The Saturation of Cynicism
by Prof. Jerram Barrs
Where does the deep pessimism that permeates society come from, and how can Christians counteract this spiritually deadly attitude?
Reader’s Digest tells us that cynicism is “a scornful or mocking attitude; bitterly mocking; scornful or skeptical of the motives or virtue of others; believing that people are insincere and are motivated by selfishness; expecting the worst of human behavior.” Webster’s dictionary defines cynicism as “morose, sarcastic, sneering; inclination to question the sincerity or motives of others; inclination to question the value of living.”
Cynicism has existed in many human societies and at many points in history. The fundamental reason for a cynical attitude toward others is, of course, that every human person we meet is a person whose motives are sometimes insincere. Every person we meet is someone who sometimes lacks virtue. Every person is sometimes selfish. Therefore, the root reason for a cynical attitude toward life is that life in this world is never free from problems or from events that seem to have no rhyme or reason.
Three thousand years ago, the writer of Ecclesiastes was led to write about this apparent absurdity of life: “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Eccles. 1:2b NIV) or “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2b ESV). His reflections on the reality of our existence lead him to this cry. He thinks about the pursuit of wisdom, the giving of oneself to a life of pleasure, the striving after wealth, the commitment to live virtuously, the ambition to work hard and develop one’s gifts. He sees that, in this world, the same end comes to the wise and the foolish, the virtuous and the wicked, the hard worker and the lazy person.
He concluded his reflection saying, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccles. 2:17 ESV). This attitude of hating life because of its apparent vanity and absurdity has existed in many times and places, and, of course, it often leads to a questioning of the motives and sincerity of everyone around. If one’s heart becomes consumed by a sense of absurdity, by a questioning of the meaning and sense of life itself, it is very difficult to stop that attitude from affecting everything else one thinks and from souring and embittering one’s views of other people.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, because the author believes in the one true God, he finds an answer to his problems and is saved from a life of cynicism. We will return later to the answer that he gives; but before we take another glance at Ecclesiastes, I want us to think a little about cynicism in our own culture and time.
The tendency towards cynicism has become a great wave—like a tsunami—sweeping across the cultural landscape of our age. Why is this? Why is cynicism so much stronger in our time—and Western cultures in particular—when these cultures are the most prosperous, the most advanced medically, and the most leisured for more people than any other human culture in history?
How Did We Get Here?
I do not have the space here to give a history of Western thought, so I will summarize briefly. Modernism—or secular humanism, as it is often called—insisted that we do not need God or His revelation to us to understand the world in which we live or human life and human society. Rather secular humanism insisted that human beings alone (with the tools of human reason, human moral consciousness, and human ability) could understand the origins and purpose of life, fathom the mysteries of human existence, decide on a better course for personal and social life, and build an enduring and greater civilization here in this world.
Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume wrote: “Reason appears in possession of the throne, prescribing laws and imposing maxims with an absolute sway and authority.” Although Hume acknowledged that this approach involved deep problems, he persisted in following this course. However, despite his own insistence that one must hold skepticism at bay, his doubts about the value of reason and his observation that nihilism was not far away have become commonplace today.
Postmodernism has become much more skeptical about this human enterprise. It insists that human reason is inadequate to lead us to truth. It says there is no objective truth, no absolute truth. There is only personal truth.
We live in a time when human reason is considered inadequate to lead us to the truth. Objective truth about the ultimate nature of reality and about the human condition is thought to be beyond human reach. Instead of objective truth, it is claimed that there is only personal truth—“You have your truth; I have mine.” There is nothing transcendent (neither God nor anything else) that understands everything, therefore there is no objective truth available to us. It is pointless to even ask the question whether or not there is an objective world, for we have no way of knowing the answer to such a question. All we have available to us is the language we use to describe what our senses perceive. It does not take much to see how this feeds the cynicism of our present time, for in this view reality cannot be known.
