Me, Myself, & I

Michael Metzger

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.

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11 thoughts on “Me, Myself, & I”

  1. George Hepburn

    Mike,

    I can think of several examples how the idea of being authentic plays out to a destructive choice. Entitlements promote laziness and homosexual acceptance overlooks the destruction brought by perpetuation, and in large part,much of the initial spread of HIV. Not to mention so many other horrible consequences closely associated when one’s conscience tells them deep down that what is occuring with a poor choice made is a lowered self esteem and ultimately a further blinding to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    At least entitlements are getting a closer look owing to the debt ceiling coming to critical levels in the state and federal governments, but why doesn’t the notion that a gay person, or any man who has had sex with another man for many recent years, not being permitted to donate blood to the Red Cross, send a signal to those so “enligtened” that that behavior just ain’t all that good?
    It’s difficult to stand by supporting our government as laws change supporting these authentic individuals( homosexuals coming out is widely gaining acceptance both socially and now in law) all the while seeing the destruction this brings to budgets and our health.

  2. After reading your essay today, I then turned to the New York Times, which published an article today (June 27)about conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and the increasing animosity and lack of civility between political conservatives and liberals. The journalist quoted author James B. McPherson, who said, “there are no standards of fact anymore for a lot of people. We have gone from selecting sources of opinion that we agree with to selecting facts we agree with.” This certainly fits with the point of your essay.

    My limited understanding is that such a mindset stems more from post-modern philosophy than it does from Enlightenment thought. The Enlightenment, as I understand it, emphasized science (which was developed by Christians) as a means of discovering truth. Real science is committed to confirmation by peer-review (multiple witnesses). But post-modern thinkers seem to move us away from even the hope that real Truth exists. I think it was Richard Rorty, the post-modern philosopher, who said: “There are no facts, only opinions.”

    Perhaps you could clarify how it is that the Enlightenment produced this “new kind of person” rather than post-modernism. Thanks!

  3. By looking only to reason and not to revelation as a resource for the knowledge of reality, the Enlightenment did indeed elevate science over scripture. But the Enlightenment overlooked two realities about human nature: the knowledge gained from science is never without bias. Humans are not rational. Enlightenment ignorance of these two realities led to self-reporting as the basis for reporting the knowledge humans claim to gain. Postmodernism is simply the dead-end consequence – it plays out erroneous Enlightenment assumptions about what it means to be human.

  4. This reminds me of a book I am currently reading, DON’T WASTE YOUR LIFE by John Piper. Enlightenment… post-modernism … there’s nothing new under the sun.

    Thanks, Mike, for the article encouraging us all to look upward, and not inward. And also, did you use that quote from William Wilberforce before? I remember reading that somewhere a while ago, but I cannot place it.

  5. Mike is correct. Modernism and Postmodernism are more of a continuum than a disjunction. The latter is the logical consequence of the former. The most pressing consequence of postmodernism is in the area of identity, which is further complicated by our commitment to consumerism and cyberspace. The first creates the expectation of endless choice, the second a world without boundaries. Peter Berger explored this in his book, A Far Glory. He states simply, “If God is dead, any self is possible.” There are only three possibilities for securing one’s identity: outside oneself (derived), inside oneself (discovered), or created by oneself (designed). With the loss of a sense of transcendence we have moved from discovered to designed. Ironically, the multiple selves of postmodernism begin to look a lot like multiple personality disorder. James Glass writes in Shattered Selves, “If multiple personality disorder and schizophrenia are extreme forms of what the postmodernists idealize, then there is something terribly wrong in the postmodernist interpretation of what multiplicity or fragmentation of self means, and questions of meaning become quite appropriate when one addresses the practicalities involved with living with broken-up identities.”

    One can summarize the recent work on postmodern identity with the following axioms:
    1. Identity is self-created.
    2. The self is indeterminate; any self is possible.
    3. The process of self-creation is never finished.
    4. The right to self-creation is one’s central political right.
    5. Self-creation is mediated by therapeutic and marketing experts.
    6. Technology and consumerism expand the range of possibilities of self-creation.
    7. The self lacks any intrinsic unity or normality; one person’s pathology is another person’s charm.
    8. The descriptions of the self shift from the vocabulary of morality to therapy.
    9. While the self is liberated from all constraint under the conditions of postmodernity, this very openness can be a burden.

    When one loses a sense of truth as a reflection of reality, one soon loses a sense of reality itself. Such is our modern ethos.

  6. Thanks, Mike, for the clarification. To add one more thought, this essay speaks to the difficulty of communicating the Gospel today. When a culture is self-referenced, when people justify themselves (therefore being truly “self-righteous”), and when people see themselves as being essentially good, the cross is perceived to have no meaning.

  7. This is brilliant! The thing about hearing clarity is that it is just so clear! That is how truth is…clear and right. I just think this is very well articulated. Well done Mike!

  8. Mike, wondering about your thinking regarding the relationships that God gave us as revealed in Scripture – Gen 1-2. Seems to me that we were given relationships with God/spiritual, creation/physical, and other people/social but not with self. The identification of self as a category of relationship as in the other three contributes to the problems addressed in your article. Your thoughts?

  9. Good question, Bob. God gave human beings self-awareness, or what is called conscience. So we do have some sense of self. We do enjoy a relationship with ourselves, but it is fraught with problems after the fall – chief of which is warned about in Jeremiah – the conscience is deceitful, who can understand it? The answer implied is that self is best known through the wisdom of many counselors.

  10. Pingback: Self Deception | Carl Creasman Self Deception| Live Well blog; life insights with values

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