The Myth of the Autonomous Self

In my opinion, perhaps the greatest obstacle to a sound theology is a flawed conceptualisation of personhood. Cultural and religious systems the world over (and I follow René Girard’s line of thought here, that religion is primarily functional rather than spiritual, and religious systems can be entirely secular – the gods being entirely incidental) operate from a basic premise that there exists an autonomous self who can be held wholly accountable for their actions. But there is no such thing as an autonomous self. It is a demonstrably erroneous assumption, and one that I believe ought to compel all religions and cultures to reinvent themselves.  

Human beings are mimetic creatures: we become who we are through others. From the moment we are born, we begin to imitate our parents. At first it is simply physical mimicry of gestures and sounds. This repetitive imitation gradually evolves into language acquisition, which is critical to the formation of the human psyche, and which establishes a way of seeing and understanding the world. Thus from the very beginning, our “selves” are modeled on those around us. The other is always anterior to the self.

Gradually, that which draws the infant to the adult moves the infant’s attention to external objects designated by the adult. For example, the adult gives the infant a rattle or a dummy, and the draw shifts away from the adult model to what the adult model has, and more – to wanting to be who the model is. This mimesis, being rooted in desire, leads inevitably to rivalry with the model (which Freud illustrates in his famous idea of the Oedipus complex), and it is in the resolution of this rivalry that much of what we understand as our “self” is formed. Our sense of  “me” is always formed over and against another, from whose foundational role in the desires that have formed us we attempt to extricate ourselves.

But once you peel away all the layers, you will find that there is no “me” to be found, so that psychology – as French-Albanian neuropsychiatrist Jean-Michel Ourghoulian argues, is never about the individual at all, rather, psychology is what happens between people. We can only ever understand people-in-relationship.

Wittgenstein famously observed that the limits of our language are the limits of our minds. I think what we need is a new language to denote personhood. The words we have restrict understanding, by giving the false impression that individuals are self-contained and independent and fixed. We do not have a word that adequately conveys the ever-shifting, malleable, interdependent being-with that is the self.

This alternative knowledge of personhood demands that we rework our theologies. One of the engines of religious life (and I classify all of our named cultures, and even our secular justice systems as essentially religious institutions) is the distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous. We base these distinctions on an individual’s behaviour – the degree to which they demonstrate willingness to conform to a prescribed code of conduct – and by trying to understand their motivations as mitigating factors for any deviant behaviour. Then we regulate rivalry and maintain social cohesion by – in some form or other – exiling the unrighteous. The flip side of this is that we attempt to conform ourselves to a characterisation of a “righteous” member of the group. The whole system becomes a massive economy of exchange where the righteous are duly rewarded and the unrighteous justly punished. Social order is maintained.

But it only works if the unrighteous can be held accountable as autonomous individuals for their deviance. Which, it turns out, is impossible. Because there never was an autonomous self to begin with. We are, in Ourghoulian’s words, “puppets of desire”, formed in relationship and moved by desires that were never ours to begin with.

How do we respond then? How is justice even possible when to suggest another’s guilt means to unveil my own complicity? You are who you are because I helped shape you that way, and I am who I am as a result of your desires. Who is guilty? Who is innocent?

In the 1999 film, The Matrix, Neo is offered a choice between a blue pill and a red pill. The blue one will allow him to remain comfortably and blissfully ignorant, living out his life in an illusion. The red one offers a much harder path, where the illusion is stripped away and he will be left to fend for himself in a harsh and unfamiliar reality. It wouldn’t have been much of a film if he had chosen blue.

Now I am not claiming to be able to give you a red pill. I don’t have any more claim to possessing truth than you do. But I do believe that religion (in the broad sense already outlined) offers you only the blue one. All of the claims about Heaven and Hell, invitations to “personal relationships with Jesus”, all distinctions between the unrighteous and righteous, are blue pills. They will allow you to remain (reasonably anyway) content and comfortable, because maintaining the status quo generally does. Blue pill religion offers the reassurance that ‘you’ are right, ‘they’ are wrong, and everything will work out for ‘you’ in the end because ‘they’ are the problem and ‘they’ will get what is coming to them. ‘You’ may have it tough now, but your reward will come. But the blue pill comes at a cost that usually remains hidden to those who choose it: it achieves this peace through blood and then it hides its victims.

I believe that Jesus offers you a red pill. And not in the ‘taking-your-punishment-in-your-place’ way. That’s blue pill talk. Any theology that would have God vent God’s wrath against the unrighteous is blue pill theology. No, Jesus doesn’t offer another religion. He goes right through religion and culture, exposes them as illusory, and leads you to where the real brokenness lies: not in your personal sinfulness and subsequent estrangement from God, but in your (probably) unwitting complicity in a web of broken and dysfunctional relationships that diminishes everybody’s quality of life. And he points out another way, one of radical self-giving love that transcends holiness codes and chosenness. He offers a way of being human that dispenses with arbitrary distinctions between the righteous and unrighteous and shows us, instead, that we are us-together; the most important thing is what happens between us. And when that breaks, it is not restored through scapegoating and blame, but only ever through forgiveness and reconciliation.

If you are still reading, then – like me – you have probably lost faith in the blue pill. Let’s take the red one and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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