The Christian Misanthrope

Can you be a Christian misanthrope? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a misanthrope as “a person who hates or distrusts humankind.” Precisely used, the term refers to someone who retreats from human interaction out of a rejection of human community. Understood as such, it should be pretty clear that you can’t be a Christian misanthrope, for that’s a contradiction in terms. Christianity’s emphases on love and community make our faith tradition obviously incompatible with someone who would declare that he is done with humanity.

So I will admit that the phrase “Christian misanthrope” is a bit of intentional literary exaggeration, an oxymoron meant to grab attention. But I also use the term because I have been called a misanthrope from time to time—kiddingly, I hope, by friends who know my strong preference for alone time and independence. Even to call it a “strong preference” seems an understatement. I often tell people that when I underwent my psychological evaluation for ordination to ministry, my tests concluded that if I were any more introverted, I would quite simply be dead. My default is to be alone; it requires intention for me to seek out the company of other people. I like quiet; I often prefer time to talk to myself over talking with others. A good weekend to me is spent walking in the woods behind my house, sitting on my porch staring at the deer in the field across the way, or tinkering with a project in my garage.

So I have been called a misanthrope from time to time, but of course the label doesn’t quite fit, because I don’t dislike people. I love people; I love spending time with people I’m fond of. I get genuine joy out of running into certain colleagues and friends. But my default is to be alone. That’s when I am truly relaxed, how I recharge my batteries. Friendships, then, are welcome interruptions to a predominantly solitary life, not the other way around.

Many people see me in the pulpit or in the classroom and declare confidently that I can’t possibly be as introverted as I claim. You’re so comfortable in front of crowds! You’re so confident in public roles! You’re not shy! But of course shyness and introversion are not the same thing. I can rise to the occasion and channel my energy to teach and preach. But when I refuel is in the two or three hours after worship, when I do little more than stare into space, or sit and watch football with my family. I’m hardwired to require alone time.

Again, being a private person or craving a lot of solitude doesn’t, strictly speaking, make you a misanthrope. A misanthrope doesn’t want to be around people, doesn’t like them. Introverts like me love people, but we do need those social moments to be in small, chewable doses. But even if that doesn’t make me a misanthrope, does the disinclination to being social make me somehow an inferior Christian? It’s easy to think so, given how much we talk about love and community in Christian circles.

Christianity defines “the good life” as being in community, namely the community of the church. The life of faith is characterized by fellowship with others following the same Way of Jesus. Some of our most common practices suggest that people-time is a fundamental part of being Christian, in a way that runs against the natural grain for people like me. The passing of the peace: we show our community in the grace of Christ by working the sanctuary, grabbing the hand and patting the shoulder of as many people as we can. Fellowship Hour: we practice faith community by jamming 150 people in one room, in one massive social encounter. Or here’s an idea: let’s stand in a circle and then turn to the person next to you and engage them at point-blank range, as an exercise in Christian spiritual intimacy. Better yet, let’s hold hands while we do it, because it’s not excruciating enough already. We even define Christian service as quintessentially working a room of relative strangers, by serving a meal or volunteering at a clinic or school.

These common ways of being the church run counter to how I am built. I suspect I am not alone (in fact, I know it), even if I am an extreme case. Given our discomfort with some elements of Christian practice, does that make us introverts inferior Christians?

I am decidedly imperfect as a Christian, but in this case I wonder how much of the disconnect between who I am and what church sometimes requires is because being church is so often defined by folks wired the opposite way, by extraverts. It’s certainly true that we introverts live in a broader American culture that is largely dominated by and defined by extraverts, people who get their energy from other people and therefore define what is right and good by encounters with other people.

A couple of years ago, corporate consultant Susan Cain wrote a delightful book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, in which she made just this observation. She argued that popular American culture is dominated by the extraverted norm, where talking, teamwork, and networking are assumed to be goods, sometimes at the expense of thoughtfulness, depth, thoroughness, listening, and creative independence. The focus of her book is on business and financial culture, and she argues persuasively that the financial crisis of 2008 may not have happened if a few more introverts were contributing to Wall Street culture, contributing the caution, pace, and critical reflection that often comes with our personality type. If you see a bit of yourself in my self-portrait, you might want to read Cain’s book, if only to reassure yourself that you are not alone in the world. And if my personality seems odd and foreign to you, you might do us all a favor and pick up the book, too.

