Watching the Bachelor is like watching a televised version of your social media accounts. You see a selection of filtered profiles – each person putting forward a version of their authentic self which they hope others will find attractive and winsome. Rising above the littered scraps of forgotten ancient virtues (wisdom, bravery, justice, piety, temperance), one new virtue has been crowned: authenticity.
Our greatest maxim now stems from Laertes’ counsel to his son Hamlet: “Above all else, to thine own self be true.” What does it mean to be authentic? Everyone demands it. Every person believes that, whatever else you may think of him, he is, at least, authentic. A definition can be hard to come by. Is being authentic simply saying: “I am who I am. What you see is what you get. You can either accept or reject me”?
If that is what we mean, then for Christians, and for that matter, all of us, there’s a number of problems with treating authenticity as a final destination.
Problem #1: Sometimes your authentic self needs to change
It sounds well and good to “be true to yourself”, but you won’t hear that line standing up too well as a defense for sexual assault, racism, or child abuse. We don’t pardon criminals on the grounds that they were being authentic, and therefore we need to let them be; we should accept them as they are. To give authenticity carte blanche to affirm every thought, word, and action under the sun is to say there is no such thing as good, or right, or honorable. If authenticity truly reigns supreme, then we live in a moral vacuum, and we flirt with despots, whom no one accuses of being inauthentic.
We’ve all encountered people who are unshakably authentic, who, we can’t help thinking, could perhaps do with being a little more fake. An authentic monster is perhaps better than a monster in disguise, but not by much. The Bible makes no bones about the fact that our authentic selves are in need of a whole lot of change (Gen 8:21; Eph 2), and that we spend our whole lives working out this change with the help of God’s Spirit. (Romans 6,7). If we simply affirm authenticity without stressing the need for change and growth, we hinder people from becoming their best selves.
Problem #2: Sometimes your authentic self needs to not change
On the flip side, the idea of changing and growing is often synonymous with authenticity. From this vantage point, an authentic life is like one long flowing stream. You move and respond to your environment: at some points it is broad and shallow, at other points narrow and deep, sometimes rapid and straight, other times slow and meandering. The authentic life is full of rapid twists and turns and continual adaptation. The trouble with this construction of authenticity is that “being yourself” has no meaning whatsoever. If your life is merely a changing stream, then your authentic self is as fluid and useful as the water you scoop up in your hands.
We need fixed points. We need unalterable barriers. What are these? What is the outline or foundation of your self which will not, cannot, no darenot change, which will never be shaken, no matter what other people think? And how do you then decide which parts of you are fixed, and which parts are malleable? People without an independently established sense of self will find that their fixed and fluid points bear remarkable resemblance to everyone else around them. Their “true selves” will be cheap, mass produced goods, created by their culture, time, and place. They will have done nothing to harness and expose the unique individual self God has given them
Problem #3: There are times when your authentic self needs to be toned down
There’s a great traffic poem which should be taught in every driver’s ed class:
“Here lies the body of William Jay
Who died defending his right of way.
He was right, all right, as he sped along,
But now he’s as dead as if he were wrong.”
We can figuratively die defending our “right of way”. We defend a part of our authentic self we perhaps would have done better to not put forward in the first place. We all have parts of our character which are excellent and valuable in certain circles. In other circles they are neutral or irrelevant. In still other circles, those same parts of us are obnoxious, distasteful, and offensive.
I’m speaking here of the things that are morally gray, or perhaps even true and useful. Political opinions serve as a ready example. There are parts of our authentic selves we should not feel externally compelled to change, but we also don’t need to wear on our sleeves. Paul talks about striving to be all things to all people (I Cor 9:19-23). No one mistook Paul for a spineless yes-man. He’s referring to having the wisdom to bring out or hold back parts of his authentic self, in response to shifting circumstances, in order to serve God and other people. That takes a good deal of insight and restraint, but it produces the winsome authenticity that we’re all craving.