Practiced Pragmatics and Cynics


Is it possible to be so surrounded by something that it becomes imperceptible?

Two of the most prevailing elements of our culture seem to be pragmatism and cynicism. Lately, I have been burdened by how interwoven these elements are with Christianity. However, it is more alarming that Christians can’t detect the danger. We are the product of our culture and we don’t even know it. We cannot see our selfishness because selfishness has become the norm.

One of the philosophical principles of pragmatism is that truth should be tested by the practical consequences of belief (Webster’s dictionary). The resulting presumption of this philosophy is that the “ends justifies the means.” But how does pragmatism work its way into Christianity? Practically.

  • Instead of forming our opinions, convictions and practices from God’s word, we form them by asking, what is most effective?
  • We define effectiveness in the same way that corporations do. More is always better and expediency outweighs faithfulness.
  • Absolute truth is replaced with conditional truth. The prevailing condition is cultural relevance.
  • The determining factor of individual and corporate decisions is personal benefit.

These are only generic samples of pragmatic paradigms. Consequently, the specifics find their way into deacons’ meetings, business meetings, prayer meetings, and sermons. The “devil is in the details,” then creates a church culture that worships at the altar of convenience. Is it worth compromise to see our church membership grow and our visibility increase? That is a more haunting question than we might dare imagine.

A second prevailing element of the church landscape, particularly among youth and young adults, is cynicism. Christian doctrine demands that we believe in the fallen nature of mankind and along with that nature comes an inclination for depravity. However, I have detected a hesitance to believe that God could actually save, sanctify, and use people for his glory. The depravity of man has been elevated above the grace of God. I have personally underestimated God in this way more times than I’d care to confess.

The result of being so naturally skeptical of everything and everyone is that we rely upon our natural abilities while only paying diminished homage to God’s supernatural power. Can the Gospel save sinners? Is the word of God sharper than a two-edged sword? Is God calling people from every tribe, tongue, and nation? Can persecutors become missionaries? Can fisherman become apostles? Can a simple proclamation of God’s word on Sunday morning be a conduit of grace? Our prayer lives are probably the best (most honest) answer to those questions. So how is cynicism incorporated into church life? Sarcastically.

  • We often play off our deepest cynicism with over-exaggerated sarcasm about the nature of people and the condition of the church. It usually gets a quick laugh but drains our faith.
  • I would estimate that we are at least twice as likely to complain about situations and people as we are to pray about them.
  • When our theological differences surface, we tend to portray the opposing view with as much extremity as possible. Sometimes we can even vilify people for their differing views.
  • Our trust in God’s ability to accomplish God’s purposes in God’s way wanes as our rhetoric and reasoning fuels ministry. After all, does God really still work through such simplistic means? (I just caught myself making a cynical jab at cynicism in that last question and couldn’t bring myself to delete it. I am living proof that cynicism runs deep and often unaware.)

While cynicism pervades our mindsets, doubt infiltrates our souls. The means of grace (the preached word of God, the Sacraments and prayer) are denied their biblical prominence and power. As we take a couple of cheap shots at differing opinions and outdated methods, we might actually be shooting ourselves in the “foot” of faithful ministry.

The question we are left with isn’t whether we are pragmatic or cynical, it’s how pragmatic and cynical are we? But lest I exercise my own pragmatism and cynicism again, I’d like to end with the optimism of the gospel itself.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.
-Romans 1:16-17

Shed the layers of pragmatism and cynicism. Feel the weight. Believe. Act.

Chris Dunn
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