[There is] a radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental…They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escapist emotions.” But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness. —Henri Nouwen
“All is well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” –St. Julian of Norwich
One of the shepherds at the church I serve is a man named John Willis. He is a renowned Old Testament scholar, professor, churchman, and friend. He and his wife Evelyn are two of the best people I know. They are in their 80’s and right now they are in New Zealand teaching a short course and continuing their tradition of handing out cookies to every student. John and Evelyn Willis do not do what they do for money or power. They do it because of who they are, and who God has made them into.
There is a scene toward the end of the Gospel of John as Jesus is about to be crucified where Mary anoints Jesus with nard, an expensive oil that Mary had been saving up, and in one extravagant moment Mary pours it on Jesus as a way of saying thank you for raising Lazarus from the dead. It is this incredibly powerful scene of gratitude and worship.
But Judas was there and he didn’t like what was happening at all, He cynically dismisses Mary’s extravagance as irresponsible or apathy toward the poor people around her. It is a move I have made personally a lot. In college, I spent a semester in Europe, and I was always the pretentious kid pointing out how much money those cathedrals cost, and how many poor people could have been helped (totally dismissing how much money my semester in Greece was costing).
If I had been at this little party, Judas’s comment would have immediately shut it down for me. It seems clear that he has the high-ground and Mary has done something that was both foolish and wasteful. Judas’s comment isn’t looking for an answer, it assumes there isn’t one. But Jesus answered him anyway, “Leave her alone. She has done the right thing.”
Dick Keyes points out in his great book, “Seeing through Cynicism” that this story is a quintessential example of how the Christian faith works. Christian theology doesn’t paint people as particularly noble or virtuous by default. Suspicion is a healthy requirement for living in a world that is filled with sin and sinners. (Self-suspicion is probably the best place to start).
But far from being naïve, the Gospel of John turns the suspicion back on the cynic, but it is a suspicion that was trained by John sharing years of life together, and one that in hindsight realizes that Judas’s words and actions couldn’t be taken at face value, but Mary could be. In other words, the cynic at the party would have been right about Judas and wrong about Mary.
But what if God is not a cynic? That simple question in Keyes book resonated pretty deeply with me, because it puts into words what I imagine many of us hope. That God, the one who can really see through everything and everyone isn’t cynical about what He sees.
Soren Kierkegaard once pointed out that everyone has a fear of making the mistake of believing too well of a person, but we rarely worry about believing too poorly of someone.
The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes that cynicism “is the universally widespread way in which enlightened people see to it that they are not taken for suckers.” In other words cynicism serves us well. It is how we learn to insulate from the possibility of personal harm at people we have let get too close, or institutions that we had once put trust in.
But cynicism has a giant hole in it. It is what I call the “John and Evelyn Willis” problem. That is the couple I introduced at the beginning. They really are some of the most kind, selfless people that I know. I don’t have the time to write about the goodness that anyone who has interacted with them would readily attest to. Any attempt to unmask them is not just callous, it is just not true.
That is the problem with cynicism, it doesn’t leave room for the possibility of human greatness, or virtue. It makes sweeping judgments, and generalities, and bleak predictions about a world that it believes is getting smaller and smaller.
There is a common idea that we have these days, that time is on the side of cynicism. Eventually all virtue will corrode with enough time. In the words of Keyes: “if you see faith, hope or love, just wait a while and time will tear them down and show your belief in them to be nothing but sentimentality, naiveté, or wishful thinking.”
But what do you do with Dr. Willis? Or Dallas Willard? Or the people who, chances are, are coming to mind as you are reading this? What do you do with the people who time didn’t corrode their virtue, but cultivated it? And if the big story of the Bible is true, time really isn’t on the side of cynicism.
Maybe this is why the saints of our history have found ways to breathe hope into hopeless situations. God is not a cynic and the cynic is more than just a fool, the cynic is ultimately wrong. It is why St. Julian of Norwich could write in the middle of the Black Plague the words at the beginning of this post that she is most famous for.
All is well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
Or, in the words of Paul, “when everything passes away. Faith, hope and love remain, and greatest of these is love.”