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A conversation with Alan Noble - S9.E10


WORLD Radio - A conversation with Alan Noble - S9.E10

We need authenticity and affirmation, but not from strangers on social media

Alan Noble Handout

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with Alan Noble. He’s the author of a new book called You Are Not Your Own: Belonging To God In An Inhuman World.

ALAN NOBLE, GUEST: Interacting with my students and with friends and family members, and recognizing that there's a great deal of angst, anxiety, frustration. For some people, you know, it might be mothers feeling like, they keep saying to themselves, I just need to get through the day. There's so much that they have to do there are so many people telling them how they should be better parents and better wives and better Christians, or better, whatever. And it's overwhelming. They don't know how to take care of the environment better, whatever it is. My students, the same kind of anxiety. How can I be a better student? How could I be, you know, a better member of my church, a better girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever. And it's overwhelming.

WS: Theology, the study of God, has, of course, always been a preoccupation of…well, theologians. Most of the best known theologians in history, from Thomas Aquinas to the present, have taken a shot at writing a Systematic Theology, which is a grand statement of all the major theological issues.

For that reason, we have a lot of great books that unpack biblical theology. For the record, on my bookshelf – I’m looking at them right now – I have the systematic theologies of Wayne Grudem, John Frame, and Norman Geisler – in addition to Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.

What we have lacked, until recently, is a systematic and biblical anthropology. Lately, though, we have been embroiled in battles over what it means to be human. Issues such as abortion, sexual behavior and identity, stem cell research, euthanasia, transgenderism and transhumanism – these are all issues whose arguments rise and fall on the question: What does it mean to be human, and – as humans – to whom do we belong? Are we our own? Do we have autonomy? Or do we in fact belong to another?

My guest today, Alan Noble, answers these questions by reminding us of the Heidelberg Catechism, which says “that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

His new book even uses that famous answer for its title. You Are Not Your Own attempts, largely successfully, I think, to give us not so much a biblical theology, but a biblical anthropology.

Alan Noble spoke to me from his home in Oklahoma, where he is a professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University.


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WS: [2:34]

One of the things that I really like about your book, Alan, is the idea that, you know, as Christians, we're often focused on theology, and that's appropriate. We should be. You know, I mean, the study of God, the love of God, I mean, they should be central. But, so we've got plenty of documents out there that, that, that give us if you will, in biblical theology. Most people you know, are trying to, a lot of Christian writers are trying to give us a biblical understanding of God. Every, everybody from, you know, J. I. Packer's Knowing God to systematic theologies to, on and on. But very few people unpack what I call a biblical anthropology. And that's one of the things that I really appreciated about your book. Is that what you're trying to do with this book?

AN: Yeah, very much. So I know, or at least, I think I know my wheelhouse. And I'm not a theologian. But I do study literature. And literature is about the human experience. It's about being human in the world that God has created. And so as I am interpreting culture, and trying to make sense of some of the problems that I see in culture, some of the disorders that I see that are plaguing my students, myself, my wife, my friends, I'm understanding that through this lens of anthropology, specifically this idea of, of how we relate to others, who, to whom do we belong? Do we belong to anyone? Do we belong to ourselves? Is there no sense of belonging at all? That's sort of the question at the foundation of this text.

WS: Well, and the title of the book, You Are Not Your Own. And what you just said in answering this question, 'To whom do you belong?', has a Genesis that that that that title, that expression has a Genesis story itself and it's in the Heidelberg catechism. Can you sort of unpack that for us and tell us where you got that title?

AN: The Heidelberg Catechism, the first question to answer, the question is, what is your only comfort in life and in death, which is such a fascinating question to me. To think that, you know, in the 16th century, you've got these, what are called the Heidelberg divines, these great German theologians sitting around thinking, what is it that the Christians if we're to catechize them to really understand their faith, what question do they need to answer first? And the first question they come up with is this, what I would say existential question, how do you get through life? How do you tolerate? How do you deal? How do you cope? How do you get the comfort you need to live in life and to face death? So the assumption here is that all of us need some answer for both life and death. So that in itself is fascinating. But then their answer is that we are not our own, but belong with body and soul and life and death to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. And then it goes on to the other parts of the Trinity - and I unfortunately don't have that part memorized yet, but but I do have the, the Jesus Christ part memorized. So that's interesting, too, because to begin to say, the comfort we need is that we belong to someone who's not our own, somebody else, and that person being Christ. For a contemporary person, for a modern person, that's, that's radical, because we tend to find our comfort in belonging to ourselves. Because other people are probably going to get us wrong, other people are going to use this and take advantage of that, us. So if I'm the only one who can really look out for me, so I find that that that concept radical and that's the basis of this book.

