Have you ever wondered why the Episcopal Church strives, more often than not, to be on the cutting edge of progressive causes — political and social — within the milieu of contemporary American culture?
I am forever grateful for a professor in seminary who demonstrated the origins (some of them, anyway) of this phenomenon. He led us through a discussion of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, showing how the 19th-century Church of England was beholden, at all costs and in all domains, to the pretense of social respectability, cultural refinement, and genteel convention. The Church of England in this era was, if nothing else, quintessentially gentlemanly.
This marriage of church and high culture is thoroughly and deeply woven and worked into our Anglican bones. But its manifestation looks different in the United States than it did in the mother country of a bygone era. America is not, at root, the land of the polished don, but rather the petri dish of revolution and reform. It is the land of the social experiment, of avant-garde subversion. Hence the American equivalent of high culture — to which Episcopalians tend to wed ourselves — has more to do with progressive social causes than with discriminating sensibilities.
This brings me to our contemporary obsession with personal authenticity, lauded and championed in the public sphere. Be it the sober genuineness of a Russell Brand or, on the flip side, the repulsion we feel at the landslide of recent sex misconduct (Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Louis C.K.), we want authenticity. We long to see it in those we follow.
But for me there are two lingering questions about authenticity: What is it? and Should the current social demand for it be supported?
Somewhere in his voluminous writings, Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that we perjure ourselves in an effort to save our reputations. This is a good place to start when trying to define authenticity. Authenticity is a refusal to lie to others because that also means lying to yourself.
I see this tendency, this instinct to pretend to be something I’m not, in myself. I see it in my 14-year old daughter. I see it in public figures on TV and on social media.
When I tell someone that the pace of my long runs is eight minutes per mile when in reality I have not consistently run at that pace for a decade, I want someone to believe that I am cool, that I am strong, that I am successful. But why do I want anyone to believe that? I want people to believe that because I want to believe it myself.
Authenticity is the repudiation of this tendency. It is an amendment of your life such that the opinions of others cease to define your self-valuation and identity. While I’m convinced that secular people who are not actively following Christ can adopt this habit of holistic, interpersonal honesty to a great extent, it is here that the gospel of Jesus Christ is especially relevant. The gospel, to paraphrase Tim Keller, assigns and reminds me of my true identity: more sinful and broken than I’ve ever admitted, but far more loved than I’ve ever dared imagine.
This brings me back to my opening thoughts on the pernicious issue of our church’s marriage to contemporary, secular haute culture.
Something in me wants to rebel against this dominant progressive posture, to thumb my nose at Episcopalians’ progressivism. If the Episcopal Church claims to be countercultural, then something deep down inside my rebel nature wants to see myself as counter-countercultural. I guess I’m a true American rebel as well.
And yet we must recognize that the tide of the cultural Zeitgeist is not always perverse. In the spirit of thinkers such as Friedrich Hegel, Thomas Keating, and Jordan Peterson, I find myself concluding that this wave of mandatory truth-telling — the impossibility of concealing one’s perverted harassment of others, regardless of one’s power, from public scrutiny — represents progress in our collective consciousness. The moral of this story is if you don’t want the world to know, then don’t do it or say it.
Surely this is a salutary development, one to be celebrated. We are all more motivated to be honest, to treat others fairly, to live our lives aboveboard. That’s a very good thing.
And yet authenticity remains one step beyond not doing and not saying. Authenticity requires that whatever we say to others is consistent with what we say to ourselves. It involves not just what we do and say, but also what we think. In the case of authenticity, transparency to the world and to others overlaps with transparency to self.
For that kind of holistic, rigorous truth-telling, perhaps the gospel is needed after all.