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God so loved the world -- so perhaps we can, too


Be not conformed to this world,” the young man intoned from the church lectern, deepening his voice until it rang with gravitas.

There was a time when those words from Romans would have comforted me. I grew up schooled in a sense of deliberate, faith-filled alienation: We were in the world but not of the world. Ours was a deeper truth, a higher calling. The life that mattered came later, in the fullness of time, in God’s kingdom.

As a child, I absorbed this detachment automatically. Following Jesus meant pulling back a little from the world around me, ignoring the temptations that danced on wires around my head. I would be mocked and scorned by my peers. But I had only to remember the vinegary rag the soldiers offered to Christ.

The world I trusted stayed small. I knew other Catholics would be kind and good. With anybody else, I was taking my chances. By the time I reached my 20s, this powdery dry cocoon was cracking and splitting open. Through the gaps, I saw alien truths and contradictory ways of being faithful. I managed to accept the diversity without losing my fundamental detachment. I still squinted at the outside world, reducing it to abstractions like “modern society” and dismissing its ways as secular and therefore shallow, irrelevant to universal truth.

In my 30s, I tried to think of being “in the world but not of the world” as a creative tension, a balancing act that would keep me in the proper equilibrium. Now I’m not so sure.

I read the warm, reassuring passages early in the New Testament, laced with such phrases as, “God so loved the world that he sent his only son,” and, “The world and all that is in it is mine.” I wonder what happened.

When Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world,” I guess we took him literally, setting world and kingdom apart as two separate spheres, one in each of God’s smooth palms. Soon the epistle writers were insisting, if you followed their logic closely, that the world God made was not worthy of God.

“Keep oneself unstained by the world,” they urged. “A friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” And the kicker: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.”

There was a time that renunciation made sense to me. The seductions and false promises of the world plain terrified me. The safest way to negotiate them was to remind myself daily that they were hollow. Since then I’ve tried too many crash diets, read too much psychology. We do not free ourselves from temptations by resisting them, any more than we end pain by tightening our muscles against it.

It is perfectly possible to be part of the world, appreciate its rich detail and even its seductions, without succumbing to them. Their power, after all, flows straight from our human nature, our need and desire and frailty. If we can learn to understand and love ourselves, we can smile fondly at our folly.

Know its true causes. Fill the emptiness as calmly and wisely as we can. True detachment is not detached at all. It is intricately connected, bound up with the whole. But instead of reaching for such wholeness, we split ourselves in two. We Christians have drawn a line in the sand, and it feels good: clear and righteous and a little superior. We band together for solidarity, covering our ears to shut out the din of misinformation. Our way is hard, we remind each other; it requires discipline and singlemindedness, lest we be led down the primrose path of self-indulgence and forfeit our eternal reward.

We treat ourselves like wayward teenagers. Yet the best way to keep a teenager safe from peer pressure is not to tell her that other kids’ opinions don’t matter and urge her to ignore their vices. The best way is to help her understand why they act the way they do, and find ways to connect with them without losing her own good sense. To do that, you have to trust her.

I close my eyes and try to imagine Jesus murmuring, “Breathe deeply and relax: Be aware of yourself, and your relationship to the world around you. You belong to that world, you are part of its rhythms and open to all that is good in it. Embrace the world, understand it, penetrate its layers and know its limitations. You will find my Father through the world he created, yet he can carry you past its trials, and his love will always exceed its bounds.”

How calming it would have been to not have to tense up against the world, fearing its sway over me. How whole it would have felt to love God and creation instead of seeing them at odds, pure spirit competing with corrupt and dangerous matter.

When spirit and matter disjoin, we are pulled apart.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002