WS: Well, yeah, it is radical and it is neglected, I would say here in the 21st century. But as I said, we you know, we, even even among evangelicals, we tend to focus on a biblical theology and not so much on a biblical anthropology. It's also interesting to me that you that you chose the Heidelberg catechism because I at least in the world, in which I circulate, it's more the Westminster catechism that gets noticed and not the Heidelberg catechism. So I was really grateful for that sort of refresher course on the Heidelberg catechism. But even in the Westminster catechism, the first question of the Westminster catechism is what is the chief end of man? And the answer is the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. So I make that point, Alan, to kind of come back to these ideas are not new, they've been hiding in plain sight, at least since the Reformation, right?

AN: That's right. And that's one of the one of the challenging parts about writing this book, because it I felt acutely that there was a need. So as I said earlier, interacting with my students and with friends and family members, and recognizing that there's a great deal of angst, anxiety, frustration. For some people, you know, it might be mothers feeling like, they keep saying to themselves, I just need to get through the day. There's so much that they have to do, there are so many people telling them how they should be better parents and better wives and better Christians, or better, whatever. And it's overwhelming. They don't know how to take care of the environment better, whatever it is. My students, the same kind of anxiety. How can I be a better student? How could I be, you know, a better member of my church, a better girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever. And it's overwhelming. It's this crushing thing, because when you see life as a project, of which you're the only one who can fulfill this project, and you're the only one who can define this project, and you're the only one who can pursue it, what ends up happening is it's it's this crushing weight. So when, when I see that, you know, and I'm trying to respond to it, and I'm recognizing that, you know, this is something, as you say, that has been, has been true for a long time. And so I studied literature, I teach literature. And my field is generally what I call the long 20th century. So I'm starting with, you know, people like Fitzgerald, and I love Cormac McCarthy. And it's fascinating to me that these authors over 100 years ago, are recognizing these same trends in culture. And they're saying, this isn't working. There's a problem. And then if you go before them, you still have authors who are saying, gosh, there's a problem with the way we're living. These, this isn't this isn't working. And as you point out these these, you know, Reformation catechisms recognized very early on that if we don't get our anthropology, right, all kinds of problems are going to be downstream from that. So that was a challenge in writing this book, because on the one hand, I felt acutely, there's something going on that that I I would like to address. But on the other hand, I kind of looked around and felt like, but there's all these people who have already said this, right? This is this isn't new at all. But sometimes you just, I thought I thought about my pastor who preaches the gospel every Sunday. The same, you know, and I hear the gospel every Sunday before communion. And I thought, you know what, sometimes we just need to hear things over and over because they're true.

WS: Yeah, exactly right. Well, let me back up because you've you've already brought a lot of ideas to the table here and we can't unpack them all but I want to unpack a couple of them. One of the things, you talk about this anxiety that we feel. And I'm going to say this out loud, Alan, and you can correct me if I'm if I'm wrong here. But that, this anxiety that we feel is at least in part, I think you're saying, because we have rejected a biblical morality or we've rejected some sort of objective reality. And in the absence of that, we have to replace it with something else. And we replace it with, well, I'm going to be an environmentalist. I'm going to, I'm going to be a champion of the environment or a champion of, you know, oppressed people, or a champion of this or a champion of that. So we we kind of have this, this sense that we should be good people. But we don't really have a, a rooted morality in which to sort of measure against. And you say that the loss, and I'm going to read you a quote from your book, or close to a quote, I paraphrase a little bit. The loss of objective morality does not lead to violence. Yeah, but it does lead to consequentialism. And I would, I would argue that that maybe that consequentialism is what leads to the anxiety because you constantly measure things by consequence, rather than any objective truth or reality. And that, you can never really fully answer the question then. Am I getting you right?

