Truth in the Age of Cynicism

“The age of anxiety has given way to the age of cynicism,” recently wrote 30-year-old composer Mohammed Fairouz. “Among my generation, cynicism is no longer a bad word: it’s being celebrated, and often it’s mistaken for intelligence.”

During World War II, martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had harsher things to say about cynicism. Writing from a Nazi prison he described the cynic as one who claims to tell the truth in all places, and at all times, and to every person, but in reality he is just a consistent liar. The cynic wears a halo as “a zealot for truth” but he ends up destroying reality. He “desecrates the mystery, breaks trust, betrays the community in which he lives, and smiles arrogantly over the havoc he has wrought and over the human weakness that ‘can’t bear the truth.’”

Cynics, Bonhoeffer concluded, “feed on hatred against the real — against the world created and loved by God” (Works, 16:604–605).

With the destructive force of cynicism on the soul and on communities, and with the rise of cynicism today, you would think the church would say a lot about it. It hasn’t.

Enter Mark Meynell.

Mark Meynell serves with Langham Partnership as Associate Director for Europe carrying out the vision of its founder, John Stott, to equip preachers around the world. For nine years Meynell was on the senior ministry team of All Souls Langham Place in London. And he is the author of a new book, A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World, published by Zondervan.

I recently talked with him about cynicism — what it is, what it does, and how it’s defeated in our lives.

Mark, thank you for your time. First off, what is cynicism? How would you define it?

While we could take an academic or philosophical approach (and I do at points in the book), I’m more concerned with cynicism as a kind of cultural mood. So perhaps it’s easiest to see it in relation to suspicion.

Suspicion is the natural result of having your fingers burned by something or someone. If I can make a generalization, I think our contemporary culture of suspicion derives largely from abuses of power. If you’ve been the victim of that (whether by the state, the corporation, the community, or even the church), it’s no wonder you sense threats in other, similar circumstances. I’ve got huge sympathy for that.

There are all kinds of contexts where we ought to be suspicious. But cynicism is corrosive, and perhaps contagious. When suspicion hardens into a cynicism we cannot trust again. It is a fixed attitude — jaundiced and bitter perhaps — but devastatingly understandable in our world.

So the cynic and the Christian both hold a deep distrust of humankind. Fundamentally, what distinguishes their distrust?

It seems to me that modern people have no viable escape from the vortex of distrust — twentieth century history relentlessly confronts us with how corruptible and low we can become (even in so-called civilized and educated societies).

So ironically, the challenge for preachers today is not so much to prove sin — a doctrine Chesterton suggested was the only one that ‘can really be proved’ — but the exact opposite! How do we convince a student of history or biology or criminology that human beings are nevertheless made in God’s image? Sin distorts and damages this image, but doesn’t destroy it. Because unless we do, the ethics questions of the beginning and the end of life, let alone global population, will never acknowledge intrinsic value in the individual.

In contrast, because we have the double foundation of being created by God in his image, and being rescued in Christ, we know that our value is founded on bedrock. No one can sink too low for God. That is why (as I say in the book) “suspicion is legitimate, but cynicism is not the last word.” No one has been so hardened by sin that they cannot be transformed by grace. That’s the key difference — and the only hope, ultimately, for a cynical world.

So we need great care to offer the Bible’s positive as well as negative features of human anthropology — created in God’s image, rebels from God’s trustworthy authority, rescued and restored by Christ’s kingdom victory.

That’s so key, thank you. One pastor has written, “cynicism is the god of the thinking person.” In Ecclesiastes, he said, Solomon battled the gods of money, sex, and power, “but the one that came the nearest to owning his soul was cynicism. . . . Cynicism is the temple to which we finally come after stopovers at the houses of all the other gods. It is the temple at the end of ‘temple row.’” Do you agree? And, if so, where is cynicism in the pantheon of cultural gods?

That is a very fair point, and of huge importance — though I’m not sure I’d go so far as saying it’s the heart of all idolatries. Certainly cynicism can be a convenient justification for idolatry. It can enable me to cast off all the shackles, like its cousin, rebellious doubt. I make that distinction because it is vital to show that there are some very normal (and perhaps even necessary) forms of doubt — such as when we suffer or struggle to understand something, or when we face pain in life. I have certainly gone through many times like this.

But the understandable hardness that comes from getting burned by others breeds a self-sufficiency that comes horribly close to the introverted autonomy that is the very definition of sin. Not only that, it can invert what is valuable, good, and beautiful in God’s world, and call it the opposite — as happened when the Lord Jesus was accused of being Satanic (Luke 11:15).

So we have to take real care here. Cynicism that results from the abuse of power can easily become a cynicism that itself abuses power. Victims so easily become culprits if and when they manage to seize the helm. On a personal scale, we saw it at school perhaps: The bullied new kids became even worse bullies once they reached the top of the school. Or on the macro scale, you can see it in geopolitical history and in contemporary identity politics. This shift might be completely unthinking and unacknowledged, or it could be driven by a hunger for revenge (perhaps even in the name of ‘justice’). Either way, isn’t this just one reason why we should both take victims seriously and stem the tide of glorifying victimhood?

