Herman Bavinck and Our Selfish Obsession with Authenticity
America’s white whale is authenticity, and according to Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, our naïve optimism drives this futile and destructive search onward with no promise of ever landing the harpoon. In the opinion column of The New York Times, Critchley and Jamieson address the newest form of the American dream: “The Gospel According to Me.” In the “gospel of authenticity”—a by-product of the burgeoning self-help industry and New Age spirituality— “well-being has become the primary goal of human life.” It’s religious commandments to “Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!” have replaced demands on a community with motivational tools for the individual:
In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands. We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music. Authenticity, needing no reference to anything outside itself, is an evacuation of history. The power of now…. At the heart of the ethic of authenticity is a profound selfishness and callous disregard of others. As the ever-wise Buddha says, ‘You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.’
Captain Ahab would have done anything to catch the white whale, and so will we, even if it’s destructive to those around us. The desperation after personal authenticity permeates one’s entire being, “Every aspect of one’s existence is meant to water some fantasy of growth.” Careers are no exception, “Work is no longer a series of obligations to be fulfilled for the sake of sustenance: it is the expression of one’s authentic self.” Work has become less about contributions to society and more about individual ambition. To fulfill personal ideals, we will step over others to reach the top of the ladder. The side effect, however, is that difficulties at the work place—like getting laid off, losing a client, observing co-workers receive the promotions you deserve—deal a devastating blow to self-worth, even when these events are beyond one’s control. Assaults to one’s sense of personal value extend beyond the sphere of work when the “power of now” does little to reverse a declining physique, heal broken relationships, and ease anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.
There’s nothing more fake than using authenticity as a smokescreen for individualist ambition. True authenticity consists of becoming what you were intended to be, and mankind was never meant to live this way. The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) believed that mankind realizes authenticity by living how God created us. Mankind exists to collectively bear God’s image—to represent his good character and his righteous ways in the world. This task can only be accomplished together:
It is not good that the man should be alone; nor is it good that the man and the woman should be alone. Upon the two of them God immediately pronounced the blessing of multiplication. Not the man alone, nor the man and woman together, but the whole of humanity is the fully developed image of God. . . . The image of God is much too rich for it to be realized in a single human being, however richly gifted that human being may be.
Bearing God’s image cannot be achieved alone: “Only humanity in its entirety—as one complete organism…spread out over the earth, as prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation” is the full image. Mankind was not created as a “loose aggregate of individuals” with egomaniacal self-fulfillment as its ultimate objective. Rather, “having been created out of one blood; as one household and one family,” we all belong to humanity’s “development, its history…its progress in science and art,” its mission to embody God’s justice and love in the world. We were made for living in community, cooperating to broadcast the goodness of God by loving one’s neighbor and excelling in creativity and justice.
There is a crucial difference between uniqueness and individualism. God tailored every person with unique gifts and personality traits. But rather than using our distinct talents for enhancing the community, we have hoarded them for ourselves. We are well trained at worshiping our individuality, seeking to bear a fantasy ideal of self rather than the image of the eternal God.
The gospel of authenticity fails to transcend the addiction to self. In contrast, the gospel of Christianity calls us to embrace our true humanity. When everyone else has dramatically failed at being authentic to our humanity, Jesus Christ succeeded. He did not feed off of self-esteem but rather on representing God’s goodness and truth on earth by not only selflessly living for others but also dying for them. For real authenticity, look to the example of Jesus Christ.
Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics, “God and Creation,” Vol. 2. Edited by John Bolt. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.