autonomy (ô-tŏn’ə-mē) n., 1. Quality or state of being self-governed
2. Self-directing freedom and especially moral independence
The first definition seems to be in line with biblical principles (self-controlled and responsible). However, the second definition seems to be how our culture defines autonomy. The culture’s definition echoes the repeated phrase in Judges, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Jud 21:25). The book of Judges displays the chaotic and evil outcome of everyone doing right in their own eyes…autonomy gone amuck!
Several contemporary thinkers aid in discerning the issues involving autonomy. Philip Rieff(1922-2006) wrote of the triumph of the therapeutic self which is defined as when “the good is identified with what makes me feel happy.” Charles Taylor (born 1931) refers to expressive individualism as “each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires.” Do you see the emphasis on self and happiness? Furthermore, Alasdair MacIntyre (born 1929) perceived that “modern ethical discourse is chaotic because there is no longer a strong community consensus on the nature of the proper ends of human existence.” When we each define what is the purpose of life based on what we think and feel, disorder happens. So as a culture we are focused on what makes us individually happy and pursuing our own self-defined meaning. This is a setup for a selfish and fragmented culture.
Some in our culture have voiced loudly and frequently their inaccurate beliefs concerning life, gender, and marriage. Following is a sampling of these false beliefs. Peter Singer wrote the life of an unborn child should continue if the baby will bring happiness to the parents or any other children in the family. Singer justifies abortion if the child is not wanted because he would take away the happiness of the mother and/or others. Also, some have decided that they can “make and remake personal identity at will.” In their depraved minds, biological sex is not determined or fixed at conception. Furthermore, marriage is defined by some as being between 2 or more people of any gender. Whatever anyone thinks is morally right is pursued and fought for. We live in a fragmented and chaotic culture. What is wrong is seen as right (Rom 1:28-32). Autonomy has gone amuck!
We can see autonomy (self-directing freedom and especially moral independence) reaping devastating consequences of emotional, relational, physical, spiritual, and mental distress. Our culture has forgotten God (Jer 9:12-14). Sadly, we (as believers in Christ) too, may have bought into the culture’s definition of autonomy. Do you and I subconsciously believe we decide and direct our freedoms? Do we balk at our authorities or leaders? (Hmmm,….and we wonder why our children do the same). Do we avoid leadership positions so we can continue to undermine the leaders? Does our expressive individualism oppose any biblical truths? Do we put our needs before the needs of others? Do we ever give up our rights for the good of others? Do we say what we think or feel in order to just express ourselves regardless of the effect it will have on others? Do we respond to our culture out of our emotions or biblical truth? We were created for God’s glory (Isa 43:7), but are you and I really living for His glory or for our own?
In reflecting on the word autonomy, as a believer in Christ, I am to be self-controlled and act responsibly toward God and others. Furthermore, God’s Word is the standard for my freedoms and morality. How about you? Is there any area where you have embraced expressive individualism or personal happiness in yourself or in someone else?
God is calling us all back to Himself to live out His ways empowered by His Spirit in a life that brings Him glory. You and I have a choice to make each moment, to run with the culture in autonomy with its devastating results or run with God and His eternal benefits. Which will you choose?
For your consideration: Carl R. Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2020.
Image from Brett Jordan, Unsplash, accessed June 16, 2021, https://unsplash.com/photos/YuQEEaNOgBA.
 Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 88.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 83.
 Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life, (New York, Ecco, 2000), 187.
 Trueman, 164.