Posted On November 29, 2014

Charles Taylor describes our secular age as “the age of authenticity,” a description that could easily fit the dominant narrative of most Disney films. Watch how he defines the phrase:

I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority (475).

Another good word for “authenticity” is non-conformity. The point of non-conformity is being true to yourself as opposed to whatever self others may want you to be true to. That’s why much of the drama in our culture of authenticity comes from the casting off of societal constraints. Note the four areas Taylor mentioned in his definition:

1. Imposition from Outside

No one can tell you what you should make of your life! Any identity that comes from outside you squelches your originality and authenticity. You can’t “find yourself,” “realize your potential,” “release your true self” and so on, unless you reject every model of life that doesn’t come from within. Furthermore, it is a betrayal of your identity to allow anyone or anything to shape you into something you are not. The most extreme version of this perspective is found in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, an unabashed paean of praise to the unfettered ego, heralded by Oprah Winfrey as one of last decade’s greatest books.

2. Imposition from Society

Conformity to societal expectations must be resisted! What society thinks today may change, after all, but you as a person are unchangeable and must be allowed to express yourself in order for society to benefit from your unique essence. You are not what you are biologically, socially, morally, or culturally; you are what you want to be. You are whatever you want to express.

In the last two decades, casting off societal restraints has been evident most clearly in gender roles and identity. (The genderless experiment of Sweden is perhaps the most extreme form I have come across.) In this case, freedom is not in accepting “binary definitions” of male and female but in expanding the number of options for someone to “find” and “express” themselves.

3. Imposition from the Previous Generation

In some cultures, continuity with the past is a sign of wisdom, the ability to draw from the reserves of history in order to make wise choices today. Institutions and the expectations that grow around them are cherished, sometimes to a fault, but they are seen as valuable nonetheless.

The Age of Authenticity, however, finds much of its dramatic flair in innovation and experimentation, breaking free from “the way we’ve always done it” in favor of building a new world that maximizes individual flourishing of expression. We’ve come to the point we expect young people to go through a season of rebellion against “the way their parents are,” and in some circles, we equate maturity with the willingness to question and cast aspersion on whatever has come before. You express yourself by venturing out on your own, by blazing your own path, and by deriding the past generation’s expression.

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