Jesus: The End of Personal Autonomy and Identity?

The Problem

At first blush, Christianity has deeply troubling implications for an individual’s autonomy and identity. Indeed, it appears that at its best, Christianity has severely restrictive, and often arbitrary, rules that limit one’s ability to do as one wants, and at its worst, it even involves some kind of suicide, reflected in language such as “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”[i] Even worse, besides denying individuals much of what they want to do and who they want to be, the qualities that Christianity praises most are those that are the polar opposite of what is most important to humans (e.g. meekness,[ii] becoming like little children,[iii] etc.). Christianity’s focus on valuing “weakness” was famously criticized by Nietzsche, who dismissed Christianity as being a “slave morality.”[iv] Nietzsche argues that, just as it is in the nature of birds of prey to eat lambs, similarly it is within human nature to express a “will to power.”[v] This becomes obvious if you briefly consider a quick thought experiment: imagine you have been given the Ring of Gyges, which allows you to turn yourself invisible.[vi] You now have the power to do whatever you want, and no one will ever know it was you. You can now steal anything, have sex with anyone, kill whoever you want, and you never have to worry about punishment. This seems much closer to our conception of true autonomy than does Christianity.

Furthermore, this discrepancy is illustrated nicely in Psalm 73. Here, the psalmist sees “…the prosperity of the wicked”[vii] and realizes that following God is actually a pretty bad deal. “This is what the wicked are like-always free of care, they go on amassing wealth. Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure…”[viii] Then, as the Psalmist reflects, he realizes that following God does not involve giving up what he really wants to do and to be, but that it is the only thing that fulfills both (“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”[ix]). He characterizes his former admiration of the powerful as “senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.”[x] This rapid change in the Psalmist’s heart reveals the argument for Christianity, to which I now turn.

What Defines Human Capacities for Autonomy?

Harry Frankfurt explored the unique kind of autonomy that humans have, with his concept of “second-order desires” (or metadesires).[xi] On the Frankfurtian view, animals are only capable of “first-order desires,” in which there is a certain input (Fido sees food), which activates a certain desire (Fido wants food), directly resulting in a certain output (Fido grabs the food and eats it). By contrast, humans are capable of second-order desires, in which they are able to reflect on whether they desire to have that particular desire; that is, whether acting upon a particular desire that is activated, is compatible with their self-conception of their identity (i.e. before deciding on a course of action, one must reflect upon the question “am I the kind of person who would ɸ?”[xii]). Here is where I think Nietzsche goes wrong: the “will to power” is a first-order desire.[xiii] Acting out of a first-order desire does not involve true autonomy, as there is no choice involved. Thus, if one wore the Ring of Gyges, and went outside and proceeded to kill all of one’s enemies, one would not be acting autonomously, because there was no choice involved, there was only a simple input (I see my enemy) and an output (I kill him). Here, one may object, with good reason, that I have oversimplified the case, and that the “will to power” can be accepted and justified through reference to second-order desires. To use the current example, if I wear the Ring of Gyges and see my enemy, I may desire to kill him, and reflect and realize that I identify with my desire to kill him[xiv]). It is important to note, however, that second-order desire requires not just that you reflect upon what you want to want to do, but that you reflect well.

For example, imagine that I want to make weight for a wrestling championship, which requires that I do not eat for a day. I have here placed my identity in being a top-notch wrestler, as deeper than my identity as someone who enjoys eating food. Now imagine that around dinnertime, the day of my fast, I become very hungry. In my extreme hunger I completely forget about the wrestling tournament tomorrow, because I am so fixated upon food. Before eating I think to myself, “Do I want to want to eat this food,” and I answer myself with a resounding “Yes!” Here I seem to have not chosen autonomously, because my decision was ultimately determined by a contingent and normatively irrelevant fact: namely, that I was hungry at the moment I made that decision. I would have made a different decision, had I not been hungry. Thus, as regards second-order desire, it is not merely that we reflect, but that we reflect well. This idea is used in everyday speech, evidenced when people have impaired capacities, such as after drinking alcohol. “I’m so sorry I hurled strings of insults at you for an hour last night when I was drunk,” one might say. “While in the moment, that is what I wanted to want to do, that was only because I was not capable of deliberating well or fully, because my capacities were impaired. It’s not what I would have second-order desired had my capacities been functioning properly.” The problem is that we are faced with two tremendous limitations that ensure that we are almost never able to deliberate well or fully. One reason is that we necessarily operate off of insufficient information at all times, and the other is that facts about our biological make-up introduce certain biases into how we think.

Complete Autonomy

Thus, people claim that they want complete freedom or autonomy, but in light of the two limitations just mentioned, this is ill-advised. A toddler may desire complete freedom, he may desire to put his fork in the electrical socket, merely because he wants to. He also may have the second-order desire of doing this, because he wants to want to but the fork in the socket as there is no evidence available to him that this is a bad idea. While doing this constitutes a proximal good, in the sense that it provides him with the pleasure of doing what he wants, it destroys a more distal good, the good of living past the age of 3. The baby, therefore, must be under the maxim of his parents’ rules, even if he does not understand all of the reasons behind their rules. He accepts the rules because has sufficient evidence that they have his best interests at stake, and accepts that his parents have some privileged information about why the rules make sense, that he is unable to understand.

