I’ve been wondering of late about authenticity (yes, I know, again), and whether - for a Christian - authenticity actually lies in a kind of split identity? I’ve been thinking about this a little bit since listening to a keynote at St Mellitus’ recent Holy Spirit in the World Today conference by Julie Canlis, which was called Culture, Identity and the Authenticity Hoax.
In this she talked about the history of the idea of the self in western philosophy and the way that the obsession of the twenty-first century is authenticity (I don’t want to paraphrase too much of this, ‘cos I’m hoping that they’re going to put the keynotes up online so that people can listen to them - and Canlis was terribly engaging, so you’d do better to just listen to her when it goes up).
It interested me because, like all good narcissists, I’m obsessed with my own identity, and like all slightly guilt-ridden Chrisitians, I’m obsessed with self-improvement. Perhaps, more positively (!), it interested me because I do believe that I have certain talents and skills and things, that there are ways of using them that are better than others, and there are certain things I’m meant to do with my life over the course of it, which will make me happier and my life fuller - and a little self-awareness doesn’t hurt in trying to work out those things. So, there were three key ideas that caught me:
- Andrew Porter’s idea that we mistake self-disclosure for authenticity - which is a challenge to someone who lives a significant portion of her life online. How can you be online so that you are being yourself, rather than just talking about yourself? I think the criticism of Twitter that says it’s just narcissists talking about what they had for lunch is utter bobbins, but there is a difference between talking at people and talking to people that is worth thinking about.
- Vikram Chandra’s concern about the ‘cult of authenticity’ - in which he suggests that external praise and the self-congratulation of seeing yourself as ‘authentic’ can become a prison. Which is true - carrying about anything too much becomes a prison, especially if you’re not really sure what you’re trying to be authentic to.
- The idea that we are at our most authentic when we are at our least self-reflexive, because we are just being, not worrying about how we are being. This, I think, connects back to the Grayson Perry quotation I was thinking about last year - that “authenticity often means making mistakes.” If we’re thinking less about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. then we’re naturally liable to screw up more easily. Living well, I think involves balancing those two things: not overanalysing every move, but doing enough analysis to develop/improve.
Christians are hardly alone in being concerned about how to be authentically authentic (if you will) - but Canlis’ lgave me a different way of thinking about it, taking me away from a focus on ‘me’ and my independence, my self in working out how to live. She described a Jesus who never conceived of himself as an individual, but only understood himself as existing in his relationship with God the Father in the Holy Spirit: there was no independent self in that joins in the relationship, the being is made of the relationship. (Yes, the Trinity is baffling, but somehow, for me, this makes it slightly less baffling). And then she talked about the way that Jesus prays for his followers:
That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20–21)
So if we are (or, if I am) going to believe in Christ then we can only be truly ourselves - truly authentic in living in him (and apparently that’s a phase Paul uses a whopping 137 times…) and there should be no ‘independent self’ to idealise, and we have to find our identity not in the things we like/dislike or are good at, but in our relationship with God (and a God who exists as three-in-one).
For someone who has grown up to be independent (probably to a fault) and who has always been concerned with being normal/being not-normal/being oneself - both of which are key elements of my culture - this is pretty scary biscuits. It feels a bit like I have a split personality that I'm trying to resolve into one - the me-me, and the me-in-God-me. Even though this relational identity doesn’t obliterate us - there’s still a unique me, with tastes and talents - there’s still something that’s supposed to be fundamental to me that isn’t actually me. The fact that my almost immediate response to grappling with this is to reach for a terrible ‘Help, help, I’m being possessed!’ joke, says quite a lot about how alien I find this concept.
Going back to Grayson Perry, briefly, is interesting because his Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman exhibition at the British Museum last year (which I loved) was about how much of us - of the me, the self - is built on others, and cannot be independent of our origins. And if you believe in God and the creation of humanity, then you can’t escape your origins in God. This is slightly reassuring - like, it’s a thing that’s meant to be (and it helps to explore, with Perry, how that kind of relationship works in a cultural way to start to think about how you deal with it with God - because identity in God is kind of a bigger thing, underlying how you deal with culture, ultimately) - but I still don’t feel like I understand how being uniquely me and yet truly me-in-relationship-with-God begins to work or where to start in turning my understanding of my identity around to that focus point. And not understanding generally makes me want to sob bitter tears of frustration.
Canlis’ suggestion, and the one that seems to emerge from the idea that we are most authentically ourselves when we’re not thinking about it, is that we can’t actually see or understand how our identity exists in Christ or discern when we’re actually being in this way - but that we live it, in church and in the we that we do faith. If our faith is really real, then it shows up in our engagement with the world around us and in the patterns we put into our lives - things like baptism, communion, eating together, living together, resolving disagreements together. It comes in those moments where we don’t actually think about it. Like, the split personality doesn't ever actually go away, we just learn to live with it. But, we also need to think about it from time to time to check in on ourselves and this relationship… and so we circle back around to the tension beween thinking and overthinking.
I don’t think it ever ends… which is probably why I’m having trouble wrapping up this blog post. There is no neat conclusion or lesson or trick to making it all work. There’s just working at it.