well-being. Not everyone can do or be whatever they want, and they certainly can’t do it and leave any kind of mutually beneficial social fabric intact. That seems rather self-evident to me, but I believe it is in fact becoming increasingly clear to everyone in the Western world as the decades pass. This is not to say that everyone is willing to admit it, even to themselves.

As is often the case, sometimes things need to get much worse before they can get better, and the people that are most deeply invested in the gospel of autonomy are most reluctant to acknowledge that it has any shortcomings. In such cases, things will likely have to “hit rock bottom” before they “see the light.” As Christians, however, knowing that our faith is intellectually in good order, and knowing that destructive patterns of thinking, such as the gospel of autonomy, will reveal themselves as such eventually, it is our job to be patient, to trust in God, and to remain faithful to the faith once delivered to the saints. Things can only get so bad before they get better. Idols such as human autonomy don’t answer any prayers, and they don’t truly provide anything of value for anyone. This always becomes clear eventually. The idols crack and crumble. The Living God remains forever. It is our duty to persevere.

In light of the trajectory rhetoric of autonomy has taken, Kant was wrong in thinking that we, in appropriating autonomy the way we did, had achieved maturity. What really transpired was that humanity entered a phase analogous to that of a rebellious teenager. We thought ourselves mature compared to our preteen selves, not realizing that many of the rules we followed as children were in place for good reason, a topic to which this site will devote great attention. But teens grow up, and often the teenager who has left the faith returns, humbled, to the wisdom and meaningfulness earlier left behind. That is my prayer. But it’s also my prediction. Freud famously predicted that religion was an illusion that time would dispel. He was right in thinking that falsehood can’t keep its nature a secret forever. But entirely wrong about what is false.

Photo: “Lonely Tree” by M. Moeller