By David Timms
A cynic or skeptic lurks deep within many of us.
Cynics, on the one hand, tend to harbor deep and dark suspicions about people and causes. They assume that beneath the surface lies an intention to deceive, and they can be critical and snarky about it. We see it constantly in politics, frequently in the workplace, and all too commonly even in the church.
Skeptics, on the other hand, may not have such deep levels of distrust, but they share a nagging feeling that what they are hearing is not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Skeptics have swirling doubts and questions, and conversations with a skeptic often involve plenty of, “Yes, but . . .”
We’ve all met such people. We may even live with some skeptics and next door to others. In this age of the critical spirit, cynics and skeptics abound. Indeed, sometimes we have our own skeptical moments. How shall we respond?
Perhaps three foundational statements can guide us as we chat across the fence or in the lunchroom.
1. Skeptics are made, not born.
Scientists likely won’t ever isolate a “skeptic gene.” Indeed, quite the opposite. Children seem to exhibit an innate naïveté and trust. That’s why we say to our kids over and over, “Don’t get in a car with a stranger! Don’t touch the fire!” Part of responsible parenting involves warnings about possible harm because our children don’t have refined radars. So we talk about the dangers everywhere and model (through our language and actions) a cautious distrust of the world.
Years ago author Robert Fulghum wrote a best-seller book titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. He went on to describe such axioms as: share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, and clean up your own mess. But truth be told, we also learned the darker side of life, even in kindergarten, when others wouldn’t share with us, treated us unfairly, hit us or hurt us, took our things, and made a mess of our stuff. Our inner skeptics were born. Niceness doesn’t always prevail.
Sadly, as we grow older we experience further hurt and disillusionment, and it reinforces for us that suspicion is healthy and wariness is good. Pain and loss make us gun-shy. Bad things truly happen to good people, and skepticism (we hope) protects us (a little).
I recall when an intoxicated carpet cleaning salesman entered our home with his vacuum cleaner. We couldn’t get him out for nearly two hours, and I had to threaten to call the police before he would finally leave. Lesson learned: Never open the door to a salesman! But I wasn’t born with this kind of mistrust or skepticism.
On another occasion, an insurance salesman toiled to sell me his products. I’d just attended a conference for salespeople and had been taught how to close the sale, and there I sat watching and listening as these very same techniques were being used on me. Lesson learned: Salespeople know how to manipulate me and will do so. The roots of skepticism drilled a little deeper within me.
I remember a young friend at church who suffered from chronic back pain. One of our peers came to him one weekend with “a word from the Lord” which promised him full healing very soon. It never happened, and I felt his despair. Both my friend and I grew just a little suspicious about such prophetic words. One more tendril of skepticism gripped our souls.
Surely as we talk with skeptics we can understand that they are not the enemy. Rather, like us, they have suffered in life, been taken advantage of, been misled by others, and their skepticism forms a healthy, appropriate, and understandable defense mechanism.
Perhaps part of having a meaningful and respectful conversation with a skeptic involves hearing their story and discerning the sources of their suspicion. As Stephen Covey once advised his millions of readers: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” We all understand the world autobiographically, based largely on our experience. If we listen (and hear) before we speak, we may be surprised by how the conversation opens up.
Skeptics are made, not born. But there’s a second foundational statement that carries equal weight.
2. Skeptics share our roots.
When people don’t share our values or our convictions, it’s easy to forget that they share our humanity. After all, they pose a risk of sorts, and we fear that their denial of our convictions might diminish our own confidence or mislead others around us. It becomes tempting to demonize the skeptic and marginalize them to minimize their threat to us, our friends, and our families. Cults and sects have done this for centuries, casting out those who ask questions.
But we share common ground on at least two levels.
First, and most importantly, we share a common humanity. God created all of us—yes, all of us—in his image (Genesis 1:27). The image of God does not depend on race, nationality, gender, political views, or religious faith. It lies intrinsically within us as human beings. Therefore imago dei (“image of God”) binds us together and will not allow us to dismiss another person and their sincere questions as insignificant. As John Donne famously wrote in 1624, “No man is an island, entire of itself; each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” To the extent that we isolate ourselves from others, we diminish ourselves. The skeptic in our backyard or the next cubicle belongs to our “continent.”
Second, skepticism—doubting and asking questions—lies at the heart of a thoughtful life. The followers of Jesus had plenty of skeptical moments. They doubted that he could calm a storm (Mark 4:37, 38), feed a crowd (6:35-37), or rise from the dead (John 20:26-29), but Jesus consistently showed patience with them. He did not ostracize them, shame them, or discard them. To the contrary, he understood that doubt forms a natural part of our journey, which can ultimately make faith vibrant and real.
As we look beneath the surface of the skeptic and see our common humanity and common experiences, our hearts may grow far more attentive than defensive.
Finally, a third foundational statement deserves our attention.
3. Skepticism and faith are not incompatible.
Skeptics often gently (or not so gently) challenge Christian assertions: How can you know that you know? How can you be sure? Don’t you find Christian hypocrisy at least mildly disturbing?
But skepticism—questioning—does not threaten our faith. Quite the contrary, Christianity makes open provision for skepticism. The psalmists of ancient Israel had no reservations about crying out to God, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). In that moment of pain and isolation, the feelings of abandonment swept up the psalmist, and his words reflected real questions (and doubts) about the goodness and presence of God. The psalm concludes with words of affirmation—“I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me”—but not before the inner skeptic found its voice, and God did not silence it.
Christianity is not about perfection but redemption. Christians see their own flaws clearly enough, but our Christian worldview allows for both failure and growth, both sin and sanctification. We have, or should have, plenty of room for hard, even unanswerable, questions. We acknowledge the reality of evil and suffering while affirming both the power and the love of God in the midst of it all, despite our struggle to reconcile the two at times. We will always have more questions than answers, but that’s fine. Faith is not clarity on every issue, but trust in Christ despite our questions. After all, eternal life is not about knowing all the answers but knowing the Son (John 17:3).
How shall we converse with skeptics? Thoughtfully, sympathetically, openly, lovingly, respectfully, and confidently. The skeptic within us all should draw us together not drive us apart.
David Timms serves at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.