The cult of authenticity

The cult of authenticity

My wife Sarah and I recently had an amazing weekend away.  In our 15+ years of marriage we have never lived close to family, so getting away without the kids has been rare.  We love our kids as much as the next couple, but it was really, really great to get away…from the kids.

I had absolutely no trouble being away from them.  I did not miss them.  At all.  I did not even think about them.  To be clear:  in the first 24 hours of our extended weekend excursion–that is, all day Friday, I registered no feelings about my children.

But by Saturday evening that had changed; they had come to mind more than a few times throughout the day.  By Sunday night, I was really missing them.  And when we arrived home Monday late Monday afternoon, I couldn’t wait to see them.

It got me thinking:  Did I love my children more on Monday than I did on Friday?

Or what about right now–even as I type this?  At this moment I confess I’m not experiencing any intense emotional feelings for my children.  I haven’t seen them all day, and I’ll be glad to see them tonight, but….

More than a few voices in our culture–within a number of otherwise different (even antithetical) ideological, social, and religious contexts–celebrate “being authentic.”  Authenticity–being “real”–is, for many, a cardinal virtue.  It’s right up there with tolerance.  Authenticity demands that we be ourselves, while tolerance demands that we allow, even encourage, others to be themselves.

Authenticity, in this perspective, stands over and against superficiality, formalism, and, its arch-nemesis, hypocrisy (often vaguely defined–see below).

But my weekend away from our children raises a few questions regarding this–in my estimation, very trendy–“virtue” of authenticity:

(1) Which one is the “real” me?

As my weekend away suggests, our feelings, emotions, thoughts, etc. are constantly changing–hour to hour, even minute by minute.  If I define myself in this way–by my immediate psychological state of affairs–“I” am almost continually changing.  And that raises a number of questions:  e.g., which “me” is the real “me” (or is there one)?  Is there any way of discerning which “me” is the more fundamental or preferable one?

In short, there is a Monday Bruce, a Tuesday Bruce, etc.; there’s even a Monday early morning Bruce, a Monday mid-morning Bruce, etc.  That is to say, “I”–at least the “I” as defined in this way–change constantly.

(2) What is “real” (vs. fake)?

When we use the word “authentic” in pretty much any other area of life, we have in a mind an external standard or context of some sort.  Is the violin an authentic Stradivarius?  Are the stacks of $100 bills in the briefcase authentic?

This notion of an external standard or context is important.  For when we speak of the human virtue of authenticity, it raises (still another) question:  I am “authentic” if I am true to…what?

In response it is often said, “We must be true to ourselves.”  But this is, then, a departure from how we have usually conceived of “authenticity.”  Not only that, as I’ve already asked, since “I” am ever changing, to which “self” should I be true?

Even more problematic is the fact that (almost?) all of us think that we are in need of change:  right or wrong good or bad, we’re just not that happy with ourselves.  If that’s true, do I always really want to be true to myself?

In short, does this celebrated authenticity provide impetus (or even categories) for personal growth?  Or is it in the end merely a celebration of an unfortunate, even intolerable status quo?  As I recently overheard in a bar:  “That guy is one authentic asshole.”

In pastoral ministry one has the joy–and heartache–of living a thousand lives.  That is, people–both religious and irreligious–come to me in moments of extremity; they set before me the fine china of their lives.  It is truly an incredible (and undeserved) privilege.

But among the beauty–and carnage–of their lives I have noticed this one amazing fact:  while some come to me with little or no self-knowledge, others come to me with an incredibly perceptive self-awareness; their self-diagnoses are multi-faceted, and their pathologies articulated with subtlety and sophistication.

They are being authentic.

But for all this authenticity they have not changed.  They are still addicted, enslaved, depressed, angry, alone, etc.

Why, then, this celebration–indeed, this cult–of authenticity?

I suspect that authenticity–at least when defined as “being true to oneself”–is a feature of postmodernity (which is probably more accurately labeled late modernity).  I wonder if it is the postmodern “makeover” of the incomparably beautiful virtue of fidelity.

Fidelity is being true to the promises one has made to another–to one’s God, one’s community, one’s spouse.  Fidelity is being true to someone (or something) outside of–and greater than–oneself.

Unlike “authenticity,” fidelity defines us; it communicates who I am:  I am a servant of Jesus, an ordained minister, a husband to Sarah.  Such definitions are made publicly (e.g., the wedding vow).

