The notion that a Christian should be in the world but not of the world is a scripturally sound theological principle. It is also a paradox. The linguistic difference between a true Christian and a pretender turns on a mere preposition.
But we should not take prepositions lightly. They often serve pivotal and powerful purposes. We want to be liberated through reason but not from reason; we want people to laugh with us but not at us. Christ told us that if we are not for him, we are against him.
Prepositions alert us to relationships, and it is critical for Christians to have the right relationships with people and things. A loving relationship is more valued than a lustful relationship; benevolence is more praiseworthy than possessiveness. As people commonly say about New York City, the world, too, “is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” We are born into the world and spend our lives here, but it is not our ultimate destiny.
We Are Wayfarers
Many Christians make the grave mistake of allowing their eternal destiny to be overshadowed by their worldly preoccupations. They become both in and of the world. A disconcerting example of this is found in a letter by the president of the Canadian Religious Conference, an organization that represents 230 religious orders. The letter, intended for Canadian bishops as they prepare for their once-every-five-years visit with the pope, outlines the conference’s strong opposition to traditional Church teaching concerning divorce, contraception, abortion, the male priesthood, same-sex marriage, and assisted suicide. There is no possibility, of course, that the Holy Father would capitulate on these issues. Nonetheless, the letter indicates how powerful the temptation can be, even for professed religious, to follow the enticements of the world and forsake one’s commitment to the Church that Christ founded.
Christ is a light that comes into a darkened world. Like the sun that provides us with the light by which we see everything else, the light of Christ, which shines through his Church, has its source outside of the world. It reminds us that we are transcendent beings.
The Catholic convert and existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel expressed this idea beautifully in a book called Homo Viator (“Man the Traveler”):
The soul always turns toward a light that it does not yet perceive, a light yet to be born, in the hope of being delivered from its present darkness, the darkness of waiting, a darkness that cannot be prolonged without dragging it in some way toward an organic dissolution.
We are, as the book’s title says, travelers. We are wayfarers, pilgrims, journeymen, sojourners, traveling—with no little difficulty—from one plane of reality to another. How else can we understand this world but as a proving ground that enables us to secure a higher ground?
A Dangerous Path
If we try to settle down to a comfortable life in this world as if it could serve us efficiently on a permanent basis, we will be betrayed by the very world in which we’ve placed our hopes. Particularly in recent centuries, this world provides little hope of cozy hideaways.
Marcel wonders whether:
the systematic refusal to accept this other world is not at the origin of the convulsions that have reached their paroxysm at the present. Perhaps a stable order can be established only if man is acutely aware of his condition as a traveler, that is to say, if he perpetually reminds himself that he is required to cut himself a dangerous path across the unsteady blocks of a universe that has collapsed and seems to be crumbling in every direction. This path leads to a world more firmly established in Being, a world whose changing and uncertain gleams are all we can discern here below.
The Christian motto Memento mori (“Remember death”) warns us not to allow ourselves to be contained by the world and to understand that death is the gateway to a better life. Man, as a spiritual being, does not belong to the corruptible world.
The Russian existentialist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev wrote:
Our attitude to all men would be Christian if we regarded them as though they were dying and determine our relation to them in the light of death, both their death and our own. A person who is dying calls forth a special kind of feeling. Our attitude to him is at once softened and lifted to a higher plane. (Destiny of Man, 121)
It is easier to express a Christian concern for one another when we realize, as G. K. Chesterton once said, that we are all in the same boat and owe each other a fierce loyalty. One wonders if we could love one another at all if we were not mortal. Were we indestructible, the need for care would evaporate. As it is, though, the world needs help from another world. It needs the gospel message. The grasses will wither and flowers will fade, but “the word of our God,” we are told, “will stand for ever” (Is. 40:8).
Paul Cardinal Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture and author of The Church and Culture, draws attention to the critical importance of inculturating the word of God in a world that sorely longs for it. It “stands at the very heart of the Church’s mission to this world.” By contrast, the world suffers from what Poupard describes as “enculturation,” a process by which the world shuts out the light of the gospel message.
Rebellion against Death
Enculturation is synonymous with secularization. It represents an attitude “that leads man to cling to the profane aspects of nature and man,” that disengages politics from theology, science from faith, nature from revelation, the state from the Church. Secularization impoverishes the human spirit, but the gospel liberates it.
We often hear dissenters clamoring for the Church to become “progressive,” to become “a Church of the people,” or to interest itself “more in people than in rules.” But if Christianity were to adapt itself in this way it would not have the effect anticipated by its advocates. Instead, it would become entirely redundant and completely irrelevant. It would cease to exist, and dissenters would have to look to themselves and the world for meaning and salvation.
The fundamental problem among those who reject all religion is that they have not found a way to conquer death. A group of wishful thinkers called “transhumanists” believe they can overcome all finite obstacles, including mortality. They are committed to overcoming human limits in all their forms by extending lifespan, augmenting intelligence, perpetually increasing knowledge, achieving complete control over our personalities and identities, even gaining the ability to leave the planet. Transhumanists seek to achieve these goals by reason, science, and technology, according to a spokesperson, an enterprising individual who dubs herself Natasha Vita-More (née Nancie Clark).
The notion of human life without limits belongs to the realm of fantasy. But the beliefs expressed by transhumanists, including the eradication of all pain, illustrate how desperately unrealistic people can become when they reject their supernatural destiny. Nick Bostrom, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University and another apologist for transhumanism, anticipates a universal cure for aging:
Today we can foresee the possibility of eventually abolishing aging and we have the option of taking active measures to stay alive until then, through life extension techniques and, as a last resort, cryonics. This makes the illusions of deathist philosophies dangerous, indeed fatal, since they teach helplessness and encourage passivity.
Bostrom deprecates those “deathists,” especially Christians, who accept the inevitability of death. Christians would undoubtedly prefer to identify themselves as loving realists. The inevitability of aging and death does not dull their responsibility for caring for people or making great strides in medical technology.
Rebellion against death is, ultimately, rebellion against God. John writes in his first epistle:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. (1 John 2:15–16)
Sanctified in this World
Yet the world is good, because it was created by God. The world as a way of life that is enveloped in darkness is the result of human sin. It is precisely this world that Christ tells us to “hate” and not to “be of. ” Christians are to contrast the world of God’s kingdom with the world that is alienated from him and try to bring these two worlds together. After all, it is while we are in this world that we are sanctified.
John does not neglect the significance of being in this world:
If anyone says “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (1 John 4:20–21)
We merit heaven only through loving our neighbor on earth. Our role as Christians is to love one another while we are in a world that is only a temporary dwelling place as we.aspire to be of that heavenly abode to which we belong eternally.