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Authenticity is one of the most obsessed themes modern western culture, along with youth and youthfulness, argues Andrew Root. And it is failing. I am exploring this thought, showing that authenticity is just a new face of the inner and outer struggle. Where the church has failed, and where God’s spirit and grace will solve the issue.

It’s early stages in reading the book on a first thinking around the work of Andrew Root. “Faith formation in a Secular Age: Volume 1 (ministry in a secular age): Responding to the Church’s obsession with youthfulness

And I am recognising this theme and connection of authenticity and youthfulness which is coming through. At this stage of reading heavier books, I like to try and guess where the writer is going because that helps me get a handle on his later ideas. One way is to experiment with ideas, which may not always be right, but if you put them all together then somewhere things connect and make something better!

In this case, I find myself wondering at where this search for authenticity has come from, and why the church seems in this age to completely miss it. Feel free to leave comments here or on social media.

Self-dissonance: when inner and outer worlds do not match

The word ‘self’ is not usually used in this context, but it helps to differentiate between other sorts.

Having left the cosy walls of established church each week (though not the Church of England: it is my role to do this as a pioneer) I have found that people are, on the whole, quite nice. Yes, it’s true.

When you are on the inside, whether it is spoken about all that much or not, it seems generally that there is the opinion that if you are not on the inside of church then you must be a bad person. Now the words used are ‘if you aren’t a Christian’ and the logic is that if you aren’t a believer then you aren’t forgiven (I go along with that, for that is what it says in the bible… ‘for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…’ and ‘no one comes to the Father except by me’). But the end of the argument is ‘therefore you must be a bad person because sinners are bad people’ and at the conclusion ‘therefore people on the outside of church are all horrible and do bad things, whilst we in here are good and do good things.’

Which is …er…rubbish. (And I should add that not EVERYONE thinks like this..but I have come across enough people with this attitude to make it concerning. But to continue…)

Because, shock headline, there are ACTUALLY NICE PEOPLE OUTSIDE THE CHURCH

And….shock headline, there are ACTUALLY SOME REALLY HORRIBLE INSIDE THE CHURCH.

Of course, the insiders give the excuse that everyone fails, but by being a Christian it means you are forgiven, so it’s ok, you are still nice if you are inside the church, and the not nice people are outside of the church.

But because people on the outside of the church are actually nice, it makes me wonder, well what is the point of needing Jesus? If the only reason why you need Jesus is to make you a nice person, then what’s the point? And as for the belief that if you are a nice person or not, without Jesus you will go to hell (since hell is the absence of God, and you need to believe in Jesus to get to heaven, which is where God is. Oh….heaven is a new heaven and earth where God dwells with his people, not fluffy white clouds)

Ok, so actually yes I do believe that last bit. Thing is, for many people they don’t believe in a spirituality apart from of their own imagination, and certainly not a heaven…especially where only the few are allowed in.

So people who are generally nice, and live good lives, don’t really see a need for God. Or Jesus. Because things are ok. And because you are a nice person, if heaven does exist, then you will probably go there because it’s only the church, which is religion and religion doesn’t work (see below) which says you don’t get to go if you haven’t got Jesus. After all, all the other religions believe in some sort of heaven and afterlife. So it’s all the same…and a personal choice.

See where the flow of thought goes?

Which is why a 16-year-old in my youthwork said to me the other day that religion is just a personal choice…

So what’s all this got to do with dissonance?

Dissonance in the self, also known as cognitive dissonance (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance) , is where the actions of a person are contradictory to their beliefs, and this sets up stress.

Some faith development work I did many years ago suggested that faith comes from this sense of dissonance to rebalance the equation as the psyche searches out a solution to this angst. And I am wondering now if this is too far from the truth.

Search for resonance.

So let’s think of your average nice person. Happy, yes? Well no. Actually, although people are nice, and generally ok, if you hang out closely enough with people you discover that whilst everything is ok on the outside, the inside doesn’t match up.

Here’s a very extreme example….recently I have been watching with Mrs Gray the Netflix, Amazon and Now TV (yes…we have all of them…) box sets of the Marvel superhero type programs. Let’s hone in on Arrow/green arrow. On the outside Oliver Queen is the Green Arrow, hero, do good… but on the inside, Oliver Queen is forever making poor judgement calls.  And keeping secrets. And all the box sets go down the same route…there’s a secret which keeps messing up good intentions.

When we watch storylines in modern media, it’s worthwhile seeing what is being written as it will often echo what people are thinking who are watching. People make sense of who they are by story, comparing their story to the story they are hearing and asking if they agree, disagree, and what they can learn from the story.  This can happen subconsciously or consciously.

So here the storylines over and over are there is an inner secret world which is not matching the outer desire to do good. Aka, dissonance.

And I think that this is a big problem which I have been clued to whilst reading the book that this post refers to.

The argument of the book…so far (and so far as I can work out what the author is saying)

In the past, there was the opinion that we were fighting spiritual forces that are trying to make us do bad things.

Through the industrial age, enlightenment and modernism/postmodernism (and wherever we have gotten to so far) spirituality has been abandoned in face of logic and the real world.

So the fight is actually not with spirits but the environment which is trying to make us conform to its shape.

However, that confirmation makes us unhappy because it sets up dissonance.  Since this is bad it needs solving. So we need to escape from these things.

A word given to that experience is authenticity

Authenticity is another word for resonance.

