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The Ambiguities of Authenticity

By September 24, 2015 No Comments

Generally, I’m a proponent of authenticity. Clarity about one’s values, meaningful action that flows from those values, honest and genuine speech, freedom of choice, and the cultivation of one’s self-identity: these are all elements of authenticity which most modern persons in the West (myself included) would find it difficult to eschew at anything more than an intellectual level. Sociologist Charles Taylor persuasively argued, in his book The Ethics of Authenticity (1991), that authenticity, understood properly, has an inner logic and sturdy moral code. He also notes that many appeals to authenticity fall far short of this moral code and devolve into self-centeredness and narcissism.

In my work, I witness both the power of the cultural ideal of authenticity and its ambiguities. At times, the assertion of authenticity becomes a stumbling block for my students–and I suspect for many of us. I regularly teach a course on clergy sexual misconduct. In this class, we consider a number of factors that contribute to clergy crossing boundaries with their parishioners, including the ubiquity of dual-role relationships in pastoral ministry and the blurring of relational lines created by social media. Inevitably two questions arise with intensity for students: Is it okay for me, as a single person, to date a parishioner? Can’t I befriend my parishioners? Even Jesus referred to his disciples as friends! Long discussions ensue about the professional dimension of ministry, the demands of different relational contexts, and the particular fiduciary responsibilities of being a pastor. When I assert and illustrate that it is unwise (and potentially harmful) to enter into fully mutual relationships with one’s parishioners, authenticity becomes the concern. How can I hide parts of myself from parishioners? Are you saying we should be false? What about transparency and vulnerability?

The same questions plague discussions of cultural competence. Students recently took a Cultural Intelligence (CQ) test before they headed out to their intercultural immersion trips (to places like the Borderlands, Cambodia, Jordan, and Israel). Cultural Intelligence has to do with our capacity to function effectively in a variety of cultural contexts. Given the intercultural nature of today’s world, CQ is as important as IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence).

There are multiple dimensions to CQ:

  • CQ Drive – one’s interest, motivation, and confidence in adapting to multicultural situations
  • CQ Knowledge – one’s understanding about how cultures are similar and different
  • CQ Strategy – one’s awareness and ability to plan for multicultural interactions
  • CQ Action – one’s ability to adapt one’s own behavior and style of communication when relating cross-culturally

When taking the CQ test, many students, indicated that their approach to cross-cultural relationships is based in authenticity—being fully themselves in relation to persons from different racial-ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Yet, as the dimensions of CQ suggest, a wholly self-referential commitment to authenticity impedes cross-cultural relating. Relational adaptation, not trying to figure out how to be more authentically ‘you’, is required.

This brings us back to Taylor’s argument. Authenticity exists only in solidarity. The self is inherently relational and dialogical. Identity emerges from and is reworked through life in relationship to others. ‘Others’ is a key word here. It implies distinction and difference. Relating to those who are different from (that is, other than) me demands respect and recognition of their humanity. It calls me out of myself toward them. Authenticity exists only in solidarity.

Now, of course, this is beginning to sound theological. One of the primary theological turns of the past century has been to reconsider the locus of the imago dei. It is not located in the intellect or will or affect but in relationality itself. To be authentically and genuinely human is to be fundamentally relation. We exist in and through relationship with God and by extension with each other. Interpreted in this context, authenticity entails consideration of others’ needs (without denigration of one’s own), an understanding of another’s particularity (and one’s own), an awareness of biases that privilege some groups over others, and the free choice to act in ways that promote the good of all . . . because we fundamentally exist with (not without) one another. I wonder how placing authenticity on this much sturdier ground might not only help my students navigate the complexities of pastoral relationships but also help us as a cultural address such things as immigration crises with far greater integrity.








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