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Christian Intellectuals' Attack on 'Autonomy'
YouTube live stream Saturday, May 27, 10:00 a.m. US Eastern Time
Noted Christian pastor and intellectual Tim Keller passed away on Friday, May 19. Among other distinctions, Keller was notable as a persistent critic of secular liberalism, and a skeptic about the concept of autonomy.
Secular liberal democracy is underpinned by the concept of autonomy — the notion that human beings can and should choose their own paths for themselves, guided by their own facilities, including their own reason. To have autonomy means, in short, that you steer your own ship, for yourself, and live with the consequences that follow. If you don’t have autonomy, then someone or something else must take the important life decisions for you.
Keller argued that autonomy was illusory. As summarized by Molly Worthen in The Atlantic:
Over the years, Keller became not just a Christian apologist but a sophisticated critic of secular liberalism, especially its worship of personal autonomy as the highest good…
Secular Americans in the 21st century might think that they are free individuals, living true to themselves—but in fact they have unconsciously absorbed the preferences and prejudices of their particular cultural setting, he wrote in what may be his most important book, 2016’s Making Sense of God. All humans, in all historical contexts, “use some kind of filter—a set of beliefs and values—to sift through our hearts and determine which emotions and sensibilities we will value and incorporate into our core identity and which we will not. It is this value-laden filter that forms our identity, rather than our feelings themselves.”
Keller was part of a movement by Christian intellectuals to attack personal autonomy as a concept. Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age, was another member of this school. These and others argued that a political order need not, in fact should not respect the autonomy of individuals. Instead, all that was necessary was for the state to respect individuals’ ‘dignity’.
The difference between ‘autonomy’ and ‘dignity’ essentially boils down, in this context, to the question: Who calls the shots? Will you make the big life choices for yourself? Or will some other agency choose or constrain your choices for you — no doubt, with your ‘dignity’ kept in mind?
This question may appear abstract, even dry. But the stakes are monumental. Destroying the belief in personal autonomy as a high (if not quite the highest) good is central to the authoritarian project. Christian Nationalism in particular rests on a claim that someone or something other than you knows what is best for you, better than you know for yourself. It people can be convinced that autonomy is bad, or fake, then the way towards authoritarianism is opened.
Please join us this Saturday, May 27, at 10:00 a.m. US Eastern Time as we dive into this little-noticed but very high stakes debate about personal autonomy.