Wild Goose East ended a week ago and I’ve been reflecting on the experience. I went to the festival guarded, having heard that the previous year’s iteration was marked with tones of bitterness and cynicism toward institutional forms of Christianity, unimaginative rehashing of failed theological liberalism, and exploration of a bland and consumerist non-distinct “spirituality.” I was ready for more of the same, yet hopeful that the theme for the festival, “Exile and Return,” might offer a way forward.
In that regard, I was not disappointed. There were still plenty of angry people, many of them rightful so. They’ve been injured by “people of faith” and have a hard time reconciling the hurt they’ve experienced with a community that is supposed to be marked by God’s love for the world, in the world. For many, the anger developed into cynicism toward Christianity and “the church.” These people are in exile and sometimes it is helpful to be able to call it what it is.
Yet God doesn’t keep people in exile forever. Exile is not a destination, it is a waypoint. Cynicism can serve as a helpful defense mechanism to keep one from further injury. However, stay there too long and cynicism quickly turns into a vicious bitterness. I know. The land of exile is, more often than not, an uninhabitable wilderness. Even when it is not, it is manageable only through seeking shalom.
Ian Cron’s remarks on becoming a post-cynical Christian were particularly helpful. Drawing from his own recent exilic experience, Cron spoke about the need to move through cynicism into becoming “people of the resurrection.” People find their way to Christian cynicism via many different routes: legalism, the vulgarization of Jesus and the Gospels, the business of church, anti-intellectualism, a general fatigue of certitude, and many others. At some point, however, each of us needs to ask, “Do I like what I’m becoming?”
Cron did not. He got to a point where he didn’t want to “live in Saturday anymore.” Here, Cron was referring to that day inbetween Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The immediate trauma of the crucifixion was gone but the joy of the resurrection was yet to come. Saturday was the wilderness in between.
Instead, he wanted to become a “resurrection person.” This is something easier said than done. Moving out of cynicism and into the resurrection requires grief. It’s much easier to be angry than to grieve. Anger gives the illusion of control whereas grief requires a certain abandon.
We invent great excuses for staying cynical. We confuse cynicism with enlightenment. It becomes our duty to remain skeptical and cynical so that we can unmask hypocrisy and the abuse of power in the structures around us. We see it as a service we offer to those poor, duped folks who have yet to see the underbelly of “religion.”
But prolonged cynicism more often is a mask for laziness and an evasion of responsibility. Instead of being the change we want to see in the world, we snipe about the forces working against lasting change and the hidden motives that drive apparent change. We totter on the edge of becoming conspiracy theorists.
Cron found help in the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi, especially the Saint’s eponymous prayer:
- Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
- Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
- Where there is injury, pardon.
- Where there is doubt, faith.
- Where there is despair, hope.
- Where there is darkness, light.
- Where there is sadness, joy.
- O Divine Master,
- grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
- to be understood, as to understand;
- to be loved, as to love.
- For it is in giving that we receive.
- It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
- and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
For me, this is “return.” Cynicism may be the new black, but black is still the color of mourning. Cynicism should give way to grief, and grief makes it possible to experience resurrection. The way to return is through the resurrection.
Wild Goose offers a pathway of return. People in exile show up in droves, but among them are those who are moving through exile and toward return. I’m thankful that some of these conversations were elevated at Wild Goose and hope they continue to reverberate. Lord knows I need them.