These aren’t the right witnesses.
In The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, author Andrew Potter describes how the Enlightenment created “a new kind of person” who prizes authenticity. Authenticity presents two problems, however. It relies entirely on an individual’s take on reality while rebuffing those who disagree with it.
Potter is a public affairs columnist with Maclean’s magazine, a Canadian newsweekly, and an editor with Canadian Business magazine. He co-wrote with James Heath a book about Americans with the telling title, Nation of Rebels. Potter’s new book, The Authenticity Hoax is a story of Westerners losing their way trying to find themselves. He pins much of the blame on Enlightenment science that reduced the mystical cosmos to merely material. This removed institutional religion as a reliable reference for reality.
“A new kind of society and, inevitably, a new kind of person” emerged, Potter writes, one more given to looking within for meaning. An individual’s self-definition of reality filled the gap left by institutional faith, giving rise to authenticity, which comes from the Greek, authentes, meaning “one acting on one’s own authority.” “Authentic” individuals define themselves on the testimony of only three witnesses: me, myself, and I.
The hoax is that authenticity does not take into account the human capacity for self-deception. William Wilberforce understood this, as well as why maintaining a clear conscience required self-suspicion, not self-referential takes on reality. We see this in his letter to his 15-year-old daughter Elizabeth, in which he writes:
I must declare to you… that it will be necessary for my dear girl to guard herself with the utmost watchfulness, and… what St. Paul terms “exercising herself to maintain a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man”: what the Book of Proverbs styles, “keeping the heart with all diligence:” for unless we have accustomed ourselves to self-suspicion, we never benefit as we might from the friendly reproofs of a real friend.”1
These days, reproofs are rarely considered friendly. Americans are serenely smug about their self-referential takes on reality. They resist scrutiny. This is evident in research conducted by Burnham Rosen Group. It finds no measurable correlation between the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and predicting actual behavior, even though MBTI graduates self-report that it does change their behavior. In fact, MBTI is only predictive of an individual’s perception of their behavior, a reality that aggravates “authentic” people. They rebuff these disparities between actual and self-reported behavior.
Burnham Rosen Group reports similar findings from studies on leadership. Over the last 50 years, few industries have grown as fast as leadership development. Yet there is scant empirical evidence indicating that the vast array of leadership conferences, summits, and books actually change behaviors or produce leaders. With notable exceptions (such as Jim Collins), findings indicate the focus on leadership only changes how individuals self-report their leadership capabilities. Authenticity creates individuals who rebuff the apparent disparities between actual leadership and self-reported leadership.
The Western church is awash in this authenticity. Self-reporting success can be the clueless comment “God showed up today” or characterize a generation, as Notre Dame professor Christian Smith notes in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults: “The majority of emerging adults… have great difficulty grasping the idea that a reality that is objective to their own awareness or construction of it may exist that could have a significant bearing on their lives.”2 He adds:
It is hardly surprising, in light of much of the foregoing, that according to emerging adults, the absolute authority for every person’s beliefs or actions is his or her sovereign self. Anybody can literally think or do whatever he or she wants… Individuals are autonomous agents who have to deal with each other, yes, but do so entirely as self-directing choosers.3
It is instructive to note authentes is nowhere to be found in the Bible. God never calls his people to be authentic. They ought to define reality based on his authority, not their own. God’s people also recognize their finitude, meaning they rarely if ever see the big picture by themselves. They acknowledge the fall, meaning any take on reality can be tainted. Self-referential takes, no matter how “authentic” they may feel, can never resolve the inevitable problems arising when individuals differ yet feel their take on reality is correct.
This is why, when differing takes on reality arise, scripture repeatedly says “on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed” (Deut.19:5). Consider the case of the cantankerous Corinthian church. Many believers in the church self-reported how it was flourishing (I Cor.4:8). Paul disagreed. They rebuffed his rebuttal. Paul wrote back that, upon his arrival, “every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (II Cor.13:1). He wasn’t relying on me myself, and I.
There are differing opinions today as to whether the modern church is flourishing. Good people can disagree but authenticity is no way to discover where the truth actually lies. When the church acknowledges this hoax and accustoms itself to self-suspicion, it will benefit from the friendly reproofs of real friends such as Lesslie Newbigin, who challenged Enlightenment assumptions unwittingly embraced by the Western church. At the very least, the church will be relying on better witnesses.
1 “Private Papers of William Wilberforce,” published by Burt Franklin, (New York, NY), pp. 165-68.
2 Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 45.
3 Smith, Souls, p. 49.