A contradiction in terms?

I’ve been using the handle “Christian Cynic” for about four years now (which I did not steal from this Christian cynic, I promise), and I’ve heard plenty of things about a supposed contradiction between Christianity and cynicism. I’ve responded before (although that piece is lost in the æther of the Internet, an artifact of when I long ago had the domain thechristiancynic.com), but I happened to find something more direct (all bolding mine):

It is hardly too much to say that men believe in us as Christians only so long as they believe that we are kind: only so long as they do not know that we are bitter, and retaliative, and alert to take offense, and cruel in misjudgment. When the veil is lifted and they know the facts, they have finished with us, and our profession of religion is but the minister of bitterness in them. Kindness is a beautiful thing in any man: it is an imperative necessity in a Christian. A Christian cynic is a contradiction in terms. You know what I mean: if I add that of course a Christian man is to have his opinion of unworthy conduct like other people, and that he also has the right to entertain righteous indignation against evil—you know that in saying that I am but echoing words that rise within you as self-defense against the sword of self-accusation. For you and I in practice, brethren, know quite well the difference between indignation against evil and bitterness against persons we dislike. (“Bitterness,” sermon by G.A. Johnston Ross, pub. in The University of Chicago Press; available through JSTOR)

I almost feel that a subtle wink to the audience would have been in order after the last statement.

And this isn’t the only sermon to rail away at Christian cynicism:

Cynics live in a cold, lonely and unproductive world.

And a “Christian cynic” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

    A Christ-follower cannot remain a cynic.

I do not mean that a Christian can’t become cynical, but I do mean they should not remain that way.

Lovely image, isn’t it?

Fortunately for me (and others who self-identify this way – and there are more than a few I’ve found), these things need not apply to individuals who consider themselves cynics.

There is probably a sense in which cynicism bears a negative connotation. It’s rather unfortunate, too, because what attracts me to the attitude (and I consider it largely an epistemic mindset) is its proclivity toward getting under the surface of things, never taking anything for granted but constantly questioning and challenging within limits of reason.

But I don’t think cynicism requires bitterness. It has been said that the cynic is the former idealist who had his rose-colored glasses smashed on the ground, and there is some truth to that. In fact, the analogy works in one especially useful way: to take off one’s rose-colored glasses is take away not optimism but unfounded optimism. At a certain level, cynicism is about realism: seeing things the way they really are, good, bad, or ugly. If the latter predominates, the cynic will not simply deny it: she will affirm it and accept the consequences of understanding reality.

In this sense, I think it is absolutely necessary for Christians to retain some measure of cynicism – not simply abandon it – because we must always be aware of what is happening. We must never assume that everything is just all right; when we do, then we lose our ability to discern truth and to help change things for the better through action and education.

What disappoints me is the idea that cynicism requires a negative outlook; as I have spelled it out, it is about the affirmation of reality – no matter the quality of affirmation, positive or negative – and not the unfounded criticism of anything and everything. (Indeed, if a criticism is unfounded, the cynic is best to change his mind on the matter, for the sake of the truth.)

It’s not about bitterness or malice. Christian cynics can be kind to others and understand that the truth – as the proverb goes – must be spoken in love, in the true spirit of educating others and oneself about the world we live in. Cynicism is about lifting veils, and where we cannot, a healthy suspicion might be unnecessary. The need for independent verification is not a vice but a virtue, no matter how many preachers conspire against the notion.*

I’m sure that there will still be individuals who use this word in this way – hey, that’s how language works – but maybe someone will read this and rethink the connotations of cynicism, perhaps even to see it as something beneficial and – just maybe – worth taking off the rosy specs.

*This is of course tongue-in-cheek; I don’t mean that this is any such literal conspiracy. (And as a PK, I think I would be privy to that information.)


3 Responses to A contradiction in terms?

  1. deaconandusher says:

    Deacon & Usher were here….

    We believe cynicism and buzzards are synonymous – no one really likes either, but we have no choice in the matter – God made us buzzards.


  2. Tyler Simmons says:

    I was searching the internet for those like me, Christian Cynics. I have a friend who believes that I cannot be both cynical and Christian. She believes that I should be looking to move on from cynicism to a more “Christian” point of view on life. Yet I tell her time and again that I am a cynic because it is what God has made me. I also have shared with her many times my feelings on the way I live life and she still, after a year of discussion, does not understand either statement:

    Hope for the Best
    Expect the Worst
    Life’s a Play
    We’re Unrehearsed.
    – Mel Brooks

    A cynic is an extreme optimist that is eternally let down.
    – Me

    Just thought I’d share. And I’m glad I found this.

  3. Brody says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Tyler. We tend to be a rare breed, and not everyone understands that cynicism can be healthy (and even quite beneficial to oneself). I’m glad you can relate.

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