Alan Noble’s You Are Not Your Own is an appeal to reclaim the anthropological sensibilities of the Heidelberg Catechism by way of a trenchant analysis of what it feels like to live in the malaise of the modern “inhuman” world.Noble’s analysis is thoroughly in the mold of Walker Percy, of whom I was reminded several times reading You Are Not Your Own, though Percy was, to my surprise, only referenced expressly once in the opening pages of the book. For as far-ranging as Noble’s book is, again and again I found myself being profitably pressed, for lack of better language, to think small. For example, Noble speaks of “advocating for government at a human scale,” since “it may be that governments beyond a certain size become hopelessly inhuman” (p. 195). The book as a whole can be thought of as an exploration of “human scale” in several arenas.
Small Tokens of Goodness and Grace
In a perceptive discussion of common methods of coping in the deathworks which is modern Western culture, Noble references how spinning a pun on Twitter, enjoying a sitcom, cheering for a sports team, and delighting in dad jokes can all bring some reprieve and even comfort (pp. 163–67). Perhaps the small pleasure in which you find comfort isn’t named by Noble, but, as someone said somewhere, “We all have our own McDonald’s.” Some or maybe all of these small delights are admittedly “less good choices,” not things the “spiritually and intellectually mature” might pursue, big and lofty things like “poetry, prayer, contemplation, and walks in nature” (p. 165). Knowing this, we feel guilty for our small pleasures. And it leads us to try harder to make better use of our down time.
It may be that rather than binge-watching Friends on Netflix, many Christians zealously binge-watch their favorite preachers on YouTube. But there are always more sermons to listen to, better music to uplift our spirits around the house, and (in our relatively new Zoom and live-stream era) more church services to virtually attend or educational podcasts and interviews to tune in to. We could always do better. So we try still harder to consume more and better Christian content. Cultural idolization of “optimization” has been transposed into a pious key: “we turn our rest into yet another task to master, another opportunity to compete and maximize efficiency” (p. 165). But it is an exhausting, unending task. Seeking the best rest strangely wearies us. In an inhuman world where rest is twisted into a work of self-improvement, who can blame us if we return repeatedly for reprieve to smaller, less demanding pleasures?
Yet we still blame ourselves: “We can’t consciously choose anything less than optimal without beating ourselves up over it” (p. 165). To compound the pressure, we assume that others blame us as well. Many years ago at a church ministry gathering, I made the acquaintance of a woman who introduced herself by saying, “Hi, I’m ______, and I’ll confess up front: I have cable TV!” We presume brothers and sisters judge us for our small pleasures. But perhaps that’s because we know too well that we ourselves are quick to judge their small pleasures. Regrettably frequently, I find that when I assess our budget I rationalize a luxury by way of comparing our consumption to that of peers: “At least we don’t pay for that.” It’s just self-justification in a practical, economic,Noble reminds us that judgmentalism and self-condemnation aren’t the only ways of engaging with small, ordinary pleasures before us. comparative mode. It’s just me fulfilling the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging (which Noble intentionally capitalizes throughout).
Noble reminds us that judgmentalism and self-condemnation aren’t the only ways of engaging with small, ordinary pleasures before us. Rather, “eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (Eccl 9:7). God knows, says Noble, “our weakness and suffering,” and gives us helps large and small (p. 167). In any case, “You probably have no idea what burden [others] are carrying,” so leave off judging.
But we might ask if this amounts to little more than Christian branding of “the way of resignation” (see pp. 81–82), divine approval of coping and self-medication? Far from being just a concession to “weakness and suffering,” some small pleasures are inherently good, needing, as Noble notes in passing (see p. 166), no justification further than that they’re given (created) by God, to be received with gratitude and sanctified through the word and prayer (see 1 Tim 4:4–5). Going a step beyond Noble, small mercies are not just stopgaps to help us cope but signs of God’s redemptive presence and tokens of his redemptive purposes, so we dare not “despise the day of small things” (Zech 4:10).There are connections here to Noble’s proposed “prodigality” as I understand it (see pp. 151–53). I would simply render more noticeable what is subdued in the book, making clear that Heidelbergian sensibilities are founded on a robust theology of creation and redemption in concert. Recognizing that we are not our own but belong to the Creator and Redeemer should awaken us to human (creaturely) smallness (Ps 8:3–4), even of our comforts and enjoyments, in such a manner that we can affirm that it is good.
Small Tasks in Our Specific Places
Our prevailing habits of attention and rhetoric might suggest that what really matters are the “big things,” the sensational and spectacular, the stuff of national and global headlines, that which can be visibly displayed on social media posts, hot-button issues of social justice and political activism that rile one another up. Understandably we want “to make a difference” in these “big things,” to help the world become a better place. So, in addition to making noise about the issues in forums online and elsewhere, we carefully deliberate over making the right “career choices,” often in long drawn-out and angst-filled ways. But Noble observes something that almost invariably, and very sadly, gets overlooked in pursuits after a career that “helps people”:
Even when we’re altruistic, we’re not encouraged to ask, “What do my neighbors need? What does my community need? What problem can I address?” Instead, we ask, “What is a job where I can help people?” And the answer is usually doctor, nurse, counselor, teacher, and so on. Of course, these are all honorable professions, but if we desire the good of our neighbor, maybe none of these are what our specific community needs. Is it really loving your neighbor if you become a doctor so you can help people, but then you have to leave your community to find a place that needs another doctor? Is that better than staying where you are and becoming a teacher at a struggling public school? (p. 185).
