The Problem of Authenticity

Ever since Kierkegaard coined the term and Sartre popularized it, the value of authenticity has maintained a prominent place in the minds of those in individualized society. The general consensus is that it is better, nay, crucial, that a person be authentic- that they be who they truly are.

Of course, this means that a person needs to know who they truly are.

But what informs this self understanding? How do we know what our own authenticity looks like? Does it feel right? Is it tied to emotional stability? No one seems to know, but we all know that authenticity is good.

The trouble is, authenticity is relative to something else.

This relativity means that to be authentic to yourself you need to differentiate and understand a divergence in the human person; you need to know what parts of you are you and what parts of you are not. To confuse this even further, identifying which is the fake you as opposed to the real you carries with it no qualitative criteria. There is no way to measure the merit or value of the fake vs the real you.

Sure, you can say you know when you are pretending.

But over time your pretension becomes ingrained. Let me put it this way, when you first start playing soccer, you’re rubbish. But you practice. As you practice, you become better and better, until you are a legitimate soccer player. But at what point did you become authentically a soccer player? It was when you started practicing. But in your true self you weren’t yet, because you knew you didn’t know to play. But then you learned.

There are two sides to this observation.

The first is that in order to improve you need to recognize that you are not very good at soccer and in order to improve you need to make some changes to the way you do things; you need to practice and learn the game. This is the positive aspect of authenticity; recognizing and naming your status. But the second side dictates that you stake yourself down at the beginning of your career and say “well, this is the set of skills I was born with and I am not going to improve beyond these, so what’s the use of practice?” This is the negative aspect of authenticity: the unwillingness to change for the better; to improve.

This is the danger in authentic Christianity.

Authenticity is only good for awareness of one’s own condition, and not as a marker of arrival. Admitting you are a drunk and then making no efforts to seek help or curb your drinking is unacceptable. The same is true for the notion of authenticity; realizing the strength of your character without working to improve that is unacceptable. And what could be more fake than disingenuous effort?

But there is a darker side to authenticity; authentic belief.

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