Being Orthodox Part 15: Engaging the World
What is the relationship between the Christian and the world? Should a Christian isolate herself from the world in order to find holiness and goodness? Or does a Christian have a responsibility to participate in the world around her?
One of the things people notice about Orthodox Christianity is its strong focus on monasticism. Monks and nuns, and consecrated servants like deacons and deaconesses are valued very highly, and Orthodox faithful often speak as though their lives are clearly superior to those of the “common” faithful who live “in the world”, in secular society, getting married, having children, holding down jobs and paying mortgages. While there is certainly much to admire in those who take up the cross of consecrated life, there is also an important thread that runs through ancient Christian thinking that brings some balance to this view. For example, there are the many writings of the ancient Fathers of the Church that speak very highly indeed of the virtues of family life and see the family as an icon of divine love in diverse ways. There are stories of great ascetic saints like St Anthony and St Macarius being led by God to meet some “common” Christian individuals living the family life in the world, and being told that these “common” Christians excel even these heroes of monasticism in the eyes of God, simply by living a life of sincere divine love.
Most readers are not living the consecrated life (nor am I really qualified to write about it) so let us focus instead on what it means to be a “common” Christian, living “in the world”. Are we meant to be an active part of this world, or are we meant to be sojourners: strangers passing through a foreign land in which we never feel at home? There are passages in the Bible that suggest that we must be “the light of the world”, yet there are others that suggest we are but travellers who never put down roots. So which is it to be?
In true paradoxical Orthodox Christian style, I believe it is both. To understand how this can be, we must first understand what the Bible means when it speaks of “the world”. When the New Testament speaks of the world in a negative sense, when it says things like “do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15) we must understand that it is not speaking of the world as a whole. After all, it was God who created the world, and He repeatedly called His creation, “good”. And even though sin has entered this good world, it can never overcome the goodness inherent in God’s good creation. So the “world” being referred to in passages like this is not the world as a whole: kittens and flowers and sunny autumn afternoons, but the corrupted world, or more specifically, the corruption of the world. It is this corruption that we are not to love, not the creation of God itself, which after all, serves as the mirror that reflects the image of the God we love. So there is nothing at all wrong in loving a good chat over coffee with someone you love. That is just to appreciate the gifts God gave you to enjoy. There is a reflection of your love for God in your love for your friend. But there is something definitely wrong with loving the act of sharing cruel and spiteful gossip with your friend. That is “the world” we must be wary of loving: the corruption of the good things God created.
So the Christian is indeed a stranger and sojourner amidst the corruptions of this world, incapable of fitting in with a world in which cheating, lying, backbiting, cruelty and hatred dominate human relations, unable to participate in that atmosphere of selfishness and evil wherever she finds it. She must take great care not to be drawn in by the allure of sin but rather remain “unstained by the world” (James 1:27NRSV). Only thus can the Christian play her true role in this fallen world: to be salt and light. But notice that salt cannot flavour the food without being part of the food, and light cannot illuminate the world without being in the world. Humans were created to be the stewards or caretakers of the world. In that sense, we must lovethe world, just in the way that God loves the world that He created. In order to play our role as the agents of God’s love, healing a broken and fallen world and sanctifying it and restoring it to its intended state little by little, we must be a part of that world and engage with it at every level – except sin.
What does it mean to engage with the world? How can we engage with the world without being stained by its current corruption and fallenness? I recall a story about the late Fr Bishoy Kamel, who once received a letter from a young lady from the country who had accepted a place at a major university in the great city of Alexandria. She wrote to him expressing her fear and anxiety at moving away from her family and her little parish to such a large city where there were so many new people with new ways of thinking and so many temptations to sin. She was afraid that her personality and perhaps even her faith would change by being dragged down by all these influences. Fr Bishoy responded by chiding her. Did she not know that the One who is in her is greater than the one who is in the world? Did she not carry Christ Himself in her body and her heart? Why on earth should she think that the world was going to change her? Was it not the natural thing that Christ, who is far greater than the world, would use her to change others? This positive attitude illustrates perfectly, I think, the reality of sincere Christian life. If Christianity is what we think it is, then it is truth and life itself. It is the clearest, deepest and most powerful account of reality we have, and reality has a way of asserting itself no matter what we think or do (more on this in the next chapter). So why should we fear the world? Only those who have not yet learned to love the Good God, those who have not yet given themselves heart and soul to His goodness, should be afraid that the world will overpower them.
Let me be quite clear here: I am by no means advocating a kind of arrogant overconfidence by which you should cast yourself recklessly in the path of temptation thinking that you are invincible! That is to tempt the Lord your God, and we know that is never a good idea. What I am saying is that in the course of your normal life, in going about your daily business, if you lean upon God and keep His truth always in your mind and heart, you will be the kind of Christian who influences others rather than being influenced yourself.