AN: That, that is right. And there's there's another aspect of this. So as I talked about, in the book, these sort of these five sort of areas, which I collectively call the responsibilities of self belonging. These five areas that I think are implications of, of the idea that we belong to ourselves, which is, I believe, the contemporary anthropology, and one of those is, is value. So how do we determine what our values are? Well, if we belong to ourselves, then we determine our own values. Now, I've been hearing this ever since you know, I grew up in the church, this is sort of the postmodern world we live in, everybody has their own values, etc, etc. But as as you know, the the quote or paraphrase, it's pretty darn close, that you just read notes, we're actually not really living in a chaotic world. Okay. Yeah, it is chaotic, but also historically, it's not that violent. Actually, there's a lot less chaos than what you would expect if you say everyone creates their own morality. And it turns out, as I, as you read, that, when you give people the option to create their own morality, they're going to probably do something that that causes the least trouble for them and other people. So a kind of consequentialism is a is, a sort of natural place where we can settle. But so we have here personal morality, that's, you know, how do I live in the world. But there's also a very kind of public morality, which is important. There's a space for this, there's, there's a role in this for Christian morality. So the concern for the poor, the weak, the oppressed. But here's the thing, that for the Christian, we are, we are called always to advocate for what is just. But we understand that justice is always grounded in Christ, and that that, that ultimate redemption of the world comes about through Christ. And so my challenge, if I belong to Christ, is to deal with the injustice right before me. What what what do I have control over? What can I advocate for? What can I practically do?

WS: To love our neighbors as ourselves. To love God first and then love our neighbor.

AN: And I know that there's going to be a lot of suffering that I can't fix. And I know I'm not going to get it right. And I rest in, in grace. I don't I don't get off, right, I don't get to just you know, ignore injustice. But I also have this grounding. Now I think what can happen is, and I've seen this with, with younger people in particular, when there's no clear sense of, of objective morality, then this public morality becomes very important because it helps them know, am I a good person? Well, I'm recycling. Well, I care about racial injustice. Things that Christians can agree with. But what can happen is you feel like I'm not doing enough, right? I'm not doing it publicly enough. I'm not advocating for the environment enough, or for racial reconciliation enough, or whatever it might be. And there's this anxiety, this pressure, and you're constantly being hounded by others who are saying, but why didn't you do this? Why didn't you do that? You need to do more. And I think that can be crushing. I think that can be crushing because there's not a sense of proportion, or proportionality. What, what can I reasonably do? What am I obligated to do? Yeah.

WS: Yeah, so on the one hand, we get this anxiety because we can't do enough. We can never do enough. And, and then on the other hand, especially in the age in which we live now, Alan, with social media and all the rest, we engage in virtue signaling constantly. We are we are constantly putting ourselves out there, our best life now. It has to go on our social media platform, or we don't exist. There's, there's a part of us that is just not real in the world.

AN: If, if our identities are not grounded before God, then which is this is how we experience I think identity in the contemporary world. There's this great philosopher who's named Zygmunt Bauman, who I love because his name is Zygmunt Bauman. I judge scholars based on their names. I shouldn't but it's a good name. So he talks about this he's got a great book called Liquid Modernity. And I just think that's a great image for understanding the world we live in. I mean, doesn't just the shifting values over the last two years in America. It feels like our culture is liquid. Like, what what do I need to do to be accepted? What could get me canceled? What is appropriate? What is inappropriate? Whether or not you agree with these moralities, just knowing what is socially acceptable it's constantly shifting out from under you. So that creates a sense of of anxiety. And when you're anxious about who you are when you when you don't have a very strong sense of your place in the universe, you're right, you want to express it to other people. You want other people to affirm you and say you are a good person. You know what, you do care about this issue. You do care. You are a good person. But the problem is is that affirmation for other people always rings a little hollow. And you always need a little bit more. You need somebody with more social capital or more respect that you have respect for to to affirm you. So yeah, we go to social media and we ‘virtue signal’ because we want to be affirmed endlessly. And I think that that desire for affirmation comes from our desire to stand before God and for him to look at us in the face and love us because of his son. But we're it's misdirected towards other people. So we just end up shouting into the void of social media, please pay attention to me and affirm me that I'm okay.

WS: Yeah, I matter. I matter. And it strikes me that Satan can't create, so he corrupts. If what we are looking for is that affirmation from God, that rest in Jesus, we might say, and, and if, for whatever reason, either our own recalcitrance or distractions of the culture, we are, we are not, you know, fully resting in the grace of God. Satan is going to just do all kinds of things to try to replace that.

