It was George Burns who is attributed with the razor sharp aphorism: “Sincerity, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
And working backwards, the key to what makes you in this late modern age is the fake version of sincerity – authenticity. If you can fake that you’ve definitely got it made, and you’re probably trending or blowing up or whatever the most authentic way of describing a huge following is this week.
Authenticity would have been a buzzword, but it’s proven to have such huge staying power in our Sexular Age that it’s still hanging around long after the buzz has worn off (in contrast to a whole ton of the relationships that sprang from it).
Sincerity and authenticity seem to be close cousins, indeed twins, but they are in fact on parallel tracks that never meet. More Cain and Abel than Jacob and Esau, sincerity and authenticity look genetically aligned, but were birthed by completely different cultural assumptions. Lionel Trilling wrote a book, a prescient one it has to be said, back in the 1970s called, in a most sincere manner, Sincerity and Authenticity. In a nutshell authenticity is predicated upon “staying true to oneself” while sincerity is centred around being a “morally sincere person”.
Trilling was teasing out what defines and distinguishes these two attributes, and New York Times columnist David Brooks nails Trilling’s thesis in this brilliant observation:
…sincerity is what you shoot for in a trusting society. You try to live honestly and straightforwardly into your social roles and relationships. Authenticity is what you shoot for in a distrustful society. You try to liberate your own personality by rebelling against the world around you, by aggressively fighting against the society you find so vicious and corrupt.
Got it? Sincerity – maintaining a moral trustworthiness despite societal challenges and cultural lures – thrives in trusting societies where relationships operate as covenantally mutual obligation.
Authenticity? Well it’s the bastard child of distrustful societies where relationships of contractual mutual benefit rule the day. And since its goal is being true to the self, then cultural lures are no longer the threat they once were, but opportunities to be grasped that may indeed reveal the real you.
And it’s a bitter irony that in this age of deep societal distrust we can now curate our authenticity to the world via a social media environment that societies of trust could have only ever dreamed of possessing. Which simply proves that the platform is not the problem as much as the product we wish to display.
With authenticity showing no signs of abating, and with sincerity looking as twee and uncomfortable as a Nebraska farm girl at a debutant’s ball in New York’s Waldorf Astoria, Brooks’ article is worth a complete read.
Authenticity shows no signs of abating any time soon. And obviously so, given that deep societal mistrust seems set to hang around. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has a whole chapter devoted to the authentic self, and of course has a book given over to the subject, The Ethics of Authenticity.
But it’s Andrew Potters’s more populist work, The Authenticity Hoax: How we get lost finding ourselves that starkly shows how authenticity expresses itself in this distrustful time. Potter says that the key to being truly authentic in our age of display is the ability to curate a source of distinction to your lifestyle.
A way of living that is conspicuously authentic when compared and contrasted with the lives of others around you. Once those around you cotton on to your authenticity, then ape it, or even worse, up it, then your authenticity drains away. And so the cycle continues, always ramping up a source of distinction. Private authenticity is an oxymoron. You have to both be seen, and be seen to be distinct, for authenticity to truly be authentic. And once again we have the technology for you to be seen!
The worst offenders are the middle class. We alone among the classes in our Western age are given to self-loathing. The elites don’t think about others, and the working class are happy to be so, but the middle class? We can do self-loathing like no other.
A primary way to truly authenticate as a middle class person, is to exhibit a source of distinction from others within your distrustful society. Hence our social media is full of scoldings and call-outs about the lifestyles of others, increasingly predicated on how the habits of others are wasteful, unthinking, unenlightened, inducing of violence, full of micro-aggressions and such. In other words, inauthentic. Unlike our authentic self of course, which is given justification not primarily because of how like others we are, but how unlike them we are.
Putting all of this together it becomes easy to see why the search for the authentic self is both fraught with danger (there’s always the risk you become exposed as inauthentic), or incredibly selfish: What would you not do, not risk; who would you not jettison in order to become your authentic self?
The challenge to the people of God who are called to sincerity within the context of trustful relationships is all too obvious. Marinaded as we are in a discipleship program Monday to Saturday that proclaims authenticity as the highest good, we are calling people to godly sincerity. Steeped as the culture is in self-fulfilment, self-promotion, self-actualisation, we are calling people to the self-denial personified by Jesus.
It’s no wonder it’s hard to gain traction with the man who wants to leave his wife for his much younger lover because he needs to “be true to himself”. In other words “be authentic”. Our pastoral care is on the back foot at that point. Our people may say “sincerity”, but they emote “authenticity”. And it’s only when the pressure’s on in the pastoral moment among God’s people that this is revealed.
But church culture must shoulder some of the blame. We can hardly cry foul if we have fallen for the same authenticity hoax, whilst simultaneously claiming that we are holding out truth. Our constantly curated social media presences scream “authenticity” to a bored Tinder culture, as if somehow we can get church goers to do some sort of spiritual swipe right.
Yet if all we are offering to a mistrustful culture is the very pox upon which it is feeding, then we’re doing precious little to deepen actual community life, in fact we may be doing more damage than good. Christian communal life is built on sincerity, not authenticity. In Romans 12 Paul says that love must be “sincere”, its aim is to build even deeper trust within the trustful society of God’s people. And there’s nothing very authentic about following Paul’s instruction in 1Thessalonians4:
Make it your aim to live a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to earn your own living, just as we told you before. 12 In this way you will win the respect of those who are not believers, and you will not have to depend on anyone for what you need.
That’s anathema to the authentic self. Where’s the protest movement in that? Where’s the hashtag in that? There’s no source of distinction there. In fact it looks so inauthentic and, shock horror, middle class!
Yet the scandals of the past few years among evangelical church leaders who spoke one word, but practised another word entirely, was due to a failure of sincerity, not a lack of authenticity. They had faked sincerity all the way down, all the way down to the bedrock of well-curated authenticity, until one day, when they had created the most distrustful of all societies within their own churches, they were discovered to be fakes. And that’s when they were unmade.