October 1, 2019 Aaron Ross

Muted Skeptics Spawning Cynics

In a recent post, I wrote about what seems to be a constant critique and criticism about the church. Podcasts, blogs, tv and movie personalities, social media, music, etc ensure no shortage arises from voices displaying their opinions over discussions on the value, or the perceived lack of value of the Christian church.

We often hear certain responses to criticisms from people in the church, especially from church leaders, that those who tightly hold their views about the Christian community are just skeptical or cynical. While that may be true, what are the differences between those two things and can it be helpful?

A common distinction lies between those who are skeptical and those who are cynical. Skeptics are those who need proof before they are willing to accept what they are being told or shown. In the church, a skeptic is more than just someone who may doubt God or Jesus, but rather someone who may question the practices or beliefs of the church when there is not, for them, sufficient proof. A common skeptic’s question may be, “What do we do with the difference in the orders of creation in Genesis 1 and 2,” or, “Why do we not take care of the poor or immigrant like the Bible says?” The underlying behavior to understand from skeptics is not that they want to prove people wrong, but rather because they desire to be heard and want their questions taken seriously. Skeptics, when engaged with well, are the ones who help progress the church forward, as they constantly ask: “Is there a better way, is there something more to be understood?” The problem breeds when skeptics move into a cynical mindset.

The underlying behavior to understand from skeptics is not that they want to prove people wrong, but rather because they desire to be heard and want their questions taken seriously.

We have seen it far too often and it is something that we should hate to see, but cynics are the skeptics who are never heard. This movement can be tough to deal with. Of all the cynics I have run across, in consulting churches, in being on staff at churches, and being a professor of theology, very few actually want to be cynics. Most have stories from a similar vein: they started having questions, their questions and critiques were ignored, (not headed) simply rejected – or worst still, were the cause of their chastisement or excommunication. In those moments when a skeptic recognizes they won’t be heard, or are hurt over their desire to be heard, skeptics move into being cynical. Now, they begin to believe that no one has good intentions, no one wants to see the betterment of people or the church, the church is just money and power-hungry, on and on the cynics’ views spiral. The question that starts with “is the church spending the money it receives wisely and faithfully?” becomes “the church is out to swindle people and take their money for their own purposes”. A theological question that starts with “how then should we treat the immigrant in light of Jesus” can simply become “the church cares not for those who Jesus says they should!”.

Now, to be fair, not all cynics start out as skeptics, and not all skeptics will turn into cynics. Even more, will deeply hearing, contemplating, and dialogue with a skeptic stop their move into cynics? Not always, but, in doing so, we might actually help someone with their Christian journey, we might help bring better understanding, we might even see people fall more in love with God. Most surprising we may find that, often, if we listen, dialogue with, and engage authentically with not only may we hear something we have missed, but we might even become better for it. The questions and critiques of Skeptics may even be a prophetic call that the church needs to better reach those around them. The fatal flaw or greatest possibility, stemming from my previous post, is how we as the church respond to the critiques and questions of the skeptics.

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About the Author

Aaron Ross Aaron Ross is Assistant Professor of Theology at Southeastern University and a PhD student at the University of Birmingham (UK). He is also the creator and editor-at-large of ECCLESIAM. In his spare time, Aaron enjoys running and being an avid movie watcher.