18 March 2007

Disqualificatory cynicism?

Posted in bein' caught in between, like all true believers, people you've been before... at 9:32 pm by indecisive79

“‘Cause like all true believers, I am truly skeptical of all that I have said.” -OtR

I think I’m somewhat of a strange person in at least one way (and my two or three readers can certainly add others): I am simultaneously utterly skeptical/cynical of a great many things, but I also have typically have an oddly realistically-optimistic view of the world. For example, I know that my chosen field of study has severely limited job possibilities, which I make jokes about all the time, yet I am almost completely free from anxiety over my future, figuring that something will turn up when the time comes. But it seems that many people see only the skeptical/cynical side of me, which they tend to interpret as pessimism. Which brings us to a comment I heard today that brings up a topic I’ve been meaning to write on:

It was indirectly but not very subtly communicated to me today that because I’m cynical about a particular subculture which I grew up in (i.e., American evangelicalism), I really have nothing of value to say in critiquing that subculture. This strikes me as quite odd, especially because it came from someone who is highly educated and seems to be fairly smart; perhaps I misunderstood, but let’s assume for the remainder of this post that I didn’t. Part of this reaction, perhaps, is a bit defensiveness, since she has a greater level of integration (pun intended…) into that subculture, of working professionally in it, even though she has lived in it a shorter amount of time than I have. Regardless, what this person said disqualifies me from identifying and addressing those things which have made me so disaffected with that subculture in the first place. Such thinking strikes me as being particularly apt for this subculture, and is in fact one of the (many) things about the subculture that I tend to be quite skeptical of. I don’t think it’s unfair to label evangelicalism as a whole as extremely resistant to self-criticism, a very non-Over-the-Rhine-ish conception of what it means to be a true believer.

As I was growing up in the church, everyone noticed that I was quite the bright young budding potential scholar, and I was continually encouraged to pursue my studies to the fullest. I was taught to be afraid of going off to college because it was a very hostile place that was going to attack my Christian faith from any and all angles (imagine my surprise when it never really seemed to be an issue with anyone; turns out, if you’re not an ass, people tend to get along with you—who knew?). Yet I wasn’t pushed away from going off to school. Quite the opposite—I was told that we (i.e., evangelical Christendom) needed good Christian scholars to go to university, get grad degrees, and become professors in order to tell all those secular humanists working in academia that they’re completely wrong on all sorts of issues (note—I have since found out that secular humanists are indeed wrong about many things, an unfortunate consequence of their being human just like the rest of us). What was assumed, of course, is that my goal should be to go to college to be able to defend evangelicalism. I don’t think it even occurred to most people who were encouraging me in my studies that I might potentially learn something from the university; I was to go there to teach them how they are the ones getting everything wrong. To make a long boring story short and boring, I actually found a wide variety of areas to explore, new ways of examining the world that didn’t fit into the neat evangelical categories, and often criticized the too-narrow visions that evangelicals typically prescribe. I figured that if evangelicalism was worth anything, it would have to withstand a skeptical view, a skepticism that I am still ruthlessly employing. Even the close oversight of a campus ministry association wasn’t able to keep me from asking the truly difficult questions that, quite frankly, evangelicalism as a whole hasn’t even realized have been asked of it. I have become so disaffected with evangelicalism that I’m not sure I identify as one anymore (especially insofar as being “evangelical” is tied to conservative politics, resistance to real peer-reviewed scientific discovery about the origins of the earth (and the concomitant acceptance of the non-science of “intelligent” design), pragmatic/realist/unchallenging conceptions of art, and “book-“/gift-store kitsch (Testamints, anyone?)), but I still hold out hope that what I’ve learned can hopefully be used in a constructive way to aid evangelicalism…or at least to destroy it in a productive way.

I suppose one of the cliched morals of this story is to be careful what you ask for; evangelicals asked me to start thinking, and a good chunk of my thinking has been dedicating to identifying and critiquing the shortcomings of the evangelical background that I grew up with. But perhaps even greater is this: I think that to be a true (rather than merely passive) believer (of anything), one must be truly skeptical, one must test ideas, and not being afraid to ruthlessly critique when ruthless critique is warranted. I maintain that doing this actually shows an optimistic streak, because criticism implies a desire for something better, something truer and more authentic. But what could I possibly say to help. After all, I’m just a cynic…