My greatest temptation is cynicism. My deepest struggle is despair. I envy Christian leaders who possess unabashed confidence in the gospel; I’m personally more prone to bouts of unbridled skepticism. I regularly doubt the Scriptures I preach, the God I worship, the worldview I espouse.
If, like me, you tend toward cynicism, this post is for you.
From the outside, you might assume that the pastoral vocation would encourage and strengthen faith. I’d argue the opposite is often true. Pastors have a front-row seat to the ugliness of human sin and its manifestation in the church. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been lied to, lied about, and slandered. I’ve believed the best about people who (it turned out) believed the worst about me. I’ve watched pastors I trusted abuse their power, betray their calling, walk out on their marriages, and even abandon the faith. And as I write this, I know I’m preaching to the choir. You have your own stories of betrayal and disillusionment. Cynicism is tempting because there are things to be cynical about.
One of God’s most gracious gifts to the cynical person is the gift of honest Christian friends. Recently, as I was processing a spate of cynicism and despair with a trusted friend, he suggested a book I hadn’t heard of: Seeing Through Cynicism by Dick Keyes. I read it and found it challenging and helpful. In this post, I want to summarize some of the book’s most valuable insights.
Dick Keyes is a graduate of Harvard University and Westminster Seminary who has worked with L’Abri Fellowship in Southampton, Massachusetts, since 1979. Now in his 70s, he’s given his life to patient, thoughtful interaction with skeptics of all stripes. This makes his reflections on cynicism mature, measured, and wise.
The title of the book pays homage to C.S. Lewis’s famous observation in The Abolition of Man: “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever… To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” Keyes adopts this rubric as his baseline definition of cynicism: “Cynicism… has to do with seeing through and unmasking positive appearances to reveal the more basic underlying motivations of greed, power, lust, and selfishness.” Throughout the book, he identifies three targets for cynicism: other people, institutions (government, family, church, marriage), and God.
Cynicism, of course, is the air we breathe. It saturates our political discourse, it inundates social media, it’s the key to modern humor. We live downstream from postmodernism and from three influential philosophers – Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche – who taught us to “see through” economic patterns, psychological biases, and power dynamics. Without dismissing the critical insights of these thinkers, Keyes wants to help us question our cultural assumptions and “suspect our suspicions.”
If, like me, you wrestle deeply with cynicism, this is a book worth reading from start to finish. In this post I merely want to summarize six key insights that were helpful to me in my own struggle with cynicism. I’ll also leave you with a few salient quotes from the book.
SIX INSIGHTS ABOUT CYNICISM
Cynicism operates from a hidden idealism. “Cynicism is usually expressed in innuendoes, passing remarks, moods, cartoons, glancing blows, hints, insinuations, unacknowledged assumptions, and jokes. The full self-confidence of its suspicions, enabling it to unmask all things in its vision, are whispered… The genius of cynicism is that it is a voice in your ear which does not usually hang around long enough to be interviewed.” Every cynic is a closet idealist, assuming the superiority of his vantage point. The power of cynicism is that as it critiques the ideals of others, its own ideals are generally hidden from view.
Cynicism is a claim to know all things. Cynicism is a generalizing and totalizing project: because some people act from self-interest, the cynic concludes that all people are driven by self-interest. By claiming to “see through” the motives of others, the cynic assumes a posture of omniscience. “Cynics see through the illusory truths of others to get down to the ‘real truth’ beneath… Far from losing confidence in truth, cynicism has put enormous trust in a different set of truths – its own tools of cynical inquiry.” Though often cloaked in the language of skepticism, cynicism is in fact a claim to absolute truth and objectivity.
