Today’s society places ever-increasing importance on human autonomy. Deriving from two Greek words, auto (self) and nomos (law), autonomy has ascended the ladder of sacred order in the American psyche and is now enthroned on high. The freedom to make one’s own choices has surpassed all other considerations as the self has become both law and lawgiver. But how does such exaltation of human sovereignty and autonomy relate to our creatureliness as beings created by the triune God? What are the effects of such autonomy on human flourishing and everyday living? While autonomy in a certain sense is a blessing as an expression of human agency, when it is absolutized as a principle for everything with no reference to the Divine, or to objective truth, then it becomes debilitating with its accompanying array of choices, and demoralizing with its evisceration of deeper purpose for such choices anyway. The sovereignty of choice creates a new bondage to the self, from which one can find deliverance in the freedom of God’s order.
The Dominion of Autonomy Today
Around every cultural corner, the language of autonomy permeates. Arguments for abortion have centered for decades on the right to choose, but the language has shifted more recently to the concept of bodily autonomy. A United Nations document on Women’s reproductive rights, uses the word autonomy eleven times in eight pages, and concludes that, “The right of the pregnant woman to access termination of pregnancy should be autonomous, affordable and effective.” This conclusion is made by prioritizing “the right of a born woman to her life, her health, her autonomy” over “the right to life of zygotes and fetuses.”
The LGBTQ+ cause has also adopted the language of autonomy. Noted legal advocate Jillian Weiss, employs the term gender autonomy: “The right to gender autonomy may therefore be defined as the right of self-determination of one’s gender, free from state control, and the right to self-identify as that gender, free from state contradiction.”
On the political level, autonomy also reigns supreme. The concept that individuals should choose their leaders, and countries should choose their own forms of government, is unquestioned. As legal scholar Nancy Combs explains, basic to our understanding of democracy, “is the notion that the citizens who comprise a democracy are autonomous. We cannot speak of citizens living under law of their own choosing unless we assume that these citizens are free to make such choices.” She adds, much of the American legal system is “founded on our democratic assumption of citizen autonomy” (692, 663 emphasis mine).
But the influence of autonomy goes far beyond such hot-button topics and political concepts writ large. The overwhelming rhetoric and daily experience of choice instantiates autonomous individualism into the very essence of one’s being. As this foundational presupposition pervades further into every corner of human consciousness, it carries with it an incipient danger that undercuts human flourishing and meaningful community.
Debilitating Effects of Autonomy: Atomistic Individuality
For the individual, absolute autonomy ironically tends not towards freedom, but towards debilitation. When moral structures and objective truths are replaced with the will of the self, the overwhelming array of choices can easily leave one feeling lost with only themselves as guide. The autonomous self easily ends up self-defeated.
This is especially evident in the growing difficulty adolescents have in transitioning to adulthood. Teens are offered unending life choices, but have few objective or moral evaluation tools left, and thus struggle devoting themselves to any of the options. As Ben Sasse notes in The Vanishing American Adult, this puts us in an unique place historically speaking, “where a large portion of our people in the prime of their lives are stuck in a sad sort of limbo” (18).
The effects of absolute autonomy are also quite striking in the decline of ultimate commitments and the skepticism of authority and institutions evident today. Trends noted years ago in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and by many authors since then confirm that individuals are hesitant to give up any autonomy that is bartered away upon becoming a member of an organization, community group, or religious body. Joining such groups requires commitment, assent to certain ideas, and compliance to specific rules—the very things the autonomous self has been trained to avoid.
The church has felt the effects as well. As Nancy Pearcey explains in Total Truth, the church is no longer seen as “an organic community into which one [is] received, and certainly not a spiritual authority to which one [is] submitted.” Instead, now the church is understood as “a collection of equal, autonomous individuals coming together by choice” (279).
Demoralizing Effects of Autonomy: Nihilistic Community
Family and community are also significantly affected by autonomy and its commodification of the other. The beautiful counterbalancing sacrifices of life together are eschewed in the individual’s pursuit of self, using the other only when convenient, or when it serves their will to power. This is seen in everyday phrases like “do what makes you happy” or “love yourself first,” and in popular conceptions of marriage as merely a contractual agreement that can be broken when one side no longer satisfies the desires of the other. So too, the culture’s view of sex as simply an act of autonomous, consenting persons, eviscerates its deeper meaning, making it solely a choice for pleasure, objectifying the other as a tool for gratification. When autonomy reigns in the realm of sex, marriage, and family, the possibility of meaning found in self-giving love and sacrifice for others is dismissed, and the impact of one’s actions on others is forgotten.
