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How to Be a Realist Without Losing Your Soul

If Christians shouldn't be cynical or naive ... what should they be?

So, is there anything going on in Christianity recently to make us cynical? Let’s think … oh, yeah there was that end-of-the-world thing over Christmas. In spite of how confident the claims about the exact day of doom were, the globe did not so much as hiccup. That kind of fiasco is the fodder for cynicism toward the Church, not just among atheists and agnostics, but also among Christians.

And let’s not overlook the grim reality that so many people have suffered unspeakable loss from natural disasters. Sometimes we are cynical toward God’s people, but if we are honest, our cynicism often flows in deeper veins and darker places in our hearts where that potent three-letter word—"Why?"—secretly lingers. For many of us, our cynicism is directed toward God.

Cynicism occurs when our spiritual wounds from disillusionment become infected, when our brokenness sours into bitterness.

Cynicism toward God and the Church can be quite easy. So easy, in fact, that it seems to be trendy these days. Disillusionment is becoming a religious rite of sorts for passing into a new expression of Christian experience: the edgy spirituality of the jaded.

Cynicism toward the Church

Christians become cynical toward the Church through disillusioning encounters with bad thinking and bad behavior. Let’s say you finally get the nerve to share your struggles confidentially as a young married couple with a leader in the church … then folks you barely know begin gently informing you that your marriage is on their prayer list. Stories of hurtful behavior like gossip and back-biting abound. As an untidy conglomeration of imperfect people, a local church inevitably will breed in-house wounds.

As for bad thinking in the Church, it is not hard to list a number of misinformed trends that give shape to “pop Christianity”: legalism, experientialism, traditionalism, anti-intellectualism and (its opposite cousin) intellectual elitism. One of the most damaging of these trends is idealism, expressed in the oft-cited adage, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”

Really? Will that little slogan fly amidst the rubble of Port-au-Prince, the tsunami-wrecked streets of Japan or the crunched-up buildings in Joplin? Before such ghastly scenes, our rose-colored glasses get smashed into shards.

Nothing leads more quickly to cynicism than its opposite extreme of idealism.

The Church’s bad behavior (like gossip) and bad thinking (like idealism) are populating our society with cynics while depopulating our pews. But these cynics, situated at the fringes of organized church life, are among the most insightful Christians among us. Their disillusionment is actually a precious gift from which the Church could benefit. We need those who have been undeceived that can in turn help us dismantle our own illusory ideas.

The problem is that disillusionment hurts. Cynicism occurs when our spiritual wounds from disillusionment become infected, when our brokenness sours into bitterness. Cynicism is a sickness. So the Church will not benefit from the insights of cynics until their cynicism is redeemed. And the redemption of cynicism is “hopeful realism.”

A hopeful realist simultaneously grasps the soaring theological vision of the Church alongside the ugly realities in the ecclesial trenches, refusing to ignore or overlook either one.

Hopeful realism: soaring vision, messy reality, future hope

Idealists ignore the grim reality of an ex-Eden world. Cynics ignore the eschatological reality that a new Eden is around the corner. A hopeful realist exercises the complicated discipline of holding both realities together in tension.

We tend to idealize the early Church when we read Luke’s exciting account of its founding in the book of Acts. But when we read Paul’s epistles, we realize the first churches struggled as much with gossip, hypocrisy, divorce, racism and sexual immorality as our churches do today. Bad thinking and bad behavior are not new developments in the life of the parish.

In spite of theological distortions and moral scandals in so many of those first-century churches, Paul never backs down from his high and hopeful view of the Church. In his letters, he energetically casts a soaring theological vision of God’s people as a new humanity in Christ. At the same time, he addresses the messy, on-the-ground realities plaguing local congregations. An idealist ignores the latter. A cynic loses faith in the former. A hopeful realist simultaneously grasps the soaring theological vision of the Church alongside the ugly realities in the ecclesial trenches, refusing to ignore or overlook either one.

Scholars refer to the “indicative” and the “imperative” dimensions in Paul’s letters: This is who you are in Christ (indicative), now live accordingly (imperative)! The great apostle somehow maintained a robust conception of the Church in the face of the Church’s failure to embody that conception. This does not mean he kept his peace. Paul was a severe critic of churches (especially those in Galatia and Corinth). His critiques, however, were not derisive assaults lobbed from a disinterested distance. That is the way of the cynic. “Breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” was a vocational disposition Paul had given up earlier on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus (Acts 9:1). As a hopeful realist, the apostle rebuked, exhorted and agonized as someone lovingly invested in their welfare: “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor 12:15, ESV).

