Understanding and Living Our Faith: When Cynicism is Sin-a-cism

Understanding and Living Our Faith: When Cynicism is Sin-a-cism

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I think cynicism is part of the zeitgeist today, or spirit of the age. Judging by global online comments I see on social media it would seem cynicism is a worldwide issue. I believe that for many of us, we need to crucify cynicism in our hearts.

We understand sin to be “falling short” or “missing the mark.” In Greek, we say Amartia. I draw a distinction between healthy skepticism and cynicism. David Kinnaman reminds us in his landmark book You Lost Me, which is about why young people are fleeing the Church, that “a culture of skepticism is a culture of questions, and questions can lead to conversations, relationships, and truth.”

For example, Mary expressed a healthy skepticism in Luke 1:34 when she questioned Gabriel about how she could conceive without knowing a man. In perhaps a better example, John 1:46, Nathanael was skeptical when Philip told him he had found he whom Moses and the Law and prophets had written, Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael cynically replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

However, we know it was skepticism and not cynicism because he went with Philip anyway to see Jesus, and Jesus pointed out that Nathanael was an authentic person. Had he been cynical instead of skeptical he would not have gone because cynics believe they really already know the truth, which of course is the danger of cynicism. We become bitter and think we know and become little gods in our own heads and we disengage.

And this is where cynicism becomes sin in the modern context. It once meant something different for more than 2000 years up until the 1800s. Cynicism was originally a school of Ancient Greek Philosophy. It credited as being founded by Antisthenes, a contemporary of Plato and student of Socrates, in the 5th century BC and lasted as a movement until around the 5th century AD. If you were part of this school, you were known as a Cynic. The purpose or goal of your life as a Cynic was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature – both human nature and the world around you. The expectation was that as a reasoning and rational creature, you could gain happiness through rigorous training and living in a way natural for yourself where you rejected all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Even though this group died out, that was how cynicism was understood. But like many words that were once understood a certain, cynicism in modernity means something different. It now means: “an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others’ motives.

A cynic may have a general lack of faith or hope in the human species or people motivated by ambition, desire, greed, gratification, materialism, goals, and opinions that a cynic perceives as vain, unobtainable, or ultimately meaningless and therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment. Modern cynicism is a distrust toward professed ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions, and authorities that are unfulfilled.”

The difference between ancient cynicism and modern cynicism is that the modern version isn’t about striving for virtue, it’s not about striving for anything, it is just negative view of people, society, and institutions in general which leads to reductionism and disengagement which is where sin comes in. Consider marriage and Church. I know some young adults who are very cynical about marriage and relationships in general. To me, this outlook just leads you to seeing another person not so much as a person but more like an object. Of you are cynical about marriage and relationships then how are you truly viewing the opposite sex? Further, marriage, with its ups and downs and struggles, and the commitment to always strive to love and serve another for a lifetime, is means of our salvation as we understand it in Christianity.

Regarding church, all of the studies about young people leaving the church that I have read point out a lack of faith in the church more so than a disbelief in God. They point to the failing of priests, laypeople, seeing hypocrisy, focus on money, or a host of other things. But instead of engaging to help things be better, they disengage and thus cut themselves off from the Church, again, the means to salvation.

The sin here is not breaking rules, it’s falling short because we become little gods in our head, think we see things as they truly are, and disengage because we reason, why bother trying to successful at something that is clearly hopeless or a waste of time. I am reminded of what Mother Teresa said. She admitted her struggles and the overwhelming problem of the poor she dealt with daily. She said, “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”

Whether it be money and wealth or self-righteous zeal that leads to persecution of others like Paul, cynicism, it all breeds, is a form of self-deception. We need to overcome it in order to let God in our hearts and grow as He would have us grow as persons. To me, this is illustrated wonderfully in a famous story early in the Bible where Jacob wrestles with God – Genesis 32:22-32.

Jacob wrestled with God all night and prevailed, acknowledging that his soul was saved. The name Jacob means “deceiver.” Jacob deceived his father and brother with the help of his mother in order to receive his father’s blessing. During his encounter with God, who in fact was Christ in what was a theophany, or appearance, of Christ. Prior to his incarnation, God tells Jacob that he has prevailed and his name will now be Israel which means “God prevails.” Jacob lost his former self and gained his new self. He went from being a deceiver to become the person he should be. The Lord, when He names him Israel and says he has prevailed with both God and men.

This is our journey. In our cases, it usually means moving from a form of self-deception, from that one thing holding us back from dying to self and emptying, so that we may be filled with Christ. I will conclude with this. The Book of Ecclesiastes—which by the way, some think of as a very cynical book in the Bible—was written by King Solomon, who was referred to by some as “The Preacher” or “Teacher.”

In this book, he tried every experience under the sun and came to this conclusion in the final verses of the book: “Moreover, my son, guard yourself, for there is no end to the making of many books, and much study is weariness of the flesh. Hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, And keep His commandments, For this is the whole man.”

It may not be in just books, but today we are such consumers of information that sometimes I think we forget to be cultivators of experience. Or we seek the wrong experiences or draw conclusions from them that do not help us. Solomon figured it out. He realized that in the end, we simply need to seek God first as Christ tells us and be willing to lose anything that gets in our way of gaining Him.

Think of it this way. Many of us are willing to lose physical weight to gain physical health. We become willing to go through the pain and hardship of giving up certain goods and habits. We need to be as willing to lose spiritual baggage or weight to gain spiritual health. And this will always involve the willingness to take up our cross.

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Michael Haldas

Michael Haldas is the author of Sacramental Living: Understanding Christianity as a Way of Life, and Echoes of Truth Christianity in the Lord of the Rings. Michael’s focus is on understanding and applying our faith to everyday living, which supports OCN’s mission to provide material “to provoke discussion and contemplation about the issues we face in daily life.” His work has been featured in Theosis Magazine, The National Herald, Pravmir, and other publications. He is a member of the Orientale Lumen Foundation and the Orthodox Speakers Bureau. He teaches adult religious education at Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Bethesda, Maryland and his classes are Live-streamed through OCN’s Facebook page each Sunday September through June. He has also worked with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Religious Education Department to create educational lessons and materials.