Monday, January 10, 2011

A Cynical Faith

"What did you think?" I asked my mom after we finished watching The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Martin Scorcese adaptation of the brilliant Nikos Kazantzakis novel on the tension between the human and the divine has been my favorite movie for over a year now, and over Christmas break Alyssa and I purchased the film. It was shipped to my parents' house, and I was excited to pop it in and watch it with my family. Afterward, Mom and I sat out on their front porch discussing parts of the movie.

She took a long draw on her cigarette before answering, a semi-confused squint on her face.

"I dunno. I guess I just think that there are some things that have to remain holy. If not, what else have you got?"

She was referring to the conflict of tradition with the depiction of Jesus in the film--a very human Jesus, a Jesus neither born of a virgin, nor completely sure of his purpose on earth. There are times in the film where Jesus seems as surprised by his own miracles as those witnessing them.

I've talked with Mom about this before.

Some of my greatest spiritual struggles in the last few years have dealt not with stretching my beliefs to new limits, but actually setting the limits themselves. It didn't take long, after beginning to question certain aspects of my faith, for my initial skepticism to turn into full-blown cynicism. For instance, there is pretty solid scholarly evidence to suggest that Jesus was indeed not born of a virgin--that this was simply a misinterpretation by the gospel writers of an ancient prophecy. And the earliest gospel, Mark, contains no reference either to Jesus's birth nor his resurrection; the gospel literally ends with Jesus being placed in his tomb, his disciples crippled with fear.

Some things are not very essential to believe in order to be a Christian. Six-day creation? Nah. Adam and Eve? Probably not. The tribulation and/or rapture? Heck no. But if I draw reasonable lines against these ideas, where do I hit the limit of my unbelief? And when I get there, is it even okay for me to still call myself a Christian?

I want to believe in miracles, and I want to believe in a resurrected Jesus, and I want to believe that the poor will eventually be made rich, the rich made poor, the valleys raised, the mountains lowered. I want to believe in a year of Jubilee.

It's just been so damn difficult lately.

One of the great (if not a bit insane) minds of the last several thousand years was the philosopher Diogenes, who incidentally happened to be of the Greek philosophic school of Cynicism. Now--not trying to confuse you--the philosophical understanding of Cynicism is a bit different than the usual definition we're used to. I want to instead draw your attention to a story my grandfather once told me about old Diogenes.

A quiet hermit of a man in his old age, Diogenes took to the streets and hills with lantern lit in broad daylight. He would approach individuals and clusters of talkative travelers in silence with his candle, barely visible in the light of midday. "Diogenes, what are you doing?" they would ask. And old Diogenes would peer deeply into their faces, his nose almost touching theirs, and say "I'm looking for an honest man." His gaze would linger for another brief moment, and then he'd turn and slowly walk away, searching for someone else.

Diogenes the Cynic had little faith that he would ever meet a truly honest person.

Granted, he also lived in a large barrel, urinated on strangers, and often roamed the countryside stark naked. But that's beside the point.

The point is that to believe in Christ is to have hope that the honest man is still out there, and to believe that there still are things that are holy, and that--once in a while--it may even be okay to believe something that isn't factual. The point is that while a hermeneutic of suspicion may be healthy and encouraged occasionally, a hermeneutic of cynicism has the tendency to leave one jaded and certain about very little. May we all seek to dispel the darkness of cynicism, and embrace the mystery that is the risen Christ.



1 comment:

  1. This one really hits home for me. While a healthy dose of cynicism—or perhaps, as you say, suspicion—has initiated a huge theological shift for me in the last few years, it's important to remember the beauty of the mystery.

    Indeed, suspicion has made me more and more weary of fundamentalists and literalists . . . at the same time, it has led me to search even more for the truth contained in scripture. I've realized that it's okay to question God, to doubt God; but that it's necessary to recognize the truth in the grand mystery of God.

    As we've discussed so many times, something doesn't have to be historically or scientifically factual to be true. I've found peace in realizing that the truth of God is sometimes a mystery, and that that's alright.

    I really need to see The Last Temptation again.