Seeking an authentic self

In our “reality-based” age, too little reality exists.

By Molly T. Marshall

Although we live in a time of “endless self-documentation,” in the words of Meghan O’Rourke, few seem comfortable with the self they are crafting.

Incessant posting of the beauty of vacation settings, food prepared or consumed and the inexorable changes of family and friends all are for the purpose of constructing identity. It is an elusive enterprise.

A recent essay by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster described the current search for authenticity:

Despite the frequent claim that we are living in a secular age defined by the death of God, many citizens in rich Western democracies have merely switched one notion of God for another -- abandoning their singular, omnipotent (Christian or Judaic or whatever) deity reigning over all humankind and replacing it with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness. The latter does not make the exorbitant moral demands of traditional religions….

I might quibble with their perspective on how to think of God’s power, but they have assessed the spiritual ethos of our culture. These writers perceptively contend that personal well-being has become the primary goal of human life. They note that at the heart of this ethic of authenticity lies a “profound selfishness and callous disregard of others.”

More than ever before, Christianity encounters a culture of narcissism. The “church of self” threatens to eclipse the outward spiral of the gospel.

Reducing the call to discipleship to self-realization is a serious reductionism, heretical even. Sermons on “how to have it all and feel kind of empty at the same time” (as a New York Times headline described them) have little purchase for deep spiritual formation.

More than 30 years ago Christopher Lasch sketched the contours of what he perceived to be a prevalent pathology. His insight into the ways narcissism weakens the bonds of family and community has proven true.

When well-being becomes an end in itself rather than the by-product of pursuing the good of the community and wider world, it is no wonder that persons find themselves stunted and frustrated. Wolfhart Pannenberg described the sin of “egocentric” living and says it promises death.

Humans have the capacity to be exocentric -- present to what is other than the self. This allows proper bounds for the ego and recognizes that human beings are driven to reach beyond themselves toward the infinite. Otherwise we remain “curved in upon ourselves,” according to St. Augustine, the fundamental sin.

The challenge is to overcome the notion that we can pursue authenticity apart from collaboration with God – to admit our own finitude and recognize the infinite that remains external and transcendent.

The self is a divine gift that develops through healthy relationships of self-giving and trust. Dwelling in this reality most profoundly, the Trinity creates space for otherness in the divine life through humility and receptivity. We are to image that kind of self-giving.

The temptation to become a “little island” -- turning inward amidst the welter of violence, competing religious and political claims and cultural definitions of success -- is ever present.

It takes great intentionality to summon the communal resources to become authentic selves. It cannot be a solitary pursuit. The claim of others shapes our lives for the good.

Two Sundays ago my church commissioned about 20 youth and adults as they embarked upon yet another mission trip. We who remain behind know that something transformative will happen as these fledgling and not-so-fledgling disciples give themselves in service to others.

Physical labor, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements and regimented time schedules allow a de-centering of self, which invites new dimensions of the self to emerge. Not only will they do much of concrete value, but their lives are never the same.

The gospel has it in the right order: Seek first the Reign of God, and all these things will be added unto you (Matthew 6:33).

Eugene Peterson rendered it in The Message: “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”

This seeking eventuates in the authenticity for which we were created.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.