Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Authentic Spirituality?

I wish I could take credit for the following idea, but I heard it today listening to the latest edition of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. The executive director, Ken Myers, is a sharp and broad-reaching cultural critic, and the basic thought on “authentic” faith belongs to him.

He wondered out loud while introducing a segment on the recent surge in Wicca and neo-paganism, about how the word “authentic” has been applied lately to religion and spirituality. It is an idea that is often used (and was one point in the discussion about neo-paganism) to reject historical Christianity, or at the least, to reject institutionalized forms of Christianity. Instead, people who search for “authentic spirituality” usually walk away from historical faiths in favor of newer, more personalized faith practices and beliefs.

One point the interviewee made about her book on Wicca is that its tenants tend to be very person-specific and fairly malleable. Wicca, along with so much of American spirituality, gives its believers the chance to make religion in their own image.

Myers’ comment was on the ironic linguistic twist involved. “Authentic” literally means something that can be authenticated-something that is demonstrably real and objective. We still use “authentic” in this way to describe things like artifacts or art, as in an “authentic Navajo pot” or the “authentic self-portrait by the artist.” The point is, the label “authentic” describes the genuine article.

But now, and this is no less true in evangelical circles, “authentic” means “subjective.” The upshot is that people are ostensibly searching for the real thing when in fact they are looking inward and creating a cheap reproduction of what is truly spiritually authentic.

In the recent evangelical reaction against the church growth movement and the evil specter of Modernism, have we bastardized the term “authentic”? Have we helped lead people out of the church and the embrace of orthodoxy just so they can craft their own faith in search of the supposedly authentic?


Rich Tatum said...

In most discussions today, I see "authentic" used as a synonymn for "sincere." Both words, of course, no longer reflecting their original meanings.

Good post.


Catez said...

Nice post Phil. I've featured it at BlogWatch.

Phil Steiger said...

Thanks for all the kind words!

john said...

How about defining authentic as something which is meaningful to the individual? The only problem I see with that is from contemporary religious circles who aren't comfortable with individuals owning their own religious beliefs but hey, it works for me.

Phil Steiger said...


Thanks for your thoughts. The first reason why I don't think your proposal works is that it involves a substantial redefinition of the word "authentic." And if we really want to go down that path, then the word really doesn't have any meaning at all.

For instance, what is the connection between an accurate description of an "authentic Civil War rifle" and it being meaningful to an individual? The connection is contingent and not necessary: a person may be a collector, and thus to her the rifle has significance, but its authenticity is not dependant upon the meaning the collector conferrs upon it.

As for individuals owning their own religious beliefs, the way I see it, one of the primary goals of a Christian church is to get people to "own" or know, prioritize and live out their faith. But if I am at all concerened about my friend's spirituality, I do not want them making something up willy-nilly. That would be like putting them in a car and feeling comforatble with them "owning" their own rules of the road. They are going to meet with a bad end. The same is true with a made-up spirituality.

And even if it "works" for you, that does not make it authentic. It just makes it subjective.

Anonymous said...

At what point in time do you decide a religion is authentic? The ancient Romans considered Christianity to be a renegade Judaic group. To the outsider, Christianity was "made up".
Most people would agree that the outward traditions and practices of modern Christians would be largly foreign to the early Christians. Martin Luther broke away from the church and "made up" his own.
The only thing that connects all of these traditions back to their beginnings with Christ is the "authentic" relationship the individual practitioners have with their faith and their God.

Phil Steiger said...


Authenticity, in the way I propose, means real or genuine. It is not necessarily connected to "old," "established," or "well known," but might be contingently connected. Can the Christian faith, or any other specific faith for that matter, be shown to correspond to reality? That is the issue.

Whether an outsider considers something "made up" doesn't really have any bearing on the authenticity of the thing. I might think a Monet has been "made up" or forged, but that doesn't make it either inauthentic or authentic.

And Luther by no means "made up" anything. Everything Luther did was well grounded in Scripture and a lot of Church tradition.

And as for what connects Christians to historical Christian faith, relationship with Christ is part of it, but a continuity of genuine orthodoxy is another. I not only have the same kind of relationship with Christ Augustine had, but I believe in the same objective doctrines he did as well.