Lent is a time when the Church reminds us forcefully that a Christian should be in the world, but not be of the world. For many of us, though, this is a truism.
It is also a paradox since the difference, linguistically, between a true Christian and a pretender turns on a mere preposition: in or of.
We should not, however, take prepositions lightly.
The seemingly unprepossessing preposition can serve a truly powerful purpose. We want to be liberated through reason but not from it, and we want people to laugh with us not at us. We want to be with it not out of it, and we would like to look up to our elders not down on them. Christ told us that if we are not for him, we invariably are against him.
Prepositions alert us to our relationships with both people and things.
And it is critical that we have the right relationships. Surely, for the Christian, a loving relationship is more valued than one dominated by lust, benevolence is more praiseworthy than possessiveness.
The “world” seems to entice us into the wrong kinds of relationships. The poet William Wordsworth lamented:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
The world is reminiscent of what people commonly say about New York City: “It is a nice place to visit, but I would not want to live there.” We are born into the world and spend our lives there, but the world is not our ultimate destiny.
The grave mistake of many Christians is to allow their eternal destiny to be absorbed into their worldly preoccupations.
A good, though disconcerting, example of this is found in a letter by the president of the Canadian Religious Conference, an organization that allegedly represents 230 religious orders. The letter, intended for Canadian bishops as they prepare for their once-every-five-years visit with the Pope, specifies 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 to such demands since it would represent an act of self-dissolution, rejection of Christ and complete adaptation to a secular world. 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. The image of “light” is most instructive. Like the sun, light is that by which we see and not what we look at directly. Yet, the sun provides us with the light by which we see everything else.
The light that Christ brings into the world and continues to fuel through his Church has its source outside of the world. Because of its other-than-worldly origin, it reminds us that our destiny is also beyond this world. We are transcendent beings. This world is not our permanent abode.
Cardinal Paul 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.
“Inculturation,” he writes, “stands at the very heart of the Church’s mission to this world.” By contrast, the world suffers from what the cardinal describes as secularization, a process by which the world implodes upon itself, shutting out the light of the Gospel message.
They represent an attitude “that leads man to cling to the profane aspects of nature and man,” one which disengages politics from theology, science from faith, nature from revelation, the state from the Church. In a word, secularization impoverishes the human spirit, whereas the Gospel liberates it.
If Christianity adapted itself completely to the world, it would not become a “progressive Church,” or a “Church of the people,” or “a flexible Church that had lost its rigidity,” or “an organization more interested in people than in rules.”
It would become entirely redundant and completely irrelevant. It would cease to exist. At that point, the dissenters would have to look to themselves and the world for meaning and salvation.
The fundamental problem among secularists who reject all religion is that they have not yet found a way to conquer death. This problem is exacerbated by the realization that even if death could be eradicated, what kind of world would it be if people continued to age indefinitely while, at some point, there would be no room left for the blessing of new children?
A group of wishful thinkers called “transhumanists” think that they have found a way to be both in the world and of the world for all time. One of their spokespersons, an enterprising individual who dubs herself Natasha Vita-More (née Nancie Clark) explains how transhumanists can believe in overcoming all finite obstacles, including that of mortality:
Transhumanism is a commitment to overcoming human limits in all their forms, including extending lifespan, augmenting intelligence, perpetually increasing knowledge, achieving complete control over our personalities and identities, and gaining the ability to leave the planet. Transhumanists seek to achieve these goals by reason, science and technology.
The notion of human life without limits belongs to the realm of superstition. 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 and try to live forever as citizens in and of a totally secularized world.
Lent is not “Christian transhumanism.” St. John the Evangelist, in his First Epistle, writes: “Do not love the world or the things that are in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; because all that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life; which is not from the Father, but from the world.”
This is a most powerful statement. Here, the antagonism between God and “the world” is clearly and strongly expressed. There is no room for dispute. Yet, a question remains. Is the world evil? Is it possible that a good God could have created an evil world? Or is there another God, an evil one, who created the world?
At this point we must distinguish between the Greek words gaia, which refers to the planet earth, and aion, which refers to the era or age or the mores of the time. As Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft has explained, “Satan is not the god of God’s good, green earth, but the god of the era begun by man’s fall into sin.” According to St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae I, Q. 65, a.1), “the devil is called the god of this world, not as having created it, but because worldlings serve him, of whom also the Apostle [Paul] says, speaking in the same sense, Whose god is their belly (Philippians 3:19).”
The world (as a place) is good since it is created by God. But the world as an age and way of life that has plunged itself into darkness is the result of human sin. It is precisely this “world” that Christ tells us to “hate” and not belong to (or be “of”).
Lenten sacrifices should serve our role as Christians — to love one another while we are in a world that is only our temporary dwelling place, as we aspire to be of that heavenly abode to which we belong eternally.
Donald DeMarco is
adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary
in Cromwell, Connecticut.