Honest dialogue requires that we “reverse the flow of suspicion.” Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche claimed that all religious belief could be reduced to human projection: “the idea of God [provided] a needed crutch, a smokescreen, or both.” But in the same way, both crutch and smokescreen can be motivations for cynicism. The critique cuts both ways. We need to subject cynicism to its own tools of analysis. As we do, we discover that “there is no neutral, objective, or unbiased place to stand” when asking questions about ultimate reality. “Our ideas about God’s presence, absence, or unknowability are all self-involving ideas… They necessarily implicate us or make claims on us, our priorities, and our futures. A dispassionate neutrality is impossible.” Our existing commitments create an interpretive filter through which we evaluate reality. We need to suspect our suspicions.
Cynicism is attractive because it’s partially true. “Cynicism at its best dares to recognize that things are not as they should be… It is suspicious of spin and plastic smiles… [it] has a refreshing aversion to naivete, sentimentality, hypocrisy and blind optimism.” The problem with cynicism is that it goes too far: “Cynics presume to see through those that they cannot in fact see through at all.” For instance: the postmodern cynic adopts a skeptical view of language; words are merely tools that mask agendas of power and oppression. Is this true? Certainly, in some cases. But it’s also true that “words have also been used to clarify, challenge, and motivate people to overcome prejudice, oppression, and injustice.” (Think, for example, of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.) This is the “yes, but” that a healthy response to cynicism requires. Yes, words can be tools of oppression… but not in every case. In the end, cynicism is too simplistic. It’s overconfident in its suspicions. It claims an omniscience it doesn’t have.
The biblical alternative to cynicism is “qualified, redemptive suspicion.” A qualified suspicion acknowledges that not every silver lining has a cloud: despite the brokenness of the world, people are capable of genuine goodness. A redemptive suspicion “is willing to risk giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.” It dares to hope. In a fallen world, suspicion is warranted; we should not trust every person or believe every story. But biblical suspicion looks inward as well as outward. It is self-critical before it is critical of others. It recognizes the possible errors in my judgment and the possible biases in my viewpoint. With qualified, redemptive suspicion, “we can recognize the brokenness that the cynic sees – but without losing the hope that the cynic rejects. [And] we can recognize the glory in the world that the cynic cannot see – but without the sentimentality that the cynic fears.” God, who sees the human heart more clearly than any of us, is not a cynic about humanity. Neither should his people be.
We see only the back side of the tapestry. God, in his providence, is working out his sovereign purposes in history. “What we can see as finite, dependent creatures, limited in space and time, is only a tiny piece of the back side of a tapestry, with only the crudest inklings of what the front side of the tapestry of God’s providence must look like.”
FIVE THOUGHT-PROVOKING QUOTES
“Cynicism is prudent… Believing in the integrity of another person, the validity of an institution or the goodness of God are all high-risk convictions. They are potential setups for disappointment. If you are concerned first and last for emotional safety and survival, cynicism is going to look quite attractive.” (p. 82)
“All men have a natural fear of making a mistake – by believing too well of a person. However, the error of believing too ill of a person is perhaps not feared, at least not in the same degree as the other.” (p. 80, quote from Soren Kierkegaard)
“The cheap pleasures of cynicism are always in plentiful supply. Abandoning them is like going on a diet or giving up smoking. Hope, in other words, is the thing that takes work.” (p. 211, quote from Michael Kinsley)
“If there is an alternative for cynicism, what is it? …[It is] the lifelong determination to see the world as it really is, as much as we can, with eyes open. This means being suspicious of the deceptive filters of our culture and of our personal experience – filters both sentimental and cynical. I am looking for wisdom expressed in a redemptive suspicion, limited by humility and tempered by love and mercy.” (p. 171)
“As cynicism sees through people to unmask them, love also ‘sees through’ them, but with a very different agenda. When we believe and hope in someone, we are also looking through or beyond them, past their face-value appearance or past track record. We see their potential for growth in goodness, strength, and virtue.” (p. 186)
I’m confident my struggle with cynicism will be a lifelong battle. But I’m thankful to Dick Keyes for helping to map the terrain more clearly, and for providing keen wisdom for the journey.