Maturity: Autonomy or Dependence?

by Derek Brown

How would you define maturity? What are the marks that distinguish a mature person from an immature person? Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a well-known and widely influential Enlightenment (approx. 1600-1800) philosopher, defined maturity in terms of one’s growth in autonomous thinking and in one’s ability to use and trust his reason rather than be led and taught by others. This is how Kant described the Enlightenment project: 

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude [dare to know]. “Have the courage to use your own understanding!”—that is the motto of the enlightenment.

To really understand Kant’s statements, however, we have to read them in their cultural context. When Kant wrote these words, the West was undergoing a major intellectual shift in the area of epistemology (i.e., the study of how we know things). “How can we be certain of truth?” was the major question of the day. 

Growth in maturity, according to Scripture, is characterized by a growing dependence upon God’s Word, not increasing departure from it.

Kant and other the philosophers of his time, however, were skeptical of the idea that genuine knowledge could be obtained from so-called revelation (e.g., the Bible). The major Enlightenment philosophers (Decartes, Hume, Kant, etc.), each had a slightly different spin on how to understand knowledge, truth, and certainty, but they all agreed that one’s reason (over-against divine revelation) was the final arbiter of truth. If reason is the final judge of what is true, then, maturity must be defined primarily in terms of intellectual autonomy: to depend upon divine revelation is a sign that you haven’t really grown up. 

This vision of maturity is held in stark contrast with the biblical vision. Growth in maturity, according to Scripture, is characterized by a growing dependence upon God’s Word, not increasing departure from it. Consider how the Proverbs speak of “intellectual autonomy.”

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.

Proverbs 26:12

According to Solomon, true wisdom (maturity) is found precisely in rejecting intellectual autonomy, not embracing it. Jesus Christ, the omniscient God-Man and flawless example of true maturity, relied exclusively on Scripture in order to defeat the wiles of the devil (Matt 4:1-11) and reminded his disciples that their fruitfulness would be stimulated by their dependence and stymied by their independence (John 15:1-7). 

None of this is meant to suggest that we shouldn’t use our minds or think rigorously. God has given us minds, and we are to make the most of these “tools” for the glory of God, the benefit of others, and our spiritual and intellectual growth. But we must always remember that our reason only works the way it was designed to work when it is relying upon God’s Spirit and his revelation in Scripture.

In a day when we are scoffed at for relying upon God’s gracious revelation in the Bible, let us say, in contrast to Kant: “Have the courage to trust in the Lord, and not in your own understanding!”

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