We need to add to this uncertainty about knowing truth the fact of our living in an increasingly pluralistic society. We have here in the US today the most religiously diverse society the world has ever seen. What does this pluralism of belief have to do with the growth of cynicism? Postmodernism teaches that this pluralism of belief is the way it ought to be. It insists that there is no one truth that describes reality, that our finite grasp on reality is so tenuous that there can be nothing but the belief systems of individuals or cultural groups, and that none of these can claim either the status of “truth” or even superiority over any of the others. Everyone’s claims to speak truth are greeted with skepticism—sometimes polite skepticism, but sometimes bitter, mocking, and abusive skepticism.
In addition, postmodernism stresses that simply by knowing I am not free—ever. I come to every issue with prejudices, with beliefs, and with a background, and these “glasses” determine what I “see.” Some postmodernists emphasize the shared knowledge (or prejudices) of various communities, while others stress the isolation of the individual knower. Whichever of these approaches is espoused, the overall result is an increasing skepticism about any kind of truth claim.
So, in this view, reason is a weak tool and can never lead us to true knowledge because it is constrained by our prejudices. Reason and the claim of knowledge are weapons that have been used by the powerful to maintain their power and interests at the expense of the powerless. Knowledge becomes a weapon in the culture wars for various groups to reinforce their already-held positions and to use against each other. This recognition that knowledge is sometimes used as a weapon to suppress others and their views feeds the drift to cynicism and the questioning of people’s motives.
The consequence of this loss of confidence in reason and the existence of truth is that Western societies have raised a generation of skeptics and cynics. Think of much of the contemporary music produced for our entertainment! Just think of movies such as American Beauty, films made by Woody Allen, and the sci-fi series The Matrix (which at first was commended by many Christians). Consider the dwarves in C. S. Lewis’s book The Last Battle in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Lewis writes that the dwarves were so reluctant to be taken in that they could no longer be taken out of their skeptical and cynical attitude—hope was then impossible for them. In Western Europe this problem is far more advanced. The cynicism of Lewis’s dwarves is almost universal in France, Britain, and most Western European countries.
Young people in particular are deeply pessimistic and cynical about what life holds for them. The deeper “philosophical” skepticism that is at the heart of our culture is made worse by the social and familial settings in which so many young people spend their early years. Many grow up in settings where there is little practical hope of escaping problems of poverty, unemployment, poor education, and social deprivation of every kind. In addition, many have the added burden of being raised in families where there is such betrayal of trust, such failure of commitment and parenting, such wounding of hope and love that deep alienation and a cynical attitude toward all people is not a surprising consequence.
Consequences of Our Intellectual and Social Climate
The cynical view of life produces numerous results that are manifest in loss.
- Loss of belief in truth—There is nothing that can make sense of the human condition, so the conclusion is “meaningless, meaningless…everything is meaningless” (Eccles. 1:2).
- Loss of hope, both for this world and for one’s own life—There is no story that gives us ground for hope for our solar system, for our planet, for the human race, for my own future, so there is no alternative but cynicism and apathy.
- Loss of respect for authority—There is no one and no thing that deserves my trust or obedience, so there is no one to whom I may turn with confidence that I will find answers or meaning.
- Loss of respect for everything sacred—Religions, like all other claims to truth, are simply power games; anything or anyone that a group has held to be sacred or precious should be scorned and held up for ridicule. Consequently there is a delight in shocking the viewer or listener. (I hardly need to give you examples here, for we see them repeatedly in our cultural setting.)
- Loss of moral certainty—There are no transcendent moral commandments. There is no “you shall” or “you shall not.” There are no commandments that come from above for this generation. No one individual, no group, no authority, no religion, no sacred book, no god has the right to tell anyone how they ought to live. In such a society, there is inevitably cynicism about claims to moral certainty.
You may say, “This does not affect me or many of the other people that I know.” I want to challenge that claim. Cynicism is corrosive—it works like a cancer taking over all that is healthy and hopeful, and we are all impacted by it.
Because cynicism is so pervasive in our intellectual and popular culture, it works its corrosive effect on us all. When I was a young person growing up in Britain, not only was much of the popular music I listened to deeply imbued with cynicism about the human condition but so were most of the talk shows and comedies on television and radio. While much of this was and is very funny, such cynical humor can impact us very deeply and shape us into people who automatically doubt the sincerity or motives of people with whom we disagree.
