I have sometimes argued explicitly that authenticity is one of the predominant virtues for younger evangelicals. As non-anecdotal evidence for the claim is extremely difficult to produce, I was intrigued by Gregg Ten Elshof’s corroboration of my account in his excellent book I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life. Writes Ten Elshof:
For better or worse, authenticity continues to be a supreme value in contemporary western Christian culture. In fact, it seems to still be on the rise. Last year, when I served on a committee to review candidates for my college’s presidency, one of the most interesting things I learned was that there is a significant generation gap when it comes to the ranking of qualities that make for good leaders. Recent studies indicate that when asked for the top five qualities needed to be a good leader, those older than fifty place competency at the top of the list, but for college-aged adults, authenticity is chief among the qualifications. This is a remarkable shift.
Authenticity, however, is a double-edged sword. While those who adhere to it as a manner of life manage to expose the pretensions and posturing of those who lack it, elevating authenticity to our chief virtue increases our propensity for self-deception. Again, Ten Elshof:
Whenever a particular vice gets a promotion in the ordering of vices, the temptation to be self-deceived about the fact that one exhibits that vice increases. And, with the rise of existentialism and the supreme value of authenticity, self-deception got a promotion in the ordering of vices. And so, paradoxically, the vice of self-deception has been increasingly veiled from view by its own machinations.
Again, Ten Elshof:
To the degree that we value authenticity, we will be averse to the suggestion that we are self-deceived. Believing myself to be authentic—to be true to myself and to others—will be a source of significant satisfaction and felt well-being for me. But, as it turns out, being genuinely honest with oneself is hard work. And it is at this point that life cuts us a deal. If we can convince ourselves that we’re authentic people—that we’re not self-deceived—we can have all the benefit of theft over honest toil. We can experience the satisfaction associated with saying, “Whatever else is true of me, I’m honest with myself and with others. I know myself. I’m real.
Ten Elshof’s analysis reminds me of Chesterton’s description of James McNeill Whistler in Heretics. Writes Chesterton:
He had no god-like carelessness; he never forgot himself; his whole life was, to use his own expression, an arrangement. He went in for “the art of living”–a miserable trick. In a word, he was a great artist; but emphatically not a great man.
The ascension of authenticity as paramount virtue—so adeptly undercut by Beckwith’s essay—is a dangerous counter-reaction to the very real problem of artificiality. Cut loose from a robust metaphysics and understanding of the role of self-deception the authentic life becomes just as manufactured and false as the lifestyle it rejects.