One of the saddest realities I see in the modern world is the amount of cynicism in the Church. I recognize I am not immune to skepticism about various institutions, but it seems like Christians have lost the ability to place faith in any area of life: government, society, businesses, or even churches (especially denominations). It is easy for us to look out on the world and recognize the fact that we are very flawed creatures and that where two or three of us gather there is sure to be some level of failure. This temptation is particularly real in churches which emphasize the fact that we are fraught with sin. How can we expect good things to come from institutions made by sinners? Such cynicism has been infecting the American church at least since 1914 when World War I shattered the hopes of many that we could usher in a utopian society. After the Civil War, many Americans felt the world was trending heavenward; we had conquered the evil of slavery (that was the perception) and now we would bring in Christ’s return by creating the ideal society. When that dream crumbled, the mindset of many turned to a cynical attitude that human institutions will always collapse. This legacy lives on in many churches, particularly evangelical churches whose theological roots tie to the Fundamentalists of the early 20th century. Fundamentalists (and later evangelicals) were in some ways a reaction to the Liberal ideals which build many of the institutions which ultimately crumbled. So, it is easy to understand why there would be cynicism today surrounding governments and other institutions which dominate our lives.
We see this cynicism play out in a number of areas most notably in areas of science and society. Some Christian communities have fostered generations of distrust for scientific research, equating the change in science to scientists fishing for ideas. Now we see this playing out in a distrust of science by Christians, who distrust both medical research in the COVID vaccine, and climate science. Their is a skepticism about trusting any body who believes such ideas because the information presented one week might change the next. and we are taught that truth is truth and does not change. Often, those who support this view fail to recognize, it is not the truth which is changing; rather what changes is our level of knowledge and understanding of the facts.
Christians are also cynical of governments, again this is not surprising, the best laid plans for peace have failed, many government programs designed to relieve poverty have the opposite effect, and the greed and corruption of political leaders is simply grotesque. These realities are bolstered by certain readings or Revelation (and End Times theology) which equates large government with the Satanic Beast found in Revelation 12. Such readings of Revelation are often misguided, but many Christians still listen to preachers proclaiming the latest technology or government program is the mark of the beast. Coupled with this is the fact that political and media leaders play into the cynicism, understanding that in fostering such beliefs they can push their own agenda. I often think that it is no wonder Christians are cynical about the government.
The problem is Christians are supposed to be people of hope (1 Peter 3:15) and hope is ever in conflict with cynicism. Cynicism distrusts while hope trusts. Hope is the concrete reality of the future and faith is the ability to walk into the future. Cynicism is the inability to trust because one is assured of failure. Cynicism refuses to trust in an institution because one knows that there is something hidden which will ultimately doom it. Hope sees beyond the shaky exterior to the heart which is trustworthy.
I can already hear people saying, “Yes and our hope is in God not people, so it is okay to distrust institutions.” To some extent I agree with this statement, but it does seem a little simplistic. I sympathize with those who do not want to trust certain institutions, but my response is, “I believe God is working in this world to produce the hope we have in Jesus.” Now, if I believe that then there must be times when God works through these institutions. There must be times when my cynicism about science, or government, or the church is actually hindering the intent of God. If God is working in this world then God is working through us. Early scientists were scientists because they believed God was working in the world and working in a predictable way. Had they been cynical about that idea we would not be where we are today. Rather, they placed their hope in God and trusted what they knew about God to lead them to truth, and those same principles under-gird the best of modern science (whether the scientist wants to admit it or not).
Likewise, though there are people in government and media who should draw some cynicism, we should ask whether or not God can work or is working through particular government ideas. Rather than cynically decrying a government program because it came from the right (or the left) we should ask if there is something in that program the church can use to further the kingdom. We must ground ourselves in the hope that God is working to improve our lot and wants to see us thrive in this life. If we ground ourselves in that ideal we should be less cynical about where society is headed and what we can do to impact the culture around us. Instead let us ground ourselves in the hope of God, the concrete reality that God wants to make this world into paradise and humanity into God’s sons and daughters. Let’s fix our eyes on that truth and start anticipating what that will be like. This anticipation involves a trust that God will work through us, warts and all, to bring about this change.