Similarly, the Christian has sufficient evidence that God has her best interests at stake (the reasons typically come from personal experience, acceptance of certain historical evidence for the resurrection, philosophical and theological arguments, spiritual conviction, etc.). The Christian realizes that, like the baby, she does not have sufficient ability to engage in determining what the proper course of action is. Left to her own devices, she would trade many distal, or ultimate, goods for proximal ones. Thus, she appeals to a counterfactual “Were I to have more complete knowledge, were I to be more free of contingent biological facts biasing my reasoning, then I would deliberate well,” and realizes that there is a person for whom this counterfactual applies: God. Thus, she chooses to put herself under God’s law, instead of trying to figure out her own for herself, because He already has the right answer that she could never come to, on her own. It is important to note that this is no less an exercise of autonomy than is creating your own law for yourself, as each time she is tempted to act under the maxims she wants to create for herself, she will be faced again with the decision of choosing to be under God’s maxims.

The Sartrian-Nietzschian Alternative View

The purpose of this essay has been merely to show that personal autonomy and identity are not incompatible with Christianity, and are, by contrast, wholly fulfilled on the Christian picture. I now briefly address, in the absence of God, what the alternative picture of the universe is. This is not meant to constitute an argument for the existence of God, but to contrast it with the alternative. This essay began with Nietzsche’s view that there is no objective morality. We man interpret events in moral terms, but this is an anthropocentricism, and goes astray unless our morality is grounded in our animalistic “will to power.” One may object to Nietzsche’s views with the Frankfurt argument and state that since we have second-order reflective capacities, we should use our rational capacities to determine what kind of rules of morality we would like to have, even though they are not “objectively grounded.” On this view, a society forms because people agree to some moral system (Rawls’ veil of ignorance, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Utilitarianism, etc.), even if it is not objectively grounded. This is a kind of Sartrian “radical freedom” in which there is no objective meaning, but we must choose autonomously choose and commit, otherwise we live in bad faith. I see only one way that this plays out: the infinite number of options available to us is paralyzing, as in the absence of objective criteria and meaning, we have no way of adjudicating which option is really better (Sartre refers to this as “nausea”). Were we to commit to a criteria or decision, it could only have been based in a first-order desire (otherwise it’s “turtles all the way down”). While one could argue that it commits a naturalistic fallacy to say that this kind of objectively ungrounded way of living is unappealing, and that this way of living can be meaningful precisely because meaning has been subjectively ascribed to it and what carries normative weight is subjective experience, I reply only that the only purpose of this section was to flesh out the alternative view. Perhaps I also reply that I take it that most of us would find it unappealing if our bottom turtle was a first-order desire, chosen merely to escape Sartrian nausea.

So What?

The kind of life that Christianity calls us to, rather than being one of weakness, is in reality one of true power and freedom: power over and freedom from our animalistic drives so that we can pursue higher goods. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”[xv] An important distinction is revealed here between happiness, or hedonic goods, and meaning, or eudaimonic goods. Happiness involves first-order, selfish taking behaviors, while meaning involves second-order, giving behaviors. Distinct psychological mechanisms,[xvi] and even underlying gene expressions,[xvii] are involved in both. While happiness is defined by one’s identity in the present temporal state, meaning involves identity across many different time points. True autonomy, of the human sort, involves acting out of the capacities we have been given, and thus involves both seeking happiness (first-order), but also seeking meaning (second-order). The psalmist cited earlier realizes that he was as a “brute beast” when he envied the wicked, because their desire for worldly power is a first-order desire, the kind that brute beasts have. Upon reflection, he realizes the deep meaning He has found in his identity in God. On the Christian picture, “…[we] must realize from the outset that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide [us] is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal.”[xviii] This paints a very powerful picture of the autonomy available to us, God is omnipotent, yet for Him to cause us to choose Him would be logically inconsistent with free will (most of you will probably want to read this footnote, since I would really like to qualify the sentence I just wrote),[xix] so one of the comparatively few things that God cannot control (please read this footnote, too, I would really like to clarify this second part, as well), [xx] while maintaining our free will, is our choosing of Him. Additionally, our true identities are fulfilled when we are made perfect.

This essay is meant to challenge you to ask three questions:

(1)  What is your deepest identity?

(2)  What decisions do you make as a result of this identity?

(3)  Do you think that the Christian picture can provide a more fulfilling identity and a truer kind of autonomy?



Part II

Christianity Fulfills our Deepest Needs

I now gesture at some answers to the third question (above), by showing how Christianity fulfills our deepest needs. These are the needs typically identified and discussed in the philosophical and psychological literatures. It is important to note that a reasonable objection is that, if Christianity is a human artefact created to fulfill human needs, we would expect such a close mapping between our deepest desires and what Christianity offers. This objection is well-founded, and it is why whether or not one is justified in believing in Christianity must be determined on additional grounds, in additional domains (historical evidence, philosophical or theological arguments, etc.).

