Authenticity and the they—some reflections after our first same-sex marriage in the church

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church before the wedding
On Monday we held the first same-sex wedding in this church and, which was also, I am led to believe, the first same-sex church wedding in Cambridgeshire. We wish the couple the very best for their future and send them all our love.

Over the years I’ve conducted a fair few same-sex blessings and, although they have all been very happy occasions, for obvious reasons they carried with them a certain, visceral, edgy, counter-cultural and marginal quality; but Monday’s service was not like that at all because it simply felt like what every marriage ceremony should feel like. This is, I think, a measure of how quickly, at least here in the UK, same-sex marriage has become one of the things we do in the mainstream of our culture to celebrate love and the hope for lifelong companionship.

I want to use the “striking normality” of the service to help, in a positive way, see and challenge one of our own free religious tradition’s default positions connected with the idea of what it is to be a genuinely authentic person and people.

One of the things that has constantly concerned us as a free-religious tradition throughout our four-hundred-and-fifty year long history is the question of freedom of conscience, particularly, in matters of religion and belief. We have consistently argued that a person whose conscience is not free in these, and other areas of their life, cannot be said to be living an authentic life. Stated in this simple way this insight still seems to be right. However, it is important to see that, today, for us this insight can be played out in at least two ways — one, which leads to a certain kind of problematic (merely eccentric) individualism, and another, which might (just) lead us to a more nuanced and clearer understanding of how an authentic individual life can be lived within a wider, mainstream culture.

Influenced by the pervasive Christianised Platonism of our culture we have tended to believe that the authentic self is some kind of distinct, essential pre-existing, individual entity that lies within us. Our work as free, religious liberals has, therefore, often been understood to be about uncovering this essential entity (often called the “soul”) in order to set it free, to be “naturally” what it is. (I’ll return to the idea of the soul towards the end of this address as I wish to challenge this view.)

We believed we could achieve this freedom, this authentic life for the soul, by using reason to remove all the artificial constraints put upon the essential self by what has been called by various names over the years, such as, the “herd” (Nietzsche), the “crowd” (Kierkegaard), the “They” (Heidegger). Today, we can give thanks that a small group of brave, authentic individuals, marginalised particularly by the mass of the then, nearly all-powerful, Roman Catholic Church, engaged in the then marginal practices of applying reason and critical thought to the world around them, and so (in good conscience and with clean heart) succeeded in bringing about at least three key revolutions in our European culture: firstly, the Renaissance; secondly, the Reformation; and thirdly, the Enlightenment.

As a free religious community we were very much part of this revolutionary minority and found ourselves, many times, under the threat of persecution and even death by the crowd. Consequently, we have internalised a deep fear of what we feel is “conformity” to the norms of the mainstream group. Indeed, we have long prided ourselves on being called “non-conformists” and, today, this name is still very closely attached to our religious tradition and part of our self-identity.

But, although I think that, in straightforward historical terms, this is not an incorrect self-labelling it has tended to encourage us think that authenticity is primarily — even only — something to do with marginal activities and beliefs. So we can catch ourselves thinking that, unless we are in the minority and doing, what is perceived the crowd to be marginal things then, well, we’re not really living an authentic life.

But is this right? If authenticity is really only about adopting marginal ideas and practices then what on earth is one supposed to do if, acting with a good conscience and a clean heart, one’s own authentic beliefs and practices happen to bear fruit and help create the mainstream of a culture? This is, of course, precisely what happened to us in the UK and, in terms of equal marriage, what I  experienced in Monday’s marriage service. I hope that you can see this means that in many ways we have succeeded in becoming ourselves the mainstream—the they—, in the sense that our once marginal ideas and practices have become central to British culture.

In this context, believing the central defining category of our authenticity as individuals and a people is, today, only that of “non-conformity” begins to seem more than a bit silly, superficially eccentric, not to say, pointlessly bloody-minded.

In my opinion, what we failed to do throughout the long twentieth-century was to spend enough collective time on properly thinking through what this new relationship with the mainstream culture meant for our own self-understanding of what is is to be authentically oneself — with a good conscience and a clean heart — as a member of this kind of free religious community in today’s highly complex world and in a country where many of our once marginal beliefs and ideas have become so much part of the mainstream.

(I owe a great debt to Professor Denis McManus at Southampton University for informing my words which follow. His excellent short talk, "Authenticity: What is it to be oneself" which I follow closely here may be found at this link. I recommend it highly.)

As it applied reason to the world in which we live, one thing the new, post-Enlightenment, rational culture we helped create began to notice was how completely we are all shaped by our social and cultural contexts. We realised we simply couldn’t be who we are (authentically or non-authentically) were we ever to become detached from the ‘they’ — the social.  In other words we have realised that the ‘they’ is part of our positive constitution. This basic insight now lies at the heart of all modern forms of the humanities, i.e. the academic disciplines which study human culture, e.g.: ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, religion, history, musicology, archaeology, anthropology, classical studies, law, semiotics and linguistics and many, many others.

