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.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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  • This reminds me of a short essay by CS Lewis in which a family from church (possibly the vicar’s) invited him over for Sunday roast and he was surprised at how differently everyone acted when they didn’t have to act according to others’ expectations but were in a personal environment where they had the freedom to “be themselves” or “let it all hang out”.

    He notes (I believe) that “the right to be myself at home” is usually a licence to treat family members worse than you would ever treat a stranger, but that the true goal of being a Christian is precisely not to be yourself, but to become a “little Christ.” The doctrine of sin implies that “being yourself” will inevitably be selfish and unloving.

    Maybe I don’t quite understand what the nuances are of “authenticity” as it is used today, but I always assume it means “being true to yourself” — which I can never think about without being reminded of Lewis’ convicting essay (of which I can’t remember the title).

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  • We are all indexed to our original social position by lexicon, gait, posture, affect, accent, etc. and these can be constraints. When these contradict our self-presentation, we are perceived as inauthentic.

    To some degree, I think that authenticity is being conflated with integrity because it is authenticity to one’s “true” self that is extolled when it should be the integrity of an individual’s incorporation of their beliefs into how they act in the world that is valued.

    The human capacity for self-deception is so great that authenticity as a value seems to have very little utility. Social life requires inauthenticity to function.

  • Nobody,

    I am not familiar with that essay, though I seem to remember a very similar point (about treating your family at least as well as you treat strangers) somewhere in The Four Loves.

    I’d be intrigued to know, though, whether Lewis actually affirms this: “The doctrine of sin implies that “being yourself” will inevitably be selfish and unloving.”

    That seems so out of line with the neo-Platonism he held to for the bulk of his writing life. It seems if anything, being yourself means the opposite.

  • Prufrock,

    I think I’m with you until the last sentence, and then I’m lost. Why is authenticity necessary for social life?

    matt

  • Inauthenticity is the necessity…politeness, tact, impression management.

  • Why are those ‘inauthentic’? Does being ‘authentic’ mean you have to display your emotions/thoughts at all times?

    Matt

  • If you were “just being real,” I would guess that you should not be concerned about impression management…

    I see how politeness, et al. can be reconciled with authenticity but that reconciliation would create an exemption to what is considered authentic.

  • I hear what you’re saying, and Lewis would no doubt note the paradox that becoming like Christ actually makes you closer to your true nature as an image of him.

    So I think he was addressing the meaning of “being yourself” as the term is used by others, rather than cleverly pointing out that what “being yourself” REALLY means is the opposite of what the average man means by it (is that what Chesterton would do?). Which may in fact be true, but it would only address the colloquial expression which could be replaced by a more accurate one, rather than addressing what is meant by the expression.

    The conclusion would still be the same: quit indulging your vices. Whether that should be called becoming more yourself or less yourself is a rhetorical choice. In our culture of authenticity, obviously, the wise apologist would argue that denying your vices is how you actualize your true self as a human who was not intended to sin.

  • From earlier this week–thoughts on authenticity and the possibility for self-deception. http://bit.ly/2XSb7s

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Nobody,

    Great thoughts. I think that it’s more than a replacement of the colloquial expression–it’s a subversion of the whole philosophical architecture on which the language of ‘being yourself’ is based. It’s fundamentally a rejection of the idea that being and goodness can be separated. That is, it’s a reinsertion of the medievals!

    And yes, I think that’s precisely what Chesterton would do. Doc Sanders and I were talking recently, and he pointed out that Chesterton is always ‘out-clevering’ his opponents by continually taking their own thoughts one step deeper. I think that’s what’s needed with authenticity–we get to ‘own’ authenticity by situating it within a particular worldview….

    matt

  • The default evangelistic message of mid- and late-20th-century American evangelical Christianity is based on the assumption that humanity is sinful “by nature,” later reinforced by the NIV translation of sarx as “sinful nature” which encapsulates the notion that being and goodness can be separated.

    Perhaps the rise of “authenticity” as a virtue will prompt 21st-century evangelists to redefine true human nature in terms of the prelapsarian state. As long as Darwin’s is the dominant cultural narrative, however, I doubt this would be effective. Looking in the opposite direction for a model of authenticity, however, might be possible, as eschatological perfection is not out of synch with the Darwinian notion of progress.

    This brings to mind Sanford Schwartz’s recent book arguing that Lewis’s space trilogy is an attempt not just to debunk but also to absorb into a Christian framework three types of evolution: mechanistic, vitalist, and spiritual. (What Dr. Sanders would call a Chestertonian approach perhaps.)

    The only one of the three versions of evolution that seems to have survived into the 21st century is the mechanistic, which is now synonymous with “Evolution,” but as Lewis points out (in Is Theology Poetry or The Abolition of Man?) the reason the scientific version of evolution became accepted so quickly was because it matched the late Victorian belief in cultural Progress which was already in place.

  • How might “authenticity” also be false and manufactured in western #Christian culture? | http://j.mp/mltzb

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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