Getting Cynical About Ourselves

An interview with Mark Ellingsen, the author of Blessed Are the Cynical

What is the most important thing Augustine has to say to us about human nature and why is this important for political and civic life?

Augustine teaches us to be cynical, first, about ourselves. The most important thing he has to say is, Be careful of your own motives. Make sure you see the log in your eye before the specks in others'.

And watch out for what you think is good and just. Maybe what you think is good and just is not really so good and just. It's just good and just for you. This kind of Augustinian understanding is going to make you a better citizen.

When we can get the American public to appreciate this Augustinian view of human nature, more people are going to be receptive to hearing about God's love and to seeing life for the miracle that it is.

Your book is titled Blessed Are the Cynical. How can cynicism be a good thing?

If you are Augustinian, you know that people rationalize. Whatever they say they're doing for others, they're doing for themselves, ultimately.

Cynicism is good in our context right now because, for an awful lot of us, times are still good. The recession hasn't hit that hard for some of us. Cynicism makes us pause and ask, Is it really good for everybody? When President Bush tells us about the goodness of the American people, is it all about peacekeeping in these international interventions? Or is it more about American interests and economic interests?

That's the kind of thought process cynicism gives you. It helps you to see that maybe the scales aren't as even as we think they are, that maybe times aren't as good for everyone as you think they are.

You talk about the cynicism that motivates us to seek justice. How can cynicism do that?

I want to work on two levels: as an American citizen and ...

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Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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