The Sin in Our Cynicism
Cynicism is a problem.
Maybe it’s not explicitly on your radar, but you’re sure to have felt its force. Cynicism is that sneering bitterness toward all things true and deep. It’s the subtle contempt trying to contaminate the cheeriest of moments — that slow, thick smoke of pessimism toxifying the oxygen in the lungs of our hope, suffocating any glad-hearted embrace that God did something meaningful in our lives and strangling our childlike faith to opt for “another angle” on why things happen the way they do.
It’s nasty, and it’s everywhere, especially today. Paul Miller explains: “Cynicism is, increasingly, the dominant spirit of our age. . . . It is an influence, a tone that permeates our culture . . . . [It] is so pervasive that, at times, it feels like a presence” (A Praying Life, Location 766).
Miller’s timing and assessment is right. The question, though, is why. If we’re going to overcome this influence, we’ll need to know where it is coming from. This new cynical spirit, so common to our generation, didn’t appear in a vacuum. What winds have brought it here? And how might we stand against it?
Emblem of an Epidemic
If we’re going to wrap our heads around cynicism (or loose its fangs from our heart), we need to start by understanding it’s a symptom of a greater disease. Cynicism, problematic as it is, presents itself more as the emblem of a wider epidemic — one that has grown over Western civilization for more than 500 years. I say “epidemic” not to be negative, but because it is relatively new and momentous for our Christian witness in the modern world. A better name for it, as coined by Charles Taylor, and mediated by James K.A. Smith, is “the secular age.”
Smith’s book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor is a helpful summary and interaction with Taylor’s larger philosophical work, so large that it might deter most of us from a profitable reading. The main question at hand, for Taylor via Smith, is how in the world our society went from majority Christian in 1500 to largely secular and post-Christian today.
Without too much summary (of a summary), the axis of this shift has to do with the tension between transcendence and immanence. As long as the world is old, especially since the early Christian West, the relationship between that which is deep and that which is near has been on the forefront of the human mind. On one hand, the world is profound and mysterious, pointing to a greater reality beyond itself. On the other hand, cows must be milked, diapers must be changed, and if dad doesn’t get a paycheck we’re going to go hungry. In other words, there is the great and glorious out there, and there is the menial and necessary right here — and how these two relate has been kicked around for centuries.
The Reformation Resolution
The project of the Reformation, according to Taylor, was to swiftly resolve this tension by raising the bar of immanence. That is to say, everything matters because God cares about everything. The little stuff has significance; the physical world is good; vocation is important, and on and on. There aren’t two levels of Christians, the regular folks and the truly spiritual, but all of us, if we’re in Christ, are truly spiritual.
This approach to the tension is, biblically speaking, the right one. It is the necessary implication of the gospel — the one that makes the most sense, and could only make sense at all because God himself solved the tension by becoming man like us. This God-entranced take on the world is reality as God shows us in Scripture. It is the real world as he has made it, and when the church recovers this vision, it produces revival — it means Jonathan Edwards and Awakenings and frontier missions and churches planted all across North America.
That all happened for a good while, recognized as a positive thing by society as a whole. But throw in a few centuries, the Enlightenment, Darwin, two World Wars, and the 1960s, and things changed.
Digging in the Dust
Taylor (via Smith) says that a new resolution was popularized in the mid-twentieth century. Another way to get past the tension of transcendence and immanence, if not raising the bar of immanence, is to just get rid of transcendence altogether. Tension — what tension? Here and now became all there is. A brand of life was put forward that coopts depth and meaning — divine things — to be things we can find in the dust of this earth. On a societal level, we’ve settled for a simple world that answers the way Forrest Gump did when Lieutenant Dan asked if he found Jesus — “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”
This is the secular age in which we live. It is a world that increasingly claims to “know better” than faith and enchanted reality. It is seeing the world, as many would say, as grown-ups. “Ain’t it fun, ain’t it fun, living in the real world?” And if this is the case, if this vision of the world has found footing in our day and time, how might it be expressed in the popular conscience? That’s right: cynicism.
A take on the world like Taylor describes also comes with an accompanying attitude. And as Smith explains, whether we like it or not, this stuff seeps into our being. Cynicism is the prevailing posture of a post-Christian world, and sadly, it’s a posture in which many Christians too often find themselves. But it doesn’t have to be this way — it shouldn’t be this way.
In the beauty of Christian paradox, maybe the best way that we might overcome cynicism is not to evade it, but to face it head on. Rather than dodge cynicism, what if go right after it, look it straight in the eyes, and “out-cynicize” cynicism itself?
This means, first, that we admit cynicism is a bad thing. Cynicism is a problem, fundamentally, because cynicism is sin. Whatever doesn’t proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23), and cynicism is that demeanor where faith can’t exist. Its foundation is unbelief — and its message is unbelief, however tacitly it might flow from our hearts. We only feel cynical when we’ve sold out to something anti-gospel, and we only speak cynically when we’ve been hoodwinked by the enemy to propagate his venom. That’s no way for a Christian to live, and perhaps in our society, one of the clearest marks of our holiness is a refusal to do so.
Seeing for Real
And that refusal means, on the positive end, that we remythologize our God-entranced world. It means that we start seeing things as they really are, as God has told us in his word. It means that instead of telling my kids that their bedtime fears are all in their heads, I teach them to call on him who put to shame the rulers and authorities of this present darkness (Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 6:11–12).
It means that we turn the tables, that rather than doubt God’s active work in the world, we doubt every thought that doesn’t account for God’s active work in the world.
It means that we’re cynical about cynicism, that we are determined to always assume more is happening than meets the eye, that God hears every prayer, that Jesus is truly reigning and coming again, and that, if we’re serious, we’re not idiots for thinking so —the idiots are those who don’t (Psalm 14:1).
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