How to Think about the Gospel of Autonomy
By Nathan Greeley
A question that I find myself revisiting quite frequently is why Christianity seems to have such a poor ability to resonate with people in modern Western countries. This has been the case in Europe for a long time, and it is increasingly apparent that the United States is also finding it increasingly difficult to harmonize the basic tenets of the Christian worldview with the ideas and values that shape the culture at large. What I find myself wondering is whether there is a primary explanation that does most of the work needed to make sense of the situation. One could point to many different and complex factors that are contributing to this situation, but what I find myself asking is whether there is some fundamental issue that is to a large extent the catalyst that is making most of the other issues appear more problematic than they would seem to be otherwise.
For example, nearly everyone in Western societies today who has thought about Christianity at all knows that the three most difficult issues facing Christianity in the minds of most modern people are the problem of evil, the question of the origin of species, and biblical criticism. Yet, in my view, 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 harsh and 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 the problem of evil is no real barrier to faith. That 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 made these problems apparent did not exist in the Western world prior to modern times. However the amount of ink that has been spilled in addressing these problems by Christians in the last two centuries is truly hard to imagine. Today there exists an immense number of varied strategies, many of which are highly sophisticated, for answering the difficulties raised by Darwinian evolution and higher criticism of the Bible. Which of these many strategies one prefers or finds most helpful will depend a lot on what one understands to be precisely at stake with respect to the issues being considered. But it is true I think that many of these strategies are highly successful at mitigating the problems that these theories and practices raise for the Christian faith. It is not overstating things to say that thousands of Christian intellectuals today have found ways to sincerely maintain a grip on an orthodox version of the faith while facing these issues head on in their research and writing.
Suffice it to say then that I don’t believe that the problem of evil, the question of the origin of species, or higher criticism of the Bible can serve as a legitimate barrier to faith. One might need to engage in a lengthy period of reading and reflection to answer these difficulties to one’s satisfaction, but it can be done, and it has been done by a great many Christians. So the question remains: why is the modern Western world such seemingly poor soil for Christian faith to grow in? 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 first arose in seventeenth century Europe, and then reached 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. For the modern European who adopted the viewpoint that autonomy 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 non-Western cultures who did not see that autonomy was a great good viewed as backwards and childlike, but even European culture itself prior to the age of Enlightenment was regarded as similarly stuck in a period of embarrassing immaturity. This was an immaturity that the promulgators of enlightenment thought it was best to take leave of with all haste, and this attitude that the past cannot be left quickly enough behind has, if anything, only become more common as time has gone on. It is almost as if history itself, insofar as it informs our self-understandings, is a barrier to achieving full autonomy, and hence history itself must be overcome.
Our culture today tells us every day in myriad ways that our autonomy is something 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. Hence we find vociferous advocates of everything from abortion, to polygamy, to assisted suicide. To have oneself at one’s own disposal is the highest good. Most people in Europe and North America give in to the temptation to think about themselves and their lives in these terms, and they regard the few people around them that don’t as quite strange and even hostile to their self-understanding. As such, there is often a certain animus that those who prize autonomy feel towards those who believe it necessary to depreciate the value of autonomy and to even deny that it has any ultimate reality at all.
Christians, of course, are among these latter people. They are unable to regard autonomy as the great good that many modern people see it as being, and this is because Christians simply don’t believe in autonomy, at least not in any 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 about how to live, they do think that some of these choices are definitely misguided or wrong. This is not because such choices are ones that they merely happen take a personal dislike to, but because they believe that such choices involve acts that are contrary to the will of God, who is the true ruler of all. From the Christian point of view, people might be free to engage in such acts, maybe they even should be free to engage in some of them as far as human laws are concerned, but they certainly have no ultimate right to do so, because they violate natural law or divine law, and so their doing so is a sin.
For people who have accepted that autonomy is a great good and a great truth, this view is difficult to tolerate, and many such people will ascribe all manner of sinister motives and malevolent personal traits to those people who deny autonomy. 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 people who have either been duped by other religious people or people who are out to do the duping, but neither type can be regarded as a force for truth and goodness in the world.
So in truth there is a rather stark conflict here. Those who are advocates for autonomy and those who are advocates for Jesus as Lord cannot ever truly make peace. They can, and ideally should, tolerate each others views and even love each other as human beings, but any kind of genuine rapprochement between their perspectives is out of the question. 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 even they themselves realize. As i said earlier, it really is promulgated everywhere, and it inundates us in countless ways all the time. For those who have come to regard autonomy as a great truth and a great good, 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. 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 platitudes in our culture, the gospel of autonomy is preached and disseminated. The idea, though often not made explicit, is that each individual is the master of their fate, the captain of their soul, to invoke the words of the poet William Henley.
To return to the question with which I commenced this essay, I think it clear that this conception of autonomy is the fundamental difficulty that Christianity faces in the West. It is this belief in autonomy, and that autonomy is a great good, that often makes the supposed intellectual difficulties with Christianity appear to have a strength and vigor that they would otherwise lack. If one doesn’t want to lose his or her belief in his or her own autonomy, then it is perfectly natural, and perhaps will even be an unconscious tendency, 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, at least in some respects, to morality. But if we cease to value autonomy in the way that most modern Westerners do, if we leave open the question whether it has any ultimate reality, goodness, or justification, then the difficulties often times will begin to appear not nearly so intractable. We will then have refrained from lending any prior credence to a view that cannot help but give us a negative predisposition to the claims of Christianity if we adopt it.
If, then, the influence of the autonomous mindset is the greatest problem for people becoming and remaining Christians in the modern West, then this would go quite far in explaining why sophisticated apologetics—the arguments of which are in my view often quite good—typically seems to have such little real world 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. Because of this, it is of crucial importance to be conscious of just how much of a presence the gospel of autonomy has in our culture, how easy it is to adopt it or be influenced by it, the kinds of effects it has on one’s outlook and one’s receptiveness to the Christian message, and how much it must be resisted.
That said, I don’t think that there is any easy way for Christians to point out why the gospel of autonomy isn’t a gospel at all to those who are in its grips. This is especially true because it is seen by its adherents as making available goods that no other perspective on the world can offer. To give up autonomy would be to give up a lot of things, or more precisely a belief in the right to do a lot of things, that such people regard as being of the highest value. To a large extent then, I believe the gospel of autonomy will have to undermine itself and exhaust its own appeal by revealing through its own flaws that it is an inadequate basis for longterm human well-being on both the societal and individual level. 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 not surprisingly 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.
Kant was wrong in thinking that we, in adopting the gospel of autonomy, had achieved maturity. What really transpired was that humanity entered a phase analogous to that of being 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. But teens grow up, and often times the teenager who has left the faith returns, humbled, to the wisdom and meaningfulness that was left behind. That is my prayer. But it’s also my prediction. Freud famously predicted that the religion was an illusion that time would dispel. He was right in thinking that falsehood can’t keep its nature a secret forever. But he was entirely wrong about what is false.