Monday, January 12, 2009

Cynicism in the Balance – Conversations with Caleb and Two Evangelicals

One of the conversations I had with Caleb over the Christmas break was at our dinner table. He expressed (now realize I don’t know if he is sincere or just trying to get a reaction from us) that he really believes that there is no such thing as an altruistic act. In his Darwinian state of mind, he tried to prove that every thought, every act is completely selfish and for self-survival.

As they say, the apple does not fall from the tree and, you can ask my wife, I tend to be cynical. But I would never take it to the extreme that Caleb claims to. For example, I have no doubts that people, plenty of people, have committed true altruistic acts. I can think of no greater example of that than someone who gives up all they have, their families and even their own health and comfort to go and live in a dirty slum in India, just to help the poor. The marine, who throws his body over a hand grenade, would be another excellent example.

Maybe a little less spectacular are the kind things all of us do every day. I don’t suspect selfish motives behind every word and every deed. I am certainly not a Linguistic Deconstructionist, trying to read between the lines of every sentence, looking for a selfish agenda. Nor, do I think like . . . well, maybe like Nietzsche . . . that everyone has one purpose and that is to self-serve and self empowerment. So I do try to dampen my cynicism, as I can go too far at times.

I remember in my Evangelical days, I was never cynical (at least not outside my own head). Cynicism was not very sexy for an Evangelical. I always smiled a lot. I only looked at the positive side of every situation. If my tire went flat, it was a good thing. “At least I can afford a car.” I would say with a bright smile. In some ways that’s not so unhealthy. Really, deep in my heart I do have these appreciative feelings. This is especially true after having lived in the Third World. So I’m not flippant when I think, but for the grace of God, I could be living in a muddy slum in Tanzania.

But, as a Post-Evangelical, I have a great hunger for truth . . . even emotional truth. If you are really honest, then sometimes you think in cynical ways because you see the fallen world as it really is.

Okay, my two conversations.

In the gym the other day, I ran into an Evangelical friend. I had a fairly long conversation with him. He is really a neat guy and I do like him a lot. But I found that I can’t communicate with someone in the Evangelical frame of mind. He constantly smiles. He has a positive twist on every thing he says.

The biggest example was listening him tell the story how God had recently called him into the pastorate. It was all spiritual . . . a word of scripture . . . an odd feeling in his soul, etc. Not trying to read between the lines, but I know some of the true story (BTW women, in the private places of their homes do tend to be more honest and Denise tells me the truth she hears about other people).

Some of the true story is that he quit his job a while back, to “serve the Lord.” Now that might sound good on paper, but his wife was having a very difficult time with her new found poverty . . . and living on welfare. Especially since they were both college educated and had lived a comfortable middle class life before he became jobless. I suspect that the real reason he quit his job is the same reason there are days I want to quit my job. Being burnt out and frustrated with the same work problems.

So I am certain the reason he grabbed the chance to be a full-time pastor of a large church was partially due to the fact his wife was almost near an emotional breakdown. Their cars did not work. They barely had food. She was stressed out and I know that (through Denise) as a fact. But he never mentioned the “behind the scenes” reasons.

As he shared the very spiritual perspective of how God did this and that . . . I just wished he could have told me how he and his wife were really doing. How she was pissed at him and he felt confused. I could have talked with him for hours about that.

But after sharing his “supernatural” story with all of its positive glory, he asked me, “So . . . what’s God doing in your life?”

I was speechless. With so much going on in my life, I just didn’t have the energy to work hard to put a positive spin on every freaken thing. I wanted to say that I was pissed off for a week because my well froze and then my well pump died. I laid under our deck in the snowy mud every day trying to thaw pipes when I wanted to be inside with my kids, who were home for Christmas. Then it took my entire bonus (2K) to pay to have it fixed. Sure, I could some how repackaged the event with a big smile on my face and how God did it for such and such a reason, but I really believe crap happens for no good reason is this fallen world (where the laws of physics do matter).

I couldn’t tell him how my kids are not turning out perfect and I feel scared that it is my fault. To do that, like in my old Evangelical days, I would have to repackage the story where I give a thinly-veiled cover to how wonderful of a man and father I am.

