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Guest Column: Authenticity and Identity

Last week I participated in a panel discussion, organized by the Chaplain’s office and the Council on Religious Life, entitled “Is the Extreme More Authentic?” When the media uses the term “religious extremism,” it often is referring to religiously motivated acts of violence, but our panel mainly focused on those who express deep certainty about their faith and who in the name of this certainty divide humanity into good and evil, saved and damned, right and wrong believers (or practicers). Is this “authentic” religion?

I won’t answer this question, but I do want to reflect on the concept of authenticity and on its relation to how we understand identity of all sorts, not just religious. I can think of two things we might mean by “authentically religious.” If we judge that someone’s religious beliefs and practices are true to the original or the traditional, we might be inclined to say that he or she is an authentic Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. Or, we might think that someone is authentically religious when his or her religiosity is true to or deeply rooted in who he or she is. But both these ways of thinking about authenticity raise a host of questions and problems. It strikes me, as someone with some knowledge of the history of a range of religious traditions, that the first way of talking about authenticity is a dead end. The change and diversity that marks all religious traditions I know about is just too great to use the terms “authentic” or “real” in any useful sense, even though it is true that such terms frequently are used by religious people in polemical contexts. The second way of talking about authenticity is perhaps more useful, but determining how it is useful requires that we think carefully about what it means to be true to oneself and what it means to have, or as I would prefer to think about it, to live or bear an identity.

A number of years ago, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and to my mind one of the most profound and important living Christian thinkers, wrote an essay called “The Finality of Christ.” It’s a provocative title, for it gestures toward the worst kind of Christian imperialism—Christ as God’s final revelation, the truth of all truth. But Williams has no interest in defending this kind of thinking.  Instead, for him “the history of Jesus enacts a judgment on tribalized and self-protecting religion, on the confusion between faith and ideology… insofar as it declares that there is liberty to act, to heal and to create community ‘outside the gates’ of religious practice that has become oppressive or exclusive.” He goes on to say that this “liberty” involves a kind of “dispossession,” namely, “the loss of the God who is defined as belonging to us and our interests.” It seems to me that Williams poses a challenge here not just to the way people think about religious identity, but about identity more generally and about the practices by which we come to and bear our identities. Put simply, he asks us whether identity is an answer or a question. Do we bear our identities in practices of exclusion, containment, and protection, believing that identity is something given or chosen once and for all? Or do we bear our identities in practices of growth and change by which we expose ourselves to the challenges, questions, and conflicts that are inevitable once we acknowledge that we are finite, fallible, and socially and historically situated?

The distinction I draw here is in some ways too simplistic, too stark. In certain contexts, asserting and protecting one’s identity is a matter of survival and justice and “dispossession” may only further oppression and exclusion. Still, I think the distinction is useful when reflecting on the commitments that orient our lives in the most general way—political, ethical, religious—and how these commitments are bound up with who we are or are striving to be. Thinkers such as Rowan Williams show us that living authentically as a Christian is much more than professing “blind faith” or dogmatic self-assertion, that it may even require a certain suspension of “religious” identity. And they propose, when it comes to the more general question of identity, that living one’s religious, political or moral commitments requires critical thought, the disciplined work of attention, and, crucially, the virtue of detachment: the ability to step outside of oneself so as to be able to encounter the challenges of difference and diversity and the questions these pose to any self-assured sense of identity.

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