This morning we welcome Deb Welch, who blogs at All Things New, to the Out of the Ordinary team.
The quest for authenticity has seemingly grown more prevalent than ever in modern times. Justin Beiber was seeking it when he visited a church in New York City. Ann Voskamp tweeted about it. Mommy bloggers are blogging about it. And churches are forming companies and committees to cultivate more of it in their midst.
With all this popular interest, one would think that the contemporary quest for authenticity is something new. Alas, we know that there is truly nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9b, New American Standard Bible).
The Ethics of Authenticity, written by Charles Taylor in the 90s, decried the negative trajectory of an inward and self-exalting focus developed by many authenticity advocates, on the one hand, and appreciated the honest and sincere intentions of adherents, on the other hand.
In the early and mid-nineteenth century, authenticity was also a bedrock among existentialist philosophers, vis a vis Heidegger and Sartre. Sartre’s theory of “bad faith” was an aspect of authenticity that described the self-deception that comes from living as something or someone different from who you really are. As early as 1770, Rousseau, in his Confessions, argued that one's orientation toward life should come from a source within. The focus on inwardness, self-reflection, and introspection led to a space of interiority as one's guiding authority.
Who can forget Shakespeare’s notorious character in Hamlet, Polonius, Laertes' father? Polonius (the political poser, who ironically changed his spots whenever position and power were in sight), offered his son the infamous advice that would be repeated in high schools and Hollywood films centuries later, “This above all: to thine own self be true”. Never mind that this advice led Laertes to cast off values and moral conscience to madly pursue his inner desire to fulfill a personal vow of revenge. Not surprisingly, all of this resulted was his own tragic death (Romans 6:23, NASB). As it turned out, the call to live an authentic life above all else was immanently bad fatherly advice.
As we look even further back, Aquinas argued for a “presumption of authenticity”, represented as the harmony between one’s inner judgements (including the will), outward acts, and future hope. According to Oxford seminary professor John Finnis, Aquinas’s presumption of authenticity was the underlying reason why Aquinas saw love of neighbor as the master rule of life. And if Aquinas dabbled in the philosophy of authenticity, certainly Augustine must have had something to say about it before him. Yet, whether or not Augustine specifically delved into the concept of authenticity, I’m convinced that his Confessions is potentially the best example of what true Christian authenticity, rightly conceived can be. More on that later.
All of this to say, authenticity is not a new idea, and as such, the concept comes loaded with all sorts of theological and philosophical baggage of which we would do well to be beware. For the most part, and at the risk of oversimplification, the quest by Christians to live authentically in our day follows two potential paths of thought.
On the one hand, the authenticity virtues of honesty, openness, and vulnerability are compelling. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes about how Christians often don a mask around other Christians to avoid judgment and humiliation, but it often results in hypocrisy and destructive perfectionism. Perhaps this is best argument for the side of authenticity. It has textual support that is quite convicting in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus speaks about the Pharisees being whitewashed tombs, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness” (NASB Mat 23:27). Not only did the Pharisees put on a facade out of fear of man, but it seems they were covering up their rottenness in order to hold onto their prosperous positions.
In our contemporary Christian churches, where many younger people have grown up in Christian subcultures rife with moralistic therapeutic deism, as Dr. Michael Horton calls it, no wonder the quest for authenticity has become a such a strong driving force.
But do these accepted virtues risk hiding a worse vice? For instance, an inward focus can take a selfish turn, when we say things like, “I just need to focus on me right now.” Too much authenticity can turn us into spiritual slackers. We become comfortable with one another, soaking in our own muck, rather than being lifted out. Then we forget who we really are.
In our huddles, are we saying sorry and being sorry, but perhaps never truly repenting? Are we confessing sins one to another, but perhaps never taking our petitions to the Lord and trusting in Him? Worst of all, if we pursue authenticity for authenticity’s sake, that can lead to a self-styled religion, where “I am that I am” is all about our very own comfortable, horizontally-oriented posture, rather than a vertically-oriented fear and awe of a holy God, who truly is the great “I am.”
We should beware of an inward search for truth and self, directed by finite, creaturely beings. It will ultimately lead to despair and isolation, even when we practice it together. Because our very identity and ontology comes from an external, transcendent creator, our ultimate reality -- our true selves and very nature -- are not inwardly determined. God tells us how we were created, what we were created for, and how we will find our greatest fulfillment both in this life and the life to come. Without Him and His Word speaking into our lives and our hearts, our endeavors to "be real" with one another will always fall short. Word-filled fellowship that lifts us up by the Spirit before the face of Christ will transform us into His likeness.
C.S. Lewis continues in Mere Christianity to discuss the metaphor of the mask in a positive way. While putting on a fake mask should be avoided, we can and should put on the mask of Christ. Even though we are not fully Christ-like right now, we are becoming more and more like Him. Lewis gives the illustration of a fairy tale in which a man is so unattractive that he can’t get any friends and is socially shunned. In order to change his appearance, he puts on a mask and wears it for a very long time. One day, he is forced to remove the mask and his face has actually been transformed into the image of the mask. Lewis’ point is that sometimes we have to start off by pretending to be what we are becoming. In future hope, we begin by putting off self and putting on Christ.
The second and better way Christians can conceive of authenticity is to consider the more technical -- and less philosophical -- definition of authenticity. If we view authenticity as "being of undisputed origin or authorship", "being faithful to the original", or "a reliable, accurate representation", we are in a much better position to see ourselves rightly. We were created in the image of God and we are being transformed into the image of Christ in our sanctification. This should embolden us to be honest and sincere with one another and free to approach the throne of grace. Let’s hold on to this reality and end the restless quest for our "true selves". Our author is the Lord Jesus Christ, and in Him we live and move and have our being.
In closing, I’m reminded of Augustine’s great example of what authentic Christianity actually might look like when we have the focus right. In his Confessions, he wrote this familiar quote, “Our heart is restless until it rests You.” So, let us rest in Christ, together.
“Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (NASB, Heb. 12:1b-3)
Augustine. Confessions. Transl. Foley. Hackett Publishing, Second Edition. 2006.
Finnis, John. (as quoted in) Aquinas on Friendship, by Schwartz, Daniel. pg. 96.
Horton, Michael. On Moralist Therapeutic Deism. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBFqgEOCbEM
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Harper Classics. 2001.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/authenticity/
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet in The Penguin Shakespeare. Random House. 2016.
Taylor, Charles. Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press. 1992.