We desire love:

“God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Human love typically consists of simple reciprocity: “I like him because he is nice to me,” biological quirks (evolutionary adaptations that encourage us to reproduce), “I know that I love her because I get a funny feeling every time I see her,” or even neuroses such as Stockholm Syndrome (a disorder in which captives come to love their captors). By contrast, God’s love goes beyond the aforementioned kinds of evolutionary prosociality and biological quirks: while we were His enemies, He bore the punishment for the wrongs we had committed, so that we could be freed from the debt of sin we owed, and be able to be in an eternal and intimate relationship with Him. Furthermore, we typically desire a fairly constant kind of companionship, which the Holy Spirit offers as it is continually present and constantly intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words.[xxi]

We Seek Self-Actualization and Rest:

Psychologist Mikhail Cszisentmiyali discovered an effect he refers to as the “flow state,” in which the height of human enjoyment is found when one is engaged in an activity that is maximally difficult for the abilities that they have. If there is too much ability, and not enough challenge we are bored; conversely, if there is not enough ability and too much challenge, we get stressed. The flow state exists when everything is in balance. We see this when surgeons are “in the zone” and respond intuitively and immediately to complications that occur, we saw this in Jeremy Lin’s basketball playing at the peak of Linsanity, we heard this when Glenn Gould made his recordings of the Goldberg variations. When Jesus speaks of the heavily burdened coming to him and finding rest for their souls, He does not mean the kind of rest of non-activity, but a kind of flow state for our souls. Christianity involves coming to know God more and more, for all of eternity. Because we learn about Him in many ways and in many activities (study, music, prayer, basketball, philosophy), it uses the best of our capacities and can be thought of as being a kind of flow state for our souls.

We Desire Glory:

While the treasures and glories of this world will pass away in a cosmic blink of an eye,[xxii] the kind of glory God calls us to is eternal, as we are offered the ability to become His sons and daughters, and co-heirs with Christ.[xxiii]

We Seek Safety:

Proximally, Christianity does not bring safety. In fact, it promises persecution and trials. Distally, it promises complete safety and security when God redeems everything at the end of time. Although we meet with present suffering now, God restores all things when Jesus returns and time ends.

We Seek Duty and Desire Success:

God’s moral economy is often very hard for us to understand. While utilitarians value the resultant good that an action produces, Jesus claims that the woman who gave two small copper coins for her offering (an insignificant amount) gave more than those who gave a tremendous amount (which presumably helped a vast number of people), because she gave all that she had.[xxiv] Similarly, Henri Nouwen, a famous apologist and professor at Harvard and then Yale, wrote theology books that touched hundreds of thousands of lives. He was convicted; however, that God was calling him to leave academia to take care of an individual who was largely non-responsive and in a vegetative state; yet, Nouwen was convinced that in this new position, of only serving one person, he was doing more for God’s Kingdom than when he was in academia, writing touching untold thousands through his writing. Thus, duty and success cannot be quantified with God. This precludes the possibility of competition between believers, and it means we continually have to turn back to God for guidance and direction, since we cannot easily evaluate success in His economy by ourselves.



[i] Galatians 2:20, ESV

[ii] Matthew 5:5

[iii] Matthew 18:2-4

[iv] On the Genealogy of Morals

[v] Beyond Good and Evil

[vi] Book II, Plato’s Republic

[vii] Psalm 73:3, NIV

[viii] Psalm 73:13, NIV

[ix] Psalm 73:25, NIV

[x] Psalm 73:22, NIV

[xi] Frankfurt “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” in Watson (1982), ed., 81–95.

[xii] ɸ in philosophy represents performing an action. My use of Greek symbols was probably pretty unnecessary, but just wanted to make sure you were still checking the footnotes as this essay is about to launch into philosophy mode, and I’ll be qualifying a lot of statements with these footnotes very soon.

[xiii] I should clarify, I am here speaking of worldly or superficial power. I actually believe that the kinds of weakness that Christianity calls us to are the ultimate kinds of power available to us.

[xiv] In other words that I want to want to kill him.

[xv] Gal 5:13, NIV

[xvi] Find the Baumeister papers

[xvii] Find the UNC immune system paper

[xviii] Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 203

[xix] I leave open the very, very likely possibility that the logic that we perceieve is different from the kind that exists in reality (i.e. in itself, or noumenally), or for God. It could be that a kind of compatibilist picture of free will coexisting with God’s causing us to choose Him is possible, just ungraspable by our limited capacities. In fact, this suggestion is highly probable in light of passages such Romans 8:30

[xx] This does not undermine God’s omnipotence at all. The inability for Him to violate logical truths has no bearing on His omnipotence. That’s why questions such as, “Can God make a three sided square? Can God kill Himself, etc.” are incoherent.

[xxi] Romans 8:26

[xxii] Mt 6:19-24

[xxiii] Romans 8:16

[xxiv] Lk 21:1-4

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,