I think what Cain says about popular and business culture is often true of church culture as well. It’s possible that we collapse Christian virtues and values with extraverted interpretations of those sentiments. If we put our minds to it, then, we might be able to imagine those virtues and values sometimes taking more varied form, including some practices that better suit those of us who don’t naturally live so much outside of ourselves.

Small groups that meet for study and fellowship provide an opportunity for people to develop meaningful relationships with a few people at a time, at a pace that suits folks for whom socializing is a high-impact workout. Silent prayer is a worship activity that might make extraverts productively uncomfortable but speaks to many introverts in meaningful ways—perhaps we should do more of it. (My observation is that extraverts often self-identify during silent prayer by getting restless after they feel that the silence has gone on an inappropriately long time, usually about 15 seconds. By contrast, many introverts could sit like it was a Quaker meeting without feeling an ounce of discomfort.) I think it’s worth asking: to what degree are practices in church necessary expressions of Christian values, and to what degree are they reflections of a particularly extraverted interpretation of what Christian faith requires?

When I am feeling my most out of stride as a Christian, I like to think of Jesus as an introvert, too. Oh, you might say, Jesus couldn’t have been an introvert. Look at the way he loved people! He spent all his time with people. The Gospels suggest he was a compelling public speaker. He wasn’t shy or withdrawn. But as we have established, being shy and being introverted are not the same. Jesus effectively lived into his public role, as many of us introverts do. But the Gospels tell us on several occasions that Jesus retreated from the public eye, retreated from public roles, retreated into the still and quiet alone time of a dark place, or the wilderness. He left his friends and adoring crowds to hide for a bit on the other side of a lake, or in a garden. Maybe Jesus was an introvert, too. Jesus discharged his public ministry, but he also withdrew from time to time, to be alone in silence with his own thoughts and with God.

If that’s not totally farfetched, then instead of feeling like inferior Christians, perhaps we introverts actually reflect an authentic side to the Way of Jesus, every bit as much as the extraverts around us. But if so, the church may need to work to better reflect that diversity. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul reminds us that the church needs its different parts, and that the diversity in its ranks is not a problem to solve as quickly as possible, but rather a richness we need in order to be the church. We’re used to reading that passage and thinking that Paul is talking about differences in gifts, skills, and roles. But perhaps making room for different personality types is another way to honor the way that the church is full of both eyes and ears. And perhaps we make room not by sympathetically accommodating those socially awkward introverts, but by admitting that this diversity too is likely God’s intention. “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body… [For] God has so arranged the body….”

What would it look like to honor more faithfully the different personality members of the body of Christ? Perhaps it would mean lifting up the volunteer who sits in an office stuffing envelopes for church or charity as practicing laudable Christian service, just as valuable as the one who serves meals or visits the sick. Perhaps it would mean heeding the advice of John Buchanan, retired pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, who advised in a recent article in The Christian Century that we think about the impact that our fellowship opportunities might have, particularly on new people to our congregations who may not necessarily see a deep-dive into a mass of strangers as a welcoming invite. Perhaps it would mean incorporating more silence into our worship practices, educational moments, and meetings.

But while we are doling out sensitivity training for an extraverted church, those of us who are introverts have something to learn from the extraverts in our midst. For the extraverts remind us that in the Christian worldview, community is not optional. We need community; we need people. Some of us must balance our social interactions with alone time more than others, but you cannot be a Christian in isolation. I know, I’ve tried. An extraverted church, with its embodiment of Christian love, friendship, and community reminds us of that. A functional misanthrope cannot be faithful to Way of Jesus. Extraverted Christians keep us introverts spiritually honest.

Christ meets us in the faces of those to our right and our left, and Christ also meets us in the moments when we are truly, completely alone. Thanks be to God for both.