The word “authenticity” does not appear in scripture, but it is on a lot of people’s minds. Authenticity is popularly defined as the quality of genuineness — of being what a person or thing is claimed to be. The early Christian text, the Didache, provides more than half a dozen keys whereby a saint may know a true from a false prophet. And when “genuine” is used in the New Testament, it is generally paired with love.

Let your love be “genuine,” Paul tells the Romans.

Legitimate prophets and genuine love. These seem to be the authenticity concerns of holy writ. So, how does authenticity relate to the self? 

Authentically “you”?

It’s common nowadays to hear contentions that a life of religious discipleship somehow threatens authenticity. At its core, that may seem to be the case. In Paul’s writing to a small flock of believers in Thessalonica, in modern-day Greece, perhaps two decades after the death of Jesus, the introductory lines refer to those early Saints — as Christian disciples were called in those times — as persons who became “imitators of us and the Lord.”

Yet again, imitation and authenticity seem to be opposites. The challenge to change one’s inner nature, to conform one’s aspirations and actions and thoughts to those of another, seems the absolute essence of inauthenticity. Is modeling our life on Christ mere conformity to an inherited religious model; or is it the deepest version of integrity of which we are capable?

The science of imitation

First, let us digress a moment into science, and what it tells us about imitation. We are biological entities, and like all other biological entities, we have inherited needs, appetites, inclinations and capacities — some of which are unique to only the human species. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga writes: “Many people are watching for and testing for imitation in the natural world but have found little evidence of it, and the fact that when it has been found, it has been of limited scope, indicates that the ubiquitous and extensive imitation in the human world is very different.” 

Here we find a direct engagement with our question: imitation — in its human variety — has something about it that differentiates it from mere brute animal mimicry. Simply put, our ability to teach and imitate in the deliberate ways that we do are distinctly human capacities.

The philosopher and historian Rutger Bregman summarizes simply, “The mental skill that most differentiates humans from other primates is social learning.” Thankfully, we can deliberately select from the infinite array of human practices, and consciously work to convey those practices — from writing to building aqueducts to worshipping the Divine — to our children or our peers. Evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich devotes an entire book to “the uniqueness of the human capacity for social learning,” whose “fruit,” he argues, is “culture.” He adds, “Our brains are unique in their abilities to learn from others.” 

The faith that stares through death
What one researcher calls the ‘seismic political shift’ happening among young Latter-day Saints

What historians, biologists and neuroscientists are describing as a uniquely human gift is our ability to choose which models we will be influenced by, and what values we will choose to embrace. This may be news to cognitive science, but was understood well by the much maligned Pelagius, a fourth century critic of Augustine. Contrary to Augustine’s teachings, this man insisted we are not sinful by nature. Rather, we are “essentially social: we become whoever we are largely through imitation.”

What futures will we choose to steer toward? What influences, words or actions of others will we decide to emulate, and which will we reject as unworthy of imitation? All this is possible precisely because imitation is one of those capacities that make us human. 

The delusion of uninfluenced action

None of this, of course, is much celebrated in our broader culture today — which often envisions ideal human autonomy as the unhindered pursuit of personal and therefore “authentic” aspirations — constituting the free acting out of the true self. Yet, to imagine a capacity to act in an entirely spontaneous, self-directed way, untainted by external ideals or models, is a pipe dream. 

What would such an imagined life even look like? Perhaps, the wolf-child of legend? Such “authenticity” is not only an illusion; to sacrifice our capacity for imitation on the altar of an imagined autonomy would, once again, represent the loss of one of the most conspicuous markers of our humanity. 

Believing that we are eternally evolving beings, and involved in a mortal educative ascent rather than recuperation of a lost innocence, we might do well to consider that it is future possibilities, not an idealized self, that is at stake. Joseph Smith taught that “All the minds and souls that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement.” The curious word choice of “susceptible” points us toward this fact: we are subject to being enriched, ennobled, improved — made more virtuous and wise and loving — by the influences of those we choose to be influenced by. 

A wise fourth-century father saw this ongoing process as one in which the imitation of Christ is a blend of the freedom to become, and the responsibility to choose which models and influences will shape that becoming. Gregory of Nyssa taught that “We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be … molding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.” This freedom to choose, in the framework of discipleship, manifests as the choice to be attentive, to listen, to hearken, to receive.

Uncompelled, free obedience

All of this underscores the urgency of which external influences we choose as models. One word that Christianity often employs as code for “the imitation of Christ” is “obedience.” Obedience, like imitation, rubs against the grain of contemporary culture — with connotations of authoritarianism, inauthenticity, robot-like conformity. 

But I have found, in this regard, the words of Timothy Radcliffe to be a powerful corrective to our cultural baggage about obedience. “The obedience of faith,” he writes, “is more like listening expectantly to a Beethoven string quartet than to obeying a police officer. It’s a response to the authority of its meaning.” 

No one compels us to love the music of Beethoven or a sonnet by Shakespeare. If we are attentive and open, susceptible to its beauty and power, then we respond to its sway over us. It washes over us, draws us toward a recognition of the rightness of this experience so far beyond the cacophony of traffic or the tedium of our own voices. 

The parallel is not perfect but it is close. As believers, we are drawn to Christ to love and imitate and yes, obey, because his love is non-coercive, his tenderness matchless, his every interaction with his friends and strangers the ideal of how any one of us can be most fully alive and responsive in this world of human relationship. 

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Wayfare Magazine, as “Beethoven & Jesus” on Jan. 20, 2022

Terryl Givens is a Neal A. Maxwell Senior Research Fellow at Brigham Young University and the author of 17 books on Latter-day Saint teaching and history.