That is a fascinating point you make more fully in the book. So how do we confront the quiet cynicism that can slowly erode local churches — whether it be an erosion of pastoral authority or of trust from our community?

Perhaps we need to start by asking whether or not that root suspicion is legitimate. So often the answer (tragically) is yes. Churches are not automatically “power-abuse-free-zones,” but they ought to be — they must be!

After all, this is why Jesus called his followers to exercise authority in ways fundamentally different from the world around them. In contrast to the Gentile rulers who ‘lord it over’ others, Jesus says four tiny (and radical) words: “not so with you” (Matthew 20:26).

Jesus’s alternative is servanthood. No, that seems far too polite! Jesus calls for voluntary slavery, giving up my rights for the sake of another — and all out of love, even when they’re not lovable. Isn’t this why his followers are called to take up the cross? It’s simply because he did.

So we must face up to this problem. Enquirers don’t seem to ask first if Christianity is true, but if church is safe. What will happen if I join up? Will they take all my money? Abuse my children? Steal my individuality? Institutionalized religion (to some) is just a cult on a grander scale. This makes the not so with you ever more urgent.

The local church is not a group of perfect people clubbing together to congratulate themselves on their spiritual achievements. It is a gathering of broken and vulnerable people who have tasted grace and who now offer grace. And that can only begin to happen if those who lead it recognize their own dependence on grace.

There’s no quick fix for this, though. You can’t do this with a six-week course. It will take more than a five-point plan to generate a community that is safe for the broken and sinful. But that will cause much of American and European Christianity to stumble, because quite frankly, it owes more to Wall Street and Madison Avenue growth models than God’s mustard seed kingdom model. The walking wounded need time to regain reasons to trust. Only grace challenges cynicism. But that takes time.

Left unchecked, cynicism is a joy-killer in the Christian life. How can we escape it?

In the end, I come back to the only escape route from cynicism: Jesus himself. He really is the answer! But not perhaps for reasons we immediately appreciate. It is because he shows that (uniquely in human history) he can be trusted — trusted with absolute power. We see him granted this by God in Daniel 7.

But see what he does with his power? Jesus washes smelly feet and substitutes himself for sinners. People ever since have rightfully adored him for it. What joy it is to know him! To be loved by this King!

King Jesus is key to times of disappointment and pain, especially when prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling. Trusting God in the darkness may seem impossibly remote. But when we see Jesus, we see God’s character at street view. Would he forget, exploit, or abuse those under his wing?

Ultimately, because our King is completely trustworthy, we can find joy in a world run by powers and politicians that are not trustworthy. Christian joy is not stifled when confronted with the reality of human leaders who fail.

On this point, it has been a rough summer for Evangelicals in America. Our Supreme Court legalized (so-called) same-sex marriage in all 50 states. And then followed brutal videos of Planned Parenthood, exposing the organization for selling aborted baby body parts for profit. And PP is government funded — I am supporting them! There’s a lot to be cynical about in America right now, not least of which the highest court in our country. What do Christians lose by becoming cultural cynics?

I really sense that — but for a European onlooker, it’s not hugely surprising. This is part of the oxygen we have been breathing this side of the pond for a while. And we should never forget that in the post-Enlightenment West, the numerical (if not spiritual) strength of the American Church is the anomaly, not the rapid secularizing of public life. But it’s true, the nations on either side of the North Atlantic seem to be locked in some kind of crazy, accelerating race to be the most radical!

Christians, especially, must take care to avoid a partisan cynicism (if I can put it like that). We love them/us binaries, don’t we? The White Stetson versus the Black Hat gang!

But the Bible reminds us that sin is not exclusive to any group or ideology — nor is being made in God’s image. After all, the devil has perfect theology and he rejects it! We are all made in God’s image and we are all broken sinners in need of grace.

Perhaps the only way to reach our cynical cultures is for the church to recapture that mustard seed vision of the kingdom — small, weak, unimpressive perhaps, as we present the truth of grace. Full of sacrificial love. It’s not that we stop being concerned for truth — far from it! — but that we give as much attention to how power operates among us as we do for how truth can be spread beyond us.

So what’s at stake if the church becomes culturally cynical? I think we fail to offer the non-Christian cynics around us the solid hope of Christ.

Amen. Christ is key to liberating sinners from cynicism. What role does the return of Christ play in defeating cynicism in our hearts now?

Christ’s return is the key to perseverance!

I taught for four years in a small interdenominational seminary in Uganda — and a large proportion of our students were refugees from surrounding countries. If you think being an African refugee in Europe or North America is bad, consider how defenseless they are in Africa. I listened speechless to heartbreaking stories and was caught up in another truly terrible sequence of events (which I briefly recount in the book). So having witnessed some terrible injustices while living in East Africa, which will never find redress in this world, I have learned why so many of our non-Western sisters and brothers are holding out for Christ’s return.

Absolute power in the safest of hands will bring restoration and restitution on that Great Day of Justice. That’s why every tear will be wiped away and why mourning will be turned to laughter.

Only God can do that.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus! Thank you, Mark.

That was author Mark Meynell. Check out his book, A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World, newly released by Zondervan.