Doubts about Autonomy

Posted: December 26, 2012 by J in Mission, Theology

I like evangelical theology. I grew up on it. I believe it. But we all have doubts from time to time. I personally have a great flair for doubting. One area where I find myself in doubt is in regards to what we say about the human condition and about sin.

Here in Sydney I’ve always been taught to think that the great sin was self-rule: our dream of being in charge of our own lives, independent, captain of our own ships. Sometimes this sin is called autonomy. In my mother’s milk I learned to think that this was the heart of my sinfulness. I am self-centred when I should be God-centred. I am my own idol, my own god. I am a rebel.

The popular Sydney course Introducing God describes the human situation under the heading “Our declaration of autonomy”:

Consciously and unconsciously, each of us writes our own rules, goes our own way and does our own thing without reference to God. This attitude is summarised in a quote that I read recently. “The only power I crave in life is to be able to live my life exactly the way I want to”. Our assertion of autonomy amounts to treason against God…

Another popular Sydney-based course, Two Ways to Live, describes us like this:

from the very beginning, men and women everywhere have rejected God by doing things their own way. We all do this. We don’t like someone telling us what to do or how to live—least of all God—and so we rebel against him in lots of different ways. We ignore him and just get on with our own lives…we shake our puny fists in his face and tell him to get lost.…we are all rebels, because we don’t live God’s way. We prefer to …run things our own way, without God. This rebellious, self-sufficient attitude is what the Bible calls ‘sin’.

The whole world is full of people bent on doing what suits them…We all act like little gods, with our own crowns, competing with one another…

In these accounts, humans appear as powerful, free agents pursuing their own wicked agendas.

Like I said, I’ve always been taught this. I’ve preached it, many times. Perhaps you’ve preached it.

But I have to confess, I’ve started to have doubts. I want to take another look at the whole thing. Join me?

Pedigree: I think this whole emphasis on autonomy is particularly found in the Sydney evangelical scene: I don’t find it as much on US websites like the Gospel Coalition. The Alpha Course doesn’t seem to take this line either.

I don’t know enough historical theology to be sure where this ‘autonomy’ theme has come from. The Greek fathers seem to regard sin as a product of our weakness and ignorance, not an assertion of our power. Augustine found ‘self-love’ (as opposed to the love of God) to be the essence of sin – that’s a bit similar  to self-rule but not identical. Calvin sees ‘lack of faith’ as the root of human fallenness (Institutes, Battles p.245-6). Denying free will, Calvin emphasises sin as being-deceived, as blindness, enslavement, weakness, in which we are led astray. Self-rule is not Calvin’s focus: in his view humans are much more servile and pitiful than terms like ‘autonomy’ suggest.

Hegel is perhaps the closest match I’ve found: he saw humans becoming a self-conscious species, in which ego developed. Man makes this new-found self the centre of his desires, and so becomes selfish and evil. The heart of sin is then self-centredness. That sounds a lot like what I’ve been taught.

Great. Hegel.

Apart from it apparently having this dodgy pedigree, I’ve got a few more specific doubts about this ‘autonomy’ view.

Tomorrow: my doubts

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