Beyond Cynicism 1

Beyond Cynicism 1 July 8, 2011

Andrew Byers, in his new book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint, claims “cyncism is a sickness” and defines it as being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives.

Many of us have either been there, or gotten very close, or are on the verge of camping among the cynics. Contemptuously distrustful and snarling at church signs and optimistic claims about the potency of the gospel and the church, some of us have just given up and turned inward and bitter. Byers examines the elements at work that are creating cynicism in our world, and anyone with a pastoral heart for others knows what the cynic looks like and wonders if there’s a good description of it — and this book might just be it.

Where do you see too much idealism in the church? among Christians?

Does idealism wrecked lead to cynicism?

What are we to do to respond to idealism?

One of the elements at work in creating cynicism among today’s Christians is idealism.  Idealism, oddly enough, when examined theologically, is a premature kingdom, a belief that the future is not onliy now but the full future is completely available now. Is that a biblical eschatology? No. “Idealism jump-starts the mysterious, divine chronology by answering the eschatological when with now.” Cynicism’s response to that same question is Never. Idealism often precedes the cynical disposition, so Byers examines idealism.

Byers breaks idealism into three modes:

1. Idealized anthropology: “You can do anything you put your mind to!”
2. Idealized cosmology: Living the “victorious Christian life.” A biblical cosmology: created by God but groaning for redemption; a modern cosmology: progress, progress, progress.
3. Idealized theology: “God will never give you more than you can handle.” But always?

Byers: “Once we embrace an idealized anthropology that assumes good things happen to good people who work hard to succeed, and once we adopt an idealized cosmology that leaves little room for pain and suffering, then we begin making assumptions about the God who has supposedly secured all these cheery arrangements” (40).

Byers opts out of cynicism and out of idealism for a hopeful realism. I add that it is important to be hopeful and hope-filled, but not given to idealism (which is unrealistic). How would you distinguish idealism from biblical hope?

Ah, the Mr. Rogers God. Not the God of Abraham, or Joseph, or Moses, or David, or Job, or Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, or the Exile or the persecuted church … or the One who permits, somehow, the death of young children and tragedies … an idealized God needs to be junked.

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  • Anna


    As a longtime Mr Rogers fan, what I liked about him was that he actually dealt regularly with loss and suffering, unlike other children’s shows. He talked about death and divorce in ways that children could understand. But then, Mr Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister.

    I think the idealism above describes someone who is putting their hopes into the Vending Machine God.

  • Chuck

    I see way too much idealism in the way many churches “sell” Jesus. I drove by a church recently that had as part of it’s marquis a sign that displayed a list of 6 things that everyone desires such as as good marriage, personal peace, happiness, etc. There was a check next to each item implying that if you come to Jesus, especially here at this church, all of these important life needs will be met; checked off so to speak. It made me shake my head in dismay.

    As I see the Scriptures, Jesus is not committed to fixing our lives and making everything peachy. It seems to me that his desire for us and work in us is toward that of holiness and seeing Christ formed in us.

    It is this kind of cheap sales job that we do on Jesus that most often temps me toward cynicism.

  • Nick

    I think what we mean by idealism is really important here. To me, Jesus, the Kingdom, the Resurrection are incredibly idealistic in that they are alternate realities to the status quo life as we know it. These are the kinds of ideals and realities that we are supposed to live out now (though imperfectly and incompletely). To me the issue is not idealism itself but a faith that does not allow for the cross- that is, failing to see that the “ideals” of the faith are not realized except through suffering and death.

  • MJF

    The irony for me in reading this post is that I could probably be accused of idealism – but in the opposite direction – for my hope for the church. Not because I hold to the kind of idealism outlined above – but because my church does…. And I continually express a desire for a church that does not buy in to an idealized view of God/faith/world – and find myself disappointed when my ideal is not met in reality – leading me toward the danger of cynicism towards my church.

    Especially when for my church, this kind of idealized faith leads to very pragmatic outworkings of church/Christianity in order to maintain some external semblance of the idealized world that is proclaimed. Means to an end becomes the mode of operation. I become tired of this construct because I don’t want an idealized church/God. Yet am I being too idealistic (albeit in an opposite manner) in wishing for this?

  • MJF

    And yes Nick (#3) – I totally agree.