Consider the passage where St Paul tells us that, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Corinthians 6:12). This is a powerful message indeed! “The earth is the Lord’s, and its fullness, the world and all who dwell therein” (Psalm 23:1LXX). Everything in the world was created by God, and created to be good, so nothing is off limits to the true Christian. But of course, “to the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15). Putting all these passages together we see that for the sincere Christian, nothing in this world is scary. The true Christian is the one who is able to look at anything in this world, anything at all, and identify what is good, true and pure in it, and then work to nurture and grow that goodness, truth and purity, thus healing and sanctifying the world, little bit by little bit.
Let us take a simple example. When the Harry Potter series of books and movies came out, a number of Christians (some of them sadly within the Orthodox Churches) quickly condemned them as being works of the devil and manuals of evil and occult practices. Some Christians even wanted the books banned from public libraries. But other Christians (some of them happily within the Orthodox Churches) read the books without fear, recognising in the “witchcraft” nothing more than a literary device that has been used to great effect by numerous authors, among them such Christian paragons as JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. When they read Harry Potter, they saw not evil sorcery (although there are some evil characters of course) but Christ-like love and self-sacrifice by the main characters, together with loyalty, nobility, integrity and the ultimate inevitable victory of good over evil, and love over hatred. One Christian author even wrote a whole book bringing out the very Christian messages in the Harry Potter series. To the pure, all things are pure.
Similarly the true Christian feels no need to hide from new ideas, different ideologies or intellectual debate. If our faith is the truth, what have we to fear? To be sure, we need first to train ourselves in the art of dialogue, communication and debate. We need to know how to do our research properly so we don’t make fools of ourselves. Many a debate has been lost, not because the loser was wrong, but because the winner was the better debater. But keeping these cautions in mind, we have a responsibility to share the truth we have as inheritors of the Gospel with whoever is willing to listen. And we must also be humble enough to learn from others, for God does not limit His truth only to Christians. The whole world is His, and every human being is His beloved child, to whom He speaks in the way appropriate to the circumstances of each. The true Christian recognises truth wherever she finds it, and discovers that “truth cannot contradict truth” (that itself, but the way, is a maxim of the pagan philosopher Aristotle, repeated by the Muslim philosopher Averroes).
And there are other instances where engaging the world is almost compulsory if we are to be truly Christian. The Christians who engaged in, indeed drove, the political and social movements that abolished slavery in the Western world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were certainly not shying away from the world. They did not think of themselves as somehow separate from the world that contained slavery, nor did they comfort themselves in the knowledge that slavery is but a passing, temporary state of affairs, and in the grand scale of eternity it would matter very little. No, they took their stewardship of this world very seriously indeed, and realised that they must work tirelessly to abolish evil wherever they could. As I write these words, my own homeland of Australia is gripped by a number of evils. The federal government’s moves to hide the abuse and atrocities going on in their offshore detention centres for illegal refugees are likely to result in moral disasters at least as bad as the famous stolen generation of indigenous children and the institutional child abuse cover-ups of the past. Indeed, the whole sorry plight of the poor health and social disadvantage of indigenous people in Australia is an evil that the true Christian surely cannot stand by idly and ignore, while still claiming to be Christ-like. We cannot hide from such evils by saying that we do not belong to this world. If our Lord loves this world, and if He loves these people who are hurting, how can we not love them? And if we do love them, how can we stand by quietly and do nothing?
This is what it means for the Christian to engage with the world. Orthodox Christianity teaches us not to shrink from the world. It teaches us not to condemn the world as evil, seeing ourselves as having the right to condemn the world since we are so much better than the world. The Orthodox Christian is not a “puritan” who believes that the only way to remain “unstained by the world” is to keep yourself as far away from it as you can. No, Orthodox Christianity teaches us to live in the world, knowing it to be God’s good creation, and to engage with the world without fear, bringing to the world the truth and love it so desperately needs. The Orthodox Christian ultimately aims to rise above the corruption of this fallen world, but she aims to bring the world (or at least that little part of the world she inhabits) with her. The corruption is left behind, but the world itself is raised together with its steward to the goodness for which it was originally created.
So should we “love the world”? Yes and no. We must love the world itself, for it is God’s creation and reflects His nature. If we love Him, we must love His reflection too. But we must not love the corruption that is in the world. Neither should we fear it. By the grace of God working in us, by the truth He reveals to us, and by the love He puts in our hearts when we are united with Him, we are to engage with the world and strive by doing so to heal it from its corruption. I find this an incredibly beautiful and liberating way to relate to the world around me as a Christian.