Few readers of Front Porch Republic, I imagine, would disagree that something is fundamentally wrong with modern people and the world we live in. We are sick, and our society is sick and makes us sick. Yet we can only begin to consider treating our collective and individual ills if we rightly understand the nature of the disease we face. One of the most perceptive diagnosticians of recent years is Alan Noble, author of Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted World and now You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World.
In his latest book, Noble argues that Western society—including the Western church—is shaped around the lie that we belong to ourselves. Because I am my own, nobody can tell me what to do or how to live or who I am; yet because I am my own, I am wholly and solely responsible for choosing my own meaning, identity, and purpose.
Accordingly, we all carry the burden of what Noble refers to as the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging. We may respond to this burden through affirmation, accepting the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging and seeking to fully live them out, or through resignation, seeing that the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging are a hopeless cause and rationally opting out, cutting our costs and seeking to maximize our pleasure while we can. But neither posture is a healthy one: “A posture of Affirmation runs you ragged….A posture of Resignation leaves you aimless and dispirited.” Whichever attitude we adopt, the constant stream of choices for identity, purpose, and even community can leave us paralyzed over making the right choice and despairing over all the options we must reject. In fact, Noble suggests, the differences between the affirming and the resigned may not be very great at all: “Often the only thing that separates people who affirm their self-belonging from those who resigned themselves to it is the quality of the tools they use to cope—their self-medication.“
Indeed, as Noble observes, “We all self-medicate.” That is, we all look to tools and techniques to help us bear the unbearable burdens of belonging to ourselves. Although he does raise some concerns about the extent of reliance on anti-depressants and psychiatric medications in the modern West, he also acknowledges the value they can have for some individuals. Instead, he focuses his critique on a broader attitude of quantification, rationalization, and efficiency that creeps into more and more areas of human life. To give just one of countless examples,
Even when we think we are on vacation or relaxing, the spirit of our action is still efficiency. Vacation becomes a project that must be completed on-time and under budget. Even when we try to “veg” by scrolling through Instagram, playing a mindless video game, or watching episode after episode of a mediocre sitcom, the pace of the entertainment is frenetic. Images change rapidly and we get bored easily. Our rest is rarely restful. It is an active rest, a rest without silence or stillness, a rest marked by the overwhelming responsibility to make better use of your time.
Up to this point, many of Noble’s arguments—that new tools and techniques can create as many problems as they seem to solve, that efficiency is harmful and inhuman when allowed to become the ultimate value—will surely find many Front Porch Republic readers nodding along.
If this is our diagnosis, that we live in a society fundamentally shaped by the lie that we are our own, where then can we look for a cure? It is at this point that the piercing insight of Noble’s analysis truly shines, especially his radical commitment to working out all the ways we are ourselves always already implicated in what we critique in others. Noble stands out from many other Christian cultural critics through his refusal to let anyone off the hook—not his readers, not even himself. Poking serious fun at the business of book-writing, he observes that readers might expect him to offer “Five Steps for Changing Your Life by Accepting That You Are Not Your Own,” but he will not lie to us by proposing a technique to solve our over-reliance on technique. Instead, he simply offers “wise counsel.”
That wise counsel is rooted in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, which states,
Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Noble argues that, as counter-intuitive as it may seem to modern, Western ears, our belonging to someone else—specifically to Someone else, Jesus Christ—provides comfort that none of our futile attempts at self-belonging can ever achieve. In fact, our belonging to Christ has enormous implications, securing for us identity, meaning, purpose, and both existential and moral justification, yet without in any way diminishing our humanity.
(Those who may be concerned about human abuses of authority will be glad to know that Noble addresses this concern directly, sympathetically acknowledging the potential for harm but pointing out that God’s authority, unlike any human authority, is truly and purely oriented toward our good. While some further discussion of how to separate human from divine authority in practice would have been helpful, this acknowledgement is welcome nonetheless.)
So belonging to Christ and not ourselves is the greatest, indeed the only, comfort that Noble can imagine. But it is not a complete cure. Indeed, Noble is startlingly frank about the inhuman conditions that we continue to experience even once we have accepted the truth that we are not our own.
There is no magic here, only a confused, desperate, anxious world, and God. There is only technique, dehumanization, self-medication, and Christ’s love. There is only the freedom to accept the truth about your existence, even when it doesn’t change the world or fix all your problems.
Accordingly, we must learn to live our lives in radical dependence on God’s grace. Grace is not a remedy for the ills of our inhuman world but the only possible response to it. Grace leads us to “wait without hope” (a phrase Noble borrows from T. S. Eliot) —that is, without hope in human strategies to save the world but instead with “the greatest possible form of hope: an absolute faith in God‘s faithfulness and His ability to bring justice and truth and beauty in circumstances where we can no longer imagine them.” Our belonging to Christ enables us to extend grace both to ourselves and to our neighbors, because we are no longer responsible for “making something of ourselves.” As Noble dryly observes, we can even offer grace when they, or we, fail to choose the most optimal coping mechanisms.
If we are not responsible for justifying our own existence, then what are we responsible for? Noble argues that the right response to God’s grace is a life of prodigality:
The Christian alternative to technique is prodigality, which requires the faith to be still, to depend on God for your future. We live prodigally when we act according to love or goodness or beauty rather than primarily efficiency….We may think of prodigality as lavishness or wastefulness, but Christian prodigality is the act of submitting efficiency under the influence of other, higher values. We may think of leisure as doing whatever makes us most physically comfortable, but Christian leisure is the practice of delighting gratefully in God’s creation without regard for what is easiest, simplest, or cheapest.
Although the prodigality to which we are called is as radical as the grace that is ours, most often a life characterized by it will be relatively ordinary, characterized by faithfulness to the people and places closest to us. (A moderate but decided strain of localism runs throughout You Are Not Your Own, and I would be excited to see Noble develop this principle further in a future book.) Noble repeatedly sounds the call to prioritize faithfulness over visible success:
Your obligation is faithfulness, not productivity or measurable results.
For the most part the answer to the city is found in millions of tiny decisions to live faithfully even while living in the city.*
If we are not our own, then our obligation is to honor God with our lives. He has called us to stay in the city and work for its good – but mostly to pray.
You may never see the fruits of your labor in this life, but it doesn’t matter. God did not call you to be successful. He called you to be faithful.
This is no medicine for our illness. But Noble prescribes something far better: a reminder that our illness is not terminal.
Overall, You Are Not Your Own is one of the most compelling, insightful, and wise books I have read in a long while, and I am eager to get it into the hands of friends and loved ones—both those who believe they belong to themselves, and those who know they belong to Christ but still live in a society founded on the lie that they are their own. My hope is that they, and I, will learn to say along with Noble, “Thank God we are not our own.”
*Noble uses Jacques Ellul’s image of “the city” to refer to humanity’s desire for autonomy through technology, as seen for example in the Tower built by the city of Babel. I find this image unhelpful, given the Bible’s more ambivalent attitude toward cities; see, for instance, the Holy City in Revelation 21-22. Nevertheless, the point about tiny decisions of faithfulness is a sound one.