Hauerwas: Cynicism and Truth-Telling

Over the past two days I’ve been re-watching a lecture given by theologian and professor Stanley Hauerwas on Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s views on truth and politics. Here are some nuggets worth considering that come from about 40 minutes into the video.


While speaking about the idea that to be able to tell the truth requires training–that no one does it all the time, and that everyone must learn how to do it–Hauerwas quotes Bonhoeffer saying, “Only the cynic claims to speak the truth at all times and places.” According to Bonhoeffer, “Anyone who tells the truth cynically is lying.” Hauerwas continues his own thoughts:

I’ve long argued that cynicism is the primary virtue of liberal social orders. You can find it most clearly determined by parents thinking that they ought to raise their children to make up their own minds. That’s cynicism. That’s why people in America think they won’t be morally compromised as long as they don’t have a position they cannot distance themselves from. That’s cynicism.

Basically, if we are so easily able to distance ourselves from a position, a belief, or a group of people (i.e., Jesus is Lord and Savior), we wrongly believe we won’t be impacted by our inability to ever hold positions with confidence. What we think is a flexible or tolerant stance is mere apathy or cynicism.

In the U.S., we have come to believe that not believing anything with conviction is more virtuous than the opposite. And so what we pass on to our children when we say, “I think you should just believe what makes sense to you,” is merely cynicism, not autonomy. You’ve now imposed upon them your fear and cynicism.

Hauerwas later makes this point: “Take an American expression: ‘I really believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, but that’s just my personal opinion.’ That’s a lie,” he laughs. “The grammar is just all screwed up!” The person saying this is not willing to be tied to their statement, so their statement is a lie; it’s self-deception.

Is Hauerwas correct? What are the consequences of making Jesus our “personal” savior? Or as the popular worship song sings, “My Jesus, My Savior…”? Does your faith in Jesus as the Christ say something about others that you are uncomfortable with?

Also, is there a difference between honest pursuit of truth and a lifestyle of cynicism? If so, how do we distinguish between them?

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2 Comments to “Hauerwas: Cynicism and Truth-Telling”

  1. Frank Newman Says:

    Good stuff.

    As believers,we have theoretically come to know the Truth which is Christ alone. The way I see it, to “tell the truth” I only need to completely humble myself to Him and live through Him (which of course, being human and naturally ego-centered, is not so easy and perhaps does require “training” or reigning-in of myself).

    However, regarding the point, “to be able to tell the truth requires training–that no one does it all the time”, I might argue that, perhaps rather than “training”, it requires the utmost discipline or obedience, and I might further challenge that Christ Himself indeed knew (or knows) the truth and He certainly required no training… but rather a total and singular dedication to the will of the Father… which again ain’t easy for the rest of us, but we are called to be like Him, and it does seem to get easier as we follow His perfect example.

    But I love this topic because for me, the pusuit of the truth (mostly about myself and/or who I was without Christ), although the greatest challenge of all for us, was the very key or the narrowing path that led to my salvation. Perhaps my favorite verse is (John 8:32) “…know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

  2. Stephen Callender Says:

    @ Frank Newman – That’s an interesting thought–about training versus obedience–worth considering.

    It seems training assumes that even when you become a disciple you don’t always know what to do; you still need to learn how to see. Obedience and discipline assume you know what needs to be done, that you see correctly, but that you can’t follow through. I think both are very relevant (Jesus talks more of training & Paul more of obedience??).

    I do admit I’m much more on the side of training. I’m not convinced that I always see the world correctly. I’m more convinced that my other loyalties, to nation or cynicism, are blinding me to see the world accurately given Jesus is Lord and Savior. I need to learn all that that confession means. It just might require me to reject some things my other loyalties accept, and vice versa.

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