Autonomy VS Freedom

I’m reading a thought-provoking book called Saving Truth by Abdu Murray, a member of the RZIM apologetics team. He introduces his topic by discussing post-truth and the effects on society of this mindset.

The greatest effect, Mr. Murray says, is that people now believe in autonomy, not freedom. Thankfully, he took time to explain what he means. Autonomy comes from two Greek roots, one meaning self and the other meaning rule. Thus, autonomy means self-rule, or without external control.

The problem with autonomy, of course, is that my autonomy and your autonomy may collide. And then, as Mr. Murray points out, might makes right. The stronger of the two dictates to the weaker. In other words, autonomy is actually the gateway to tyranny, with anarchy a stop along the way.

Mr. Murray likened autonomy to what Israel experienced in the era of the Judges. Scripture records this statement: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6).

The result was chaos and all kinds of immoral action. People abused others and reacted in violent ways. And no one was willing to take responsibility until civil war broke out.

Freedom is very different. It’s akin to liberty or the ability to stand on your own, and “implies the power to choose among alternatives rather than merely being unrestrained” (Oxford-American Dictionary). In truth, true freedom occurs when a person is guided by moral law.

I think of the example I heard years ago when I was teaching. Some experiment was done in which children were given an open field in which to play during their recess breaks. There were no walls, no fences, but the children concentrated their play near the building. Some time later, the children were provided with a fenced area in which to play, and this time they scattered to the distant parts of the designated field.

In reality the “restriction” gave the children a sense of safety that allowed them to take off their self-restraint and enjoy the area where they’d been allowed to go. Without the boundaries, however, they created self-imposed restrictions that hampered their movement.

Of course, the experiment could have taken a different direction. The children without the boundaries could have left the school grounds. They could have run into the street. They might have vandalized homes in the vicinity. They could have harassed neighbors. They might have stayed away instead of returning to school. They could have been abducted.

The point is, their autonomy didn’t have to result in self-restraint. It could just as easily have resulted in their impinging on someone else’s rights and misusing their property, even as they put themselves at risk to be harmed, accidentally or on purpose.

Freedom is something we can all enjoy. Autonomy leads only to chaos and ultimately tyranny.

Again looking to the era of the judges in Israel’s history, when society descended into chaos, the people cried for a king. They wanted someone to impose on them the rules of law that would bring order. Of course, the result was that the entire nation was then under the rule of one man who subjected them to the laws he decided to establish or follow.

As a result the southern nation was a bit of a yo-yo. When they had a king that followed God, they returned to the sacrifices and temple worship established at their beginning. When they had a king that forsook God and worshiped idols, then they built high places and indulged in child sacrifice and temple prostitution. At one point, the Mosaic Law was not just forgotten, the scrolls that contained it were buried in the temple so that the people didn’t even know what God’s standard was.

Post-truth. They lived at the whim of whoever was on the throne.

The northern kingdom fared worse. They actually went from one coup to another as particular military men vied for control of the nation. At one point in history, one man assassinated the sitting king, but the army followed a different leader. So the one who had connived to take the throne was himself ousted.

Chaos. Tyranny. By ignoring God’s law, by choosing autocracy, they actually forfeited their freedom.

Jesus says, The Truth will set you free. Of course, He also says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” So Jesus is the truth. The truth sets you free. Consequently, Jesus sets you free.

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting, Becky! Children need boundaries, also known as protection, in order to feel safe, in order to feel loved. A side effect of our autonomous culture is a whole lot of disconnected people who don’t feel loved. Loneliness, depression and suicide are real issues in our modern world. So is that wail of so many looking for their “safespace,” not really understanding what they are asking for.

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  2. Nice article Rebecca. I like how you tied the ideas to the school ground example and the historical examples of the two kingdoms of Israel. I wonder if there are other examples from history where autonomy was mistaken for freedom and societies crumbled (or vice versa perhaps, and true freedom replaced chaos)?

