Thursday, June 30, 2011

“Blessed Are the Cynical”

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.


  1. Oh No! Poking fun at myself here because I am never sure if I see the glass half full or half empty, but I do see it as possibly polluted. I guess it is not good to be cynical, but seems like this article is on my side. But seriously I myself feel that I need to have a more optimistic attitude for sure. Happy Birthday to June and enjoy your vacation! The mountains must be pretty in this hotter weather the States have been seeing this year.

  2. Healthy cynicism is a healthy oxymoron. Cynicism, as originally presented by the Greeks, was a rather caustic affair. Taking their starting point from the similarities of people to dogs, these "dog philosophers" went to work deconstructing everyone and everything. Well, we are a lot like dogs, and that may not be fair to dogs! However, once we have thoroughly reduced all, at some point we need to figure out how to rebuild society. After all, even dogs have packs!

    Original sin works as a theological principle, if it is a two-way street. Traditionally, it was a one-way street, coming down from Pope and King to the poor man in the street. Well, from sex scandals to failed prophecies, organized religion has amply proven itself to be a great home for original sin, too.

    We have ideas that seek ways to merge these concepts, such as the political system of "checks and balances," and Reagan's negotiating strategy of "trust and verify." In church polity this would suggest similar openness and democracy. We need systems of accountability. All this says we need the Enlightenment, too. Perhaps not in its caricature of Pollyanna optimism, but still in its achievement of a scientific sensibility, and a skeptical pragmatism, that might at least clean the water in the half-something glass.

    Religions are not perfect. Governments are not perfect. Markets are not perfect. Corporations are not perfect. Individuals are not perfect. Societies are not perfect. So we try to muddle through as best we can, applying a little healthy cynicism to all of the above, and to ourselves!

  3. This optimistic cynic feel heartened by Craig's assessment.

  4. My wife once said to me: "When the glass is half full, you don't think it's half empty; you think it's entirely empty!" LOL
    I'm not convinced that the doctrine of original sin is valuable. It's clearly a glass-half-empty doctrine, although the Calvinists turned it into a glass-entirely-empty doctrine with their "total depravity of man."
    Certainly one of the greatest problems with it, as Craig Dempsey points out, is that historically it has been (I would add, continues to be) used as a one-way street. There are few more powerful tools for authoritarian domination than for authorities to convince their underlings that the underlings cannot trust their own judgment. "As priest, pastor, fuehrer, or whatever, I have the truth and you, my dears, can have it, too, but beware that original sin will lead you onto some path other than following me." Nietzsche hammered away incessantly at this theme in his critique of Christian history.
    That being said, I think the general gist of Ellingsen's argument, which I've not read, sounds valid and important. We need a healthy critical attitude towards our motivations and ambitions. But we can have that without cynicism and without a doctrine of original sin.
    Maybe it's time to retire the doctrine of original sin. Perhaps we should put it in the museum of Christian history, along with homophobia, women as second-class citizens, inerrancy, anti-semitism, and a few other things that may or may not have been functional for Christianity at one time.

  5. Here is part of an e-mail received from an esteemed Thinking Friend, and I am sorry I did not post this sooner:

    "Interesting about the cynical blog. Seems to me that a healthy view of the fact of sin, whether called "original" or just 'prevailing', is essential for a vital application of Christian redemption.

    "Where one takes evil lightly, in origin or in the present, one is apt to practice a 'I am master of my fate and for that matter all situations. I need no help now or tomorrow.' A complete humanism!

    "A healthy dose of cynicism in dealing with human proposals, economic, religious and social is likely to prevent one from jumping for 'half-baked' ideas that are likely to be fraudulent."