Autonomy’s impact on community is further evidenced in the growing number of people living alone. Over a quarter of Americans now live alone, and Washington, DC tops the nation with over 45% of the households occupied by one person. Millennials lead this trend, with roughly six in ten living alone. This autonomous, unfettered living sounds good, until crisis hits or the biological clock starts ticking.
In the Spring of 2020, as COVID-19 shelter-in-place measures were enacted across the country, countless single, urban millennials with no families of their own, went home to stay with parents during the quarantine, while the isolation of the elderly intensified. In what historically were the joyous beginnings and satisfying conclusions of family life, instead people on both ends of adulthood were bearing the bitter fruit of autonomy: vulnerability, loneliness, and a yearning for families that could have been.
The concept of autonomy also makes it difficult to create community in the workplace. Autonomy teaches the worker in search of promotion to have little regard for fellow workers. When a better opportunity is found elsewhere, autonomous workers feel little sense of duty or loyalty to the company, but move on to another that pays more. This kind of workplace fosters “an economic philosophy of atomistic individualism,” Pearcey explains, where workers are “treated as so many interchangeable units…each struggling to advance himself at the expense of others” (330).
Deflating the Myth of Autonomy: The Illusion of Choice
Absolute autonomy ends up creating a paradox. Despite so much individual freedom to choose, popular culture endorses only a certain set of choices that are deemed progressive and tolerant, that are absorbed by the populace through education, media, music, movies, and more. Without realizing it, the actual freedom to choose is steamrolled by the momentum of the cultural machine, which provides the proper choices one should make, overriding true autonomy anyway. The process quickens with the frenetic pace of the social media swarm, where choices made by one person drive the choices of the next person via the digital echo-chambers of the internet.
Consumerism functions in parallel, as the products available to “express your individuality” happen to be the same products that countless other people also purchase to express what just so happens to be the same exact individuality. Not only that, buyers then become advertisers for the product, paradoxically representing the brand, not their true selves.
Dethroning Autonomy: The True Freedom of God’s Order
Absolute autonomy promises liberation, but in reality leaves one increasingly chained to individual desires. Unbounded choice provides no structures external to the self to frame meaningful action in the world. The way out of such self-referential autonomous existence is to embrace the freedom of order. Philosopher of the everyday, Matthew Crawford, describes this paradoxical concept as “empowerment through submission.” He explains the concept by analyzing the process of how one learns a language or a new skill. Take music for example. Without submitting to the external order and authoritative structure of scales, notes, time signatures, musical notation, and so on, and without internalizing these structures through sustained practice and imitation, one cannot play music in any meaningful way at all. Thus, freedom is not found in abolishing the rules, but embracing them. As Crawford states, “the musician’s power of expression is founded upon prior obedience.” He then extends the argument more broadly: “human agency…arises only within concrete limits” (128).
For Christians, this should come as no surprise. God’s purposive structure to the universe provides frameworks in which humans can thrive. Martin Luther suggested there were three main frameworks gifted by God to humanity: family, government, and church. Luther refers to these variously in his writings as estates, stations, orders, even using a term that grates against our modern sensibilities: hierarchies. “The works of God,” Luther explains, “are divided into three hierarchies: the household, the government, and the church” (446). The concept takes some getting used to because, as Oswald Bayer says, “it implies the antithesis of the mobility”—and I would add autonomy—“which is characteristic of modern society” (125).
While somewhat foreign to the autonomous way of thinking, the three estates interconnect us in vocational webs of mutual support in such a way that brings meaning to the mundane. In Luther’s Small Catechism, he poses the question: “Consider your station in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife or worker?” (25). This is a question to which every human has to respond to in the affirmative at least once. Therein lies the beauty and simplicity of the three estates – they apply to everyone.
Perhaps in our day, calling them frameworks for flourishing might be more palatable. From these three estates and Luther’s call to consider your station in life, we can fulfill our callings in love and service to one another. As Luther explains, “Above these three institutions and orders is the common order of Christian love, in which one serves not only the three orders, but also serves every needy person in general with all kinds of benevolent deeds.” Lest we get the wrong idea about some sort of works righteousness, Luther continues, “However none of these orders is a means of salvation. There remains only one way above them all, viz. faith in Jesus Christ” (365).
In the course of the true narrative of redemption, a moral order and structure of authority emerges that gives guidance for meaningful action in the world, and deep purpose for all roles in life. Thus, the true self is not found in furthering autonomous choice, but in union with Christ, who grants us a new and more complete identity, sharing himself with us through Word, Water and Supper.
Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Salvo Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina.