Written by Joseph Minich
An Era of Cynicism and Anxiety
We live in an era of cynicism and anxiety. And these phenomena are clearly related. As we have progressively replaced face-to-face relationships with a transformed public sphere in which whole embodied persons are reduced to their self-projections in cyber-space, we tend to read such persons in a reductionist way. Our attitude towards positions and movements becomes our attitude towards persons. We easily find ourselves moving from disagreeing over positions to distrusting the persons who have them. And this means that we are all getting more cynical. We all find it increasingly difficult not to read others as ill-motivated – not to treat all issues as an iconic battle between righteousness and wickedness.
Moreover, this makes us quite anxious. As we worry that many of our acquaintances have sided with our ideological enemies, and especially when we cannot persuade them to change their mind, we become anxious about our lack of control of the world’s movements. This is exacerbated when we pay attention to the horror stories which are the fodder for the modern news entertainment industry and which so define our social discourse. Public faces of this issue or that, this party or that, again and again reinforce to us our total inability to change the minds of millions and millions of our fellow countrymen. We find ourselves in a toxic feedback loop, then, of increased cynicism, distrust, disillusionment, and anxiety.
Christians, however, should not be merely passive in relation to the modern discursive zeitgeist. Rather, they can and should stand against it by demonstrating their attunement to larger realities. There are many ways in which we might respond to this, but I will only highlight two.
First, people are not reducible to their opinions or projected identities. However, in our era, the face-to-face communication and embodied presence which has historically mediated mutual trust (even in the face of disagreement) has progressively eroded. What has not changed, however, is human nature itself. Whatever has historically cultivated mutual trust still exists, but it is largely inaccessible. But as the Christian’s calling is to believe and hope all things, one way to achieve this is to know others in knowing one’s self. In fact, the human soul is a mysterious labyrinth. It takes only a little self-examination to realize that we know very little of ourselves, much less our neighbors. Moreover, our neighbors’ commitments and social involvements are situated within a self and a personal narrative about which we probably have very little knowledge. Their commitments are often shaped by primal attunements and interpretations of the world which they (and we) have not even brought into self-conscious reflection. In short, each human soul is an almost impenetrable mystery. But within this, we recognize that most humans are simply trying to move around in their own immediate “world,” their own mental and psychological horizon. And before we speak or interpret a person, we need to recognize that we know very little of this world. None of which is to say we cannot evaluate certain positions or movements the same way as we always have. Rather, it is say that we cannot easily evaluate persons in this manner.
Second, you are not in control. You are carried along in a massive torrent of historical and cultural forces that most people neither understand or recognize. You are in even less control than you think you are, and the people you think are in control are in less control than you think they are. But this need not be a matter for our angst, but for our rejoicing in the providence of our good God for whose glory and renown all history exists. What is more, this God delights to do good to His creatures. And He often moves history along beneath the surface of our shallow obsession with the flashy. While we are busy Facebooking about a politically iconic moment, God has moved many people all across the political spectrum to love their spouse well, to minister to hurting people well, to achieve justice in places and in ways that no-one will ever see, to reconcile enemies, to bring repentance to sinners, to give endurance and even joy to the suffering, to give faithfulness to the tempted, to provide for needy persons through His hands and feet (the church). The history departments of heaven will be filled with dissertations on the faithful wives of a small town in India, the Chinese student with a careful eye for sad classmates, the American skater-kid who took more delight in celebrating others than in showing off, etc. In short, you are not in control, but God is – and He is doing His work just as He pleases. This emphasis is not to dismiss activism, but rather to dismiss angsty rather than joyful, loving, and “calm in the soul” activism.
These are actually rather basic points, but they are points about which we are weak – and are cultivated to be weak. They are also necessary for faithful Christian witness. If we are in the business of social activism, we might start with being calm, happy Christians who stand mystified before each human being. In our cultural moment, few virtues are as prophetic as this.
Joseph Minich is the editor-in-chief for the Davenant Institute and a PhD candidate in the Humanities at The University of Texas at Dallas. He is specifically interested in Western atheism in its relationship to discussions of modernity and technology. More generally, he is interested in studying the resonance between particular Christian dogmas and common human realities. He recently pub- lished Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Athe- ism. More of his writing can be found online at Mere Orthodoxy and The Calvinist International.
“Most people today become atheists less because of persuasive arguments than because of the social realities of our secular age. There are plenty of good apologetics books out there. But few target the ‘gut’—that is, the pre-understandings and social practices that make belief in God more difficult today than in previous generations. This is a must-read.”