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    • Great question, Andrew. The first historical example that came to my mind is the French Revolution. In the name of freedom, certain men took, the rule of law into their own hands, which resulted in the murder of any number of people from the aristocracy. Society essentially fell into chaos and confusion, not knowing who would be next. In the end, they turned to an autocratic ruler, Napoleon, to bring an end to the madness.

      I suspect this same pattern will repeat in such a way that people will welcome the anti-christ as someone who can bring an end to the chaos created by a departure from absolute truth.

      I’m looking forward to the portion of Saving Truth that gets to the saving part!

      Becky

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  3. What a great insights you offer here! I love the distinctions you draw between autonomy and freedom… so descriptive of where our culture once was and now is. Thank you!

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    • Thanks, Lynn. Full disclosure: the distinction between the two comes entirely from Saving Truth by Abdu Murray. Like you I find it to be true to our experience in western society. Glad you found it insightful.

      Becky

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  4. Interesting to connect the tumultuous history of post-division Israel with the period of the Judges as two expressions of the same desire for autonomy; I’m sure you’re right, but I’d never thought of it that way. I can also see the same principles at work in the story of the pre-Flood world.

    The distinction you (and Murray) make between “autonomy” and “freedom” seems very close to the one I’ve seen made between “liberty,” the freedom to do what is right (or what one ought), and “license,” the freedom to indulge one’s desires.

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    • I think you’re right, Jonathan. The pre-flood world is a great example. With God as the one people rebelled against, the only place to go from there was chaos. I’ve tried to imagine how bad it got for God to bring judgment as He did through the flood.

      I also agree that liberty and license also delineate the difference. I’ve said in the past that freedom has become our idol. In the chapter I’m reading right now, Mr. Murray talks about negative freedom—freedom from something—verses the freedom for something.

      This book is proving to be very insightful and thought-provoking.

      Becky

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      • “Freedom from” versus “freedom for” or “freedom to” is a useful distinction, but there’s a further layer: like faith and love, freedom always has an object: freedom from what? freedom to what?

        And I agree that freedom has become an idol in our culture (also like faith and love, though I’d see its idolatry of those as merely decades old, while idolization of freedom goes back at least a couple of centuries); it seems to me that this is part of a general strategy (one I half-suspect Lewis described somewhere in The Screwtape Letters) of idolizing (or demonizing) verbs which are good or bad depending on their object.

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        • Murray likens the freedom from with autonomy. It’s the desire to be free from any restraint, even God’s good authority, given to us to protect us and keep us secure. Freedom to, on the other hand, is freedom to become what we were meant to be, freedom to serve and help and obey. Freedom that Truth gives us. It’s interesting to me to see the distinction.

          Yes, likely Lewis already addressed these issues. What I like about Saving Truth so much is that it’s so contemporary. Hard to explain, but his quotes and examples are from today, so his analysis, which comes from Scripture, and uses Scripture as the foundation of what he says, ties together today’s news with Biblical truth.

          Becky

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  5. “Freedom is very different. It’s akin to liberty or the ability to stand on your own, and “implies the power to choose among alternatives rather than merely being unrestrained” (Oxford-American Dictionary). In truth, true freedom occurs when a person is guided by moral law.”

    I agree with this Becky and much of what you say, however true freedom does not include being guided and subdued by God’s laws or any religious laws, especially if they are carried out as written in holly books such as the Bible.

    True freedom is being guided by state and country wide laws that are administered by a democratic government and of course our naturalised social morals that allow societies to live in peace and be respectful of each other.

    Look what happens when religious laws try to displace human social morals regarding tolerance of other religions, sexual orientation, marriage, abortion and the woman’s role in many religiously motivated families, we get nothing but conflict.

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    • Steve, you said “especially if they are carried out as written in holly books such as the Bible.” Why do you think that? Because a moral code is written in the Bible it is not pointing to freedom? On what basis do you arrive at such a conclusion, since you haven’t actually read the Bible? Have you read any other “religious book”? A good exercise would be to do so, then compare them to the Bible.

