I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity recently—which I’m sure surprises no one who knows me because this is the kind of thing I do. Everybody is talking about authenticity in one way or another, sometimes without even realizing it. “That’s authentic.” “That’s real.” “That looks like you.” “O.G.” Authenticity is a big deal—it’s jumped to the top of everyone’s tables of virtue. And, its ever-presence is both driving me nuts, and forcing me to think about it more deeply.
Just the other day I invited a student to participate in an activity at The Lutheran Center. She smirked silently, and then said, “no” in the most obnoxiously late-modern way possible. She said, “That really doesn’t sound like something I would do.”
Now that’s a conversation ender. How do you argue with that?
Interestingly, though, her response gets directly at the heart of what we mean by “authenticity”. It points right to the million-dollar question: Is that something that the authentic I would do?
And what we may miss is, for us, this is actually a weighty moral question. Often a source of anxiety. Philosopher Charles Taylor describes the moral significance of authenticity like this, “There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me.”
For those living in what Taylor calls “The Age of Authenticity” the question of call or vocation can easily boil down to this: I am called to live my life in the unique way that only I can live my life. I have to do and choose in a way that only I would do and choose.
Or as poet Mary Oliver famously and beautifully asked, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
As Taylor points out the inherent risk in this way of thinking is that you might get it wrong. You might be inauthentic. You might choose things that your authentic I wouldn’t choose. You might do things that your authentic I wouldn’t do. You might speak with a voice that your authentic I wouldn’t speak with. Worse yet, you might—God forbid—imitate someone else. You might miss being you entirely!
This (slightly terrifying) vision of authenticity emerges out of a needed rebellion against the pre-modern vision of call and vocation when people were locked into a role, station, or office that was assigned to them. The idea of call so understood, “demands that I break hold of all such external impositions and decide for myself alone.” So, any external source suggesting what might be good, or better, or beautiful is to be viewed with suspicion at the very least.
Taken to the extreme, this vision of authentic calling obviously has its problems. The one who calls, in this understanding of calling, is always only the self. (What a reversal from Luther, 500 years before, who imagined that only things that came from the outside—i.e. God—could be trusted because the human was corrupted through sin, and, therefore, not exactly trustworthy.)
Yet, as Taylor argues, authenticity does need to be a threatening, finger-wagging, fear-monger. As he sees it, the ethic of authenticity actually works best in—get this—dialogue, when the self doesn’t become a sort of modern-day hermit, but includes voices from the outside in their assessment of who they are. And, maybe, here’s the promise of authenticity in discussion of vocation and call. We don’t have to do return to Luther’s dogmatism around God giving you the station or office that you’re given (if you’re a pastor be a pastor; if you’re a soldier be a soldier be a soldier; if you’re a slave be a slave). Nor do we have to be left to the tyranny, not to mention the loneliness, of listening to our own voices and choices drone on and on and on…
Maybe we can have our vocational cake and eat it too…
Taylor writes, “Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.”
The student said, “That really doesn’t sound like something I would do.”
Maybe I should have asked, “Why?” Maybe I could have asked, “How would your vision of who you are change had you done this? Maybe I could have asked, “What commitments outside yourself have shaped your choice to decline this invite?”
The more I think about it, I’m pretty sure that’s what my authentic self would do.