Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
For I had wandered off from the straight path.
How I entered there I cannot truly say.
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My parents often joke that I was born in a pew, and though I was born in the comfort of a Brooklyn hospital, I may as well have come into the world next to worn-out Gideon Bibles and hymnals with cracked spines and missing covers. There has never been a moment in my life that has not involved church. Some of my earliest memories include prayer meetings, late-night choir rehearsals, hospital visits, and services long enough to put a pious adult to sleep.
And it wasn't just Sundays. My mom worked for a church throughout all of my childhood, and my dad hosted a regular bible study for 60 some odd people in our neighborhood, Queens Village. I spent multiple weeknights in the corner of a church office with my homework while I waited patiently for my parents to finish up a meeting. While everyone else was organizing their lives around vacations and holidays, we modeled our lives after the rhythms of the church.
My parents didn't give me a formal introduction to the Christian religion. In fact, I don't remember any sort of sit-down conversation that outlined the fact that my parents were Christians. It was an unspoken reality, and I didn't know any different. For a long time, I assumed everyone's childhood was like mine. I thought that everyone knew Jesus and spent a good amount of their Sundays singing songs and praying. And even when I discovered that some families took Sundays off, I wasn't too disturbed by the notion; I quite liked our lives. Even as a child, I understood that what my parents did was more than just keep busy, they carried with them a solemnity to their work, and I could sense that they believed that their work mattered.
It wasn't till the age of 11 that I began to wonder if I believed in any of this. After some thorough consideration (thorough enough for an eleven-year-old), I decided that I'd give Jesus a shot.
I still remember the moment. I was in a prayer meeting, slumped in a chair beside my parents counting the shapes in the carpet under my feet. It was one of those carpets that must have been fashionable but had long fallen out of style and was now a permanent fixture of the church's sanctuary. At some point, I lost count of the red paisleys, and I perked up my ears to listen to the man who had just assumed the pulpit. He was tall, white, with gentle eyes and a high-pitched voice that drawled out words like slow-moving molasses. I don't remember much of what he said. But I remember that he asked everyone in the congregation to be quiet and proceeded to tell us that God wanted to speak to us, and if we quieted our hearts and listened closely, the God of the universe would make himself known to us.
Even at eleven, the prospect of hearing God was intriguing enough to get me to close my eyes and listen. The music was gone, the people were quiet, and the whole sanctuary buzzed with expectancy. I leaned forward and listened. I don't know how much time passed, but after a few minutes, I opened my eyes and looked around the room in awe. All about me, men and women of every race and creed had their eyes closed. Some stood, others bowed, and everyone seemed to be listening intently, waiting together for God to speak. I'll admit I heard nothing. But the image stayed with me. And it was pretty soon after that that I asked my parents if I could be baptized.
It took a while for my Christian identity to stick. But by the time I hit my early twenties, I had become a passionate believer. Pretty soon, I was active in my church, studying theology on my own and trying to live out the way of Jesus in my everyday life. Then I was handed a youth ministry, I got married, and I was well on my way to ordination. Then one morning, I woke up, and for the first time in my life, the fire wasn't there. It was a weird feeling. The world felt cold, God felt distant, and my faith seemed to be spiraling the drain. I went about my religious duty. I prayed, attended service, and gave myself to the students in my care, but nothing could thaw that bitter chill deep within my soul. I questioned "every" God moment. Nothing satisfied me. I was numb and judgmental.
The scary thing was, at times, it felt spiritual. The disconnectedness, the ambivalence felt justified. It masqueraded as Christian maturity. I had ascended. I was past the dewy-eyed, slack-jawed Christianity of my peers. I was enlightened. My doubts, disregard, and persistent questions were all evidence of a higher form of Christian spirituality. At least that's what I told myself.
But after a while, the bravado wore off.
It was Sunday and like every other Sunday, I was up early to make the thirty-minute drive to our pre-service meeting. Nothing seemed amiss, I woke up, made my coffee, bemoaned the fact that my wife and I had stayed too late at a friend’s house the night prior, and got into my car with a sigh. I arrived at the church, parked my car, and proceeded to make my way into the sanctuary.
I’ve always found that name ironic. The English word sanctuary comes from the Latin word sanctuarium. It evokes images of High-Medieval churches with elaborate decoration filled to the brim with sensory cues, the stained glass, the incense, the icons, and statues all meant to bridge the gap between heaven and earth. Our sanctuary didn’t feel too holy. It was an old theatre, and like many modern protestants, we traded the icons and incense for bare walls and stage lights. In many ways, the sanctuary of my church represented my spiritual condition. The labels were correct, but any sense of the transcendent was long gone. And it was here at this Sunday service that I first noticed the depth of my condition, a weed slowly snaking its way around the roots of my soul.
