Autonomous Christians

Can Christian persons be autonomous? I have three settings where I would like to place that question. In those three settings, the answers are: absolutely not, of course, and “you’re going to have to be more specific.”

Setting 1: Living in the Garden of Eden

According to the Judeo-Christian myth of our origins, humankind came into being in a autonomy 1.jpgspecial relationship with God. There isn’t really any way to say precisely what that relationship was. C. S. Lewis in his Perelandra takes a very creditable shot at imagining what it must have been like. What we need to know is that it was a relationship of intimacy and trust.

Here’s a way of picturing the event that Christian theology calls “The Fall.” God starts up a business of His own. Fabrication, let’s say. And he makes the first man and the first woman junior partners in the business. The sign on the truck says Jehovah and Son and Daughter. [1] Then it is suggested by some nefarious force that it is demeaning to be always an employee and that there is no reason why they can’t just set up on their own: Adam and Eve, Fabrication! So they do that and go into business in competition with their father.

Not to play out this farce unnecessarily, the point is that what was once a relationship so close it couldn’t even be quite familial was wrecked by the demand that the son and daughter made for autonomy. In Christian theology, “autonomy” is just another word for rebellion and since, in this story, we were made for relationship, rebellion leads very naturally to alienation and then to anxiety and then to sin.

So “autonomy” in the essential sense of our relationship with God is just a euphemism for rebellion and that is why my answer to the question in this setting is “Absolutely not.”

Setting 2: Living in Oregon

Or anywhere else, of course, but Portland is the heart of “the none zone.” In Portland, we are “spiritual, but not religious.” So I am considering “society” in the secular sense in which sociologists and political scientists consider it. When we talk about “the sovereignty of the people,” for example, we don’t mean that God is not sovereign. We mean that the king is not sovereign. Autonomy is a perfectly appropriate relationship between neighbors. When my neighbor says he doesn’t like the way I have designed my garden, I say, “So…? Is there any reason your ideas about what my garden should look like should be taken in preference to mine?” The rough equality of personhood makes it possible for us to stand in line and (with small exceptions like a husband who was parking the car joining his wife who was standing in line) we take it for granted that the line goes in order of arrival—and not in order of title or rank.autonomy 2

Autonomy is a wonderful presupposition for a society. It means that if you want me to change my mind, you need to persuade me. It means that no one in a marriage is more important that anyone else. It means that if you are going to violate the expectation that it is my life and so I get to choose what I will do, you will need a really good reason for doing that.

So in the context of everyday life, not just in Oregon, I say the answer to my question is, “Of course.”

Setting 3: Living in Collegiality

People who are “colleagues” are people “chosen to work together.” [2] I am going to have churches in mind here. I didn’t choose churches because they are hotbeds of collegiality, but because they are intermediate between the loyalty and obedience we owe God and the individuality and autonomy we demand in society. [3] Churches are, in this location, “working groups,” and they are, in that way, very much like athletic teams, when the chemistry is good, or small groups of soldiers in battle.

My answer here is “you’ll have to be more specific” because in the intimacy of a well-functioning group, each protects the other. I risk my life to save yours because just yesterday you risked yours to save me. We are bonded into a single unit by the trust and the danger. I am not “obedient” to you as in Setting 1 and I am not separate from you as in Setting 2. I am functioning in such harmony with you—it is the kind of relationship that just might allow us to live until tomorrow—that only colleagueship is close enough.  This picture came from a search for, “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.”

autonomy 4Sports teams at their best are like that. If they cover me, they won’t be able to cover you, so you get the ball. It doesn’t mean you’re a better shot; it doesn’t mean you’re more important; it means you are open. The best quarterbacks working with the best receivers, look at the coverage and know how it will seem to the receiver and throw the ball to the place where the receiver will decide to go. That’s not obedience. It’s certainly not autonomy. It’s this third thing. It is a unity of purpose and an abundance of trust and experience: it is a relationship that words like “colleagueship” only hint at.

Now, I’ve never been in a church like that, but if I found one, I would want to go there tomorrow. I wouldn’t actually go, probably, because I have relationships of honor and trust with people at my present church and I wouldn’t want to violate those relationships. But I would want to.

In the schema I have devised here, you can see that the church is intermediate between the individualistic society, where individual autonomy may not be breached, and the relationship of Eden, where trust and intimacy were built into the relationship from the beginning. Structurally speaking, the church could be the place where the autonomy is superseded by the obligations of covenantal love and where the oneness of the community is a way of returning to the relationship of love and trust with God.

In a bad church, you would still have to insist on autonomy. Without collegiality, it’s all predators and prey. [4] And both of those are bad. In a good church, you would think that autonomy would only get in the way.

[1] I did once see a moving truck that said Smith & Son (and Daughter).
[2] The immediate Latin predecessor is collega, “partner in office,” and it is derived from com-, “with” and legare, “to choose.”
[3] I know that there are societies where that is not true: “collectivist societies,” they are called. In the U. S. we presume the values of an “individualist society” or, as critics often put it, a “hyperindividualistic” society.
[4] A very small church joke.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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