How to Be a Realist Without Losing Your Soul
By Andrew Byers
February 20, 2013
Andrew Byers serves as chaplain at St. Mary's College, Durham. He is the author of TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age and Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. He blogs at hopefulrealism.com.
So, is there anything going on in Christianity recently to make us cynical? Let’s think … oh, yeah there was that end-of-the-world thing over Christmas. In spite of how confident the claims about the exact day of doom were, the globe did not so much as hiccup. That kind of fiasco is the fodder for cynicism toward the Church, not just among atheists and agnostics, but also among Christians.
And let’s not overlook the grim reality that so many people have suffered unspeakable loss from natural disasters. Sometimes we are cynical toward God’s people, but if we are honest, our cynicism often flows in deeper veins and darker places in our hearts where that potent three-letter word—"Why?"—secretly lingers. For many of us, our cynicism is directed toward God.
Cynicism occurs when our spiritual wounds from disillusionment become infected, when our brokenness sours into bitterness.
Cynicism toward God and the Church can be quite easy. So easy, in fact, that it seems to be trendy these days. Disillusionment is becoming a religious rite of sorts for passing into a new expression of Christian experience: the edgy spirituality of the jaded.
Cynicism toward the Church
Christians become cynical toward the Church through disillusioning encounters with bad thinking and bad behavior. Let’s say you finally get the nerve to share your struggles confidentially as a young married couple with a leader in the church … then folks you barely know begin gently informing you that your marriage is on their prayer list. Stories of hurtful behavior like gossip and back-biting abound. As an untidy conglomeration of imperfect people, a local church inevitably will breed in-house wounds.
As for bad thinking in the Church, it is not hard to list a number of misinformed trends that give shape to “pop Christianity”: legalism, experientialism, traditionalism, anti-intellectualism and (its opposite cousin) intellectual elitism. One of the most damaging of these trends is idealism, expressed in the oft-cited adage, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
Really? Will that little slogan fly amidst the rubble of Port-au-Prince, the tsunami-wrecked streets of Japan or the crunched-up buildings in Joplin? Before such ghastly scenes, our rose-colored glasses get smashed into shards.
Nothing leads more quickly to cynicism than its opposite extreme of idealism.
The Church’s bad behavior (like gossip) and bad thinking (like idealism) are populating our society with cynics while depopulating our pews. But these cynics, situated at the fringes of organized church life, are among the most insightful Christians among us. Their disillusionment is actually a precious gift from which the Church could benefit. We need those who have been undeceived that can in turn help us dismantle our own illusory ideas.
The problem is that disillusionment hurts. Cynicism occurs when our spiritual wounds from disillusionment become infected, when our brokenness sours into bitterness. Cynicism is a sickness. So the Church will not benefit from the insights of cynics until their cynicism is redeemed. And the redemption of cynicism is “hopeful realism.”
A hopeful realist simultaneously grasps the soaring theological vision of the Church alongside the ugly realities in the ecclesial trenches, refusing to ignore or overlook either one.
Hopeful realism: soaring vision, messy reality, future hope
Idealists ignore the grim reality of an ex-Eden world. Cynics ignore the eschatological reality that a new Eden is around the corner. A hopeful realist exercises the complicated discipline of holding both realities together in tension.
We tend to idealize the early Church when we read Luke’s exciting account of its founding in the book of Acts. But when we read Paul’s epistles, we realize the first churches struggled as much with gossip, hypocrisy, divorce, racism and sexual immorality as our churches do today. Bad thinking and bad behavior are not new developments in the life of the parish.
In spite of theological distortions and moral scandals in so many of those first-century churches, Paul never backs down from his high and hopeful view of the Church. In his letters, he energetically casts a soaring theological vision of God’s people as a new humanity in Christ. At the same time, he addresses the messy, on-the-ground realities plaguing local congregations. An idealist ignores the latter. A cynic loses faith in the former. A hopeful realist simultaneously grasps the soaring theological vision of the Church alongside the ugly realities in the ecclesial trenches, refusing to ignore or overlook either one.
Scholars refer to the “indicative” and the “imperative” dimensions in Paul’s letters: This is who you are in Christ (indicative), now live accordingly (imperative)! The great apostle somehow maintained a robust conception of the Church in the face of the Church’s failure to embody that conception. This does not mean he kept his peace. Paul was a severe critic of churches (especially those in Galatia and Corinth). His critiques, however, were not derisive assaults lobbed from a disinterested distance. That is the way of the cynic. “Breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” was a vocational disposition Paul had given up earlier on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus (Acts 9:1). As a hopeful realist, the apostle rebuked, exhorted and agonized as someone lovingly invested in their welfare: “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor 12:15, ESV).
Those of us disillusioned with the bad thinking and bad behavior of the Church are not expected to just sit back and offer no correction. But our correction must be constructive, not destructive—“for building up and not for tearing down” (2 Cor 13:10, ESV).
So, what inspired Paul to be a hopeful realist? The answer is the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus. The grotesque violence of the crucifixion explodes our ideals about life. The raucous cry of dereliction shows us that Jesus Himself teetered on the edge of disillusionment with God. But Paul had learned that the cross is not the terminal stop in following the way of Jesus. Ending up on a cross is inevitable in following our Lord, but to follow Jesus to the cross is to exit out of a tomb. The resurrection is the sign that new creation is in the works, on the way and sweetly bursting out of the cracks into our present sphere. The resurrection infuses our struggling, cross-bearing lives with hope that all things will one day be made new. The resurrection makes hopeful realism possible … and cynicism obsolete.
This article is adapted from Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint by Andrew Byers (InterVarsity Press, 2011).