THR Web Features   /   May 27, 2022

Authenticity’s Imperative

We need a better conception of spiritual authenticity.

Emily G. Wenneborg

( Adam Gonzales via

Remixed spirituality is the label that writer and religion scholar Tara Isabella Burton uses for the ways that many people mix and match religious, spiritual, and secular beliefs and practices. A broad category, remixed spirituality includes not only people who engage in new spiritual practices and ideas (think of astrology or modern-day witchcraft) but also those who find community and a sense of purpose in areas not commonly recognized as overtly spiritual, such as CrossFit. A third group consists of “religious hybrids”: those who may identify with an institutional religion such as Christianity while also believing in astrology and reincarnation or practicing Eastern-style meditation. In Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (2020), Burton provocatively describes remixed spirituality as

a new, eclectic, chaotic, and thoroughly, quintessentially American religion. A religion of emotive intuition, of aestheticized and commodified experience, of self creation and self-improvement and, yes, selfies. A religion for a new generation of Americans raised to think of themselves both as capitalist consumers and as content creators…. Shaped by the twin forces of a creative-communicative Internet and consumer capitalism, today’s Remixed don’t want to receive doctrine, to ascent automatically to a creed. They want to choose—and, more often than not, purchase—the spiritual path that feels more authentic, more meaningful, to them.

One unifying theme of the various forms of remixed spirituality that Burton describes is the supreme desire for authenticity. The spiritually remixed desire “their own bespoke religions,” created—often online, sometimes for money—to their exact specifications.

Although Burton finds much that is fascinating and some that is praiseworthy in remixed spirituality, she also raises concerns about the effects of built-to-suit religion on the individuals who pursue it. The demands of the quest for spiritual authenticity can lead to anxiety and despair precisely because it promises so much. For example, Burton quotes a SoulCycle instructor’s mantra: “This is your time. Don’t focus on anybody else. Other people take away your energy. Just focus on yourself. “Intuitionalism’s cult of the self becomes here an endless and ultimately futile pilgrimage,” Burton writes. “Our utopian vision of human freedom (we can and should do anything) becomes a self-devouring ouroboros (we are never doing enough).”

In the case of writer and journalist Kelsey Osgood, the attempt to find her own meaning became literally self-devouring, leading to an eating disorder in her teenage years. Today, Osgood seems about as far from remixed spirituality as imaginable: She is a highly observant adherent of her chosen religion, Orthodox Judaism. In describing her conversion with the editors of Plough magazine, she points to the appeal, even the necessity of a meaning beyond the self and the rules and regulations that accompany belonging to a thick community. It is this larger context of significance that she felt was missing from her comfortable, non-religious upbringing in an American suburb: “I think looking back on it, I see my attraction to an eating disorder as really about a kind of yearning for the overarching ethical structure that I felt like was lacking in my community of birth.” Osgood found in Orthodox Judaism what she had initially sought through disordered eating, and what her white, upper-middle-class childhood had lacked: a higher purpose to which she was called to submit.

It is striking that Osgood uses the language of authenticity in telling her conversion story. She explains that the mitzvot (commandments) of Orthodoxy are good for Osgood and her family but not the only way or necessary for everyone. Her family doesn’t celebrate Halloween, for example, but that doesn’t mean that her non-Jewish friends and neighbors are wrong for doing so. When Osgood explains, “I don’t believe that it’s okay to say that other people are bad or wrong for celebrating things in different ways,” her view would be immediately recognizable to Burton’s spiritually remixed, no matter how foreign and even distasteful Orthodox Judaism might seem to them. Likewise, the upper middle-class suburb she grew up in was “fine in many respects” but “not a great fit for [her]” (emphasis added). But it might hold greater appeal for her children someday, she acknowledges, because they have been raised differently. And she's okay with that.

The interplay of rules and authenticity, freedom and authority in Osgood’s story is particularly interesting in relation to the contrast she draws between her experience with disordered eating and the requirements for keeping kosher in Orthodox Judaism. One of her interviewers, Susannah Black, sums it up well:

It seems to me that the specific food laws in Judaism [might actually help with an eating disorder.] What you’re hearing from God is, No, even if you want to restrict what you eat, … [you may not.] That’s not what eating is for. And God actually has things in mind for what good eating is and what eating is for.… Receiving those more specific laws as something that pushes against your will and shows you more specifically what God wills for you in general as a person, your own thriving and your own flourishing, is that part of what your experience was?

Osgood goes on to describe how Judaism “forces you to be disciplined even about your discipline.” She has found a larger structure of right and wrong that provides context for the quest for self-authenticity and self-improvement.

