Wednesday, February 20, 2013

authenticity and democracy

This week at TFA we have the honor of having Joshua Mitchell, author of Tocqueville in Arabia, with us.  While reading his fascinating book, one passage stood out to me on the connection between the democracy and our search for authenticity.  He writes:
To think of oneself as an individual rather than to understand oneself as a role is really a rather remarkable historical achievement [...].The latin term, persona, supposes a distinction between the actor and the mask he puts on. [...] In the democratic age, when everything is on the move, the mask seems ill-fitting and has the appearance of an awkward artifice. [...] In bemused movements it is treated ironically; when it appears grotesque to its wearer, a caricature of the beauty and purity of the individual behind the mask, the tender and never-ending search for "authenticity" commences. [...] That is why the language of "authenticity," so prevalent in America, is scarcely heard in the Middle East.
This rings true to me.  We throw off the prescribed roles of husband or wife, parent or child, even man or woman, of teacher or student (is school about learning from the teacher or are the students to teach each other?), even consumer/producer (customized consumption makes us the producer in some ways), just to give a few examples.   It is interesting to note that this throwing-off of roles and searching for the authentic self brings with it a certain shunning of responsibility and commitment.

What does this mean for institutions such as the church, which do not do away with roles?  One might argue that the roles nurtured by these institutions, such as roles in marriage, or even the role of worshiper vs the One who is worshiped, are actually more true to our intended self than bare individualism can ever provide.  To think that the truth could lie more in the role than the self seems almost blasphemous to claim in our culture of self-expression.

I find myself once again needing to distinguish between authenticity and truth.  Whatever they are assumed to be, they are not the same, as Jim Gilmore and Joseph Pine point out in their book, Authenticity.  Could assumed roles better lead us to truth than a search for authenticity?

This has implications not only for the church, but for understanding those from other cultures, as Mitchell points out.  We must seek to understand such basic underlying assumptions of those in another culture, and the reasons for them, before we can really begin to speak with them in a meaningful way.

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