We live in the “Age of Authenticity,” says Charles Taylor. As a whole we have adopted a value of expressive individualism, that asserts the right and significance each person has to be themselves. What we sometimes call “authenticity,” however, often looks more like selfishness and indulgence than anything highly moral and valuable. As Christians we need to be conscious of the temptation to justify sinful selfishness with the cultural label of authenticity.
Taylor, the noted and respected philosopher, asserts that our societal value of expressive individualism works itself out in this way: each one 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 imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority (The Secular Age, 45). This approach to life is boiled down into one simple and ubiquitous catchphrase: be yourself. We teach kids this lesson from the earliest age and we repeat it to one another in a wide array of contexts as a form of motivational gift-giving. It is the defining advice of life. Giving a public presentation? Just, “be yourself.” Dealing with relational conflict? Just, “be yourself.” Interviewing for a job? Just, “be yourself.” Concerned that you might have developed some unhealthy habits? Just, “be yourself.” The rule of thumb is let no one tell you who to be. And don’t even let them tell you what to do if what they are telling you to do flies in the face of “who you are.” The goal of all things is self-realization.
It doesn’t take a sociologist, psychologist, or theologian to see the flaws in this approach to life. The focus is entirely on “the self.” This societal value places “me” at the center of my universe, it makes the ultimate goal of my life my own self-actualization, and insists that no one else is as important as my experience of my identity. As Christians this ought to deeply trouble us. The Bible tells us many things that are contrary to this view of life. It tells us, for example, that we ought to “consider others more important than ourselves” (Phi. 2:3). It also tells us that the goal of life is the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Our life’s aim, then, is to be pleasing to Jesus (2 Cor. 5:9). Furthermore, our personal identity is rooted in our relationship with Jesus, meaning that who I am is not open to complete self-determination. It is already determined by the person, work, and command of Jesus. “Be yourself,” within a Christian worldview, only works if the my “self” is reflecting Jesus Christ.
Far too often, however, what happens is that we use authenticity as a justifier for selfishness. Writing in The New York Times, Adam Grant touched on this very subject. He points to an experiment A.J. Jacobs participated in nearly a decade ago on the issue of “radical honesty.” Jacobs determined that he was going to try to live authentically, at least for a few weeks as part of the experiment. Grant notes:
He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.
The “authentic self,” it turns out is kind of a jerk.
Grant, notes the difference between what is termed High Self-Monitoring and Low Self-monitoring. He explains:
If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly. You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone. But if you’re a low self-monitor, you’re guided more by your inner states, regardless of your circumstances.
In our cultural value system, then, the low self-monitor is authentic and the high self-monitor is a phony. There’s probably some truth to that. There is an appropriate place for “authenticity,” for vulnerability and sincerity. Yet, what research reveals is that the high self-monitor is actually more interested in others. They spend greater time thinking about the needs and interests of others. The authentic person is usually just focused on what they want or don’t want.
We call it “truth telling,” but it is often just being rude. An older woman I used to know when I was in high school claimed that she just “told it like it was.” Even then I thought she was just cruel. She would tell you what she thought of your outfit, your food, your song, or you. She always claimed that she was just an honest person and that she hated lies, but in truth it seemed more like she got a thrill out of being mean to people. Not every thought is worthy of sharing, especially when it is unnecessarily hurtful.
We call it authenticity when we want to say those hurtful words, or when we want to do our own thing. We claim that it’s about “being ourselves,” or being honest with others. In truth it’s purely selfish. We just want to do and say what we want, but we like the justification and rationalization. It’s a cover for sin. Authenticity is an unhelpful goal because it motivates our worst tendencies towards selfish indulgence. It’s also problematic because the “authentic self” doesn’t really exist.
“Telling people to be themselves is wonderful advice – unless they actually try to take it,” writes Alan Noble. The minute you try to uncover that “true you,” you find a great deal of uncertainty. Who is the “true self”? How do you know when you’ve found him/her? Alan calls it a “myth.” You are the composite of all of the various components, experiences, beliefs, and practices that make up your life. Furthermore, you change constantly. The “true you” from two years ago is not likely to be the “true you” today. Making “authenticity” or “being yourself” the ultimate goal is destabilizing. It will not help you.
The goal for us as Christians is not to “be ourselves.” Who we are is broken, damaged by sin, impacted by the fall, distorted image bearers. The ultimate realization of the “self” is found in our conformity to the image of the Divine Son. We are most ourselves when we are living consistently with who God created us to be as His image bearers. We are most ourselves when we are conformed to the image of Jesus. We are most ourselves, then, when we are least concerned with “being our true self.” We are most ourselves when we selfless and sacrificial like our Savior. This is the goal. This is what we should strive for.
Authenticity is often a cover up for sinful selfishness. Sometimes the best thing for us to do is to swallow those hurtful words. We need to consider the interests of others as more significant than our own. We need to fight the emotional, psychological, and spiritual temptations to grumble, hate, lust, and indulge the flesh. We need to pursue who God has called us to be instead of who we presently are. Authenticity can become a justification for selfishness. Conformity to Christ is true authenticity for the believer.