Cynicism is a problem.
Maybe it’s not explicitly on your radar, but you’re sure to have felt its force. Cynicism is that sneering bitterness toward all things true and deep. It’s the subtle contempt trying to contaminate the cheeriest of moments — that slow, thick smoke of pessimism toxifying the oxygen in the lungs of our hope, suffocating any glad-hearted embrace that God did something meaningful in our lives and strangling our childlike faith to opt for “another angle” on why things happen the way they do.
It’s nasty, and it’s everywhere, especially today. Paul Miller explains: “Cynicism is, increasingly, the dominant spirit of our age. . . . It is an influence, a tone that permeates our culture . . . . [It] is so pervasive that, at times, it feels like a presence” (A Praying Life, Location 766).
Miller’s timing and assessment is right. The question, though, is why. If we’re going to overcome this influence, we’ll need to know where it is coming from. This new cynical spirit, so common to our generation, didn’t appear in a vacuum. What winds have brought it here? And how might we stand against it?
Emblem of an Epidemic
If we’re going to wrap our heads around cynicism (or loose its fangs from our heart), we need to start by understanding it’s a symptom of a greater disease. Cynicism, problematic as it is, presents itself more as the emblem of a wider epidemic — one that has grown over Western civilization for more than 500 years. I say “epidemic” not to be negative, but because it is relatively new and momentous for our Christian witness in the modern world. A better name for it, as coined by Charles Taylor, and mediated by James. K.A. Smith, is “the secular age.”
Smith’s book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor is a helpful summary and interaction with Taylor’s larger philosophical work, so large that it might deter most of us from a profitable reading. The main question at hand, for Taylor via Smith, is how in the world our society went from majority Christian in 1500 to largely secular and post-Christian today.
Without too much summary (of a summary), the axis of this shift has to do with the tension between transcendence and immanence. As long as the world is old, especially since the early Christian West, the relationship between that which is deep and that which is near has been on the forefront of the human mind. On one hand, the world is profound and mysterious, pointing to a greater reality beyond itself. On the other hand, cows must be milked, diapers must be changed, and if dad doesn’t get a paycheck we’re going to go hungry. In other words, there is the great and glorious out there, and there is the menial and necessary right here — and how these two relate has been kicked around for centuries.
The Reformation Resolution
The project of the Reformation, according to Taylor, was to swiftly resolve this tension by raising the bar of immanence. That is to say, everything matters because God cares about everything. The little stuff has significance; the physical world is good; vocation is important, and on and on. They’re aren’t two levels of Christians, the regular folks and the truly spiritual, but all of us, if we’re in Christ, are truly spiritual.
This approach to the tension is, biblically speaking, the right one. It is the necessary implication of the gospel — the one that makes the most sense, and could only make sense at allbecause God himself solved the tension by becoming man like us. This God-entranced take on the world is reality as God shows us in Scripture. It is the real world as he has made it, and when the church recovers this vision, it produces revival — it means Jonathan Edwards and Awakenings and frontier missions and churches planted all across North America.