The Gospel of Authenticity

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In last Saturday’s New York Times, Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster critique the “pursuit of authenticity” that has pervaded American spirituality in the past few decades. Titling their piece, “The Gospel According to ‘Me’,” Critchley and Webster describe America’s transition from a society rooted in Judeo-Christian morals to one characterized by “a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness.” Spirituality has become an “eat-pray-love” sense of peace with oneself, rather than a radically life-altering belief in a higher power or set of universal, objective truths.

While this type of relativistic authenticity may initially seem liberating, the op-ed points out the way in which it actually induces a “passive nihilism,” which, in failing to put a doctrinal stake in the ground, “doesn’t really require a belief in anything.” This mentality contributes to the ever-graying boundary between work and personal life by encouraging individuals to tie their professional success to their self-worth. In the absence of a larger source of meaning, individual excellence becomes premium.

From a Christian perspective, much of the op-ed rings true. In recent years, many popular preachers have revived Puritan teachings on the subject of idolatry. As the message typically goes, humans worship by impulse, and without (or even with) a knowledge of God, their praise is attached to lesser things. Tim Keller wrote:

What is the cause of this ‘strange melancholy’ that permeates our society even during boom times of frenetic activity, and which turns to outright despair when prosperity diminishes? De Tocqueville says it comes from taking some ‘incomplete joy of this world’ and building your entire life on it. That is the definition of idolatry.

In this respect, “The Gospel According to Me” is insightful. While individualism, masked as authentic spirituality, can provide a surface calm, looking only inward to pursue meaning can be an ultimately inadequate and self-defeating endeavor. Whether that individualism takes the form of enlightenment through yoga, or self-satisfaction from climbing the corporate ladder, Critchley, Webster, and Keller would agree that it is largely void of meaning without some greater perspective.

But while Critchley and Webster do a competent job exposing the perils of idolatry, they don’t adequately address the human impulse towards authenticity. Surely, the desire to be genuine can be admirable. Humility is a form of authenticity, recognizing the real or authentic relations that exist between God and man. In this sense, authenticity allows, rather than hinders spiritual growth.

If we take the term authentic to mean being “true to oneself,” authenticity is still not necessarily problematic. Moral development doesn’t require a person to lose his or her individualism; rather, as CS Lewis put it, “Give up yourself and you will find your real self.” It is this second self that we can be authentic about without lapsing into idolatry. Paraphrasing Luke 17:33, Lewis explains that self-awareness, paired with a willingness to change and the transformative power of God, is an essential part of spiritual growth. In this sense, authenticity is critical to an orthodox Christian conception of spirituality.

The real problem, which Critchley and Webster do imply but do not explicitly address, is not authenticity in and of itself, but authenticity in the absence of some larger moral structure, embodied in a conception of the virtuous self. John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” Inhabiting one’s own moral universe means anything is permissible, but leads to quickly shifting boundaries and beliefs. What begins as authenticity undoubtedly ends as self-contradiction. Critchley and Webster close with the example of Hamlet, who, though claiming to be “true to himself,” fails to act on much of what he purports to believe in, ultimately becoming inauthentic. They then offer an ultimate warning against moral complacency, which they see as the result of autonomously navigating (or constructing) a moral universe.

Critchley and Webster make an argument that is not frequently seen in a secular context, identifying several issues with the spiritual state of current American society that are often addressed in Christian teachings. They’ve poked holes in “eat-pray-love.” But what is next? Mass conversions, maybe, but more likely a subtle shift away from pop spirituality towards some alternative moral structure.

About Emily DeBaun

Emily DeBaun graduated from Dartmouth College in 2012 with a major in Physics and minor in English. She works in Boston at a medical consulting firm.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/MrParkerEast Parker East

    Belief is vestige of a bygone era. It is for us to test the mettle of our
    convictions and to throw away that which we find not useful. All belief
    is idolatry. The objects of faith are not the thing itself. They are
    veils of the divine.

    All things are permissible, whether one believes in anything or not. Your
    free will is permission and if you doubt your freedom, then simply your
    strength. There is a difference between permissible and prudent.

    To suggest that a personal compass is inherently unstable is gross
    prejudice. Furthermore, in a constantly shifting world, flexibility may
    even be proper. The finest device for maintaining balance is the
    gyroscope, which spins constantly.

    And if adaptation does lead to self contradiction? What then, is this to be
    some cardinal sin? Life is self-contradiction, the gift of life the
    same. A bubble in the infinite waters. Self-contained but not distinct
    except in the folly of the individual consciousness. There is nothing to
    worship and no one to worship it without the self-contradiction that is
    life.

    When one understands the equivalence of opposites, only then may one begin to speak the language of goddess, of god.

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/ Bill

    It seems to me that coming to peace with oneself can in fact be radically life-altering and that merely holding to “belief” in some set of propositions (“universal, objective truths”) will not necessarily produce any life alteration at all. Maybe objectivity is only an illusion. Maybe everything is in some sense subjective.

  • Riemoya

    Faith is a gift of God and without this super-sense, nothing can move anyone’s mindset but God is gracious and willing that no one should perish but that everyone be saved through His Son Jesus Christ. Its your free moral agency to choose.


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