Sacred Autonomy?


Hannah Arendt on TotalitarianismIt seems the more we become so-called autonomous individuals the more we become dependent on official rules and legislation. It’s one of the big paradoxes in today’s western society.

We have to be sure that others respect our so-called freedom and therefore force them, by means of law, to satisfy our supposedly very own needs and desires. Others are indeed often approached from a perspective of usefulness, as means to other ends, and not as ends in themselves. Another paradox. We all know what will happen if we are no longer surrounded by the others whose services we’re accustomed to. Most of us so-called self-reliant and independent western individuals are actually so dependent on the others we learned to need that we wouldn’t last a year in the jungle.

Looked at more closely, our celebrated autonomy turns out to be a grand illusion. Perhaps we so strongly cling to it because we actually don’t have that autonomy. The grand illusion of autonomy is “the romantic illusion” René Girard speaks of – the belief that we own ourselves and our desires.

questions on euthanasia for minorsThe upcoming legislation on euthanasia for minors in Belgium painfully uncovers the failure of the vain quest for autonomy, once again. Instead of trusting and allowing medical teams, parents and other family members the greater freedom (and thus the greater responsibility) to maintain an ever delicate care for children who are terminally ill in their own experienced ways, we once again try to “control” and “manage” the complexity of intimate and vulnerable human relationships by laws and procedures. Where’s the freedom in a society with ever more rules to live by?

I know that we want to prevent abuses from happening. I know that we want to prevent unnecessary suffering. And that’s a good thing. The law on euthanasia for minors might be good in the sense that it has “good intentions”. But laws can be abused as well. Procedural errors sometimes get in the way of the demand for justice and for sound judgment. Should we put the pressure on the people responsible for the minors in their care? Should we make them afraid of possible “procedural errors”? Or should we trust them with freedom and responsibility? Should we grant them, as well as the children, greater autonomy? In other words: should we truly become a liberal society?

I guess the apostle Paul has a point (Romans 7:7-15.21-24a) about the possible perversion of good-intended laws:

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (1620 Valentin de Boulogne)What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. […]

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.What a wretched man I am!


Using the thought of René Girard and mimetic theory, it is possible to sketch out a history of the western world as something which evolves according to ever changing attempts to contain our own violence. Throughout history mankind has been in search of scapegoats to get rid of in order to safeguard society from actual and potential violent disasters. The paradox, of course, is that this “sacred” search often turns out to be physically or mentally violent as well, creating exactly what it is trying to destroy. Indeed, “Satan cannot drive out Satan” (Mark 3:23). So what happened?

  • crusadesWell, at first we had religion as a means to contain violence. After a while, however, too many guys claiming to know the divine Truth were fighting each other, constantly waging war and causing violent mayhem in the western world. So we tried to get rid of God, sacrificing some believers here and there.
  • Totalitarianism by Stalin and HitlerReason and science came in. But after we tried to build a world on so-called purely rational and scientific principles, developing ideas on “the necessary development towards the dictatorship of the proletariat” or on “the superiority of the Aryan race”, and after experiencing that these principles led to mass sacrifices as well, we could no longer believe in the reasonable Truth as well. So we tried to get rid of Reason, making way for “emocracy” and so-called “own opinions”.
  • Christopher Hitchens quote on own opinionIn 1948 we got The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is in fact a declaration on individual rights. After the traumatic experience of two world wars, it can be read as an attempt to protect the individual from too much influence by the Church or the State. What matters now is our “own opinion” and our “own desire” – in short, our Autonomy. We now believe in the unquestionable autonomous Truth (really a perversion of the Human Rights, which were intended to foster tolerance and the possibility of critical dialogue).

After the sacred totalitarianism of people who claimed to speak and act in the name of “God”, we got the sacred totalitarianism of people who claimed to speak and act in the name of “Reason”, followed eventually by the sacred totalitarianism of people who claim to speak and act in the name of “Autonomy”.

All three forms of totalitarianism are closed to what’s Other than themselves, closed to what transcends and reveals itself beyond the needs of the totalitarian impulse. They destroy the possibility of any relationship with the Other. All three forms of totalitarianism justify the sacrifice (physically and/or mentally) of “otherness” in the name of “peace and harmony”.

The totalitarian impulse is in our hearts. Unless we accept ourselves as “relational beings” or “being essentially relational before being an I”, we won’t find the freedom and autonomy we so desperately long for.

Carter Heyward quote on God as LoveSo yes, I do believe in a God who transcends man and liberates us from the crushing burden of having to be “the measure of all things”. And yes, I do believe in the gift of Reason as a means to explore the mysteries of a world that’s given. In the end, I also believe in Others, my fellow human beings who grant me my personal freedom and allow me to discover myself.

Diagram of the Holy Trinity (Compendium Historiae in Genealogia Christi, Peter of Poitiers, England 1208-1216)I believe I’m created in the image of a God whose very being is “relational” – an idea expressed as The Holy Trinity -, and I’m called to imitate that Love to become “who I am”. This hopefully helps me to protect myself against the perversions of faith, reason and autonomy. I do hope that faith does not become an ideological certitude but a starting point that allows us to meet “others”. I do hope that reason does not become unreasonable. And I do hope that autonomy does not end up in enslavement.

Man as Social Being (Wolfgang Palaver)


  1. skylar · January 6, 2014

    Hi Erik,
    good topic, though I’m not sure I understand exactly what Paul is saying in Romans. Is he referring to the phenomenon that occurs when you focus too much on what you SHOULD NOT do, and suddenly it seems like you have a stronger urge to do it than you ever felt before? Like when you’re dieting?

    In a way that letter from Paul reminds me of a letter that I found in a bible. It was written by a psychopath. At the time he was very sick and wrote the letter asking God to heal his mind and body. Then he signed and dated it. It was 1985. But I know that he never stopped committing crimes against God and humanity, so maybe the letter had a rebound effect. I know that he became more and more evil. He even signed and dated it again in 1987 but he never stopped poisoning my food during all that time.

    I wish I understood but maybe it’s best that I don’t!


    • erik buys · January 7, 2014

      Your answer reminds me of William Blake, in his poem The Everlasting Gospel:

      “When first I let these devils in,
      In dark pretence to chastity
      Blaspheming Love, blaspheming Thee,
      Thence rose secret adulteries,
      And thence did covet also rise”

      I’ll get to you this week, for sure!


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