Thursday, June 30, 2011
U-Turn: Cynicism, Apathy, Relativism and Absolutism
I have tried to say that prophetic ministry does not consist of spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation. Rather, prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice.
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978)
More and more, I am becoming highly selective in my quest to spend time with fellow pilgrims who have also sworn off (albeit imperfectly) the four counterfeit cul-de-sacs that haunt humanity: cynicism, apathy, relativism and absolutism. These four horsemen of the postmodern apocalypse ride roughshod over millions, leaving them scant resources for what we all yearn for: a robust spirituality that equips, sustains, guides and comforts us through life. These bridges to nowhere have a strong emotional appeal, promising risk-free security, but it mostly results in addiction, abuse, unacknowledged privilege, violence, psychological disorders…and/or a severe lack of empathy.
Cynicism, apathy, relativism & absolutism are the four ways people protect themselves from the complexity, confusion and chaos of life. Cynicism wakes up the neighbors with loud music blared from her car at 2am with lyrics like these: “I doesn’t matter what I think or what I do. Nothing will change anyway.” Apathy is Cynicism’s fraternal twin. The neighbors never hear or see him. Relativism is at her best at a party of acquaintances when the conversation turns away from gossip and celebrity towards spiritual and political convictions (stuff people argue over…stuff that really matters). All ideas--no matter who bizarre--are kosher. Relativism drives away from the party in an SUV with a bumper sticker that says, “I’m OK, You’re OK.” Absolutism is the guy you don’t want to invite to the party because he can’t acknowledge that his opinions (which he calls “the Truth”) might be false. He and his tribe have a monopoly on objectivity and facts. Everyone else can't see straight. Party pooper.
We reject cynicism & apathy because they do not provide resources for transformation and growth. They do not result in real-life solutions to the myriad of problems that affect us and our neighbors. We acknowledge that apathy and cynicism tend to plague (but are certainly not limited to) the marginalized, oppressed and poor. They are often the outcome of trying and trying, but never getting an opportunity, no matter how much harder they try. They are cul-de-sacs.
We resist relativism and absolutism because not all paths are equal (relativism), but we can never be 100% sure that our path is perfect (absolutism). After research, prayer and dialogue, we become compelled by certain convictions and sink our teeth into them humbly, knowing that they may change when we become aware of new information. Relativism and absolutism are favorites of the powerful and privileged who conveniently hide behind opinions and agendas that become unquestioned facts through either dogma (absolutism) or uncritical tolerance (relativism). The status quo must always be challenged because there are always losers when only a few voices are heard. Those few voices are bridges to nowhere.
A generative spirituality, on the other hand, is a liberation highway of empathy, presence, humility and conviction. When these four come together, there follows a passionate solidarity with and advocacy for people who have suffered from bio-psycho-social disabilities, unjust government policies and dysfunctional family systems. A spirituality consisting of these four ingredients thinks critically and creatively and promotes strategies with outcomes that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
This generative spirituality is a narrow road less traveled, a minority report of options under the headings “religion” or “spirituality” or “worldview.” This road leads to an abundant life (Matthew 11:25-30; John 10:10) only through the exposure and acceptance of inconvenient truths and by embracing a lifestyle that actively comforts the afflicted (whom Jesus called "the least of these") and afflicts the comfortable (the mentality & practice that Jesus called "taking up the cross").
Epilogue: Wendell Berry's prophetic work can help us take inventory of ways that apathy, cynicism, relativism and absolutism have gripped us and how to break out of their powerful grip. This is a short piece he wrote for The Progressive magazine:
1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.
2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.
3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.
4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.
5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.