A world of false promises
You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World
By Alan Noble | InterVarsity Press, USA | 2021, 205 pages
Alan Noble, evangelical Christian, writer and Assistant Professor of English in Oklahoma Baptist University, sets out a very dystopian view of contemporary culture and society in his latest book, You Are Not Your Own.
His title is taken from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (6:19-20) and he sees the failure of the human family to grasp its truth as the root cause of the discontent and disillusion that bedevils modern life.
Noble describes our culture as “made by humans, but not for humans”. Humanity has made a cultural habitat for itself that is as uncongenial to our nature as zoos are for animals born to roam free and hunt for their own food. We are trapped in cages of our own making.
Essentially, the cage is the lie that our lives belong to ourselves, that we can make them what we will by using every “technique” society has to offer to build our identity, set our goals and find the key to a fulfilling life.
Noble demonstrates that this path of “self-belonging” is futile because even when we attain the goals we set for ourselves, other goals come into view. Our culture is endlessly aspirational and competitive, and we struggle against others engaged in the same task of making their lives significant.
Noble points out the tension between the idea of personal autonomy and the deep human need for affirmation. Deep down, there is a sense that we are not really our own; we need the validation of an external authority. We want more than the freedom to make choices for ourselves. We want others to approve of those choices too. “We want to be moral beings.”
Noble makes the interesting point that modern morality is driven by data rather than principle. If a principle exists, it is the principle of efficiency. He points out that the weight of data can shift and a case can be made for legitimising or de-legitimising what was previously held to be moral or immoral.
He cites abortion to show how arguments are made on the basis of social and economic efficiency to justify liberalising legislation. One cannot but think of how this relativist and contingent thinking influences arguments from the conservative side too.
Quite frequently, we hear pro-life advocates citing, for instance, the demographic consequences of widespread abortion or the ways in which it can damage women, allowing opponents to move away from the core issue and argue back with counter-data.
Data-based arguments in moral debates can be a vicious circle in which both sides lose sight of the principle at stake. It is not that arguments from contingency are not relevant and useful, but they can be a trap and relativise the principle.
Fallen from grace
Noble concludes that our society is sick because its systems are sick and irredeemably so. We have to live “without hope” of changing the world, while continuing to engage with it in a moral and responsible way. He does not mention original sin, but then the language of this book is not at all theological in the sense a Catholic would use the term.
Noble sets out the reformist idea that it is the heightened awareness of our sinful state rather than the in-breaking of grace -- most strikingly in the lives of the saints -- that is the mark of the Christian. A Catholic perspective would also consider the “leaven” effect of faith in the world, pervasive and powerful despite its insignificance and irrelevance in worldly eyes.
It is one of the great paradoxes of the faith that its apparent weakness and failure in the eyes of the world carries within itself all the power and majesty of the world’s creator, like the tiny and inconsequential mustard seed of the Kingdom which Christ proclaimed that grows into the greatest of trees where birds come to settle and nest.
The life of faith evokes something of what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described as “inscape”, the shaping power within our world that is immanent and active even when it is suppressed, denied and dismissed.
Noble regards our present age with its false anthropology that claims man is his own master as somehow the most “inhuman environment” that humankind has ever had to cope with. While he is right to say the consuming question of our age is “who am I?” rather than “who is God?”, nonetheless other more formally religious times also had their all-consuming worldly preoccupations that were no less inimical to the life of faith.
Demonising or valourising the present age over all others is a fashionable theme for both believing and unbelieving cultural commentators, but the fact is our inherent sinfulness has blighted every age and social order in human history and comparisons are largely invidious.
Noble rightly critiques Steven Pinker, who holds the opposite view of our present age, believing that it demonstrates how humanity continues to advance towards a golden age of reason and enlightenment. However, his own theory is also open to rebuttal.
For Noble, the modern city, specifically the American modern city, expresses humankind’s hubristic belief in its ability to create its own secure, autonomous world of order, plenty and self-sufficiency. Yet, most of those who live within its figurative walls feel alienated, disconnected and alone.
Noble writes about the mental health crisis that systems struggle to address, and the alarming levels of suicide and medication among his fellow Americans in particular. He does not address directly the fractured witness of faith in the New World or consider the contrast between American cities and the cities and towns of Europe, planned around a space dominated by a church or cathedral, professing a common creed, cities whose church spires announce their presence in all directions from miles away.
While Europe is abandoning its Christian roots, the architectural symbolism of a unifying and centring faith endures and continues to draw its people, rearing up somehow like a huge question mark over the spiritual malaise of our time. It is undeniable that the grief and shock that followed the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris touched a deep nerve in the soul of the Western culture. Noble does however acknowledge that the spirit of the age has seeped into the life of the churches he is familiar with, observing that religious adherence is often more about identity and lifestyle than “personhood”.
You Are Not Your Own has the occasional blind spots. Noble attributes the high level of suicides in today’s world to what he call the phenomenon of “resignation” or acceptance of failure to realise one’s goals by opting out of the rat race and opting into more available and more destructive addictions. Yet, it is not the aspirational classes who succumb mostly to suicide but males from low-achieving, socioeconomic groups who never went to college.
Other commentators have noted a link to the downgrading of the paternal role in the family, or in many cases its total elimination, as a factor in this trend. Noble’s theory fails to fully address the question.
The book addresses the claim of its title forthrightly. Noble ably demonstrates that the freedom and autonomy the world offers leads to alienation and emptiness. Our identity is not something we need to discover and create for ourselves. Our identity “was never in question”.
When we accept Christ, “acknowledge we are not our own, seek to live before Him”, we are “truly ourselves”. That is what we are created for. “Our desperate efforts to justify our existence are striving after a state we are already in.” To live as the humans “He designed us to be” is about accepting limits, but also finding the freedom to enjoy God’s gifts in their fullness. It also opens us to delight in His goodness and love. “The same Spirit that limits us is also the Spirit that enables us to live righteously and humanly” and have life to the full, as Jesus promised those who would take up their yoke and follow Him.
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