AN: That's right. And, as you said, it's a corruption, right? Can't create so he corrupts. And some of it is, you know, you know, Paul talks about, you know, following in my footsteps. And, and there is a way in which getting affirmation from a parent, from a teacher, from a pastor, from a mentor is a good thing. Right? But it's, it's a limited good that should echo our true affirmation in Christ. And because we're fallen creatures, I mean, you know, it's easier for us to cling to personal affirmation of, of another human being. But if that's the only source, as I said, what ends up happening inevitably, is that you need more, and you need more. And what's fascinating to me, is that we've had, we've created technologies that facilitate this need for endless affirmation. So if you think about social media, what does it allow you to do? It allows you to express yourself endlessly, to promote yourself endlessly in fine detail and in lots of different mediums. Whatever medium is most flattering to you and your personality, you can present the world that face and as much as you'd like. So we've created, we've facilitated this sort of perverse need that we have to have other humans validate us, knowing that it's never enough. It's never fulfilling. And so you get addicted.

WS: Well, you do get addicted, and one of the reasons you get addicted to it is because the the universe that you're projecting yourself to, can affirm you with likes and follows and all kinds of other things that give you that little endorphin rush that creates sort of a vicious cycle for which you keep going. Now, which is ironic, because there's another issue that you talk about in your book. And I'd like for you to say a little bit more about it, Alan, and that is this notion of authenticity. It is a bit ironic, to me more than a bit ironic to me, that in this age, where we have the technology to project an inauthentic vision of ourselves out to the world, that we that if you ask people what they value most, often you hear back authenticity. That that, you know, even a lot of Trump supporters: ‘Well, I like Trump because he was just himself.’ You know, you look at you know, a lot of the the big stars that are on reality television, whether, you know, they're they're authentic, they're unfiltered, they're unvarnished, they're themselves. And it's it seems to me that there's I mean, at a minimum, it's ironic. And I'm just wondering, though, if one is a symptom of the other.

AN: So the authenticity is a symptom of the of the constant need for for affirmation. Is that what you're saying? Yeah, speculating? Yeah, I think so. I would tie both of them to that, that idea of, of liquid modernity, because in both cases, what you're looking for is solidity. Alright, so if you imagine your identity as a, as a kind of liquid. Baumann says we're constantly trying to force it into the shape of a solid, right? We're constantly trying to, but what happens with liquids, if you imagine like scooping up water and trying to form it into a shape by cupping your hands, the water is going to run through your fingers, so it's always fighting you. And so you're always desperately trying to push it together and make a shape so you feel solid. Well, we do that through expression. But I think we also do that through authenticity. Or maybe I would say, you know, sort of kind of fake authenticity. The idea is that, that if I can just get to my real true self, that's a kind of ground, right? So everything is shifting around me. But if I can be honest and true to myself, that's something solid and real and certain. And then I know how to act in the world, because I know who I am. And that will give me direction. But the problem is, is that if you are reflective, if you've ever tried looking into yourself and ask the question, what is the who is the real Alan Noble? You start looking in and it's like this void. It's all these, well, is it this kind of me? Or is it that kind of? Is it that you know, is it was it the me when I was five years old? Was I more authentic when I was a teenager? But is it the media at home, the media and social media, the me in front of my students? What is it? What does that even mean? And so I think what can happen is we get to a place where just as you described, we end up affirming people who at least claim they are being authentic or who are who disregard social norms, right? So for and so for example, when people come out, right, as gay or transsexual, or whatever it might be, right, one of the basises that society will affirm that is they're being authentic. In the past, they were hiding something. Now they're authentic. And as you pointed out with Trump, it's a very similar dynamic. And other people, there's a lot of podcasts where, why do people like a well they're being raw, they're being authentic. They don't care what society says. So I think part of what that desire for authenticity is, is the desire for a kind of grounding. But I think if we're really honest with ourselves, it is another construction. It is another construct - there's no one pure self that we can sort of discover and then project out into the world and now we are, that's just not how it works. We're complicated. We're confusing, we're shifting. We're, you know, contradictory. We're paradoxical. I mean, the human mind is, it's crazy.