Unlike “authenticity,” fidelity develops us; it more or less demands personal growth:  I have made promises, promises that I must keep, promises to love, give, serve, etc., but at times I really don’t want to do any of those things.  “I” am revealed as one different from the “I” whom I felt I was–which may be news to me and to the one to whom I’ve made promises.  Hence, there is a very healthy, if very humbling, self-discovery, that reveals just how difficult I can be to live with!  Fidelity, then, demands that I wrestle with and subdue “me,” often with the help of others (indeed, it may take a work of God!).  And so I–slowly–grow.

Unlike “authenticity” fidelity directs us; it gives me a role to play in a story that is greater than myself:  as I servant of Jesus, or husband to Sarah (and father to our children), I have an agenda set before me; I’m given a part to play in a drama greater than my own.

True authenticity, as we’ve said, has an external standard in light of which an object can be evaluated.  For the follower of Jesus, this standard is obvious:  Jesus.  Jesus insisted that his followers seek to be like him (Matthew 10.25; Luke 6.40).  Paul writes that Gods is shaping Christians so that they will eventually become “conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Rom. 8.29).

And this leads to three last observations:

First, rarely, if ever, do people criticize Jesus.  As one with a terminal degree in the study of early Christianity, I of course interact with scholars who are both religious and irreligious.  And regardless of their personal ideologies, scholars almost always want Jesus in some way or another on their side.  Scholarly portraits of Jesus, however reconfigured, are always positive, indeed very compelling.  Why is this?  Similarly, as a pastor, when engaging with persons of different beliefs or lifestyles, they rarely ever critique Jesus.  Moses, David, and Paul are all fair game, but somehow Jesus is above critique.  He may be a reconfigured, refashioned Jesus.  But he nevertheless remains the standard.  Why?

And this leads to my second point.  Scholars of early Christianity and persons of different beliefs or lifestyles are hardly the only persons engaged in the (very telling) reconfiguring and refashioning of Jesus.  One could make a case that they’ve all but learned to do this from…would-be followers of Jesus.

For the first Protestants–i.e., those who protested against the ills of the church of Rome–reform was a non-negotiable, so much so that they came to be called Reformers.  For them the church had three essential ingredients:  the preaching of the apostolic gospel, the faithful administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and–are you ready for this?–church discipline.  They described the church as semper reformanda–always reforming.  But today in North America what percentage of churches–evangelical or otherwise–practice church discipline?  What percentage of churches have leaders who are themselves in any way accountable?  What percentage of followers of Jesus view the power of their sin within them as necessitating any sort of accountability?  Lack of discipline has utterly eviscerated the witness of the church today, so that God’s name is (understandably) blasphemed by a watching world.

Finally, the New Testament makes clear that the Creator has entrusted the future judgment of all humankind to Jesus (e.g., Mt. 7.22; Acts 17.31).  What standard will Jesus use to judge humanity?  The answer is, to me, amazing.

It will not be himself–either his life or his teaching.  It will not be his own people’s law (the Torah).  Rather, it will be our own:  “In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Mt. 7.2).  In his subsequent teaching (in 7.3-5), Jesus claims that we do not measure up even to our own standard.  In short, for all our “authenticity” we are not even true to ourselves (and Paul says as much in Rom. 2.1-5).

Ask yourself:  Could Jesus be any more fair?  How else is he supposed to judge the world?  Or should he just not judge the world at all and let injustice, oppression, and hypocrisy continue forever?

Our only hope, it seems, is that Jesus won’t be fair with us.  And that unfairness has a name.  It’s called grace.

One thought on “The cult of authenticity

  1. Bear with me, as some of my response (woven throughout) will be attempting to discern what you’ve written with a critical eye.

    “If I define myself in this way–by my immediate psychological state of affairs–“I” am almost continually changing. And that raises a number of questions: e.g., which “me” is the real “me” (or is there one)? Is there any way of discerning which “me” is the more fundamental or preferable one?”

