Within our Evergreen home community, we’ve recently started reading and discussing Faith Without Illusions; Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint by Andrew Byers. The subtitle grabbed me as I consider myself an in-process, recovering cynic. I’ve been contemplating the source of cynicism lately as it’s something that easily plagues any human that carry with them stories of hurt, betrayal, and disappointment (isn’t that everyone?). What better defense mechanism to future, potential hurts is so easily available to us than cynicism?
In the first two chapters, Byers prefaces the book by sharing his story of disillusionment, particularly with God and the church. He says that this kind of disillusionment is natural and healthy, because of course, who wants to live with an “illusion”? But how we respond to that disillusionment drastically shapes the kind of people we are to become. And unfortunately, it’s common for that disillusionment to lead us to a general state of cynicism as defined as: “to be contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives (pg. 9).” Honestly, “human nature and motives” give us a LOT to be distrustful about (even within ourselves) which makes living cynically all too easy.
In the midst of telling his story of his journey of disillusionment and cynicism he makes three observations that profoundly resonated with me:
1. “Though there is indeed a great deal of disenchantment with God these days, “Christian” cynicism seems most often directed toward the church. As an untidy conglomeration of imperfect people from all walks of life, the margin for human error in the church is quite high, isn’t it? We are a dysfunctional family of sinful siblings, repeatedly failing and injuring one another. Christians must constantly nurse in-house wounds. Thus the descent, whether immediate or gradual, into cynicism. So many believers have now slid into those dark pits that cynicism is becoming vogue in many Christian circles as a self-identifying trademark of a new spirituality-the edgy spirituality of the jaded. Since cynicism is emerging as a hip new way to be ‘spiritual,’ religious disenchantment is often hailed as a spiritual virtue“ (Pg. 8).
2. “For obviously reasons the anti-institutional attitude of cynicism does not comport well with the stablished church. Cynical Christians are therefore situated on the fringes of Christian fellowship. Their position on the margins allows them to be close enough to the church to (often amusingly) criticize its mistakes while maintaing a degree of allegiance to Jesus (whose harangues against the established religious leadership of his day become favorite Scripture passages). Cynics praise themselves for taking the red pill of “reality,” and then they stick it to “the Man” by unplugging themselves from the “matrix” of the institutional church” (Pg. 9).
3. “In reaction to my own former zeal, I became skeptical of anything that smacked of religious enthusiasm” (Pg. 22).
I’ll admit that while I have (and am still) dealing with bouts of cynicism, I have never walked away from the local church. And looking back at the last 16 years that I’ve spent in church, I’m thankful that even in my most cynical moments I haven’t done so. In fact, I think the community is the only place we’ll find healing for chronic cynicism, but ironically, it’s that same cynicism that keeps us away from the very healing we need. Staying on the fringes and critiquing from the outside simply cannot move us beyond cynicism into the realm that Byers calls “hopeful realism”.
But it is the third quote that I’ve posted that cuts the deepest personally as I find myself constantly being “skeptical of anything that smacks of religious enthusiasm.” I have realized that this truly is a spiritual illness (just as Byers describes it). Why am I skeptical of religious enthusiasm? I think for three reasons:
- “Religious enthusiasm” generally comes off as superficial and void of any transformative power or lasting presence.
- I’ve seen “religious enthusiasm” (and language) used to conceal all kinds of unhealthy psychological and/or spiritual sickness and thus avoid the unpleasantness of having to deal with those issues.
- What’s the easiest way to not be disappointed? To ALWAYS refrain from showing any kind of enthusiasm or excitement. If no one sees me excited about something, then they won’t have to pity me when I’m disappointed by it. Showing enthusiasm is to take a risk that what your enthusiastic about is not going to let you down and I’m typically rather not set myself up to be disappointed or to be the recipient of other’s pity. (On a semi-related note, I’ve never understood people that regularly desire and solicit pity from others!)
Looking at this I realize how sad this all sounds. Cynicism continually sucks all of the joy out of life and has a paralyzing effect which makes it impossible to act, risk, express, create simply because the fear is always present that: “I could get hurt.” “I could fail”. “People could think I’m foolish for caring so much.” And so I will take the easy way out and simply mock, and belittle, and disdain and not have to risk more hurt.
I’ve realized that I need to grow up. It’s not that I desire to resurrect the old illusions of creating or experiencing the idyllic church community or life. That isn’t the answer. But I know that cynicism isn’t the way forward in a life that is intentional about following Jesus either.
To be continued….