Trying Not To Be Cynical About Another Post-Something Christianity

Guest post by Micky Jones

Jim Wallis, recent Homebrewed Culture Cast guest and author of the new book, The Common Good, wrote a blog post (link ) titled The Post-Cynical Christian. He described the “debilitating cynicism” he witnessed as he traveled the country on his latest book tour. At each stop, people were interested in the his take on the “common good” concept and how people, no matter the religious affiliation, could engage it, but also, many were expressing doubt that they could actually make a difference.

As someone at the beginning of formalized theological higher education, this feels like a very relevant discussion. Can I be post-cynical in my Christianity as Wallis describes it? Coming from an Evangelical background, I’ve heard all the jokes, which are really just thinly veiled warnings (cynicism?), of how seminary is really the cemetery of faith. The message is – those who are questioning and skeptical end up being so cynical that they no longer have faith in God any more. Some denominations even pride themselves in having a pastorate that avoids seminary therefore avoiding the accompanying questions and doubts.

I jokingly tell my friends that sarcasm is my love language. And I can bring the heat. Like many others in my generation, I’ve been through parental divorce, bullying, high pressure-guilt laden spiritual teaching, “fallen” church leadership, and just the plain realities of becoming a grown up. Cynicism feels natural and right – even authentic for me. My cynical self says – I don’t trust ANY of this – all I have left to trust is my familiar feelings of contempt, hopelessness, can’t-be-botheredness. Sarcasm, an expression of my deeply held cynicism is my shield. It lets me say all of this as if I don’t care but I can’t stop caring (which can be really annoying honestly). I’ve tried.

In some ways, stepping into a deeper exploration of my faith, daring to ask questions, leaving the pre-packaged Americanized-Evangelical-Conservative trivium is itself moving into a post-cynical Christianity. Cynicism is mocking, expects the worst of others and overall negative, which feels a lot like much of the Christianity I have been a part of for the past 20 years. Acting from a base of cynicism, it is very tempting to throw everything out with the holy water. I did that for too many years – stayed away from so many ideas and things that I thought would corrupt my faith if I came anywhere near them. I wasn’t even skeptical- that might mean I was willing to examine ideas and concepts. I was cynical – I had to keep them off limits, dismissing them as corrupt and worthless.

 

Skepticism has become a bad word in Christian circles. You know, it means you don’t believe. But I like how Wallis describes it – asking the tough questions – not just our modern definition of distrust and disbelief. The greek meaning from which our modern word derives was closer to the idea of “one who reflects or considers”. The post-cynical (and still skeptical) Christian is one who reflects on/considers (which involves questioning, right?) everything – even “established” truths and those reflections show up in their words and actions. If those reflections and questions only paralyze you, they are worthless. If they move you, really move you to action, then they are spiritual food and powerful fuel for your journey.

Are post-cynical Christians willing to say,

I may not always know what I can trust, I may not always have every belief on every subject related to faith nailed down in a perfect doctrine , but I  won’t give up hope, I won’t stop learning, seeking, loving?

Are they willing to lower their shields from time to time? Maybe even lay them down?  I believe I’ve found a seminary where I can lower, and maybe, just maybe sit down on my shield and peel away my cynicism to reveal a well-developed sense of reflection.

Post-cynical Christianity might be another interpretation of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples to be wise and simultaneously gentle. Could that be interpreted as be skeptical – willing to ask the hard questions, face the harsh realities of the world we live in and yet be willing, even deeply committed to being loving and faithful anyway?

 I would love to hear your thoughts! 

 Do you think there is a distinction between skepticism and cynicism?

Does that distinction play out in real life or only in the dictionary?

What is your experience of the intersection of faith, skepticism & cynicism?

 

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16 comments
Brother Corey
Brother Corey

When one's understanding of the Christian faith is merely another function of the discursive intellect, cynicism and skepticism are natural. In the West there has been a tragic loss of the original esoteric understanding of the path, the knowledge of the inner life has been projected onto an outer moral idealism of a reward or punishment afterlife. Who wouldn't be cynical of such a shallow scheme?

wayneschroeder
wayneschroeder

For me, Faith and Doubt (skepticism, not cynicism) are flip sides of the same coin, supporters of one another and the way to keep the scales balanced and life real. This position keeps me open to questioning and exploring the limits of my own world view and just as importantly, the expanse of the world views of others. Handling this matter of life is like trying to hold a dove in your hands--hold too tight and you kill it, don't hold it at all and  "freedom is just another word for nothing left to loose."  

Generally people think of Nietzsche as not only skeptical, but nihilistic. Sure, he put a hit on Christianity, but I'm pretty sure he was mainly hitting the Pharisees. He apparently had the courage to question his Sunday School teachers. More importantly, he became committed to the value of values and of this world, without the judgmental veil of "good vs. evil" in order to avoid a bad conscience, resentment and false valuing. After all his commitment was to affirmation of the valuable (se ECCE HOMO). I do not believe in Nietzsche, but he has helped me believe affirmatively not only after we die, but especially while we live. Lets go all in with Faith/Doubt Hope/Fear and especially with Love (though we hate) affirmatively in the face of this necessary suffering.

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

Here's a post I did about Diogenes the Dog, the first Cynic: http://turridesign.com/blog/3203

There are two parts to cynicism, and many people who claim to be Cynics today get the fist part down really well--the part about spurning social custom and etiquette--but don't even bother with the "living as natural as possible" part.

