In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, we find one of the greatest dialogues in British literature. As Satan rallies some angels to rebel against God, one stalwart angel, Abdiel, objects on the grounds that God created them and they belong to him. Satan guilefully mocks this “strange” and “new” claim, insisting that the angels created themselves and were “possessed before by none.” When he’s later exiled to Earth, Satan uses a similar lie to convince Eve that she and Adam don’t need God: They can become their own gods and live a “life more perfect” than their Creator meant for them.
From this inauspicious start until today, “humanity’s fundamental rebellion against God has been a rebellion of autonomy,” writes Alan Noble in his latest book, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World. As the subtitle suggests, Noble’s premise is that modern society is fundamentally inhuman and that this inhumanity stems from the lie that we belong to ourselves. Like Adam and Eve, we believe that accepting our creaturely limits will likewise limit our happiness, so we reject God’s authority and end up experiencing what they did: distance from God, each other, and even ourselves.
Because this rebellion dates back to Eden, Noble doesn’t make the sky-is-falling claim that our society is doing something new. Instead, he diagnoses some contemporary forms of inhumanity, and he shows how these social cancers have metastasized from that primordial lie of self-ownership. The cure, says Noble, comes from acknowledging what and whose we are: creatures who belong to our good Creator.
In arguing that our society is fundamentally inhuman, Noble outlines an array of social ills ranging from our various forms of addiction and abuse to our unhealthy engagement with technology and the natural environment. Taken together, these pathologies portray a deeply dysfunctional society set against the way humans are meant to live.
The building blocks of any healthy society—its institutions, laws, and rituals—depend on its beliefs about humanity. Misunderstanding what we are and why we exist is a recipe for inhuman conditions. Because our society teaches that we belong to ourselves, we all suffer under the inhuman implications of this belief.
The most significant implication is that we’re entirely responsible for ourselves. While this idea might at first sound liberating, it carries a number of crushing burdens: trying to justify your own existence, creating and expressing your identity, coming up with meanings for everything, deciding for yourself what’s valuable, and searching for ways to belong.
Noble collectively refers to these burdens as the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging. While not everyone experiences them all at once, he explains, we experience each of them at one time or another, to the extent that we believe the lie of self-belonging. As it turns out, none of us can bear any of these responsibilities alone. So, ironically, we turn to society to help us belong to ourselves.
A central goal of any healthy society is promoting the common good. But that can’t happen if people get to decide the meaning of “the good life” for themselves. In light of this, our society has moved toward helping people live “authentically” by giving them tools to fulfill their Responsibilities of Self-Belonging.
For each “responsibility,” Noble gives examples of our society tirelessly reinforcing the message that we are our own. For instance, it helps us justify our own existence by providing stories—of romance, success, fame, wealth—that help us imagine the good life for ourselves. When it comes to personal identities, we have endless options, endless ways to express them.
Yet as Noble explains, “If we are not in fact our own, then living ‘authentically’ will not produce human flourishing, and a society that compels us to live ‘authentically’ will only make us increasingly distressed, exhausted, and alienated.” And rather than abandoning this message of authenticity, we double down, contriving new tools and techniques to cope with our inhuman conditions.
Noble relies heavily on the work of French sociologist Jacques Ellul to argue that this drive to maximize efficiency in every aspect of life has become the defining ethos of modern society. Our society may not agree on much, but we almost uniformly agree that progress depends on finding and employing the right techniques (laws, self-help books, podcasts, protests, diets, planners). The tacit agreement is that if we commit to the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging, we can overcome inhuman conditions and find lasting happiness.
Though efficiency has many healthy applications, Noble warns that it’s hopeless to place our ultimate happiness in the hands of social progress. For one thing, new tools and techniques have a tendency to fix some problems while forming new ones. Also, the goal of belonging to oneself is a zero-sum game: “Everyone must strive to make their personhood visible and affirmed,” Noble writes. “Everyone must define their identity against everyone else.” We see this competition at work in our constant culture wars.
Noble’s strongest argument against happiness through self-ownership is that “a society premised on the sovereign self has no discernible ends, only an ever expanding and ever demanding number of means.” Without an essential purpose for our lives, we’re stuck in a process of becoming that never reaches a clear destination. In this sense, our society’s promise that we’ll progress toward greater happiness is more like a warning. As Noble expresses it: “You will keep searching, keep expressing, keep redefining, keep striving for your autonomous personhood until you die.”
Noble compares our purposeless, ceaseless struggle to that of Sisyphus, the figure from Greek mythology who was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain for all eternity. Though Sisyphus has traditionally represented hopelessness and despair, the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus famously put a 20th-century gloss on the ancient myth: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Some find a certain dignity in Camus’s call to derive happiness from the struggle of life itself. They embrace the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging, believing it’s up to them to organize and optimize their way to a maximally happy life. Noble refers to this posture as “the way of affirmation.” An alternative posture is “the way of resignation,” which describes those who believe society has failed to provide the tools they need to fulfill their Responsibilities of Self-Belonging. Seeing no plausible path to realizing and expressing their authentic selves, they seek alternative ways to derive meaning and happiness.
In the end, both pathways leave us feeling stressed and exhausted or aimless and alone. But Noble shows how the gospel of Jesus Christ offers a radically different vision. Like Abdiel to Satan, the Good News reminds us that we were created by God and belong wholly to him. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
As Noble acknowledges, the claim that we are not our own will make some uncomfortable. Beyond having been shaped by a society that prizes autonomy, certain readers may have suffered various forms of abuse that make belonging to anyone seem threatening and intolerable. Yet, using the catechism’s language, Noble insists that belonging to Christ is in fact our greatest source of comfort.
Underlying his argument is the fact that true autonomy is a myth. We are all caught up in massive webs of mutual belonging. Our births and upbringings we owe to others, and even the courses of our adult lives owe shockingly little to individual endeavor. Without exception, other creatures circumscribe the fact and conditions of our existence, just as we circumscribe theirs.
This would be bad news were it not for Christ. Being limited by each other leaves us vulnerable to mistreatment when others inevitably pursue their good to the detriment of ours—and we’re hardly better at knowing and pursuing our own good. “We need to belong to someone who is perfectly able to desire our own good while desiring their own good, someone for whom there cannot be a conflict between our good and their good,” Noble writes. “We need to belong to Christ.”
Of course, belonging to Christ entails limits on how we can live. Yet, like a string on a kite, these limits free us to realize our true purpose. They do not constrain but comfort those who embrace them.
Noble’s vision of rightly ordered limits as the cure to individualism and technopoly is hardly new. In the book’s openings pages, he gladly acknowledges his indebtedness to writers like Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Alain Ehrenberg, Zygmunt Bauman, Josef Pieper, Jacques Ellul, and others. Yet the success of You Are Not Your Own lies not in the originality of Noble’s ideas but in his winsome, even pastoral way of combining incisive cultural analysis with historic Christian teaching while bringing both to bear on the church’s role in society.
As a college professor and editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture, Noble is known for helping the church navigate the crosscurrents between Christianity and contemporary society. In the closing pages of You Are Not Your Own, he gives a hopeful and measured look at how the church can witness to this comforting truth, painting a beautiful and compelling portrait of Christian community in our age of inhuman autonomy.
As a whole, Noble’s book stands as a vital wake-up call for anyone suffering under the delusion that they belong to themselves. Unlike tragic Sisyphus, those who belong to Christ need never just imagine themselves happy.
Timothy Kleiser is a teacher and writer from Louisville, Kentucky. His writing has appeared in National Review, The American Conservative, Modern Age, Atlanta Review, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere.
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