Being Skeptical Without Being Cynical

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

“…Be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

I am a skeptic. 

I ask a lot of questions. I think critically. I challenge assumptions. I don’t just believe what I am told.

And for the most part, I like this about myself. My skepticism has saved me from poor decisions, from bad relationships, from an unexamined faith, and from an unexamined life.  It has inspired me to explore new ideas and learn new things.  It has challenged me to grow and evolve and adapt to change. It has made me a wiser, more thoughtful person. It's kept me from joining cults and buying time shares.

Unfortunately, I’m a skeptic with a bad habit of indulging in cynicism.

Like a drug, cynicism numbs the pain brought on by my skepticism.  It prevents me from getting hurt by not letting anyone in. It prevents me from being disappointed by leaving no room for hope. It prevents me from humiliation by making me tough and cold and preemptively critical.

Cynicism is the drug of choice for most skeptics because being cynical is so much easier than being vulnerable.

It’s easy to be naïve.

It’s easy to be cynical.

It’s hard to embrace the vulnerability of living in the tension between skepticism and hope.

It’s hard because it means being wrong sometimes, being hurt sometimes, and being a target for criticism all the time.

An example:  

Growing up I learned that the biblical creation narrative is meant to be a scientific explanation for how the world came to be, that the earth is 6,000 years old, and that evolutionary theory is a bogus idea invented by godless scientists. I have since become skeptical of that position in light of the overwhelming scientific evidence in support of evolutionary theory.

A naïve response would be to ignore the scientific data and just pretend it is not in conflict with the faith of my youth. A cynical response would be to categorize all conservative evangelicals as ignorant fundamentalist and completely close myself off to their input and ideas.  A wise response would be to study the issue with integrity, diligence, and the hope that if all truth is God’s truth, I have nothing to fear.

This puts me in a more vulnerable position because 1) it exposes me to the criticisms of people on both sides of the debate, 2) it could lead to serious disappointment, should I find that my intellectual integrity and my faith are indeed incompatible, and 3) it leaves me in the awkward position of being uncertain, undecided, and maybe even a little confused for a while.

But I’m convinced that if I can learn to be skeptical without being cynical, I will reap all the surprising benefits of true vulnerability—authentic friendships, authentic faith, and authentic hope.

It just might sting a little along the way.

Are you a skeptic? How do resist the intoxicating lure of cynicism? Is skepticism compatible with faith?

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