KateMcKinney
KateMcKinney

What can I say but yes, yes. You are speaking my language. We are going through so much of the same things right now. I am fighting cynicism but also trying really hard not to just punch down those feelings of fear and doubt but to just let them breathe so I can get the questions out, and really dig deeper into what is going on.

ngilmour
ngilmour

Thanks for writing this, Micky.  

I think part of the difficulty (and I'm confessing my own sins here) is that it's never the same folks calling for an end to "cynicism."  In 2003, I was called excessively "cynical" by folks who thought that the best way to love our neighbor is to drop bombs and overthrow our neighbors' government.  And in 2013, I'm told that the best way to love our neighbor is to override the neighbors' democratic will and change their laws by court fiat.  In both cases, when I've objected, the most convinced partisans have cried "cynicism" when folks ask (what seem to me) obvious questions about the power relations governing things.

Perhaps I'm too jaded here (I hate when the word "cynical" comes to mean "immoral," largely because the original cynics, the Greek renegade philosophers, were among the most moral people in the ancient world), but when Jim Wallis, who has largely become another evangelical mouthpiece for the Obama presidency, calls for an end to cynicism, I want to make sure my wallet's still in my pocket.

Isaac FL
Isaac FL

skepticism is exactly the word that is defining my faith right now. The question that I've been asking to myself is, why Jesus, why him? what is "attractive" of the Jesus faith, a lot of things are very unattractive even if they look pretty. But there is one thing that I still believe or that I realized there is beauty there,and it's the need of community, of being in relationship with others, is like if the Jesus in me needs the Jesus in others, and the Jesus in others needs the Jesus in me. To be cynical or skeptical is a task that I feel isolates you, maybe someone will share your cynicism, but cultivating it will eventually take you apart from others, and that's keeping Cesar as Lord. 
All in all I feel like this is a time for imagine a new day of the christian faith, who knows maybe we won't even gather on Sundays. Imagine that!

MickyScottBeyJones
MickyScottBeyJones

@Jesse Turri Nice post. Thank you for sharing. It is easy to be cynical about everyone else, but we don't like to be on the receiving end of the snark. It hurts!

MickyScottBeyJones
MickyScottBeyJones

@ngilmour Thanks for responding to my post! It's very meaningful to get feedback and discussion. I like it much more than feeling like I'm talking to myself. 

Just to clarify, I was just using the Wallis piece as a springboard for thought & dialog, not saying you have to be on some team with Wallis to embrace the idea. He seems like a nice enough guy, but you must be more familiar with his writing, politics and practices than I am. I don't know enough of him to make that kind of a judgement call.

My focus is more of an internal, personal one. It's not about what someone else is telling you is cynical or not. Sounds like you are talking about being skeptical of the government status quo. That's healthy, that's skepticism. 

I can't say it any better than @trippfuller  in the latest podcast when he said, "You can't be Christian without hoping". It's having that little bit of hope that how you engage with the world can make a difference, that groups of us working for justice can make a difference. It's about saying, No I don't trust you, but I'm not going to let you take my trust in everything. It's mine to give as I choose.

MickyScottBeyJones
MickyScottBeyJones

@Isaac FL Yes, I feel you. Cynicism & skepticism can feel so isolating. The difference, I think is that cynicism can become, "I'm better than you. I'm so much smarter/more intelligent/more evolved so I see that it can't be trusted." Cynicism puts you in a place of power because you are emotionally removed. Skepticism, as I'm exploring it here means you still have an investment. You are asking questions precisely because you care. It can be isolating because often asking questions is enough to brand one a heretic or of weaker faith. It can be threatening to others who aren't questioning. For skepticism not to turn into cynicism we need safe spaces and people for the questions. 

ngilmour
ngilmour

@MickyScottBeyJones @ngilmour @trippfuller Fair enough.  Perhaps it's because I teach rhetoric for a living, but I'm always paying attention to the ethos of the one carrying the message. ;)

That said, given the definitions you posit in the post and Tripp's additions, I do grant that a stance of despair is ultimately not worth much.  Out of curiosity, why did you pick skepticism to oppose to cynicism?  I'm not sure how I would have framed it, but I'd love to read your own process.

Isaac FL
Isaac FL

 @MickyScottBeyJones @Isaac FL I agree, that is a good way to put it. I feel that churches the way they currently perform are not safe places, or maybe I'm skeptical about it, or even worse afraid of the outcome

ngilmour
ngilmour

@MickyScottBeyJones @ngilmour @trippfuller Sure it does.  As I said, I'm always interested in word choice, and the pair (I'll try not to say "opposing pair" struck me as interesting.  As I noted above, and as Jesse Turi reinforced, those two words are laden with historical goodies, so I wondered to what extent the historical goodies showed up at your invitation and to what extent they arrived unannounced. :)

MickyScottBeyJones
MickyScottBeyJones

@ngilmour @MickyScottBeyJones @trippfuller 

I don't know if I am much of a conversation partner for a rhetoric teacher but I can try. Thanks for putting up with my attempt.

I was really riffing off the other article to start with plus using my constant friend - the dictionary. We often go off what we *think* a word means but I like to go back to a "textbook" definition or a commonly held definition or worst case scenario, a definition we can all just agree to. 

I don't really look at it as cynicism and skepticism as being opposites but maybe shades of the same thing. Or kind of a similar recipe but one just includes a dash or more of hope. Skepticism can morph into cynicism so I don't know that they can be considered opposites. Does that make sense?

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