We have here two very different approaches to spiritual authenticity, one represented by Burton’s remixed spirituality and the other by Osgood’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism. One group engages in a kind of bricolage: taking a little of this and a little of that from a variety of spiritual, religious, and secular traditions to concoct a bespoke mixture for each individual. Osgood and other adherents of traditional religions, by contrast, submit to a tradition and a community that has existed long before them. Some things do not survive the process of bricolage, at least not without considerable loss: The meaning and purpose that Osgood craved could only be found by a conversion to the totality of Orthodoxy, not by selectively choosing only her preferred elements of Judaism. Importantly, conversion (as opposed to bricolage) involves coming to terms with aspects of a tradition that one does not like or understand, that may feel uncomfortable or out of step with the times. For Osgood, that means refraining from celebrating Halloween, for example, and acknowledging, even embracing, the God-given human need for food by taking care to eat enough to sustain life. For others, submission to a tradition (whether that of one’s upbringing or one adopted through adult conversion) might require resisting cultural norms of sexuality and marriage or consumerism and materialism.

Philosopher Charles Taylor’s discussion of authenticity can help us understand why total conversion can be just as authentic as, if not more so than, spiritual bricolage. In The Ethics of Authenticity (1992), Taylor draws attention to the moral context of authenticity and raises concerns about authenticity’s most self-centered (and most common) instantiations. Concerning forms of authenticity that reject any criteria for meaning beyond the self, he writes, they “are indeed shallow and trivialized; they are ‘flattened and narrowed’…. But this is not because they belong to the culture of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements.” Self-centered forms of the quest for self-fulfillment claim to be the most effective route to fulfilling the goal of authenticity. For example, one person in Burton’s Strange Rites held an “ecclectic” memorial service for her husband “that incorprorated everything from the Jewish mourner’s Kaddish to the theme song from The Legend of Zelda, her husband’s favorite video game.” But such bespoke practices ultimately undermine the very purpose they appeared to achieve. The reason for this has to do with the way that human beings make meaningful choices.

As a moral ideal, authenticity stresses the significance of each individual choosing how to live his or her life in the most fulfilling way. Those who value authenticity tend to stress that all choices are equally valid; no particular way of life is a better choice than any other—even if it might have weight of tradition or authority on its side. But in prioritizing individual choice in this way, the authenticity ideal is vulnerable to a fatal weakness: “In stressing the legitimacy of choice between certain options,” Taylor argues, “we very often find ourselves depriving the options of their significance.” Absent some framework within which our choices matter (what Taylor calls a “horizon of significance”), all options are truly equal. We are, in that sense, maximally free. But because all choices are equal, no choice is better than any other. Matters of preference are truly indifferent.

But some choices we make do matter—some moderately, some immensely. It is in these cases, Taylor points out, that freedom to choose for ourselves is worthwhile:

Self-choice as an ideal makes sense only because some issues are more significant than others.… So the ideal of self-choice supposes that there are other issues of significance beyond self-choice. The ideal couldn’t stand alone, because it requires a horizon of issues of importance, which help define the respects in which self-making is significant.

Not only do we need a horizon of significance within which the choices we make matter, but we need that horizon to be shared. This is because, in Taylor’s understanding, human nature is fundamentally dialogical: We cannot understand ourselves or our lives apart from conversation with other human beings. Other humans may be near or far, living or dead. We may position ourselves in basic agreement or in fundamental disagreement with them, but we cannot escape from engagement with others to whom we address our lives—and whose lives are, in some sense, addressed to us.

Conceptions of authenticity, then, that are rooted only in individual choice, without regard for the connections we have with other human beings and with horizons of significance, cannot deliver on their promises of self-fulfillment. As Taylor puts it, “To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization.… Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.” Authenticity requires both creating, constructing, or discovering something new, that may even break the rules of society or recognized morality, and doing so in the context of shared horizons of significance and dialogue with others. So Taylor argues: “That these demands may be in tension has to be allowed. But what must be wrong is a simple privileging of one over the other.” Our horizon of significance might be God, or it might be a political, environmental, or artistic cause. Regardless, Taylor suggests that “genuine fulfillment” comes only from that “which has significance independent of our desires.” Authentic spirituality, in Taylor’s terms, is not divorced from tradition, community, or values beyond the self, but rooted in them.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Tara Isabella Burton finds desires and values among the spiritually remixed that goes beneath and beyond their commitment to authenticity. From the Harry Potter-inspired themes employed in anti-gun violence activism, to witch culture’s concern over consumeristic appropriation of ethnic minority magic traditions, remixed spirituality can be found serving political and social causes that resist the tendency toward hyper-individualism. In the four-part framework that shapes her account of spirituality, Burton notes,The Remixed hunger for the same thing human beings have always longed for: a sense of meaning in the world and personal purpose within that meaning, a community to share that experience with, and rituals to bring the power of that experience into achievable, everyday life,” even as “they’re doing it differently.” In fact, Burton observes that they crave strict standards of engagement just as much as they distrust certain historically established forms of institutional religion: “These Remixed millennials,” Burton writes, “are at once attracted to moral and theological certainty—accounts of the human condition that claim totalizing truth or demand difficult adherence because the challenge is ultimately rewarding—and repulsed by traditions that require setting hard limits on personal, and particularly sexual or romantic, desire.”

This raises the indictment, as Burton suggests, that established institutions, religious and otherwise, have abdicated their responsibility to foster horizons of significance. The quest for spiritual authenticity does not require us to abandon tradition in the name of individual choice, but rather to look to our traditions and the institutions that sustain them for the very imperatives of belief and practice that make authenticity meaningful.