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On Being Authentic - Sort Of



Someone recently described me as authentic, which I took to be a compliment because it sounds good even though I’m not sure what it means. That we are probably peak ‘authentic’ now – the word has been so over-used it has become debased – makes an agreed definition harder still.


Currents in capitalism and technology have carried authenticity quickly downstream. Consumerism is built on the lie that identical goods are worth more when they carry a particular brand. These brands are a way of marking our superiority to those who are as clever as we are at discerning superiority. We accept the genuineness of goods – their authenticity – when they carry this mark.


The explosion in information technology has exposed us to poisonous doses of fakery. Distinguishing truth from lie, fact from fiction – the foundation of civilisation – has become a routine challenge in going online. Lies exist offline too, but they are more easily packaged and quickly disseminated online. With social media, people present the personal image they wish other people to have of them. We tell ourselves it is so they will see us as we see ourselves, but the temptation to compete with others sometimes means we present a deceitful picture.


Perfectly crafted images online have spurred some to a new kind of authenticity sometimes called relatability. Here are searingly honest accounts of personal failure, meant to reassure others we are not better than they are and do not pose a threat to them. At times moral wrong comes without shame, where people believe the simple act of honesty absolves them of the offence, without contrition or restitution.


The word authenticity is derived from the Greek word auto, for self. Charles Guignon has described it as ‘an ideal of owning oneself, of achieving self-possession. In an astute series of essays, Emily Bootle in This Is Not Who I Am (Ortac Press 2022) suggests that the personal brand beloved of celebrities takes this idea of owning oneself ‘to an extreme’.


Unsurprisingly, given it emerged in the ancient world, the New Testament seems to prefer the word sincerity. St Paul speaks of the sincerity of your love (2 Corinthians 8:8). The first letter of Timothy talks of sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5) and St Paul contends he does not manipulate others with his teaching but speaks before God with sincerity (2 Corinthians 2:17).


Being true to ourselves is not enough. We can be authentically awful as a person. Sincerity is linked to the virtues of faith; the product of a life formed by the living Spirit. It is not especially cool to be thought of as sincere; there is a hint of naivety in it, and also dogma (‘he may be sincere, but he is sincerely wrong’). But when we see ourselves not as a brand to sell but as branded by the cross, we open ourselves to a powerful mix of unsparing judgment and unlimited grace that can dissolve the layers of deceit we surround ourselves with.


That’s the theology, in any event. In practice we often fall far short of this, in spite of good intentions – something St Paul saw when he ended his anthem to love with these words:


For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13: 12).


True authenticity, it would seem, still lies on the other side.



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