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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Authentic Me

I’m not wading into the moral train wreck that is the Bruce Jenner situation. There are some things about which the less said the better. But I am interested in the language that has come out over and over again in regard to it. I note the recurrence of a theme that bears some serious consideration for a Christian.

It’s the idea of “authenticity”. In the parlance of the world, it’s supposed to explain or excuse a very great deal. It is generally taken for granted that to be “authentic” is an absolute moral duty — in fact, it might be the only universal moral duty that the liberal left actually recognizes. And somehow Jenner has achieved this highest value by his recent act of selecting to go half woman.

For example, blogger Lauren Suval glowingly describes it as Jenner’s “journey to his authentic self”. Psychology journalist Sonia Saraiya praises his “remarkable authenticity”. Gay advocates tell us he’s a reminder of “how important it is to live as your most authentic self”. And actor Jeffrey Tambor has publicly declared that he wishes for Jenner only “happiness and an authentic life”.

And hey, who would know more about authenticity than an actor?

All this is more than a little ironic. But I don’t want to hover in that sad quagmire long. Rather, let us take it out to the more general, and ask “What does it mean to be authentic in today’s world?”

Getting the Concept

I’m not thinking it means much good. So far as I can tell, it means “having my own way, regardless of what way that is”, and especially, “having my own way about me”. Does it sound like it takes too many first-person pronouns to explain that? It’s not by accident.

Notice the title of this post. Not “The Authentic I”, with a definite article and the subjective case of the first-person pronoun, which sounds more proud and self-assertive than anything, but rather “Authentic Me”: no definite article, and in the objective case, in the voice of a spoiled child, who says only, “Me, me, me”, petulant, selfish and desperate, always imploring to be given more.

That’s where our heads are at today. It’s all about “me” being “me”. It’s about not letting anyone else tell me what I am … even if I personally don’t have a clue what IS the answer. Somehow, this attitude has taken on the aura of a categorical moral imperative for all modern persons.

Taylor’s Social Critique

I’ve been reading James K.A. Smith’s gloss on the work of Charles Taylor*. Though Taylor was a devout Catholic and Smith a professor at a Reformed college, Smith evinces a great respect for Taylor as a social critic — if not always as a theologian. And I think that’s fair. One does not have to have all one’s theological ducks in a row in order to perceive a few things that are messed up with the secular world.

Smith and Taylor are both interested in the modern preoccupation with self-image. They ask how it is that we today are so self absorbed? What is it in our modern world that makes us so absurdly urgent in the task of constructing some sort of “real me” that is not quite the person I already am, nor even a person I have clearly in view, but rather a sort of progressive poking about in the world’s tickle trunk (or costume closet) in an effort to find some getup that will finally make me feel like I’ve arrived — and at what?

In particular, we seem to be describing this activity in terms of a search for “authenticity”.

What?

What does “authentic” mean when you already admit you don’t even know who you are? How on earth do you find such a thing, and what happens when you can’t? These are good questions, if the search for personal authenticity is anywhere near as widespread as Taylor and Smith seem to think it is. And for my part, I have to agree: people are absurdly devoted to the task of making themselves authentic today, but really don’t have a clue as to what they are doing.

The Diagnosis

Taylor describes this phenomenon this way: he says that today, we all have:
“… the understanding … that each of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model impose on us from the outside.”
So other people’s views are bad for us, and our own wishes are all good, all helpful to us becoming whatever we “authentically” are. He continues, noting that people who live in this ethos have really no deep commitments, except to “bare choice, as a prime value, irrespective of what it is a choice between, or in what domain”.

The ultimate expression of this ethos, says Taylor, is the phenomenon of fashion — and here he means more than simply the world of clothes and shoes. He means the entire realm of consumerist selection offered to us by the modern world — houses, cell phones, beverages, cars, computers, vacations — all the things which advertisers offer and our friends all buy for the purposes of constructing a “authentic” identity. As Smith summarizes Taylor:
“The space of fashion is one in which we sustain a language together of signs and meanings which is constantly changing, but which at any moment is the background needed to give our gestures the sense they have. This is no longer a space of common action but rather a space of mutual display — another way of “being-with” in which a host of urban monads hover on the boundary between solipsism and communication.”
This means that we are all depending on the world of consumption and advertising to provide for us the gestures that will show we are “independent”, or “with it”, or “cool” or “retro”, or whatever image it is we are hoping to project to others. We’re preoccupied with ourselves (solipsistic) most of the time, but also with making gestures that will remind our friends that we are “making our own statement” (communicating) in our attire, purchasing, lingo, mannerisms, opinions, postures, or whatever. We are deeply self-conscious, and at the same time continuously signaling to others through these means.

But what’s the point of signaling if no one’s paying attention? Well, we all think they are … sort of. Not the world in general, of course, but at least everyone who happens to matter to us at the moment. And for most of us, that’s actually a relatively narrow group. As Taylor continues:
“My loud remarks and gestures are overtly addressed only to my immediate companions, my family group is sedately walking, engaged in our own Sunday outing, but all the time we are aware of this common space that we are building, in which the messages that cross take their meaning.”
Smith concludes, “In other words, we all behave now like thirteen-year-old girls”.

