The Problem of Authenticity

When I was about six weeks old I was baptised into the Catholic Church. I don’t really remember it happening, but my mom says that I didn’t put up much of a fuss, and I believe her. Still, no matter how cooperatively I might have behaved at the time, it’s clear that the tradition in which I was raised was not one of my choosing. I can only imagine that this is true of everyone else as well.1

At some point, I don’t really know when, it must have occurred to me that I might have been brought up in a different tradition. And at some point after that it must have occurred to me that belonging to another tradition was still a live possibility.

Just as a thought experiment, I might ask what would have been the most authentic way of proceeding from that point in my development. The reason I’m interested in this particular juncture is that I imagine very nearly everyone reaches it at some point. And it might be the last point that nearly everybody reaches.

To begin with, I might ask whether the existence of traditions other than my own is a matter of indifference. Does it really matter which tradition one belongs to? What is religion for, really? What are the most desirable religious ends, and how might these best be attained?

Even if I believe that the most desirable religious ends, whatever they might be, can in principle be attained within any tradition, I will no doubt recognise that within every broad tradition are a number of sub-traditions, and some of these are to be evaluated more positively than others. That is, some will be judged to be more conducive than others to the attainment of the most desirable religious ends, whatever they might be.

Because I value authenticity (a term I will have to elaborate on in the future), I naturally want to avoid remaining within an inauthentic tradition, and so I have to ask whether my particular tradition is authentic or not.

A lot of people don’t really ask this question, or they answer “yes” rather too quickly (which amounts to pretty much the same thing). They take for granted that their tradition is authentic, often exclusively so. This is a common position but hardly an authentic one. It would be quite unreasonable of me to say that everyone should go through life without ever questioning the authenticity of their particular tradition. And if I believe that at least some people should question their tradition, on what grounds could I exempt myself from doing the same? To assume, as many people seem to do, that my religion is correct and therefore does not need to be critically evaluated simply begs the question.

So I have to question the authenticity of my tradition. And authenticity demands that I seriously consider the possibility that the answer is “no.” The upshot is that, whatever I decide, my religion will be self-chosen,2 even if I decide to remain in the tradition of my childhood.

But where do I go from here? It’s one thing to recognise the need to critically evaluate the authenticity of one’s tradition. It’s something else entirely to know how to proceed.

There is also a further complication: even if my own tradition is authentic, there is the more personal question of whether I have appropriated it authentically.

I happen to find the thought of the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) particularly illuminating with regard to both of these problems. Actually, they can be considered two sides of the same problem, as it is the personal inauthenticity of individuals that ultimately fosters inauthenticity in broader traditions. Lonergan’s own perspective about the problem of authenticity in religion is well worth exploring, and it influenced much of what I’ve written here, so I’ll talk about that very soon.


1. I would argue that even those who are not raised within any identifiably religious tradition are still raised within a religious tradition of sorts. They are presumably raised to believe whatever their parents (or whoever) believe and value what their parents (or whoever) value, for example, which is a kind of faith tradition in the broadest sense.

2. One possible objection to this is connected with the idea of divine election. If I believe that my salvation is dependent on my religious affiliation, and I believe in divine election, then I probably imagine that I did not choose my affiliation—rather, God did, for better or worse, depending on whether I am among the “elect.” This objection is worth examining, not because it is reasonable, but because so many people believe it. For now I will just note that it is easy to evade the responsibility of questioning the authenticity of one’s tradition by hiding behind the notion of election.

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6 Responses to The Problem of Authenticity

  1. crystal says:

    I wasn’ty raised in any faith tradition. In high school I was attracted to Buddhism and Hinduism. I did later choose Catholicism but I didn’t choose it for authentic reasons – I didn’t reqlly know what Catholicism was about and didn’t really believe in God either … what a mess 🙂

  2. Wow…I did not know that about you, Crystal. Why did you convert then?

  3. Henry says:

    Great questions and post PP. I too am interested in why Crystal converted. Speaking for myself, I would not have converted if I had not had an encounter with Christ that magnetized all my curiosity and later my affection, especially because I loved being a Buddhist. BTW, I also loved Taoism! Pax.

  4. crystal says:

    Well, I joined the church because I was lonely and the Catholic church because all I’d learned of it from novels and movies and culture seemed attractive – I know, terrible reasons 🙂 I wasn’t sure if God existed or not but I thought maybe I could make a new sort of family. I went to RCIA class and went to church for a few years after that, but I never really learned anything more about how to get close to God, and I quit going. But later I met a Jesuit and talking to him and reading his homilies made me re-consdier about God. I decided to take that Creighton U online retreat and he helped as my spiritual director. I had a conversion experience during the retreat – voilà! 🙂

    • Wow, that’s very interesting, Crystal. Thank you for sharing that. It sounds to me like it was more the aesthetic elements that attracted you initially, which is maybe a terrible (or at least shallow) reason to stay, but not a terrible reason to be attracted in the first place.

  5. crystal says:

    Thanks, PP. It’s because of that Spiritual Exercises retreat I took that I like Ignatius of Loyola so much.

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