As Heidegger astutely noted: “Authentic Being-one’s-Self does not rest upon an exceptional condition of the subject, a condition that has been detached from the ‘they’; it is rather an existentiell modification of the ‘they’” (§130, BT p. 168).

Today, we know deep in our hearts that we are all modifications of the ‘they’, we are beings inextricably made up of the warp and weft of the social. This can, at first sight anyway, seem to cut against the possibility that there can exist anything like a genuinely authentic life but Heidegger noticed something important which helps us see otherwise.

For Heidegger the inauthentic person is best understood in terms of their “inconstancy” and he talks about them being dispersed, swept out into the ‘they’. What does he mean by this?

Well, think of that person you know who seems to undergo quite radical changes of belief and practice as they move from one context to another. Let’s imagine a person who, when he or she is with liberals they espouse liberal values, when they are with socialists they espouse socialist values, when they are with conservatives they espouse conservative values and so on. What we see here is a person who seems to be understanding themselves primarily, perhaps only, in terms of their immediate contexts and in the events that happen to them. In other words he or she is continually being dispersed, or swept out, into the ‘they’ and there is no continuity in their life across all the different contexts in which they find themselves. They don’t seem truly to have any views that would count as truly their own  and which could be said consistently to inform the way they act.

Heidegger then points to the authentic person by using the word “eigentlichkeit” which is most usually translated as “authenticity” but which literally means something like “ownedness”. So what is it the authentic person owns? Well, they are people who truly own their views and who are able to live by and express them across all the different contexts in which they find themselves. So, if they are truly committed to, say liberal values, then they will live by and express those same values not only amongst liberals but also in the presence of socialists and conservatives. Remember, Heidegger thought the inauthentic person displays “inconstancy” so it should come as no surprise to discover that he thinks the authentic person displays “constancy” — authenticity is intimately connected to constancy.

At this point I want to return to the idea of the individual soul because Heidegger takes all the foregoing idea a step further. Heidegger thought that having a self (with a good conscience and a clean heart) was an achievement and that it was not about uncovering something pre-given and eternal. His point was, unless we can see that there exists a real kind of continuity in a person across all the different contexts in which they find themselves then there is no good reason to say that same person really has an authentic individual existence because they are continually being dispersed into the ‘they’. That brilliant and always challenging and craggy thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche, went so far as to believe that not every human being is to count as a genuine person. He wrote,

“. . . one should not at all assume that many humans are ‘people’. Indeed many are multiple people, and most are none. . . .  They are only carriers, transmission-tools” (In the “Nachlass” under the heading “The Rank-ordering of Human Values” — KSA, 12, 491).

(Before I go on I want to make it absolutely clear that these words of Nietzsche need not be interpreted negatively as encouraging us to divide the world into 'real' people and 'pretend' people and only value the former and to despise the latter as lesser creatures. His words can be taken as an empirical statement that helps encourage us to find ways to ensure that all humans are given the genuine opportunity to become the fullest kind of people they can — truly owning their own views and able to engage fruitfully in the creation of both themselves and their culture.)

My caveat aside Nietzsche's words can profoundly shock those of us whose liberalism has for so long been based on the idea that there exists an eternal soul or essential self that only needs to be freed for it to flourish. But, as I suggested last week, it seems (to me) more likely to be the case that, as beings, what we all share (and what is truly universal and essential to every human being) is simply that we are creatures who are always being made, always becoming what we will be, and this means that, as modern liberals and free religious people, we need to change from seeing ourselves as all about freeing and saving pre-existing souls to seeing ourselves instead as careful, responsible, loving, open-hearted and -minded (for we need always to be open to new ideas and inevitable change), makers, shapers and nurturers of authentic selves  as Simon Critchley put it, to become soul-smiths.

In truth, this is, or course, a very ancient idea. Aristotle, for example, writes in the Nicomachean Ethics about the ‘akratic man’ (the incontinent man) who ‘may say he has knowledge’ but whose moral knowledge has yet to be ‘worked into the living structure of the mind’. Such people, Aristotle says, are ‘like actors, mouthpieces for the sentiments of other people’ (1147a 19-24).

Understood in this fashion, I hope we can see that an authentic, free life need not at all about requiring us to be wilfully eccentric and engaging only in marginal beliefs and practices and is everything to do with helping people properly to own their beliefs and practices where ever they are — whether in the mainstream or some still, marginal, context.

And here I can return to our wedding because it seemed to me that everyone involved truly seemed to own the idea that this was simply an "everyday" marriage based on real and very deep love. Although we formed a powerful 'they', within this 'they' the individuals present were authentic people because no one there was merely an actor and mouthpiece for the sentiments of other people but were, completely authentically, being themselves in the presence of the couple with all their loves and hopes.

Helping to create, to make,  to smith, such authentic people (including, of course, ourselves) seems to me to be central to our task today as a authentic free-religious community many of whose once marginal beliefs and practices have become mainstream. The work of making authentic selves and souls is never finished.