It is prized, it is admired. That the person who does what they say is important. In a world of corruption and lies, and secrets (Arrow’s storyline over and over) we seek resonance. But because there is no longer the spiritual to blame, other factors instead must be blamed.

These are variously:

  • Systems of control
  • Hidden agendas which lead to systems of control
  • Lack of understanding of the culture which creates those agendas

So the argument would go that to be able to achieve resonance you need to be aware of the culture which creates the agendas, uncovers those agendas, and finally break free from control.

Which then leads to the attitude of the pinnacle achievement is ‘being true to yourself’, assuming that actually the good on the outside, once freed from control, will ultimately free the inside to also be good.

Only it didn’t work

Attempt at different models to achieve authenticity

Myers Briggs is helpful here, but remember that even this builds on centuries of thought about the conscious and unconscious processes.  MB would suggest that there is a shadow side which comes out in stressful situations, and it is inherently self-destructive in those situations, being the least developed of our temperaments.  Whether we go along with this or not, there is the dark side and it makes for a good storyline (Doesn’t it, Oliver?)

Back in the day, to coin a phrase, with the observation that such things were spiritual in nature, it needed a spiritual solution to cure the evil that lurked in men’s hearts. The outworking of which was the church as a religious institution. Simply, the more pious and religious you could be then the more you had discipline and structure to overcome the evil inside.  As I will come to, this is not what is written in the Bible.

So the church failed.

As humans started to hunt for a solution that was not spiritual, various different ideas come to light.

From psychology to para-psychology: various self-helps, hypnosis, brain hacking… all these attempts to try to form a way of affecting the way that we think to bring about resonance.

Even looking at those we elect, or choose to rule. Because on the outside they are all sorted…superstars, popstars…you name it, we have put our faith in them.  They surely have the answer because they look so sorted. So we follow their model.

All fail because – observation

But over and over our heroes have the same secrets and shame as the rest of us. And each model fails over and over. And we come to the devastating truth. We cannot raise and cure the inner dark self to become resonant with the self we show to the world.

But we need authenticity…we pride it. We have put it now as an ideology! Problem with ideologies is that in the end there has to be a solution, even though they never can be. Because they are an ideal that cannot be reached. And as such we are chasing rainbows…

So, since authenticity is the prize, and we cannot cure the inner, what can we control? The outer.

And so willingly many allow the outer to be corrupted, slowly falling into decay as the fight is given up. Because, and this is stated by the writer of the book I am reading, it is better to be authentic by being corrupt both inner and outer than be inauthentic by being good on the outside and corrupt on the inside.

Which of course leads inevitably to complete self-destruction. The pursuit of authenticity for the older generations has failed. So if there is any future for being authentic it must be held as a secret by the young people?

Youthfulness and the pursuit of authenticity.

The author goes on to suggest that during the 50’s and 60’s the driving force behind authenticity and being who you are meant to be (nothing wrong with that, I might add) were the youth. Where he will go I expect is to show how the church has taken this, as has culture as a whole and he goes back to Barth, to mean that we need to have this youthful outlook and attitude to be authentic.

If the old has failed, maybe the young have the secret. Now I have posed the question on social media, that could it be the case that this is the source of the lack of hope and purpose for young people? The young have always looked to the old as a model, inspiration and direction. But now the old are turning to the young for solutions as they have not been able to solve this riddle.

But the young do not have the models or the skills or life experience to answer such a question. Understanding the inner world is something that comes with maturity (MBTI) and may not for everyone anyway! So we are asking for a riddle to be solved without giving them all the information, and screaming at them because they aren’t giving us the answers we want them to.

It is…

Ecclesiastes…all is worthless!

Yep, there really is nothing new under the sun. Go read Ecclesiastes from over 2.5k years ago.  The pursuit of trying to match the inner and outer world or desires, or trying to solve things in all sorts of self-type ways just doesn’t work.

Take a look at what St Paul writes. He himself says that

Romans 7:15-20 New International Version (NIV)

15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So it’s pretty clear that Paul was experiencing the same dissonance as everyone feels. But for him it wasn’t about putting in religious practices to cure or tame the problem. HE realised that it just didn’t work. There is only ONE solution…grace.

So it’s not religion of God (a form of religion but without the power) which I think has been so much the main self-portrayal of the church. And it doesn’t work. It maintains the image of everything ok on the outside. If we are to be really attractively (hate being an attractive church but in this case it works) authentic we have to get that inner and outer world working. No corruption, no secrets, no skeletons in the closet.

And there is only one way of doing it.

Grace and forgiveness for inner.

Could this possibly be the meaning of peace…inner and outer world contentment? And it can only be done by the power of the Holy Spirit?

No models will work. No self-help. No strategies. Only the grace and power of Jesus. Rooted in power, not in organisation.

And need to recognise that whilst the old self is put to death, it will still rise occasionally, and flank us. But it needs to be put to death again. Over and over.

Maybe it’s when we start talking like this that people will start to see that when Christians talk about peace they mean seeing loving and healing, and instead of the corruption of the outer to match the inner; or the impossibility of trying to use strategies to get the inner to match the outer good; or looking to young people to solve the riddle we have failed to solve and plunging them into despair. Instead we can see people whole and be who they are meant to be.

That would be good news for everyone; and it would give young people a hope in a new kind of authenticity which is, at the same time, ancient.