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Monday, September 12, 2005

The virtue of Authenticity

C.S. Lewis starts out one of his most famous essays (sermons?), The Weight of Glory, with the line:

If you ask twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.

If we could reenact Lewis' poll today, most would reply that the highest of virtues is Authenticity. Some might call it Being Real. Whatever the name you give it, my generation craves that phantasmic "genuine article."

It makes sense, too. In a world where families, homes, and lives are so fractured, it's no wonder people feel this way. Especially as we continue to perfect our ability to manufacture experiences through technological means, it's no surprise people start craving the real thing. Even more than experiences, we've become masters of manufacturing entire identities, particularly for our youth--the geek, the skater, the punk, the jock, the goth.... even the Christian.

Most of us get worn out from wearing so many costumes. At the end of the day, we find ourselves looking in the mirror and asking "Who am I?" We are all longing for something to ring true, to resonante within ourselves.

Here's one need on which Christianity should be capitalizing, right? When it comes to the True Stories That'll Knock Your Socks Off, we've got the market cornered. God? Became flesh? Died? Come again?

If only it where so simple. A recent episode of the White Horse Inn broadcast impromptu interviews with young adults at a Christian ministry conference. Each was asked which was more important, Unity or Doctrine. At least 75 percent answered Unity. This sentiment is echoed so strongly throughout the church, one could easily make the argument that second only to Authenticity, we crave Unity. And it turns out those two don't play together so well.

It's hard to talk about truth--and how can we judge Authenticity without truth?--without making absolute statements. And absolutes always get you into trouble when you're chasing Unity, because disagreements are bound to surface. People who found themselves unified by common experiences find themselves divided by uncommon doctrine. Trying to be Authentic Unified Christians is tough because Authenticity and Unity tend to smash into one another once Doctrine enters the room. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to define Truth too particularly.

But it sure is hard to know what it means to be Authentic when we can't even agree on what's true.

Unless, of course, we define Authenticity in individual terms. Rather than making Authentic statements about Christ--since we can't agree on what He's really about--we'll just make Authentic statements about ourselves. One church encourages its visitors: "Come as you are. Go as you want to be." We may not have helped them know Jesus, but hopefully we've helped them get in touch with and find satisfaction in themselves. In our convoluted view, we've given them an authentic experience--they're leaving more true to themselves, we imagine.

When defined in these terms, a certifiably Authentic statement is whatever we feel in the moment--and that means whatever anyone is feeling in the moment. An Authentic confession or creed is one that accurately describes me.

Look around and see all the moments in which we've replaced the confession of Christ with the confession of Self. Our worship songs and prayers emphasize the individual expression and feeling of faith over and above the person and work of Christ. This attitude has taken over our sacramental theology as well: One local church's congregants were encouraged to take communion alone while writing out private confessions and thoughts on sin. No pastor was present to pronounce Christ's absolution. Many modern Christian have been taught a deep-seated mistrust of any prayer, song, or statement that has not been completely personalized. Any word that does not spring spontaneously from the heart cannot be Authentic because it didn't originate with me.

There are obvious problems with our self-centered obsession with Authenticity, and its subsequent addition to the list of Christian virtues. Primarily, we're setting our selves up as the definition of Truth. Sure, in word we attribute Christ with our salvation. But we search for salvation's evidence in the good things we are able to say, feel, or think about ourselves. When our eyes should be fixed on the author and perfector of our faith, we're fixing them on our own clumsy scribblings.

Further, Authenticity in and of itself is no virtue. A serial killer can confess every murder he has ever committed, leave out none of the gory details, and still be proud of the terrible things he has done. He has been Authentic--brutally honest in his explanation of his crimes--and yet still not been meritous. Authenticity has of no value unless it is joined to repentance. And as Christians, when we repent we are forgiven. We need to hear that more often.

The real terror in all this is the difficulty we have in even being true to ourselves, so to speak. When we examine our Authenticity, we find it laced with cracks and fissures, pockmarked by all of our broken promises and white lies. Sometimes, the only Authentic thing we can say is "I have sinned!"

And that must be our message, to ourselves and the world. The most authentic thing we can say to both parties is that we have all sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. Forget "Come as you are. Go as you want to be." Let's follow the lead of the Apostles and say, "Come as you are. Go in the peace of Christ."