It happened during worship. All around me, the air was filled with passionate pleading as song and prayer converged. Men and women of all ages and backgrounds filled the air with petitions. It was like that scene from my youth, but this time it was different. I felt no sense of wonder, no overwhelming sense of the divine. I felt nothing. It was as if I was on a soundproof island cut off from the men and women who sat stood alongside me in the pews. This wasn't just a moment of doubt.
Every Christian has moments of doubt where God seems absent, but even doubt is filled with feeling. The doubter is filled with emotion when they can no longer sense and savor the presence of the divine. This wasn't doubt. Doubt still feels, it still longs, it gets angry, and curious and longs for consolation. This wasn’t doubt. Despite all that was happening around me, I felt nothing. This was something worse than doubt. The wonder seemed to be sucked out of my soul, leaving behind a hollow husk who knew all the right things to believe and yet felt nothing for it. I stood there and watched the worship play out with arms crossed. I felt cold and felt worse for having once felt the fire.
I was at a crossroads. What lay before me was a choice between two paths. Either embrace the cold winter that permeated my soul or seek the sun on better shores. I knew what lay at the end of the first path. To embrace the emptiness was to put an end to my faith.
I instinctively knew that without a sense of awe or wonder, my faith was destined to fail. Something kept me off that path. A nudge of divine grace sent me in another direction. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to discover the root cause of this cold. The "enlightened" spiritual maturity that I so proudly espoused wasn't enlightened at all. It was actually the source of the problem. I wasn't a faithful doubter or undergoing a natural process of deconstruction and reconstruction. I was a cynic.
The word rolled off the tip of my tongue as quickly as it came. It started with the feelings of superiority, the feeling that I was above all the goosebumps and the quasi-emotional highs. Without realizing it, I had normalized mystery and, in turn, robbed it of its prophetic power in my life. I reduced God to about my height and made him a thing to be managed and controlled. I professionalized my faith and, as a result, lost my sense of awe. Without awe, without wonder, all I had left was the cynical sense that all this meaningless smoke and mirrors and manufactured, feel-good feelings.
Cynicism, at its core, is the rejection of wonder and the total abdication of trust. Doubt still wonders. It is a form of epistemic humility. The doubter knows enough to know he doesn't know it all and seeks answers anyway. Doubt is the natural companion to faith, and both require a sense of wonder to flourish. As a result, faith without awe is dead, and doubt cannot exist without curiosity.
The cynic, on the other hand, has lost all sense of the transcendent. They are mistrusting to the nth degree. They have rejected all wonder in an attempt to control mystery. Anything outside the cynic's scope of reference is itemized, categorized, and robbed of any significant meaning.
Cynicism is the opposite of doubt and the enemy of faith. Unlike doubt, cynicism isn't fueled by wonder but is instead driven by radical skepticism. It disbelieves all things it cannot tie-up with a bow and assumes that all mystery hides a deep well of meaninglessness. Cynicism is thus diametrally opposed to faith, while faith "is the conviction of things unseen," cynicism assumes that there is nothing to see. It goes beyond doubt and firmly states that there is nothing beyond the thin veil we call reality. All mystery, all transcendent experience, is met with a skeptical eye.
The question remains, how did I go from a young boy filled with awe to a grown man devoid of wonder. Maybe you're asking yourself the same question. Perhaps you see the signs too, the cold, the radical skepticism masquerading as belief, maybe my story or is your story, and you are at a crossroads too. To understand how we got here, we must unpack the root causes of cynicism both culturally and spiritually. All medical care begins with a diagnosis. To diagnose cynicism, we must look at the current intellectual climate that pervades our thinking, the spiritual praxis that shapes our belief, and the internal spiritual battles that disenchant our souls. Then and only then will we be ready for a remedy.
Faith is worth the fight. The cynic's home is a gilded cage. They are safe but never fulfilled. Authentic living and true humanity require genuine faith. We were made for the transcendent, for glory, gardens, and the immensity of God. Without the humbling effects of mystery, without awe, without wonder, we cease to be human. Our starward gaze calls us to look beyond and to embrace the immensity of creation. It's this gaze that makes us who we are. Eternity is set in our hearts, and in longing for eternity, we become truly human. But mystery's call is all-consuming, and more often than not, it is easier to blind ourselves than deal with its brilliance. Cynicism offers to give us a manageable vision of the world. It promises freedom, but left unawares, it binds us to the lie whispered long ago by those serpentine lips: "you will be like God." And without a capacity for wonder, we lose our ability to appreciate the transcendent, dehumanizing ourselves for the sake of safety. Cynicism limits the scope of our vision, and without vision, we are prone to perish. But we can counteract the dehumanizing effects of cynicism. I hope that at the end of this book, you find the wonder you lost and the faith you've been searching for. On this side of heaven, our inner cynic will always be a thorn in our side, but we can take hope in the words of Christ to St. Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
The question remains: what is cynicism, where did it come from, and how did it seep so deep within our souls?
 Ecclesiastes 3:11
 Proverbs 28:18
 2 Corinthians 2:19