Autonomy – my doubts

Posted: December 27, 2012 by J in Mission, Theology


Around here we usually describe the human condition in terms of rebellion or sinful autonomy (see previous post). I have my doubts about this emphasis.

First, it doesn’t ring true. It doesn’t seem to describe the experience of ordinary people. Most people I know don’t seem to be running their own life their own way. Quite the opposite. I don’t think they’re shaking their fist at God either. Most of them don’t have a clear enough sense of God to be abe to shake their fist at him. And they don’t have enough control over their life to even start imagining they’re in charge of what happens.

Also, a lot of people do seem to like being told what to do. People like rules and laws. After teenage, the instinct to rebel generally settles down. Many people struggle to find the courage to assert themselves.

Also, plenty of people I know seem to have a positive feeling towards God and wish they were more sure about him, had more of him in their lives. I reckon most people in the world don’t long to be self-sufficient: they long to be connected, to have supportive relationships.

Also, most people I know don’t spend their time doing what suits them. They feel like life is a constant round of answering demands, doing what has to be done, what’s expected of them. It’s ridiculous to talk about young mums as ‘bent on doing what suits themself’. They just give and give and give for years, with hardly a minute for themselves.

I think above all this ‘autonomy’ view of human sinfulness doesn’t do justice to the human experience of weakness, futility and enslavement. Most people don’t appear to have a big agenda to take over the world: usually they’re just trying to cope with their day. So many people live each day feeling pushed around by forces much bigger than them, forces they can’t control. I think for many people, the idea that they are too ‘autonomous’ would be hard to connect with.

I’ll make a list of some of the people who would find it difficult to relate to our Sydney view of human ‘self-rule’.

  • people in gaols
  • people under mortgage or rental stress
  • homeless people
  • single mothers
  • unemployed people
  • kids – they spend their lives being told what to do by authorities
  • the huge number of Aussies who feel trapped in depression or other mental illness
  • people in abusive family situations
  • people stuck in oppressive religions
  • people stuck in miserable jobs with no prospect of change
  • intellectually disabled people
  • people plagued by fears, anxieties and stress

…and the list could go on and on.

These people experience every day being weak and powerless in the face of exterior forces which overwhelm and control them. Too much autonomy? Hardly.

Isn’t it a problem if our gospel message, instead of helping people make sense of their lives, actually seems far-fetched and foreign? Especially if the people it doesn’t ring true for are the needy and suffering ones – that should surely ring alarm bells for us. They’re the ones the gospel is supposed to be for, right? ‘good news to the poor’ and all that.

The description of the human condition in our popular courses (quoted in last post) might possibly be true for a small number of aggressive, white, professional males and a few others, who tend towards aspergers, with little talent for relationships and lots of disposable income. For the powerful elite, for the top 5% of the wealth-scale, this might possibly be a half-decent description of what their sinfulness looks like. I’m sure there are people who are a bit like this.

But for the rest of the world? Nah.

Who is it who’s writing these courses, again? And who are they writing them for?

Tomorrow: I have other doubts about autonomy too, some of them from the Bible.

  1. Ben Hudson says:

    I reckon idolatry is taking over from rebellion as our default way of talking about sin. I hear it more these days. The emphasis would be on self– or misdirected– worship rather than self rule.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ben. Old codgers like me are probably less aware of these recent developments. That would be an interesting – and I think a positive – change. A more biblical category. Is this coming to us via our American friends? I wonder though if we’re likely around here to emphasise the wilful, rebellious, culpable aspect of idolatry? Rather than other aspects.

    • Jonathan says:

      btw Ben, have any courses appeared yet that reflect this ‘idolatry’ emphasis re. sin?

  2. Don’t forget that the evangelism tool you refer to was composed in the Me First 1980s, so it will have aged a bit.

    I still think that the concept of Individual Choice is one that has currency for a great deal of our society, even partially for some in those you state lack autonomy in their lives. Personally, I think Ben is right that Individual Choice is often subjected to a greater ideal, hence Idolatry. I don’t know whether this solves the powerlessness problems though. The gospel will always have to be explained differently to Bourgeois Bob compared to Proletariat Pete.

    • Jonathan says:

      Good comment Luke!
      Actually I’m pretty keen on individual choice myself. Wish there was more of it…

      Good point about 2Ways2live being from the 80s. Things change. Though I think Introducing God is more like …2000?

  3. Charlie Ellis says:

    Very, very interesting points Jono. How would you extend your current thinking to look at the situation of Adam and Eve in Eden? Do you have doubts about their autonomy? Isn’t this largely where we model a lot of our understanding of sinfulness?

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