Charles Taylor describes our secular age as “the age of authenticity,” a description that could easily fit the dominant narrative of most Disney films. Watch how he defines the phrase:
I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that 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 (475).
Another good word for “authenticity” is non-conformity. The point of non-conformity is being true to yourself as opposed to whatever self others may want you to be true to. That’s why much of the drama in our culture of authenticity comes from the casting off of societal constraints. Note the four areas Taylor mentioned in his definition:
1. Imposition from Outside
No one can tell you what you should make of your life! Any identity that comes from outside you squelches your originality and authenticity. You can’t “find yourself,” “realize your potential,” “release your true self” and so on, unless you reject every model of life that doesn’t come from within. Furthermore, it is a betrayal of your identity to allow anyone or anything to shape you into something you are not. The most extreme version of this perspective is found in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, an unabashed paean of praise to the unfettered ego, heralded by Oprah Winfrey as one of last decade’s greatest books.
2. Imposition from Society
Conformity to societal expectations must be resisted! What society thinks today may change, after all, but you as a person are unchangeable and must be allowed to express yourself in order for society to benefit from your unique essence. You are not what you are biologically, socially, morally, or culturally; you are what you want to be. You are whatever you want to express.
In the last two decades, casting off societal restraints has been evident most clearly in gender roles and identity. (The genderless experiment of Sweden is perhaps the most extreme form I have come across.) In this case, freedom is not in accepting “binary definitions” of male and female but in expanding the number of options for someone to “find” and “express” themselves.
3. Imposition from the Previous Generation
In some cultures, continuity with the past is a sign of wisdom, the ability to draw from the reserves of history in order to make wise choices today. Institutions and the expectations that grow around them are cherished, sometimes to a fault, but they are seen as valuable nonetheless.
The Age of Authenticity, however, finds much of its dramatic flair in innovation and experimentation, breaking free from “the way we’ve always done it” in favor of building a new world that maximizes individual flourishing of expression. We’ve come to the point we expect young people to go through a season of rebellion against “the way their parents are,” and in some circles, we equate maturity with the willingness to question and cast aspersion on whatever has come before. You express yourself by venturing out on your own, by blazing your own path, and by deriding the past generation’s expression.
4. Imposition from Religion and Politics
The church and state are common foes in the battle to express oneself at all costs. Religion imposes order by appealing to divine authority. Christianity goes so far as to call for self-mortification, the dying to oneself and living to God that demands the putting of others first, over one’s own desires. Political authority can also limit the freedom of self-expression, which is one reason why younger generations tend to be libertarian when it comes to governmental regulation and simultaneously advocates of big government in areas where self-expression may be at risk.
How the Age of Authenticity Alters Our Vision
What is most intriguing about the Age of Authenticity’s resistance to these four spheres of outside influence is how it impacts our view of these spheres, even subconsciously.
For example, many who see self-expression as fundamentally important to humanity are unlikely to reject religious or spiritual authority outright. They are more likely to recast religion in terms of enabling the kind of authentic self-expression they believe to be most valuable.
In other words, the Age of Authenticity isn’t likely to empty churches; it’s likely instead to fill them with people who believe the primary purpose of religious observance is to facilitate “finding yourself” and “chasing your dreams.” It’s no wonder that the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen and others finds such a large audience in this environment.
Within this frame of mind, sinfulness is no longer falling short of the glory of God, but the falling short of your own potential. Sin is failing to be true to yourself. You choose a church based on how it will help you discover and be true to yourself. The smorgasbord of spirituality is there for the taking.
Or consider how we might recast political authority. The Age of Authenticity doesn’t lead to anarchists who want to bring down the government. It leads instead to a generation of people who rely on the government to ensure their “rights,” their “freedom” to protect from “non-discrimination” and foster “respect” – all terms which are good and helpful but which, in Taylor’s estimation, get deployed as “argument-stopping universals, without any consideration of the where and how of their application to the case at hand” (479). “Freedom of choice” becomes absolute, as if every option must be inherently equal and beneficial, and we are left without any real discussion of what the choices entail or what their consequences may be.
What about the Church?
Where does this leave the church? Progressive churches are more likely to celebrate the Age of Authenticity as progress. Conservative churches are more likely to chalk up the changes to selfishness.
But the Age of Authenticity is in the water, so to speak. It’s the air we breathe. That’s why, ironically, both progressive and conservative churches cast themselves as reinforcers of the “choice” their members have made in adopting their religious vision of the world. Whether you choose a conservative or liberal church, you are still choosing, which is one of the primary ways in which the Age of Authenticity manifests itself.
When I consider this cultural environment, I wonder if, perhaps, we have a unique opportunity to do something different. Here are two ways the church can make a difference.
Picking Up the Pieces
On the one hand, when the Age of Authenticity raises the stakes this high, it makes one’s individuality the most important aspect of life. It creates a sense of angst, an underlying fear that leads to terrible decisions. How many middle-aged couples live on Facebook, watching their friends lead (supposedly) terrific and exciting lives and then decide they are missing out, that their marital vows are too constraining and must be cast aside for personal fulfillment?
Case in point. A recent story online featured a woman who mourned her husband’s adultery and what it cost her and her children. The response was vicious. The woman who shared her story (not the man) was the one vilified online. Why? Because her husband had left her for another man. In defending the husband, the online commenters were lifting up the Age of Authenticity and self-expression as the ultimate good before all else must bow. It is the good for which everything, including wife and children and happiness, must be sacrificed. It seemed incomprehensible that a family’s stability should come before sexual fulfillment.
These stories are not uncommon. The church’s response must be to pick up the pieces left in the wake of Authenticity’s tidal wave of sadness. When “being true to yourself” tramples everything else, broken hearts litter the path. The church must present a gospel for the broken and disillusioned.
Proclaiming the Gospel from Outside
On the other hand, we should be the kind of people who have good news to offer in an age where “gospel” is “self-actualization.” The whole idea of discovering and being true to yourself can be rather exhausting. The narrative paints a picture of exhilaration in casting off society’s restraints and doing whatever it takes to be true to yourself.
But what if the self you are true to is one that no one else wants to be with? What if the self you become is dastardly in its final form, not beautiful and attractive? What if, like Elsa in Frozen, you “let it go,” “turn away and slam the door,” only to find yourself in a lonely ice palace of your own making, a palace that is also a prison?
The church’s response must be to proclaim a gospel that comes from outside ourselves – no matter how countercultural this may seem. When people in our culture discover how exhausting it is to try to be “true to themselves,” when looking further and further inward eventually shows them they haven’t the resources to transform their own lives, the church must be ready to break in with good news that life change isn’t mustered up from within but granted through grace from without.
We are to challenge the narrative that happiness is found solely in self-expression. The biblical view of the self is that we are broken, twisted, and sinful. The self is something that needs redemption, not expression. And this redemption takes place within a redeemed community, not as spiritual individuals piecing together our own strategy for personal spirituality and fulfillment, but walking together with people who shape and form us into the image of Christ.