Autonomy. A much-loved virtue in our contemporary age. Freedom to do whatever we like, say whatever we want, be whoever we want to be. But like all things, autonomy has its light and dark sides.
Light sideThe light side of autonomy confers us a healthy self-assurance that seeks not its fulfilment in contingent things but in rock-solid truths of our being and reality. Autonomy in this sense has a bright and unfettered quality of recognizing one's unique configuration and design, without getting fixated on it or building one's pride upon it. The self upon which autonomy is applied is a nominal relational self that sees clearly its own ephemerality and non-substantiality.
Dark sideThe dark side of autonomy overreaches into self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing isolation and alienation from others. Stemming from deluded identification of selfhood with the limited body-mind, 'dark' autonomy projects a false contracted substantial self replete with its dogmatic beliefs, values, and models never to be ceded to a higher reality. In the face of a greater truth like God or ultimate reality, dark autonomy which is really pridefulness resists and rebels against the truth even at the cost of personal anguish.
Subtle dark autonomyA subtler version of dark autonomy is found in the spiritual or contemplative path traversed by many across faith and wisdom traditions. This subtle dark autonomy is not easily recognized. Through self-inquiry and meditative realization, it is possible for one to reach the further reaches of human nature where seeming divisions and duality vanish.
The psyche may even be healthy, having experienced the necessary growing-up stages of psychological development. The social self may also be healthily showing up in work and relationships. The spirit is awakened to its luminosity, bliss, freedom, and knowing—it has woken up. But all of these do not guarantee the cessation of dark autonomy, a poison that continues to resist and rebel (albeit insidiously in the shadows) against the Source of its nominal relational self. Rebellion runs deep and concealed.
Hidden rebellionFreely coursing in luminous empty infinite awareness, one is seductively tempted to regard this exquisite realization as the ultimate state or final attainment. This awareness is not an escapist fantasy but an awakened consciousness equipped with a balanced, well-rounded, healthy psyche and social self. Nonetheless, awareness remains ignorant of its sheer contingency on the One who breathed it into being—God. Exquisite though it is, awareness tempted by its exceptional expanse of limitlessness is inadvertently entranced by itself and entrapped in rebellion.
Awareness subtly resists acknowledging and honouring the One who truly deserves honour. Awareness subtly rebels against full communion and union with the Creator who was, who is, and who will always be greater than, prior to, and ontologically not-one with itself. Perhaps a subtle pride, none other than dark autonomy, lurks behind the scenes to goad one's being away from God and towards anything other than the One True God: the Triune God who is Father-Son-Spirit whose sovereign purpose was made manifest in the Son becoming human to assume our humanity in its fallenness and place us into His very being, bearing the totality of our sinful rebellion on the cross so that the justice of a holy God can be served and a way made for us to return into His presence, ontologically and experientially.
Grace-given freedomWhen this tremendous revelation breaks forth in awareness, complacency shatters and pride pulverizes, engendering deep repentance (metanoia = change of heart-mind) that turns away from sinful rebellion and moves towards wholehearted surrender unto the Lord. Dark autonomy ceases completely in total surrender. In its place, light autonomy rooted in truth-based recognition of ever-dynamic flow of consciousness in its relationality and nominality becomes our default mode of experiencing ourselves and the world. In this true and bright autonomy, we as nominal relational beings are contingent upon our God who is both our Creator and Redeemer, who has saved us from the hell of separative torment into the eternal joy of Triune life, a heaven that is Christ himself.
In this true autonomy in Christ, we are truly free—free not only from self-inflicted anguish and the satanic powers of evil but also free in the nature and character of God that we can imbibe and appropriate due to Christ's perfect finished work. We are free in the power of His Holy Spirit to be progressively sanctified into the fullness of Christ's likeness and image. Finally, when we are resurrected from corruptibility into incorruptibility in the flesh, we are glorified in Christ and united with Him forever more.