  • rjs

    There is an idealism in the message of the gospel. We shouldn’t get rid of this. But the idealism is not brought to completion today, and we should not expect completion in any sense in our lifetime. Death is vanquished – but evil is not gone from the world.

    Nick – the last line of your comment seems to suggest that the “ideals” are connected with our suffering and even death. Is this what you meant to imply?

  • 1 Bless the Lord, O my soul;
    And all that is within me, bless His holy name!
    2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    And forget not all His benefits:
    3 Who forgives all your iniquities,
    Who heals all your diseases,
    4 Who redeems your life from destruction,
    Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
    5 Who satisfies your mouth with good things,
    So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
    (Psalm 103:1-5)

    But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

    Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers. (3 John 2)

    Years ago, I was working through the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), writing a song for each one. When I got to Psalm 128, I was kind of embarrassed by what it said because it was very contrary to the kind of cynical Christian viewpoint that I had conditioned by for so many years. I finally decided that I was going to have to believe what it said and give up my cynicism.

    1 Blessed is every one who fears the Lord,
    Who walks in His ways.
    2 When you eat the labor of your hands,
    You shall be happy, and it shall be well with you.
    3 Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
    In the very heart of your house,
    Your children like olive plants
    All around your table.
    4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
    Who fears the Lord.
    5 The Lord bless you out of Zion,
    And may you see the good of Jerusalem
    All the days of your life.
    6 Yes, may you see your children’s children.
    Peace be upon Israel!
    (Psalm 128)

  • Thanks for posting on this book, Scot. There is another one on my shelf that deals with this topic called “Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion” (2006) by Dick Keyes of L’Abri in the US. Keyes does a good job of getting at whether our contemporary cynicism is simply destructive or wisely shrewd in unmasking underlying motives and impulses. The book is worth some attention.

    The kingdom of God provides us with an ideal that is not yet realized. There is hope within that for something more. There is a yearning for an ideal to be realized. Is this idealism or simply longing for the ideal? I do agree with Nick (#3) that what we mean by idealism is the key.

  • A dear friend of mine once gave me an “interesting” compliment. He said, “Sherman, when we first met I didn’t think we would ever be friends because you seemed to always have your head in the clouds. pause. But then I got to know you and found you had your feet on the ground too.”

    I responded jokingly and said, “Well, thanks. That makes me a giant of a man!”.

    I really do think we need to have our head in the clouds, be heavenly minded, hopeful of good things to come, seeking heaven to come to earth! We are seated with Christ in the heavenlies!

    On the other hand we’ve got to have our feet firmly planted on the ground, dealing with the dirty, broken issues of our present existance, the reality of this present evil age in which we exist, surrounded by evil, death, and destruction!

    I suppose it is best summed up in the prayer “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven!” It recognizes that earth is a mess and that heaven, the kingdom of God is the answer. The way heaven is brought to earth though is through death, death to ourselves. How are our broken marriages healed? Through death to ourselves. How is physical healing and deliverance brought from heaven to earth? Prayer, fasting, death to ourselves. How are families restored? Through repentance and reconciliation, death to ourselves.

    Sadly, because of the idealism, many Christians feel they must hide the truth concerning their struggles and pain. Everything’s fine, ok, but really I’m really dying inside, my kids are on drugs, and my marriage is on the rocks, and my wife hates me. (Rhetorically speaking, though right now my wife and I are having some problems. anyhow..)

    I don’t know if such is due to idealism or to the pride-of-life cyndrom, that we want everyone to think we’ve got it all together. It’s probably some of both! Well, I’m rambling, so I hush.

    Just one more thing, Nick, I appreciated your post, especially the last line.

  • btw, I like the title, “Faith Without Illusions”.

  • Sherman,

    The prayer I pray most is that petition from the Lord’s prayer, “Kingdom of God, come! Will of God, be done on earth as it is in heaven!” Wherever I see something on earth that is out of alignment with heaven, I pray that, and I pray it, not generically, but with great specificity:

    Where there is sickness: Kingdom of God, come into this body! Will of God be done in this body as it is in heaven!

    Where there is an area of poverty: Kingdom of God, come into this region! Will of God, be done herejust as it is in heaven!

    Where there is strife in a home: Kingdom of God, come into this home! Will of God be done in this this home as it is in heaven.

