As I’ve said before, if you are an intellectually serious and culturally engaged Christian, you really should subscribe to the Mars Hill Audio Journal. There is nothing else like it. I have been a subscriber for a few years now, and I keep all the episodes archived on my iPod. They’re so deep and rich that I find myself listening again and again to old interviews, drawing new insights from them. This morning on the way to work I heard again a 2005 interview Ken Myers did with Catherine Edwards Sanders about her (then new) book, “Wicca’s Charms,” which is about the spiritual hunger and cultural realities driving the growing popularity of neopaganism.
Introducing the interview, Myers observed that many people attracted to Wicca report that they’ve been drawn by its “authenticity,” meaning it feels more real to them than traditional, established religions. In the interview, Myers and Sanders discuss this, and how our age of do-it-yourself religion has quite naturally made space for a new, DIY faith like Wicca. In his preliminary remarks, Myers dwells on the use of the word “authenticity,” and how it used to refer to something that was “authenticatable” — this, with reference to its history, its provenance, or some set of standards. This rug is an authentic Afghan rug, for example, because we can prove it was made in Afghanistan, by Afghan artisans; this rug that looks just like it is not authentic, because we can prove it was made in a factory in Schenectady. The point is, we have a way of testing the authenticity of the thing — and this has long been true for religion.
This is why it matters who gets to say what Catholicism (for example) is, and is not; if there is no way to authenticate Catholicism, then there’s no way to determine which is the truthful, authentic version from the counterfeits. This is also why the “Catholicism is whatever I say it is, and nobody can tell me otherwise” people are so dangerous, at least to those who take Catholicism seriously, and who would like to preserve its integrity to pass on to their children. Imagine saying that “money is whatever I say it is, and nobody can tell me any different.” If enough people believed that, commerce would cease, because nobody could tell what was authentic and what was fake — this, because the idea of authenticity would have been radically subjectivized, which is to say, completely denied.
Here’s Myers, from the interview, talking about how modernity has turned the word “authentic,” and the concept of authenticity, inside-out, at least when it comes to religion:
[In] the 1985 book “Habits of the Heart” … sociologist Robert Bellah memorably described a woman named Sheilah, who described her religious beliefs and practices as “Sheilah-ism”. … Today, authentic means something much more subjective. The individual self and its distinctive desires are the only proper source of authentication. So people can say that Christianity doesn’t seem authentic to them, that it feels phony or counterfeit, not because its origins are dubious, but because it feels foreign. It’s curious that ‘authentic’ used to imply some external authority, but today, “authenticity” is used to justify the infallibility of the self.
The question of authenticity depends on authority. A friend and I last night were talking about authority and the Catholic Church, and he made the important point that authority only has meaning if it has been accepted by the people. What we see among many, many Catholics today is a rejection of traditional Catholic teaching about authority, and the installment of the subjective individual as one’s own Magisterium. These are the times we live in: the essence of modernity, or at least one essence of modernity, is the radical exaltation of the Self. Yet my friend is certainly correct: authority, even external authority, means nothing if it is not inwardly appropriated, and furthermore, if that inward appropriation is not shared by others. A revealed, dogmatic religion like Roman Catholicism will have a very difficult time in conditions of modernity, precisely because we are all conditioned to think in terms of the Self as the final arbiter of truth. To exist in proper relationship with the Truth, I believe, requires passionate inward appropriation of external, objective realities. The key point is faith that there is a such thing as religious truth independent of my own subjective judgment. If people don’t believe that, I don’t see how a religion like Christianity is sustainable over the long term, at least not in any meaningful sense.