Those of us disillusioned with the bad thinking and bad behavior of the Church are not expected to just sit back and offer no correction. But our correction must be constructive, not destructive—“for building up and not for tearing down” (2 Cor 13:10, ESV).

So, what inspired Paul to be a hopeful realist? The answer is the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus. The grotesque violence of the crucifixion explodes our ideals about life. The raucous cry of dereliction shows us that Jesus Himself teetered on the edge of disillusionment with God. But Paul had learned that the cross is not the terminal stop in following the way of Jesus. Ending up on a cross is inevitable in following our Lord, but to follow Jesus to the cross is to exit out of a tomb. The resurrection is the sign that new creation is in the works, on the way and sweetly bursting out of the cracks into our present sphere. The resurrection infuses our struggling, cross-bearing lives with hope that all things will one day be made new. The resurrection makes hopeful realism possible … and cynicism obsolete.

This article is adapted from Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint by Andrew Byers (InterVarsity Press, 2011).



Allan commented…

"Longing for the ideal while criticizing the real is evidence of immaturity. On the other hand, settling for the real without striving for the ideal is complacency. Maturity is living with the tension."
- Rick Warren from The Purpose Driven Life


mum at 5 am please read this commented…

you may simply have been in the wrong denomination, for legalism etc...
I'm not trying to be offensive so forgive me if i am
Here are some alternatives....

You may want to try a Lutheran church (their theology is sort of a sustained meditation on the grace of God).

or a Pentacostal/foursquare church (strong transformation/healing/rebirth focus).

Presbyterians or any other mainline protestants might be a good church to try out.speaking of which...

Or Methodist church peticularly the ones who identify with Wesley strongly (strong social justice focus).

there are some really liberal baptists like Tony Campolo (you may like to watch him on you-tube, read him etc...) I don't know what these groups are called, but Wikipedia should!

you might want to look at christian reformed churches. ( origionally dutch Calvinists 100+ years ago) the group that is most moderate is the reformed church in America (RCA).

if you are willing to go to a predominately afircan american church, my first thoughs would be church of God in Christ (COGIC)or American Methodist-Episcopal (AME).

you may also want to try to find one of the mars hill organization of churches (the one that Mark Driscoll is affiliated with.) you may want to try the emerging church, the part of it you may want to avoid is called the emergent village (rob bell etc...) the rest of the emerging church is pretty solid, they are condemmed by the real conservatives but baptist/fundamentalist pastors only seem to be able to condemn criticism, and different Christians ( maybe because it threatens their incomes, status , pride and power over others).

yes, there will be some problems anywhere you go, but things will be worst in a Baptist /Fundamentalist / or "Bible church" (you know the ones that basically closeted baptists who won't just say it in the open.) the problem is legalsim in these 3 categories of churches. there are christians who are not a hung up on legalism, but since you describe yourself as baptist born and bred you probably have just been given the many of the worst examples. I don't blame you for only having known the Baptist church.

Good luck searching for a new church or house church or other christian community! God will find you and bring people to you! even if you have to start a house church.

God Bless you



Nick commented…

Good article! Really appreciate it, as someone who tends to be a cynic.



Stephanie commented…

Great article. I've definitely been guilty of cynicism behind the mask of calling it "realistic"... I see a lot of cynicism between Christians, though, not so much at the church establishments themselves. I have been guilty of it... maybe from past experiences, but when I hear certain phrases or read certain lines, I suddenly switch into "I don't wanna hear it" mode.

For example, the word "missions" itself leaves a bad taste in my mouth from having seen many people become one person when "on mission" and another person at all other times. Or those who openly post on Facebook and other media about who they're praying for, etc, when I feel that is a private matter. My biggest challenge is not being cynical toward those who half-heartedly attempt to sympathize with a situation but only cause harm in doing so (trying to suggest to someone with a health problem that maybe they should try this or that to fix it rather than just being a support). I've seen Christians who are totally genuine in all of these areas, so maybe I'm hyper-aware of when someone comes across as being less than genuine.

Ian McKerracher


Ian McKerracher commented…

This article rings true for me. It was about a dozen years ago (embarrassingly after 25 years of being a Christian) that I had had enough of mostly self-imposed illusions about my faith. I needed to make the commitment to cast away anything that would be considered unreasonable about how I was walking. It was scary at first but I can say well worth it. Getting rid of bumper-sticker statements and actually doing the due dilligence to have real answers for myself and others is, in my opinion, the way Christianity was meant to be lived. The point in this article about cynicism is absolutely valid. When one looks at the Church in juxtiposition to the vision of who she could be, it is easy to slip into a very negative attitude (God bless my dear wife who waited patiently through that phase). Philisophically, I now consider myself a Christian rationalist and I am a lot happier than I was.

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