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Addicted To Autonomy



 By Dr. R. Scott Clark - Posted at The Heidelblog:

Carl Trueman’s two volumes on Modernity, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020) and Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists redefined identity and sparked the sexual revolution (2021) are essential for understanding what is happening around us. As he notes, what we are experiencing now has been a long time coming. I point my students to the death of RenĂ© Descartes (1596–1650) as a convenient turning point. Descartes was a Christian who sought to defend the faith not by beginning with God or divine authority but by beginning with the human self. His argument may be very roughly boiled down to the sentence, “I am doubting, therefore I exist.” The subject of the verb in the sentence is I. Before Descartes and the rise of Modernity, the subject of the verb had been God, as in, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In Genesis 1, God is the subject of the verb. He is sovereign. He is speaking. He is defining. In the garden, Adam asserted his autonomy and, in Modernity, we codified autonomy as the norm. The creature formally became the subject of the verb and sovereign man has refused to relinquish his throne since.

In Western history, as in Scripture, it never goes well when man defies God—as Adam, Cain, Pharaoh, Achan, Uzzah, the boys at Bethel (2 Kings 2:23), Judas, or Ananias and Sapphira. Yet, in Modernity, the West has defied God for centuries. In the 20th century alone the arrogant Modern doctrine of human perfectibility (and earthly utopia) brought about the death of more than 100 million people and yet, in the 21st century, intellectuals and others continue to embrace these fundamental convictions and somehow expect a different outcome, and people have the nerve to doubt the Augustinian doctrine of sin.

In the coming days and weeks, there will be pundits and theorists writing and talking about where American politics goes from here but precious few of them will address the most fundamental issue: the corruption of the human heart. One leading primary symptom of the depravity of the human heart (Jer 17:9) is our addiction to autonomy. What is it? Basically it is, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, “the right of self government.” Here it helps to distinguish two spheres of human existence, the ultimate and the penultimate. As a matter of our secular, civil life in the here and now, autonomy can be a good thing. People should not be allowed to grab anyone they will and take them away. As an American, I sympathize with those who want autonomy for their nation, who resist being invaded by another nation. Autonomy relative to God, however, is another thing.

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