We use to tell stories of “How wonderful God is because He did such and such great thing through me.” Okay, so I slip into a tad of Linguistic Deconstructionist and say, what I really was doing was just boasting about how GREAT I WAS!. But I don’t have the energy to do that any more. That’s why I feel lonely. I feel lonely to have honest conversations without the hassle of dressing every thought up in spiritual banquet gowns.

I’ll have to get to the second conversation, which I had today with another Evangelical, but this posting is too long already


Anonymous said...


I have to agree with you that it is very hard to express your true feelings about life with some people... ok, most people. Most don't care, or will show sanctimony about you not putting it all into proper Godly context. I'm with you in wanting honest conversation, even if it isn't "pretty".

A friend of mine once asked about relational transparency. I responded that transparency [pure honesty] end's friendships, breaks up marriages and families, and got Jesus crucified. I find most people, religious or not, aren't willing to take such risks.

BTW, thanks for your honest posts, here, and your honest book.

MJ said...

And thanks for your oomments.

Craig V. said...

The claim that there are no altruistic acts may have what Plantinga (in another context) calls a 'defeater'. The argument would go something like this.

Assume there are no altruistic acts, that every act or thought is completely selfish and for self-survival. From this it follows that whatever we believe, we believe for self interest and survival (since believing is an act). That a belief is for self interest or survival is not, however, a sufficient grounds for it being true. Therefore our original assumption is defeated because once we assume it we have no grounds for believing it's true. In a little bit of irony (if it's intentional, it's very clever) you bring this out by questioning the sincerity of Caleb's view.

On a more serious note, I agree that transparency is an unrealistic expectation much of the time. The key, it seems to me, is to lovingly try to move conversations in that direction.

Bryan said...

It's too hard to be honest. In conversations it's much easier to whitewash my life and feelings, or just not discuss them at all. Unless the other person really honest with me first, I'm usually unwilling to be completely honest. It's not only too dangerous, but I find it to be more work to get down to the truth. I have to admit unpleasant truths to myself before I can to others.

It's legitimate to say that all human action is done to purely to fulfill our own, personal desires, but to call that selfish I believe is is redefining "selfish" away from it's vernacular use. Our own, personal desires are much broader than merely physical pleasure and survival. For example, I am donate food to a food bank because it fulfills my desire of feeding the hungry. This may be because it makes me feel good about myself ("ESW" as you call it), or it may be just because it makes me feel good. Believing the Truth is the same way. Discovering, and living according to truth may not give me physical pleasure or survival, but it does fulfill a desire of mine. Perhaps others have a stronger desire for physical pleasure and survival, and would rather live in ignorance.

On a somewhat related note, there can be an evolutionary advantage to altruism. The case of Dictyostelid slime molds is a well studied example, where individuals sacrifice themselves for the benefit of other members of the colony, which may not even be closely genetically related.

Anonymous said...

Your friend the evangelical is just practicing what he is going to preach. Plastic smiles, all is good. I'm just getting blessed and blessed. That is not life. If Paul could complain so can I. If you are having a bad time of it, you will get more sympathy in a bar room than an evangelical church, at least until your wallet is empty.
In those churches if you are down on your "luck" thy assume you sinned. That is a good assumption, but them they assume they did not.

MJ said...

I really think, all things considered, that I’m a pretty positive thinker. I mean, I really do feel very lucky to be healthy, live far above average (standard of living) than the majority of the world, live in relative freedom, my children and wife are all doing well etc. That’s not even to mention being redeemed.

But, I’m also a realist. I think the term “Life Sucks” is very consistent with Biblical theology of the fallen world. Ecclesiastes is a wonderful book and isn’t just talking about the view of the poor unregenerate soul. Solomon was the most spiritual and wisest man of his time, and he still saw the emptiness of the world as it is.

So I do not see anything unbecoming for a Christian to express being pissed off about something, being depressed about something, being frustrated etc. Hey, that is real, organic life. Joel Osteen lives in the Ozone.

BTW, Bryan did express to me via PM that he was being sarcastic in his comments.

Bryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan said...

"Bryan did express to me via PM that he was being sarcastic in his comments"

On the previous post. On this post I'm completely genuine.