Greg Ganssle (Ph.D., Syracuse) joined the faculty of Biola University in 2015. He had spent twenty years at a Christian think-tank, the Rivendell Institute at Yale. In addition he was a part-time lecturer in the philosophy department at Yale for nine years. He works in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion.
Each age has its particular hazards. Each age encourages certain vices and devalues certain virtues. Because we are immersed in our age, these hazards are often invisible to us. We simply cannot see the effects of certain cultural ideas and practices on our characters.
Christians have a special interest in recognizing the soul-shaping effects of the hazards of our age. Our spiritual maturity is at stake. Following Jesus faithfully involves embodying the character qualities that reflect his character. For example, the qualities that Paul lists as the fruit of the Spirit are character and relational virtues. We are to embody “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” (Gal. 5: 22) The result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives is that we will bear the fruit of these virtues. While it is God who builds these qualities into us as we trust and follow him, we are not entirely passive in the process. Paul exhorts us, “if we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” (Gal. 5: 25) To keep in step is to cooperate with him through prayer, relying on his strength and steps of obedience.
One of the hazards of our age is cynicism. This claim is not surprising. Popular journalism and pop-psychology make us more likely to adopt the cynic’s posture. The cynic’s posture is a posture of both suspicion and of nihilism. The most obvious suspicion is one of motives. We tend to assume that other people act for motives about which they are not entirely open. People do what they do for private and self-serving reasons that are kept hidden. It is a common assumption that if a person’s motives can be revealed, his projects can be discredited. Thus, much of our public conversation takes the form of trying to reveal the underlying motives of those we oppose.
The suspicion of motives spills over into a general suspicion of all of our cultural institutions. Whether we are discussing the government, entertainment industry, or big business, we assume a critical posture. The very language we use in these discussions is revealing. If we add the prefix “big” or the term “industry” to any institution, we render the institution suspicious. Business may be neutral, but “big business” (as in big-oil or big-tobacco) clearly is not. Health care is a great good, but the “health-care industry” is part of the problem. To call some decision “political” is to hint that it was made with ulterior, self-interested motives. While it may be true that many people act for self-serving motives about which they are not entirely honest, our habit of framing our discussions in such language reveal our deep cultural cynicism.
Beside suspicion, cynicism brings a kind of nihilism with respect to value. We are hesitant to admit that some course of action has value on its own terms. Rather we tend to exert our energy to undermine whatever value is being recommended. As a result, we are quick to “debunk” any recommended value. In public discussions, we see this cynicism with what can be called the “Yes, but…” response. When someone with whom we disagree raises a good or important point, we rarely stop and think about what she contributed to the discussion. We hardly ever say, “Wow, you made some good points. I will have to think hard about this and get back to you.” Rather, we tend to respond, “Yes, but …” That is, we pretend to acknowledge the other person’s contribution but we race over it to get to our other points of disagreement.
Cynicism is corrosive to my eyesight. It makes it difficult for me to see the true, the good and the beautiful when it is right in front of me. It makes it hard to see even the plausible and the promising and the okay looking. It makes me quick to dismiss and slow to listen. It allows me to react to other voices rather than to hear them.
I want to propose one practice that can help reverse the development of a cynical mind. This is the practice of affirmation. The practice of affirmation is simple to grasp but not easy to do. It is a discipline. I can summarize it in a sentence: Affirm before you criticize. Make it a habit to search for what is good and true and beautiful about a position or an idea before you look for what is false or bad or repugnant in it. Decide that you will say what is good before you say what is bad. Talk about what contribution a thinker makes before you talk about your criticisms. I think it is especially important to speak what you see to affirm. Part of the practice of affirmation is to speak our affirmations out loud. It is not enough simply to think about them. We need to make our affirmations public.
Paul lays out the practice of affirmation in his letter to the Philippians:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil. 4:8 ESV)
Paul tells us to think about those things that are commendable, excellent and true. We practice this kind of thinking, first of all, in our relationships with the people with whom we engage. We are to dwell on the honorable, pure, excellent and praiseworthy things about other people, even those who strongly disagree with us. Paul is commending the practice of affirmation. The New American Standard translates the imperative in verse eight as “let your mind dwell on these things.” It speaks of focused concentration. If we approach our conversations with others by searching carefully for those aspects of the work that reflect what is good, true, and beautiful, we will affirm before we criticize.
The cynic’s posture can become so comfortable that we forget that it is a particular posture. It becomes second nature. It is rather like the recliner in my living room. Once I get in it and get settled, it is hard to be motivated to get up. I need a pretty good reason to exert the effort. The seat of scoffers is quite comfortable. If I remember to speak my affirmations out loud, I am prodded to leave my comfortable posture. Practicing affirmation helps me not stay content in the cynic’s seat. My default habits of thinking are normally aimed at showing that I am right. These habits can be over come by new habits. New habits can turn my soul in another direction, towards God.