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Christ and the World
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
There is so much talk these days about Christians relating to the world that some analysis of what this means seems imperative. Certainly we cannot hope to grow in the likeness of Christ unless we know something of the mind of Christ regarding the world.
Not the least difficulty we face, however, is to know not so much what Christ meant by the world, because He meant many things but how He wants us to look at the world and deal with it on all the principal levels of our meeting the world.
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex subject, we can say that the New Testament recognizes two principal notions of the world. They are quite distinctive, even though in each case the biblical record speaks of them as "the world." Naturally our attitude toward each of these "worlds" will be different, no less than Christ's was different. I would not hesitate to say that failure at this very point, in not adequately distinguishing between world and world, is the source of much confusion and perhaps the main reason why so many well-intentioned people have been misled. They have mistaken one kind of world for another and, as a result, are spending their energies on the wrong object, which is another name for wasted effort.
The World as God's Universe
There is an obvious sense in which the world is the universe that God created. It is in this sense that St. John opens his Gospel by saying that "all things were made by him," that is, by the Word who is God. It is also in this sense that Christ, according to St. John, spoke of the glory which He had with the Father from eternity, before the creation of the world. It is finally in this sense that John in his Apocalypse tells us there will be a new heaven and a new earth, after the end of the present world, when God will reunite human souls with their bodies and produce a new world of beauty that will never end.
This is the present world of space and time. It is the world that has, as we say, developed in speed and opportunities for human satisfaction, in giving more people more food, more ease, more enjoyment, more life expectancy, more convenience, more comfort--and correspondingly less physical pain and less need for physical exertions than, until a century ago, was ever thought possible.
This is the world about which God speaks in Genesis when He said it was good. It is good because, on this level of our reflection, the world reflects what God intends it to be, and whatever corresponds to the will of God is certainly good.
Can we better describe what this means? Yes, the world of God's creation is all that He has made, insofar as He made it. So that what we are describing is the handiwork of God. It is the world of earth and sky, and all the grandeur and delicacy which this implies. It is the world of the sun, moon and stars above us, the mountains, seas and fertile fields around us, the beasts that walk the earth, the fishes in the waters and the birds of the air. It is the world of the atom and the cosmic ray. It is, in a word, the world that we can see, either with the eyes of our body or the more penetrating eyes of the mind.
Does this world include other human beings besides "myself"? Yes, indeed.
What is less obvious, however, is that the world of God's creation is not only, so to speak, what God has made, but what He is still making. It includes, therefore, the whole complex of God's enduring providence in the world in which we live. It emphatically includes all those myriad things we call "happenings" but that faith tells us are not happenings at all. They are so many manifestations of divine wisdom and goodness, no less than what might be called the existing universe. Both are creations, of course, but where the one is already made, the other is still in formation under the provident hand of God.
What should be our attitude toward this world? It should be an attitude of admiration and gratitude. It should also be an attitude of prudence, whereby we decide with God's grace how we ought to use what the Lord of the universe has so lovingly and lavishly bestowed on us, and so constantly places into our lives.
We are to use this world of size and shape and color and sound, of life and movement and feeling and joy insofar as it helps us reach the destiny for which we were made.
Is this easy to do? No, it is not. It requires careful forethought on our part to keep from being so enamored of God's creatures as to forget their Creator. It calls for shrewd selectivity in our choice of what we see and hear, what we taste and touch, where we go and how long we stay, and with whom we share our affections and in what way.
This kind of naiveté is very common. It is also sad, because even experience, not to say faith, tells us that not everything which is good is good for us. Either we train ourselves to self-mastery in the right use of creatures or we become their slave. Every person who allows himself to be deceived on the right use of creatures in time finds himself a victim of his passionswhether of gluttony or avarice or envy or lust or pride.
How then are we to use this wonderful world of people and things? We are to use it as a means to an end, not as an end (or goal) in itself. It is in this sense that St. Paul tells us to live in this world as travelers on the way to God. Naturally it takes faith to see this. But what are we believers for if not to know the difference between a temporary lodging and our real home?
The World as Sin
Although using the same word, 'world', in the same sermon at the Last Supper, Christ meant two opposite things by the term. If He said He was not asking the Father to take His followers out of the world of creation, He also said He was praying that they might be delivered from the world of sin.
It is worth quoting in context what the Second Vatican Council says about this sober meaning of what some people never distinguish when they casually speak about adapting Christianity to the world.
"A monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God's grace.
"That is why Christ's Church, trusting in the design of the Creator, acknowledges that human progress can serve man's true happiness, yet she cannot help echoing the Apostle's warning, 'Be not conformed to this world' (Rom. 12:2). Here by the world is meant that spirit of pride and malice which transforms into an instrument of sin those human energies intended for the service of God and man" (Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, III, 37).
