Cynicism

Preaching and Worship Resources about Cynicism

Cynicism represents two distinct ideas, one ancient and one modern. Ancient cynicism was a philosophical school of thought focused on asceticism and radical rejection of material goods in the pursuit of virtue. This philosophy had a strong impact on the early church and is linked with the rise of ascetic faith practices. In the 18th and 19th centuries, cynicism became associated with a distrust of humanity and a lack of faith or hope. Modern cynicism is fundamentally pessimistic and not to be confused with skepticism, an attitude of doubt.

In Scripture

Ancient Definition of Cynicism "Do not put confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them" (Ps. 62:10). "Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist" (Prov. 23:4). "Jesus said to him, `If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me'" (Matt. 19:21). "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25). "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved" (Acts 2:42 - 47). "Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:11 - 13). "Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for [God] has said, `I will never leave you or forsake you'" (Heb. 13:5).

Modern Definition of Cynicism "They said to Moses, `Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, `Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness" (Ex. 14:11 - 12). "Why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me" (Job 10:18) "Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all" (Eccles. 9:11). "Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, `Why could we not cast it out?' He said to them, `Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, "Move from here to there," and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you'" (Matt. 17:19 - 20). "`Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, "I repent," you must forgive.' The apostles said to the Lord, `Increase our faith!' The Lord replied, `If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it would obey you'" (Luke 17:3 - 6).

Points to Ponder

Ancient vs. modern cynicism: The difference in attitude toward ancient and modern understandings of cynicism in Scripture is stark. Much of Scripture aligns with the classical philosophical school of thought of the Cynics. Jesus, in particular, frequently teaches that we should hold loosely to our material possessions. Scripture reinforces the idea that material possessions should be offered in service of the pursuit of virtue. At the same time, Scripture has little patience for the pessimistic attitude of modern cynicism. Christians are called to be people of hope, people who live within the reality of Jesus' resurrection. While we recognize the reality of sin in the world, we cannot fall into the helpless, hopeless attitude of cynicism.

Different meanings: Many parishioners are unfamiliar with the classical understanding of cynicism and will be unaware that its meaning has changed only in the last 200 years. Yet some will know the difference. Pastors do well to be aware of linguistic shifts that can happen, especially when considering its place in Scripture.

Jesus a cynic? Some scholars, particularly those associated with the Jesus Seminar, have argued that Jesus' ministry should be understood as that of a travelling Cynic philosopher. The merits of this hypothesis are debatable, but we must be aware that the earliest church was preaching the Gospel in the midst of a cultural milieu. Some Christian teachings have particular resonance with pre-existing ideas found in Greek philosophy. The church was unafraid of these resonances. Yet, early Christians did not offer wholesale endorsement of these philosophical schools. Christians have always been called to "test the spirits" (1 John 4:1), no matter our time period.

Not skepticism: Many people inadvertently confuse cynicism with skepticism. Skepticism is not necessarily the opposite of faith (though it can be). More frequently, the lack of faith discouraged in Scripture is an unhealthy pessimism that aligns more closely with modern understandings of cynicism than of skepticism. When pastors blur the distinction between these two ideas, it can be particularly challenging for those trained in the modern sciences whose daily work requires skepticism. The doubt associated with skepticism can be (and often is) a healthy sense of curiosity or patient expectation. This is distinct from a cynical attitude that assumes the worst out of people and the world.

Leaves room for an awareness of sin: The Reformed tradition teaches the doctrine of total depravity, recognizing that the reality of sin permeates every aspect of our life and world. Nothing is free from the pollution of sin. No institution is free from the stain of sin because institutions are comprised of fallen human beings. Therefore, we should not be surprised when things are not as they should be in the world. Yet our awareness of the reality of sin cannot give way to the hopelessness of cynicism. As followers of the resurrected Jesus, we are to live with the hopefulness of the redemptive work of Christ and the promise that one day all things will be set right.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.