This is unlike any career counseling I’ve encountered. In the dominant sensibility of the day, what matters is “helping people”—not necessarily the actual people in my local community, but just “people in general,” the idea of people. We lobby to protect “the vulnerable” or “our youth” everywhere in our nation and globe, while not taking the time to learn the names of the kids on our block or the vulnerabilities of people on our street.What if God’s callings come to us humans at human scale, involving human limitation and particularity? We tout love of the Neighbor as of highest importance; but Joe living next-door can be functionally ignored, or ridiculed and trampled upon when he would seemingly oppose my platform of Neighbor-love.
It may be that the “people” I want to help are certain kinds of people, not the actual persons nearest to me. It may be that what matters is that I feel like I’m living a significant life of loving Neighbor, with the result that when I meet some seemingly insuperable obstacle to personal fulfillment among these specific neighbors in this local place, the natural reflex is to go searching for another “community” in different pastures (almost the exact same discussion could be had about how many practice church attendance/shopping; see p. 48).
But perhaps there is another source of the problem. As citizens of the modern inhuman world—where scientific epistemology reigns supreme, where we suffer a constant barrage of instantaneous information about everything everywhere, where it is axiomatically immoral to ask Auden’s question, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?”—we feel it’s our duty to fix attention on “humanity” as a whole and what’s true “for all times and places.”W. H. Auden, “The Joker in the Pack,” in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1968), 271–72. But in the wild we never meet a “human in general,” but always and only this human who “is, always and inescapably, an individual.”See Walker Percy, “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise,” in Sign-Posts in a Strange Land, ed. P. Samway (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991), 204–21, esp. at 211–12. And we never meet this human in anyplace or everyplace but always in the particular place we’re plopped down in. Arguably, our concrete responsibility isn’t firstly to pay attention to the notion of humanity in all times and places but to the concrete face now before us (Noble’s express interest in “faces” is noteworthy in this regard).See pp. 130, 136–41 passim, 146. I am reminded of the eccentric and truly human Samuel (“Sammy”) Abel Kahan in Edward Lewis Wallant’s posthumously published The Children at the Gate, who is obsessed with the human face, who plasters his walls with pictures of any face he comes across. Sammy is obsessed with faces because in them he sees individual, unique human people, with all their unattractiveness and aloofness and viciousness, who share with him flesh and bone and blood: “I love you all, you hear? Nothing turns my stomach. I’ll kiss your gallstones, your ulcers, your cancers, your bleeding piles—and they’ll all disappear!” What if God’s callings come to us humans at human scale, involving human (creaturely, bodily) limitation and particularity? What if the God to whom we belong puts us where and when we belong for our good and the good of our particular neighbor?
Small Towns That Are Not Forgotten
Finally, as the pastor of a small-town church, I couldn’t help but be helpfully confirmed in the circumstances, nature, necessity, and beauty of my calling as I read Noble.
Though it might seem tangential to the overt claims of the book, Noble is very much concerned about the Christian “obligation to promote a human culture” (p. 2, emphasis added). He has squarely in view a dominant socio-cultural matrix which shapes imaginations, sensibilities, and practices with a deformed anthropology. The subtitle of the book, “Belonging to God in an Inhuman World,” tips its hat to his concern about our inhuman culture and its deleterious effects. And the penultimate chapter, “What Can We Do?,” brings onto the stage the matters of ordered life in “the city” for society’s good and “political faithfulness,” which have been lurking in the background throughout the preceding chapters. Make no mistake: this is a book addressing cultural transformation, its nature and Christian hope and pursuit after it. But, in what is to me one of the most important and refreshing facets of Noble’s book, instead of urging cultural transformation as a direct target, he holds forth T. S. Eliot’s refrain:
For us there is only the trying.
The rest is not our business.
By “trying,” I take Eliot to mean laboring to live in accord with the way things should be. But making things the way they should be, bringing about a better world, is not our business. Instead of seeking the best technique for cultural, societal, political change, Noble calls for witness right where we are and to whom we are present. Importantly, this is not a resignation of cultural responsibility or societal care. We belong to Christ, therefore we necessarily belong to the body of Christ and to the places where and the people among whom God has providentially set us. But those places are not the whole huge world but are small (specific), and those people have actual faces.
And sometimes those places and faces will constitute small towns. I fear that frequently alongside a widely felt burden for cultural renewal (which is in many ways laudable) comes the temptation toward—and models of ministry and discipleship that flirt with—the instrumentalization of people and places: “influencing the influencers,” tending to disciple mostly certain kinds of people who are likely to become “disciplers” themselves with the chops to “really make an impact on others,” networking on the margins of gatekeeping institutions and locations where they are clustered. What an ironically unchristian thing to do: to strategically and functionally ignore the least of these (including the least and “forgotten” places), for the sake of transforming the culture in Christian ways.See Stephen Witmer, A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2019), esp. 75–88 and 164–79.
In any case, transformation may not ultimately be our responsibility, but “only the trying.” I have framed it in terms of living at a human scale. Some might speak of living “at Godspeed.” In one place, Noble speaks of “subsidiarity” (p. 195). We might think of it as a redeemed localism—not because it’s a trendy lifestyle, or to show what we stand for, but because we love our place and humbly submit by faithful attentiveness to God’s providential placement of us somewhere with specific local and historical ties. We do not belong to ourselves, and we trust the One to whom we belong to be wise and good in his decisions. Those with this comfort and trust can persevere in hopeful love and attentiveness where and with whom they are, especially when they might find themselves in a forgotten place with people considered “the least” when it comes to changing the culture. This would, I suggest, be a strange—and a necessary—witness to bear in an inhuman world.