      You look at people who you think can create “societies to live in peace and be respectful to each other.” But one of the things that this book points out is that the post-truth culture we are living in, does just the opposite. Thus you have speakers at public universities shouted down, protested by rioting, to the extend that they had to withdraw. But that included Richard Dawkins. This kind of chaos and confusion does not lead to peace and respect. Autonomy leads to people wanting their own way, no matter what!

      There simply is no way for man to reach moral behavior on his own. The conflict you mention is not because people were adhering to what the Bible says. Again, you’re looking to people. Because they self-identify as religious, you think their religion is at fault. But first you have to start with the truth. Not every religion is true or believes the truth. That’s why atheists can’t understand Christianity: they keep lumping all religions together. In addition, oddly, many lump anyone who self identifies as a Christian together. But Islam is handled differently. Terrorists who self-identify as Muslims are declared not to be true Muslims. They’re said to be hijacking a peaceful religion. Why this different approach to Islam and Christianity?

      Maybe that isn’t your stand, but it certainly is a popular opinion in this day here in the US. The truth is, not everyone who self-identifies as a Christian is a Christian. Jesus talked about shepherds who slipped into the sheepfold over the wall instead of by the door. The Bible addresses false prophets and false teachers and lays at their feet the blame for people wandering from God. So I agree with your assessment of much of “religious” conflict. It is done for selfish motives in the name of God or a god. However,t it isn’t from God. Hence, He and what He teaches are not the culprits, but people who misuse and abuse Him.

      Becky

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      • “especially if they are carried out as written in holly books such as the Bible.” Why do you think that? Because a moral code is written in the Bible it is not pointing to freedom? On what basis do you arrive at such a conclusion since you haven’t actually read the Bible?
        I do not need to read the Bible from cover to cover Becky to discover that if you were to take what you read literally from the Bible as some, but few Christians do, you would be arrested for simply stoning your neighbour to death as written here.

        Deuteronomy 17:2–5
        “If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, 3 and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, 4 and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones.”

        This is obviously not in the spirit of promoting moral character among the people don’t you think?

        “Have you read any other “religious book”? A good exercise would be to do so, then compare them to the Bible.”

        Yes, I have, and the Quran is worse than other Holly books if you take it literally as many of the primitive indoctrinated extremists have done. A fact here is that many people who have read either the Quran or Bible find that it drives them away from the particular God and the religion in question. My knowledge of both of these books is limited I admit, but from what I do know about them I find evidence that no gods exist, however even if I wanted too, I could never condone what has been done in the name of these gods and the claims made to have to worship and love a god that is responsible for any of it.

        “But one of the things that this book points out is that the post-truth culture we are living in, does just the opposite.” “Autonomy leads to people wanting their own way, no matter what!”

        OK when did this “post truth” culture start? You are wrong if you believe the nature of man has changed in the last few centuries or decades. Man is basically still an animal with primitive thoughts and actions, however neuroscience has discovered our brains are also physically changed and influenced as individuals by many of our experiences and beliefs, therefore with both of these things being true you will always have the extremes of good and bad people, no matter what the situation is. Do not fool yourself into believing everyone will change into loving good-hearted people if everyone was a Christian.

        “There simply is no way for man to reach moral behavior on his own.”
        Well man has done this and will continue to do so. Acceptance of homosexuals is one case in point along with equality for woman and many others regarding race, colour and human rights. I do understand the Bible does have an influence and improves the value of some people’s lives, however it is not without fault and is not the only influence people may turn to.

        “Not every religion is true or believes the truth. That’s why atheists can’t understand Christianity: they keep lumping all religions together.”

        If you could prove yours is the real religion good on you. However, you have just come out with one of the reasons the world is constantly in conflict because the other religions believe exactly as you do.

        I do believe there is false Christians as you are basically saying along with the disagreements and unrest regarding the teachings of Christianity itself, and here again is your answer if you are of the belief the world would be peaceful if we were all Christians. It will never happen, and if you go through life believing it will happen you will likely die a very disappointed person.

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  6. […] based on personal perceptions and feelings is looking for is autonomy, not actual freedom. (See this post for a more complete discussion on the subject.) Autonomy, or self-rule, wants to throw off external […]

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