    And so on.

    It is a very powerful prayer and Jesus has authorized us to pray it. It is bombarding the out-of-alignment circumstances of earth with the reality of heaven. Because faith is not about denying the problem but about focusing on the solution and bringing to bear on the problem.

  • I’m excited that you are working through this book. I read it last month and LOVED it. I’ll definitely be tuning in for this.

  • Pat Pope

    I opt for realism.

  • DRT

    I see two parts to the idealism

    First, the once and done conversion to Christianity seems to engender idealism and that should change.

    Second, there is an upside down pessimism in many that makes them idealistic. What I mean is that I see a great number of Christians who revel in their sinfulness and, in a masochistic sort of way, are whipped into a frenzy by their preachers for being a sinner and repenting. This creates a dynamic where the worse they feel about themselves the better they feel about earning their way into heaven. Am I the only one who sees this?

  • I don’t generally think in terms of idealism or cynicism. I think in terms of faith and reality.

    So, “You can do anything you put your mind to!” may be a matter of positive thinking, and is often motivational, I do not think it is a matter of faith. Positive thinking is about what man can do; faith is about believing God and His Word.

    I believe that God has provided for a victorious, overcoming life for every Christian. However, I do not particularly think of that in terms of cosmology, but of faith: “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). “And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith” (1 John 5:4).

    “God will never give you more than you can handle.” I don’t know about that, nor am I particularly concerned about it. But I believe that God will never give me more than He can handle, or anything He has not already provided for.

    I believe that the nature of reality is that the physical realm proceeds from and is dependent upon the spiritual realm. God is Spirit (John 4:24) and the heavens and the earth were created by Him — framed by His words (Hebrews 11:3) and sustained by His words (Hebrews 1:3). So, I believe that the Word of God tells me about the reality of the world — what it was at the beginning, what it is now and what it shall be in its fulfillment. IOW, if I want to know about the reality of the world, I look at the Word.

    I believe that the kingdom of God is reality on the earth. Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:14-15). IOW, it is here. When He ascended to heaven, forty days after the resurrection, He ascended to His throne at the right hand of the Father, far above all principality, power, might and dominion (Ephesians 1:19-22). IOW, Jesus is in the place of ruling and reigning. Now, the kingdom is not completely manifested in the world, and will not be until Jesus returns, but it has already begun to change the world. The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining (1 John 2:8). We are living in between the time of the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom. That is the reality I see in the Word.

    Before Jesus ascended, He told the disciples, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).

    Since Jesus now possesses all authority in heaven and on earth, I believe that the Great Commission He gave to His disciples will be fulfilled: All nations will be discipled and baptized. Since the time He gave us that commission, the fulness of that commission has been in the process of being realized (brought to reality) in the world and in all nations.

  • John

    “Andrew Byers…claims “cyncism is a sickness” and defines it as being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives.”

    The more I understand of religion, denomination, and the power of institution over individuals, the more I have become distrustful and cynical of religious institutional-denominational-centralized power, ecclesial and academic alike (sorry if I just offended 95% of the readers here). I remain eternally hopeful in the person of Christ, and hopelessly idealistic in the power of individuals reflecting the love and charity of Spirit.

  • God is not just saving a bunch of individuals; He is creating a people, a community of faith that is the Church. So our faith needs to extend to that as well.

  • Jeff, while I agree that Spirit working through individuals creates a global community, I’m less convinced that Christian institution accurately reflects or represents that collective. Vertical power models breed fragmentation and division (as evidenced by over 30,000 religious denominations). Horizontal models build unity based on broad participation and open-sourced tensegrity (happy birthday Buck Fuller). We are in the very early stage of this shift from vertical to horizontal humanity.

    I’ve met people all around the world who are not members of any formal religious organization, and in fact may not even call themselves “Christians” – yet I count many of the same people as among the most Christ-reflecting (loving, caring, compassionate, charitable, forgiving, peaceable) human beings I have ever encountered.

    I think we are starting to move beyond the idea of “the church” as an institutionally-based entity. Perhaps we are recognizing that Spirit affiliates relationally, not organizationally. I’m convinced that, throughout millennia, individuals, not institutions, have best reflected and transmitted the passion and person of Jesus.