On Cynicism

January 5, 2012

Yesterday, offline, I received a caution from a ministry colleague about the tone of my last post, “How to Preserve an Institution,” exhorting me to share my insights around PCUSA concerns without adding to the cynicism prevalent among us Presbyterians and more widely in American culture. The brother who wrote could not have been kinder or more patient with me while raising some important questions, and for this I rejoice as a part of a supportive and discerning faith community.

To some of my readers I may be considered a thought-leader. Maybe. But at the very least I hope that how I handle myself in this blogging context can model repentant effort, knowing full well my blog is not perfectly executed. So having “slept on it” overnight, I would like to consider cynicism itself today, and tomorrow respond to the second implied question from my colleague, “Where are the hopeful signs in the PCUSA?”

Cynicism is a generalized negativity or mistrust of others’ motives. In other words, to be cynical is to carry a chronic negative view of life or an organization (in this case), a view that might be justified by some evidence or could just be prejudiced and unresponsive to contrary evidence. I think either can be the case, and I have seen it happen that a person turns against a group or loses joie de vivre and nothing can get him or her in a positive frame of mind again. The well is poisoned. The second half of the definition, a mistrust of others’ motives, generally develops out of past experience. A person (or organization) fails you somehow or is not forthcoming about their reasons for saying or doing, and you figure they cannot be coming from a good place. All future behavior is suspect. I sat on a jury once where the accused was an off-duty police officer. One of the jurors believed that no police officer could be trusted. He was cynical about law-enforcement and brought this as “evidence” into the jury room. We had our hands full to convince him that the only evidence we could consider in rendering a judgment was the evidence produced at trial.

In the Presbyterian context, my observations have picked up a considerable cynicism among evangelicals, along the lines of “nothing good can come out of Louisville,” or “they are out to neutralize us conservatives.” Candidly here, I think some bad ideas have come out of Louisville, and in some presbyteries I see evidence of heartless power-plays over evangelicals; by saying so I am trying to speak the truth so that we can do something about it and respond appropriately. But I do not believe that everything that comes out of Louisville is bad or error-ridden (that would indeed be cynical). I do confess, however, that my 24 years of experience in my own and neighboring presbyteries has provided enough evidence of intentional liberal dominance to make me wary of my colleagues’ motives. A sad, but true confession.

Having admitted my cynicism, I realize that as a blogger and as a leader, I have a responsibility to use words carefully and to stay aware of other people’s perspective. Doing this well does not require me to agree with everybody, but it does require me to appreciate the power of what I (or my readers) say and keep a tight hold on my integrity. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A cynic can chill and dishearten with a single word.” It is a writer’s responsibility to pick those single words judiciously, if chilling is in fact required; but it is not my intent to dishearten the saints with negativity or doubt about what God can do.  I desire that we turn these matters of genuine concern over to God, knowing full well what we are dealing with, because redemption of our situation can come only as we acknowledge how broken it is and how great our need.

Of all people, Leon Trotsky said, “Life is not an easy matter… You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.” Our Great Idea is God, and tomorrow I will reflect on the hope that God provides and expects us to embrace, even in the difficulties prevalent in our Presbyterian relationships and processes.


2 Responses to “On Cynicism”

  1. Ron Says:

    Mary, I would encourage you to hold firm in the faith.
    Again this battle dates back in modern times 100 years.

    I’d suggest people read the following review and then read the book.

    G. I. Williamson, review of D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America

    Found at: http://www.opc.org/review.html?review_id=55

    Also Read Machen yourself.
    I’ve read Christianity and Liberalism and am about to get into What is Faith?

    There is a good summary of his works at:

    John Piper gave a lecture on Machen back in 1993
    J. Gresham Machen’s Response to Modernism

    1993 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors

  2. I didn’t hear the tinge of cynicism, more realism, Mary. Perhaps a little of the same problem that we “progressives” run into when we try to imagine what the “darn fundies” are plotting — it’s hard to do when you’re not in those hotel rooms where the strategy is actually being invented. I ‘spect it always happens when we talk about people we’re not.

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