Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Modern Myth of Autonomy

For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” 

It may be that the greatest myth of our times is the idea of autonomy.  Autonomy comes from two Greek words, meaning ‘self’ and ‘law.’  And more precisely “that I am a law unto myself.”  The person who believes in his own autonomy owes no allegiance to anyone.  He belongs to no one and asserts his own self-determination.        

We self-determined Americans often take this to an extreme.  And we are very good at it.  We hold a near religious devotion to what we call “independence.”  Indeed, our country is based upon a ‘Declaration of Independence,’ where we declared ourselves free from the British empire in 1776.  The high praise and devotion we have for the virtues of ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy’ are deeply ingrained into the American psyche that we can only begin to understand.  It is a part of our philosophical DNA that we can barely part ourselves from.    

At the turn of the Millennium, the longest running number one hit on the billboard 100 was the song “Independent Woman” by Destiny’s Child, or now by the more well known Beyonce.  It is now common for young girls to be told to be fully independent and self-supported before they even consider the prospect of marriage and family.  If one truly wants to avoid any shame in the family, they are to be independent, with their own apartment or house, their own car, and their own things. 
In old age we hold a special affinity for ‘independent living.’  In our intense creed for autonomy, independence and privacy, we have maybe by mistake become more isolated and lonely than we ever intended.  In a recent book by Robert Putnam, titled ‘Bowling Alone’ the author surveys the massive social disengagement over the last 50 years from virtually all civic organizations.  Using bowling as an example, he chronicles the retreat from community and league bowling to private entertainment of tv and video games in the privacy of one’s own home.   

The great poet T.S. Eliot rather prophetically predicted the consequences of technological recreation with the following remark, saying, “The remarkable thing about television is that it permits several million people to laugh at the same joke and still feel lonely.”

While the idea of privacy, independence, and autonomy may be characteristically and emphatically celebrated American virtues, we can hardly say they have anything to do with Christian virtues.  The gospel of independence and autonomy is hardly a gospel at all.  It is not good news to be radically independent.  The idea of autonomy, owing nothing to anybody, is itself a great delusion. 

All we need to do to prove this is to look down at our belly buttons.  We did not create ourselves but are created beings coming from the womb of our mothers, fed and nourished through the body of another.  From our conception to our death, there is nothing independent about us.  We are wholly dependent upon others for everything – from the food we eat, to the shoes we buy. 

“Dependence” is good.  “Dependence” is a virtue of the Gospel.  Shameless and helpless dependence is a gift.  For no independent woman or independent man, however determined, can navigate the deep ocean of human suffering on their own..  We depend on the love of our parents and our friends.  We depend on them for support and compassion.  We depend upon the whole Christian church. 

Every Christian, as if an infant child, is completely and utterly dependent on the prayers prayed by the church.  And more than anything Christians depend on their Lord Christ who answers every prayer.             

St. Paul destroys the myth of autonomy – that we are independent and a law unto ourselves – when he writes to the Corinthians, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” 

There is no room for independence at the church pew and altar rail.  And though we have the ultimate safety here, it is hardly a private affair.  Here we gather with all the saints that have gone before us.  Here we have holy communion, - blessed community - with one confession - as one people – united in one heavenly body.  At this place the Lord Christ marries His bride the church and begets children. 

Our God, with all his glory and splendor has never desired to be independent and alone from His creation.  He cannot bear the thought of that.  And he cannot bear the thought of our own independence.  When we sought our independence by hiding from God in paradise He lovingly called out to us, “where are you Adam?”  When He saw that we had joined ourselves to that false lover Satan he was grieved in His heart. 

He raced to earth to chase us down and win our love.  He sought us by being born into a body of flesh like ours.  He dipped himself into a baptism like ours, not to be cleansed from sin, but rather to be bathed in ours.  The sinless Son was baptized into sin – to free the prisoner by becoming the prisoner – and save the oppressed by being pressed to the cross.

As he marched to calvary’s bloody hill, he sought not his independence but to be joined bodily to his creation.  His creation that he formed by the tender love of his hands and the breath of his mouth.  Presiding in His sanctuary He speaks as if celebrating at a great wedding – “I am the Lord your God.” 

I am your love and you are my beloved.  My love is your love.  My body is your body.  My future is your future.  My resurrection is your resurrection.  My baptism is your baptism.  My blood is for you.  My righteousness I give to you.  He has called you by your name and elected you to be His own in time and for eternity.  To which we respond with our own vow, saying ‘amen,’ that is ‘I do’ – ‘I believe’ – ‘let it be to me according to your Word.’           
As one family, we are members of one body.  No independent woman and men here.  Just folks who can hardly do it alone, and are dependent on the righteousness of the righteous one.  We are caught up in God’s love in such as way that we can no longer be isolated and alone.  We have been joined to the living God and joined to our neighbor.  We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  As redeemed saints we are not independent soloists but bright stars of a great and heavenly choir, whose praises never end.    

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