Mark Ellingsen is a professor of church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He is also the author of many books, including one that I will be using as a text for the first time this fall in the course I teach at Rockhurst University.
Dr. Ellingsen (b. 1949) is a Lutheran pastor, but he is also an Augustinian scholar with a Ph.D. from Yale University. Last week I finished reading his intriguing book, based partly on Augustinian ideas, Blessed Are the Cynical: How Original Sin Can Make America a Better Place (2003).
Since Ellingsen uses a lot of statistics about the current American (and world) context, the book already seems a bit dated. However, more up-to-date statistics concerning most of what he writes about would strengthen his arguments, not weaken them.
“Whatever Happened to Original Sin?” is the subtitle Ellingsen uses for the introduction to his book. Here is his conclusion:
This book will show, paradoxically, that when we realize our limits and our insidious motives, we are more likely to be tolerant of our neighbor’s agendas, and more likely to get in the trenches and work to make things better, more likely to appreciate ourselves and the direction of our nation. The more the doctrine of original sin permeates our thinking, the better (though by no means perfect) life in America is likely to be (p. 32).
Ellingsen continually makes references to the American political scene. He contends, for example, that “an Augustinian view of human nature is realistically cynical enough to appreciate that politics is ultimately about power and that you get things done by means of tradeoffs and coalitions in which you engage to get power” (p. 70).
And he ends his book with these words: “Vigilance about the low sides of human nature, a healthy cynicism, improves civic life.”
I have never been much of an enthusiast of cynicism. Just the other day I saw where someone quipped, “to the cynic it doesn’t matter whether the glass is half full (like the optimist says) or half empty (like the pessimist says), for he thinks it is probably polluted anyway.”
But Ellingsen makes an important point: it is wise not to be gullible and even to be on guard against the self-centered bias lurking in the words and deeds of other people—as well as in what we say and do. Being somewhat cynical keeps us from expecting too much from others. Further, a healthy cynicism engenders realism, freeing us from the overly-optimistic Enlightenment viewpoint prevalent today, at least in some circles.
I highly recommend Dr. Ellingsen’s engaging book Blessed are the Cynical.