Needless to say, this world of malice and pride cannot be compromised with. It is worse than useless to talk about involvement in this world, or adjustment to its philosophy, or conforming to its signs of the times. It is tragedy. And the most tragic part of it is that those who advocate this kind of aggiornamento are unaware of their folly. They are so convinced that the future of Christianity lies in adaptation to this world that even to suggest they might be wrong is to expose oneself to recrimination and destruction or, if that is not possible, to ostracism.
As we might suppose, the world of "malice and pride" does not appear to be malicious or proud. It poses, in the words of St. Ignatius, as an angel of light or, in today's jargon, as an angel of liberation from tyranny. Its access to the media of communication has given it power to mold the human mind, to reshape the meaning of language, to change men's pattern of thinking to such depth and extent that some people are unable even to grasp the possibility of what is taking place. Even to talk this way, for not a few of our contemporaries--often learned and well-meaning--is to indulge in macabre fancy.
Yet it is this world that is opposed to Christ on principle. It does not believe that human progress in this world can serve man's true happiness. It holds that such progress is man's true happiness.
This world thrives on adaptation, but in reverse. It uses the developments of science not to help man but to destroy him spiritually. It uses the discoveries of human genius not to assist man in his moral life, to greater peace among men and greater love of God, but to incite conflict among men and to alienate them from God. It uses the marvels of social communication not to strengthen the bonds of faith in Christian community but to mobilize power in the hands of a few who then manipulate their fellowmen as puppets to do their master's bidding--while drugging their victims into insensibility by appealing to "co-responsibility," "shared responsibility," "new morality," "freedom from male tyranny, and the need for being "relevant to the modern age."
There are many implications that follow for the believing Catholic. Not the least of these is great prudence, not in the popular sense of mere caution but in the biblical sense of being, in Christ's language, as simple as doves and as wise as serpents.
Simplicity is not enough in dealing with this world about which Christ made that awful statement, "I pray not for the world." What He meant was that He does not, because He cannot, pray for the success of evil or the advancement of sin.
We hear a great deal nowadays, and rightly, about the need for reconciliation. But let us not be deceived. It would not be reconciliation to reconcile ourselves to the world which faith tells us is opposed on principle to Christ. It would be betrayal. And the betrayal is unfortunately all too easy because people are deceived by the appearance of evil under the guise of good.
Let us be specific. The exercise of ecclesiastical authority in the past had not infrequently been unfeeling, unkind and sometimes unjust. It is good to correct these abuses and make the Church's leaders more responsible to Christ's injunction that bishops in dioceses and superiors in religious communities be humble in their use of authority and not lord it over those whose faith alone sustains their obedience. But what happened? A new theory of speculative theology is now widely current which claims that no one, with stress on the "one"--no one in the Church's structure has the right to command obedience. Instead of bishops holding a divine right to govern in Christ's name, priests' organizations under a variety of beguiling names are the actual governing body and the bishop is only a spokesman for the priests. They decide, not he.
No doubt much of this inversion of Roman Catholic ecclesiology is still mostly in learned monographs published in America and Europe. No doubt, too, that reduction of this theory to practice is meeting resistance in most dioceses from the bishops, supported by the Pope. But the seeds of evasion of episcopal authority have been sown, and the harvest of bad fruit is already being reaped in more than one part of the Church of God.
In much the same way, situation ethics has intruded itself into the Catholic Church. Too often in the past, the objective principles of Christian morality were applied in a wooden and unChristlike fashion. Norms of conduct prescribed by the Church were sometimes treated as though mercy and charity were not also, and primary, moral norms. There was a crying need for reform, and the Second Vatican Council made it clear that the much-needed reformation was on the way.
But again what happened? At first more covertly but by now openly, many formerly respected spokesmen for the Church's morality and canon law are telling the faithful that the whole corpus of moral legislation is not only outmoded but obsolete. Not a single precept of the Gospels is any longer perceptive, we are told, not even the sanctity of human life. The new norm of the new morality is the behavior pattern of civil society. Surely the Church does not want to be out of step with what is obviously a contraceptive, abortive, extra-maritally sexual, maritally unstable, and compulsively permissive American culture?
Against the background of the foregoing reflections, it may seem pointless to still talk about holiness or growth in Christian perfection. But it is not pointless, it is the highest wisdom to encourage ourselves to above-average practice of virtue. Why so? Because holiness clarifies the mind, as the beatitude tells us: "How happy are the pure of heart." That is, the holy of heart, "they shall see God." Concretely this means that the more holy we are in spirit, the more clear we shall be in mind. We shall be able, as no one else, to recognize truth and distinguish it from error. We shall be able to see the will of God because our souls are united with the mind of God. We shall be strong to resist the seduction of sin because we are convinced, not from books but from the Spirit who dwells in our hearts, that this world is like a shadow that passes away and that only one thing matters in this life: to be in the friendship of God.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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