There is much that is similar here in the United States. Our political discourse often encourages cynicism because it urges us to doubt the wisdom, sense, motives, and sincerity of those on the other side of every social, economic, and political debate. Having endured another election last November, I do not think I need to give you examples here. I read the cartoons every day, and political ones (written from both the Right and Left perspectives) are deeply shaped by cynicism and feed a cynical mentality in their readers.
At a personal level, many of us are moved to cynicism by our own family backgrounds, so we are deeply skeptical about the possibility of happiness in marriage or in family life. Such skepticism actually works to undermine the possibility of marital or familial happiness because trust and vulnerability are fundamental to healthy relationships. These are necessarily undermined wherever there is the presence of cynical attitudes.
This also impacts any depth of relationship with God. I think of the British sitcom Fawlty Towers and John Cleese as Basil Fawlty shaking his fist heavenward and crying out to God, “Thank you, bloody much!” Many of us, I am afraid, suspect that God cannot be trusted to care for us or answer our prayers or show us abiding and faithful love. We doubt His motives and the sincerity of His promises to us in Jesus Christ. For all of us, cynicism will destroy us. For those of us who claim to be Christians, cynicism is forbidden.
First, we are indeed called to be realistic about the world in which we live, about all human persons, and about ourselves. A biblical response to cynicism is not naive optimism, but rather sober realism about the broken and fallen condition of human life in this world. This is where all of biblical teaching—and Ecclesiastes in particular—is helpful. We are taught that this world is indeed abnormal. We are not to pretend that things are the way they should be; nor are we to suggest that this world is in any way the best of all possible worlds. Rather, because of angelic and human rebellion against God, everything is awry. The Christian should never be surprised by the misery and absurdity of much that happens in this world; for God declares to us that this is indeed the way things are now, and he himself weeps at our wretched condition. Because all things in our world are abnormal now, we are called to weep with God at the abnormality rather than to pretend things are okay and everything is right with the world.
Second, we are to rejoice that there will one day be a judgment—when all folly, injustice, and wickedness of every kind will be exposed for what it is and will be rejected and punished. This is good news!
Third, we are to be thankful that God has intervened in the brokenness of this world to set things right, to heal the world, and to overcome the absurdity and misery of human existence. This is what our celebration of Jesus coming into this world is all about—God’s intervention in this world to overcome evil, sorrow, misery, death, and absurdity. This work that Christ began and the victory that he won in his death and resurrection will one day fill this whole earth when he comes to make everything new.
Fourth, we are called to be signs of hope in a cynical age. People around us need to be able to enter our homes, observe our marriages, join in our family lives, delight in our friendship, and be encouraged by our integrity and kindness in our places of work. They need to experience the reality of God’s healing and hope-renewing power in all we are and all we do. For many people it is only as they enter into the life of another—a life that creates and fosters hope, trust, and love—and see it at close quarters that will put an ax to the root of cynicism that pervades their being.
Fifth, we are to resist the attraction of cynicism and its cancerous hold in our hearts. Cynicism is the very opposite of love. Think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13. As he describes love, he describes what cynicism undermines and resists. Paul does not call us to be naive—Christ was not naive. Rather, He was utterly realistic about the state of the human heart, and yet He loved in the way that Paul describes love in those wonderful words in Corinthians. Such love is of course costly in this broken world. But this is the way forward to destroy cynicism in our own hearts and in the hearts of those around us. Love is clear-eyed; but love is also full of hope, for it sees the way that Christ’s love has already begun to change us. Love is clear-eyed and full of hope even when it means we have to count the cost of disappointment and even betrayal. Only love will arm us against cynicism in all its ugliness and destructive power.
Prof. Jerram Barrs serves as professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture and resident scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. He brings to his teaching a special sensitivity toward those outside the Christian faith and is in great demand as a speaker in the United States and abroad. This article is adapted from one of Prof. Barrs’s Friday Nights @ the Institute talks and originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Covenant magazine.