Ouch. But true. Increasingly, people in Western society are all behaving like pre-pubescent brats, cattily asserting their poorly formed self-images by means of tools far too trivial for the task, and oblivious to the serious moral dimensions of their own actions and choices — so preoccupied with “being authentic” themselves that they can take no real thought for the world or for God.

Authentically What?

However, “authenticity” is a slippery ideal. To be “authentic” to something, there has to be some sort of pre-existing original to which one is being faithful or conforming one’s creative acts. But what is the “pre-existing, real self”? How can one “pre-exist” one’s own self-formation? Do we come with a blueprint for this? Surely not. In fact, we are beings who come into this world with no pattern known to anyone except, it would seem, God himself: and there’s no way we have any wisdom about how to make ourselves “authentic”, if such an idea has any coherence in the first place.

There’s a connection here with our cardinal virtue of tolerance. Our society encourages us to tolerate anything, because anything could be the right option for this amorphous “authentic self” we’re creating. So how do we know if Bruce Jenner is a man or a woman? Bruce himself doesn’t seem to know. But we think that if anyone can, it might be him, and he’ll only be able to discover his “authenticity” if we help him celebrate his ability to experiment freely by mangling his own body though surgery.

How he will know when he has “authentically arrived” at his “authentic” version of himself is a question nobody seems to know much about: but we feel a great moral imperative to be open-minded enough ourselves to let him do it. After all, who knows what grand gesture “authenticity” will require of us next? And we certainly don’t want our own options curtailed in advance.

Authentic Christianity

Christians are not to be “authentic” in this sense. Yes, they are to be authentic Christians: but being authentically Christian is actually the opposite of the “Authentic Me” idea.

Christian authenticity means turning one’s self-development over to God. And it begins with the recognition that whatever I am now is not a good thing, not something to be extended, coddled or expressed, but rather something to be doubted, then to be transformed, renewed and reshaped into the image of the Son of God. Who I am already — what the world regards as my “authentic” self — is actually the source of the problem: I’m a sinner, a morally decaying villain, out of step with and indifferent to God. What I need is to be made less that “authentic” self, and to be converted into a much better person — the kind of person God knows I can be, by his grace.

To be the real “me” is really to be less me and more him.

Christian authenticity finds no traction in the tools of this self-centered, self-expressing, consumerist world. It makes progress through things like self-denial and the valuing of others. And it has no brief for the bland, mindless omni-tolerance of our day: it needs instead a mental, moral renewal in which God’s conception of right and wrong are restored to the mind. It cannot participate in the world of fashion — for its chief objective is not to impress its own specialness on others, but to assert the specialness of others and the consummate excellence of the character of God. It has no time for the world’s toys, games and pre-pubescent gestures.

Here’s authenticity, Christian style. Firstly, your authenticity is not dependent on somehow discovering who you are by shopping stylishly at the mall. Here’s what it means to be all you can be:
“For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brethren …”
God’s purpose for you is not to become “the real you”, but to become like the real him, the real Son of God. And while this is a process that God himself is working in you to do, that does not mean you sit by and let it happen. Instead, you are called to actively cooperate in the process:
“Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect …”
It’s a commandment, you see: “be transformed”. You have to choose it, and you’re responsible to do so. And when you do, you will discover what the will of God is for you, and find it good and acceptable and perfect. There is a pattern. God has it. You don’t. Being “authentic” does not mean being something you are now, but rather someone you were designed to be by God, but have never yet been — though by his grace, assuredly you will be. That’s a very different view of authenticity.

On the flip side, notice that the so-called “freedom to discover your authentic self” that the world offers isn’t held up by scripture as freedom or authenticity at all, but rather “conformity to the world”, a thing that will actually hold you back from becoming authentic, and thus something you are actively to reject. So you cannot become authentic at all by the world’s route; it will only lead you to various versions of conformity — to alien patterns that can never be expressions of any “real you” at all.

The Upshot

“Lost souls”, says marketing expert Andreas Bernstrom, “make good customers”. He’s right. Our manic consumption, posturing, fashion and search for the self are nothing but evidence of the emptiness of our souls. The modern search for an authentic self, absent the pattern from God, is a fool’s errand that simply multiplies desperation. It’s common, it’s childish, and it’s sad. It’s no way for Christians to live.

But in our modern world, choosing NOT to live like that is more and more a matter of having to make a deliberate choice: conformity to the world has never been easier.

To pursue the project of constructing a self that will feel authentic out of the material goods and shallow values of this world is one way to go. The other is to accept that God has the pattern, and that authenticity will only come when I am conformed fully to the likeness of his Son.

But it is utterly impossible to have it both ways; for to be “authentic” on the world’s terms is really to be a confused phony, and to be authentic on God’s terms is, so far as the world can tell, a kind of slavery.

We cannot be God’s man or woman and also our own self-made “self”.

I wonder how many of us are attuned to the starkness of the choice before us.

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* J.K.A. Smith, How (Not) To be Secular (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014). See 85-86.

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