    After reading your about your investigation of the concept of authenticity as it applies to people, I wonder if the more appropriate word (and the word, likely, that most folks intend) is “agency.” Exhorting others to “be true to themselves” is a trite adage that, when scrutinized as you have done, doesn’t make sense. Who is the one being true to oneself? To which “self” should I be true, as you ask? Yet, if we understand agency rightly, we might better discern that being true to oneself might be simply choosing that which is in line with what one most values (and could even more closely approximate your understanding of fidelity). Values, rather than being subject to the whim of a momentary emotional state or lapse in judgment, are those things that inform our behaviors over time, and help to plot the trajectory of our lives (for better or for worse). A tragedy of this fallen world is that the noetic effects of sin lead us to deceive ourselves (Rom 1:18-21), but we remain morally culpable (before others and before God) for what occurs as a result of our choices. Our agency is preserved even if sin tarnishes our values such that, if sin weren’t present, we wouldn’t choose to do the things that lead us away from God. Values remain values even if they’re sinful.

    The fact that I possess many gradations of identity (e.g., angry Josh, sad Josh, husband Josh, father Josh, sleeping Josh, student Josh, son Josh, friend Josh, etc.) does not overturn the importance of agency, which stands behind or underneath all these manifestations of who I am. As a moral agent, I can choose and be guided by my values. Those choices may be right or wrong, but I can still choose. If I weren’t being “true to myself,” I might be making a choice that is not guided by my values (e.g., someone is holding a gun to my head); in that case, I’ve lost some part of my agency. The same goes if I’m delirious in the midst of sickness; my agency is then impaired and I can’t be “true to myself.” From my understanding, sin does not impair agency (if it did, I don’t see how we could be held culpable for our sins), but I don’t fully understand how this occurs. Self-deception is a slippery concept.

    “I am “authentic” if I am true to…what?

    In response it is often said, “We must be true to ourselves.” But this is, then, a departure from how we have usually conceived of “authenticity.” Not only that, as I’ve already asked, since “I” am ever changing, to which “self” should I be true?”

    “In short, does this celebrated authenticity provide impetus (or even categories) for personal growth?”

    Keep trying things until you find something that feels good. That might be the motto of our age, right? You “just know” when you’re in the right spot, doing the right thing, “being true to yourself.” Clearly, we see folks, right or wrong, in this position: they’re seemingly content where they are. They think they’re growing – but there’s a difference between vital growth and cancerous growth. Sin is malignant.

    But I don’t think the fundamental drive to seek pleasure is altogether bad, right? God calls us to himself numerous times throughout Scripture promising goodness, pleasure, delight, joy, etc. Those faculties were made for something! And we sinfully co-opt them when we use them to settle into a life for which they weren’t made. Such may be the result when one person, guided by their sin, recommends to another person, guided by their sin and this other person, to experiment with different things (e.g., hobbies, relationships, jobs, drugs, etc) until they find the right fit. The problem isn’t the pleasure-seeking principle. The problem is in the sin. Therefore, before one can hope to grow or engage in this process, perhaps they should first discern that there are may things that will “flip the pleasure [joy/happiness/contentment] switch,” but some of them will be categorically bad. Without that understanding, and guidance by principles beyond mere pleasure, why NOT stop at the first thing that floats your boat?

    “Fidelity is being true to the promises one has made to another–to one’s God, one’s community, one’s spouse. Fidelity is being true to someone (or something) outside of–and greater than–oneself.”

    I can find a good distinction that is helpful, at least for me. While authenticity suggests originality, fidelity may suggest createdness. “High fidelity” (or hi-fi) refers to a high quality reproduction, usually of music or film (emphasis on: reproduction). The reproduction is not the original itself (it’s not “authentic”), but it approximates it very closely. Therefore, implicit in the word authenticity is a kind of self-justification (the marks of identity are within the object itself), whereas implicit in the word fidelity is a need for a reference outside of oneself (the marks of identity are found not within the object itself).

    In this way, none of us are authentic (we are not uncreated, we’re not “originals” in the sense that we were there in the beginning, we’re not self-justifying), but we may possess fidelity (if we reproduce in ourselves those things that are found in some standard, as you’ve indicated). From there, one can see how fidelity can define, develop, and direct us.

    Such a discussion about fidelity, however, touches on issues that might make secular folks uncomfortable: didn’t Darwin kill that old specter essentialism when he articulated his theory of evolution, doing away with all this discussion of “forms?” Yet if we’re going to discuss fidelity, we must discuss identity, and that brings us close to “essence.” Given that nothing is new under the sun (including the identities we might pull over ourselves), the question inevitably arises whether you’re an essentialist or not: to what in this world (or outside of it) will you seek to maintain high fidelity?

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