WS: Yeah. And it strikes me too, that this is where a Biblical understanding of humanity really, you know, is helpful. If we understand ourselves as being created in God's image and that as a as, as a creature of God, not only were we good, but we were very good, Genesis 1 tells us. That we're that we're the pinnacle, the Acme, the Nike, of God's creation. And yet we are also broken. I mean, that's, Genesis 1 says that we're made in God's image and that were very good. Genesis 3 says that we are broken, that our rebellion not only broke us, but really broke the entire world, broke the entire universe. And it seems to me that if we if that if we have that as the cornerstone of understanding who we are as human beings, that it, in some ways, liberates us from all of these other understandings that you've been sort of identifying as pathology, pathological ways of understanding ourselves.

AN: That's right. And so here's how I like to think about it. Um, I think, that desire for authenticity and for affirmation, which I've just described as pathological, it's deeply problematic. But one of the ways that that authenticity and expression is problematic is that on the one hand, we have to be able to say, ‘I don't, I'm projecting my real self, or this is my true identity. And it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks’, right? But that's not actually how identity works. We need an other. We need another person, a witness to look at us and affirm our presence. So on the one hand, we can be like, I don't care, this is my authentic self, the world can do whatever it wants, this is the true me. But on the other hand, actually, I need the world to look at me and tell me and affirm me. And so that's always problematic, as we've just discussed, except with God. So if I understand that my being in the world, my personality, my presence, my very existence, is grounded, not on my self-understanding, my perfect self-understanding, which isn't going to happen, or a perfect, authentic living out of this self, which is also not going to happen. But it is grounded because there is one being, one witness, who knows me, truly, without, without deception, without any hidden things, because I don't even know myself. But God can see me and all the contrary things I believe, and all the mistakes, I've made all the desires and memories and experiences, and he sees me truly. So I might feel I might experience my identity in the contemporary world as fluid. I'm not always sure who I am. But it's a misnomer. It's a lie. It's a deception. Because there is one witness who knows me, truly. So I can rest in that. And I don't have to buy into the effort to be more authentic in this sort of artificial way or express myself to get affirmation.

WS: Well, and not only does he know us, but in spite of the fact that he does know us, which can be terrifying,

AN: Yes.

WS: He still, he still loves us. He still loves us.

AN: Right. So when he looks on us, he sees his son.

WS: I mean, how beautiful is that? Right?

AN: That's it. That's what we want, right? We need that affirmation. And when he sees his son's righteousness, when he looks upon us, as you say, yeah, then he then he can love us, despite everything.

WS: So Alan, that that, to me feels kind of like the punchline of your book, in some ways, is that, is that all of the sort of false anthropologies, these false ways of looking at ourselves and looking at the world or, or desiring or hoping that the world will look at us. All of these sicknesses and illnesses are resolved in what you just said. That there is one witness, there is one other who knows us intimately and loves us nonetheless. Is that the key point of your book?

AN: That is, yes. But I'm a little hesitant with ‘resolved’, because that's that's one of the tensions, is that the gospel is the answer, understanding our place before God that we live in, in every moment before a loving and all knowing and all powerful God. That that is absolutely the answer. But there's also a reality in which we're still here in this earth, and we're still going to be treated by other people, as people who we're still going to be, they're still going to treat us as if we are our own. So they're going to expect us, as I said earlier, to think of our lives as as projects. So people, we're still going to be pressured to pursue certain kinds of careers, to be certain kinds of people. And that's a tension that we have to live in. So the only reason I point that out is that I don't want to give the impression that this is a book that says, well, if you're anxious, what's really wrong is that you don't believe the gospel and then you get the gospel and then, and then your anxiety all goes away. Now, I'm going to say that if you rightly understand your place before God, and rest in God's mercy, that anxiety, you should be comforted, that's what the Heidelberg catechism says. You should have a comfort. But it's still going to be hard. It's still going to be really hard because our institutions, our laws, our practices, our values, still assume a false anthropology. They don't accept how God created us, so it's still going to be difficult.

WS: That brings to a close my conversation with Alan Noble. We’ve been discussing his new book You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God In An Unhuman World. I also want to let you know that Alan’s 2018 book, Disruptive Witness, was one of WORLD’s Books of the Year for Accessible Theology. You can read more about that book, including an excerpt, by going to the WORLD News Group website and typing Alan Noble into the search engine.

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