There are many circumstances in life to which the proper response is cynicism—questioning disbelief. Easy examples are telemarketers, politics and Internet pop-ups that say “You Are a Lucky Winner.” All may be treated with justifiable suspicion. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that cynicism is an appropriate way of life. It’s a mistake to apply it like a fix-all, a band-aid for all wounds, a good approach to every question. Unfortunately, our culture’s prevailing mood tends to lean this way. We have a jaded tendency toward suspicion. This often leads us to superficially label things and then dismiss them.
The old straw man approach, the ad hominem attack, is a favorite in the arsenal of modern man. Just turn on the TV and watch various talking heads deride their opponents, avoiding an honest assessment of the opposing arguments. (Of course, as most of us would admit, it is fun sometimes.) As a good friend of mine once said, tongue-in-cheek, “I prefer to go through life bashing anything I don’t understand.” I guess there is a certain confidence that comes from knowing that you are “prepared” for whatever confusion you may encounter.
Nonetheless, becoming a default cynic will not make you a man for all seasons. Rather, it will make you a person incapable of enjoying any of them. We all know that some things in life are not what they seem. But that doesn’t mean that nothing will deliver. There are sources of joy that don’t disappoint, namely those rooted in Christ. The gifts He passes down are lasting and authentic: spiritual rebirth, life change and foremost of all, Himself. We trivialize such a God, and such gifts, at our peril. Sneer at the shocking joy of Jesus’ presence (Psalm 16), and the joke’s on you. Laugh at His devastating ability to cleanse hearts, and you walk away full of spiritual “crap.”
Skeptics, deconstructionists and dry thinkers may chalk up a lot of verbal points, but they are often bankrupt in the joy category. As Darwin wrote for his children, near the end of his life:
Up to the age of 30 or beyond it, poetry of many kinds … gave me great pleasure … formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure a line of poetry … I have also lost any taste for pictures or music … My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive … The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness …
This is a sad reduction of life. But scientists aren’t the only one susceptible to this trap. Today, a cynical approach to life may have the same results, stripping God-given pleasures (like the created order) of their intended joy. Our minds may also “atrophy,” reducing a potentially vibrant relationship with Jesus to empty god-talk. And consider this: Unlike many of us, Darwin did not pursue cynicism for its own sake, neither as a trend or a medication. What are our chances at a fulfilling life if we willingly pick it up “for laughs?” A been-there-done-that persona has a way of killing gratitude, novelty and wonder.
So exert cynicism wisely. Apply it when necessary—as a safeguard—not as a modus operandi. Some assertions may as well be believed, or at least entertained, until proven false. There’s an old adage, based roughly on Paul’s words (1 Corinthians 13:7) that seems fitting here: “Believe the best.” Don’t take this superficially. Instead, look carefully for the highest promises revealed in life. What, if true, might pay the highest dividends?
There are no promises greater than those which Jesus extends to his friends. And no investment program guarantees higher payouts than heaven. Sometimes the best things in life are also true.
[Ariel Vanderhorst is a married twentysomething living in Kansas City, Mo. while trying to earn a masters degree. He enjoys playing hoops and wishes he could write like C.S. Lewis. Read more of his thoughts on his blog, bittersweetblue.blogspot.com]