The Inhumanity of Autonomy

John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (2016), 215, 223–224:

We are schooled by cultural convention to believe that freedom is self-determination. The convention is long-standing and pervasive. Its origins, largely hidden from us within our everyday dealings with the world until retrieved by critical historical reflection, lie in some deep mutations in the West’s traditions of religious, philosophical, and political thought and practice from the early modern period. Its presence is made known in a complex set of images of human selfhood which form our civic, economic, and moral accounts of ourselves.

Among its most enduring and culturally successful corollaries is the assumption that the existence of God and human freedom are necessarily antithetical. One of the primary tasks of a theology of evangelical freedom is to bring that cultural convention to consciousness, and to show that it is both contingent and inhumane. . . .

God’s triune freedom is the sovereign purposiveness with which he establishes fellowship. Human history is the ‘space’ — arena, setting — in which that fellowship is realized. For the Christian gospel, moreover, the history of God with us is definitive of what it means to be human. It is not a mere modulation or particular form of a more general human history, but is ontologically definitive: to be human is to be the reconciled creature of God pointed by God to perfection. Our freedom, therefore, is the capacity bestowed on us by God to take an active part in the history of fellowship with our creator, reconciler, and perfecter.

To understand this, we need to lay aside the assumption around which so much of our economic, political, and sexual identity is organized, namely the assumption that freedom is autonomy. Freedom is, rather, the capacity to realize what one is. What we are is reconciled creatures, those set free for true humanness by the work of the triune God. To be free is not to exercise the false freedom to invent myself by my actions, nor to be creator, reconciler, and perfecter to myself. Nor is it mere unrestricted will. It is, rather, to be what I have been made to be, to fulfill my vocation as a creature of God, and so (and only so) to exist in authenticity.

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