“Be in the world, but not of the world!” Great advice, but not easy to follow.
We struggle with this tension. On the one side, the temptation is to keep ourselves pure and unstained by the world, but at the cost of excessively separating ourselves from it, not loving it, not leaving ourselves vulnerable as Jesus did to feel its pains, and not modelling how someone can live inside the world and still have a vibrant faith and church life. The other temptation is the opposite: To enter the world and love and bless its energy, but to do so in a way that ultimately offers nothing in the way being salt and light for the world.
We will never be free of this tension. Such is the price of paradox. However in order to live within it more healthily, we need a certain theology and spirituality to guide us and we need a greater personal maturity to sustain us.
What kind of theology and spirituality can help us? What kind of personal and collective maturity is being asked of us?
In terms of a theology and spirituality, what we need is a vision that holds in proper tension our love for the world and our love for God. One may not be sacrificed for the other; they must be brought into proper relation.
We need to be able to love the world in such a way that we bless and honour its goodness, its energy, its colour, its zest, and its moral strengths, even as we stand where the cross of Jesus is forever being erected and speak prophetic words of challenge in the face of the world’s moral deficiencies, injustices, self-preoccupation, proclivity to greed, and less-than-full vision. But prophecy is predicated on love. Unless we first honour and bless what is good in the world we don’t have the moral right to criticize it.
We need to be in solidarity with the world in everything but sin, blessing it with one hand, even as we hold the cross of Christ with the other.
But that’s not easy. We don’t just lack the vision, we also lack the moral and emotional strength needed to imitate Jesus. He could walk with sinners, eat with them, embrace them, forgive their sins, feel the pain and chaos of sin, yet not sin himself. He could challenge the world, even as he blessed and enjoyed its energies.
And the struggle to do that is not abstract, but earthy: Mostly we can’t live as Jesus did simply because we lack the maturity to walk amidst the temptations, distractions, and comforts offered by the world without either losing ourselves in them, selling out our message, or unhealthily withdrawing into safe enclaves to huddle in fear, against the world, protected from it, but at the cost of denigrating its goodness, energy, colour, and zest.
It’s no accident that our church communities sometimes look fearful, grey, sexless, and uninviting in comparison to the freedom, colour, eros, and energy that’s manifest in the world. We remain religious, but often at the cost of being unhealthily fearful, timid, frigid, and depressed.
But Jesus was never fearful, timid, frigid, or depressed. We often are because we need to protect ourselves, given that we haven’t got Jesus’ maturity. And our timidity has its own wisdom, but …
In the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola looked at the church and thought a new maturity was needed. He founded the Jesuits in response.
We need that today. Someone needs to found a religious community with no rules because, for its members, none would be needed. Everyone would be mature enough to live out a poverty, chastity, and obedience that does not need to be externally prescribed and over-protected by symbols that set it apart. Attitudes and behaviour would be shaped from inside and would emanate from a commitment to a community, a vision, and a God that puts one under an obedience that is more demanding than any outside rule. The community would be mixed, men and women together, but strong enough to affectively love each other, remain chaste, and model friendship and family beyond sex and without denigrating sex. The community would be radically immersed in the world. Its members, sustained by prayer and community, would be free, like Jesus, of curfews and laws, to dine with everyone, saints and sinners alike, without sinning themselves. This community would give itself to the world, even as it resisted being of the world.
Perhaps that’s naive, but whenever I voice this fantasy to an audience the reaction is always very strong: Where can I find that? I’ll join tomorrow!
The world needs mature Christians who, like Jesus, have the strength to walk inside the world, right inside the chaos of sin itself, without sinning themselves. Like the young men in the Book of Daniel, Christians must be able walk around inside the flames without being consumed themselves, safe, singing sacred songs in the heart of the blaze.