Beyond Cynicism 7

There is a massive difference between intellectual cynicism and wisdom. So Andrew Byers, in his very fine new book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. Andrew claims “cyncism is a sickness” and defines it as being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives. The king maintained political stability and the priest religious stability, while the prophet destabilized when either needed that. What about the sage? Israel’s sages both stabilized and destablized, sometimes with practical wisdom and sometimes with more speculative wisdom (Job, et al).

The cynic likes the knowledge; the cynic likes elitism; the cynic likes to destabilize. But the sage pushes beyond all three because the sage — the wise one — emerges from a fear of the Lord and lives before the Lord. Without worship, the “sage” is nothing but a cynic.

How would you compare the pursuit of wisdom with cynicism? Do you think Ecclesiastes is cynical?

The problem in the cynic is the lack of living in the sacred. “The scoffer [read cynic] seeks wisdom in vain” because the cynic seeks it not for wisdom or for worship but to use it against others. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Proverbs are principles and not promises; the Book of Job shows that if one reads them as promises the words are shattered into illusions. Job’s friends were stuck in superficial perceptions and Job shatters them. They think God can be controlled; Job says No, God is free.

But is Ecclesiastes, the Qohelet, a cynic? He is at least a vigorous realist and an opponent of idealism. Qohelet is one who discovers, the hard way, a form of hopeful realism. He finds it joy in normal realities and in hope in God. The whole duty of man is to fear God and keep God’s commandments. Byers says Qohelet is a grim realist instead of a cynic.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • rjs

    Thought provoking distinction between the cynic and the sage. I’ll add a thought, the cynic dismisses others, (acts and speaks in a dismissive and disrespectful manner) – the sage engages with others, even when in serious disagreement.

    We need more of a wisdom culture in the church – by which I do not mean reverence of age. Rather we need to cultivate a culture that avoids cynicism and values wisdom over the norms of success judged by charisma and oration and leadership and authority and ambition and on and on.

  • Amos Paul

    I’ve read some very convincing arguments that there are two voices in Ecclesiastes, not one, as far as its ‘tone’ is concerned…

    But regardless, I think Ecclesiastes is an excellent example of how wisdom *does* lead to meaninglessness *if* one does not have a bedrock trust in God. I honestly think understanding inevitably leads to despair if, in it, you don’t find God. This can make ‘simpler folk’ wary of the endeavor.

  • MatthewS

    Great line: “Without worship, the “sage” is nothing but a cynic.”

    I’ve been enjoying reading these posts. Some good words to pack up and carry along for the journey here.

  • Luke Allison

    Amos: “I honestly think understanding inevitably leads to despair if, in it, you don’t find God. This can make ’simpler folk’ wary of the endeavor.”

    I think this is spot on. We can construct a variety of ways to dodge the despair, but it still remains somewhere. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. When understanding brings us to a place of hopelessness, I’ve found a great deal of comfort on my knees.


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