World and Church Revisited

Sean O’Conaill  Doctrine and Life 2000

The recent long-distance exchange between the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Des Connell, and Irish President Mary McAleese, revived an old and tortured question – the proper relationship of the Church to ‘the world’. Dr Connell emphasised the sadness and waywardness of the modern world, and the need for holiness in opposition to it, quoting in disapproval the president’s call for ‘a revitalized Church comfortably adapted to the modern world’.

He can be justly criticised for not quoting the rest of the sentence from which this came: ‘yet a profound centre of spiritual gravity’ – but nevertheless there seems to remain a fundamental opposition between these two views of ‘the world’. In one it is spiritually dangerous, to be held at a distance and judged and redeemed – i.e. changed – by the Church; in the other it becomes judge of the Church’s ‘relevance’ or health, in the sense that a church ‘out of touch with’ the world is to be considered itself in need of change.

This question, is, I believe, central to the division between what we might loosely describe as the ‘reformist’ and ‘restorationist’ stances within the Church. As there is a critical need to find some common ground these times I would argue that we can find some here – by teasing apart the different senses in which ‘the world’ may be understood.

We may begin by noting that the Bible uses this term in quite different senses. Most Old Testament references are to those inhabited parts of the earth known to the scripture writers. For example:

(Gen 41:57) And all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world.

Here ‘the world’ is simply the totality of locations from which the peoples known to the author may come. In Psalms the ‘world’ is also the totality of the human race, to be judged by God:

(Psalms 96:13) They will sing before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.

In Isaiah we find a note of condemnation: the world is not merely the created world, but the world of men that stands somehow in opposition to God.

(Isaiah 13:11) I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.

Yet this association of ‘the world’ with human arrogance does not completely obliterate the world that is fruitful and good:

(Isaiah 27:6) In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit.

All of these usages – positive, neutral and condemnatory – occur again in the New Testament.

(Matthew 5:14) You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.

(Matthew 13:35) So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

(Matthew 18:7) “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!”

In John we can find for the first time the usage of ‘world’ in opposition to Jesus – all those who do not recognise him for what he is:

(John 1: 10) He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Yet this world of non-recognisers will nevertheless also be redeemed:

(John 1:29) The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Jesus also directly accuses ‘the world’:

(John 7:7) “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.”

Yet he intends its salvation.

(John 12:47) “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.”

After the crucifixion ‘the world’ becomes those who are not the disciples:

(John 15:19) If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

How are we to make sense of this essentially bipolar attitude towards the world? How can the world be both essentially good, at once a beautiful creation, and at the same time something that opposes the light, from which we must stand apart, whose hatred we must overcome?

An additional problem arises from the specifically modern perception of the world as in a dynamic rather than static condition – in progress – however tortuous – towards Utopia. This perception was at its peak in the 1960s, after nearly two decades of comparative international peace and economic development. The Vatican II document ‘Gaudium et Spes’ (Joy and Hope) caught this perception beautifully, balancing this joy and hope with the ‘grief and anguish’ that is also so much a part of our ‘world’. Three decades later Utopia may well seem further away, certainly in global terms, as possible environmental catastrophe is added to the woes emanating from man’s growing scientific and technical power – with consequences for the entire human family we cannot yet predict. Since the 1960s also – when a repeat of the horrors of Auschwitz seemed unthinkable – we have seen the return of essentially the same scapegoating violence in the Middle East and the Balkans. All of this lends weight to a view of ‘the world’ as fixed in ‘Sin’ – from which the Church should indeed shrink.

Yet the world remains God’s creation, a dear inheritance that becomes even more dear now that it faces environmental degradation at our hands. What exactly is the sin that insidiously threatens our, and its, survival?

Our best way into this, I believe, is to reflect upon the power of ‘the world’ vis-a-vis the individual – a power that has never been stronger in Ireland than at this time. Its unprecedented array of career paths and glittering prizes is unarguably seductive and all-absorbing – as the exodus of so many of our young people from Catholic practice and ‘ethos’ clearly proves. What is the source of this power?

It is, I believe, the same as that which governs mimetic desire or covetousness, the root of the acquisitiveness, miscalled ‘materialism’, I dealt with last month – a search for self-esteem through the esteem of others, especially our coevals. We are, naturally, esteem-seekers, not self-sufficient or independent in our possession of self-esteem. And because we withhold esteem from some, and bestow it upon others, we must always be unequal possessors of self-esteem. A perennial feature of ‘the world’ is therefore the unequal bestowal of esteem – the fact that it is always a pyramid of esteem. It is this feature of our sociability that maintains desire: we are insatiable in this matter of esteem because its complete possession always (or almost always) eludes us.

It follows that ‘the world’ – although always holding the carrot of its esteem in front of us – this thing to be achieved if we buy this or do that – must always deny us its fulfilment. It is the adrenalin of unfulfilled desire that maintains ‘the world’ of desire.

There is, therefore, a dimension in which ‘the world’ is indeed always and forever the same, and dangerous – a desire ‘trap’ that keeps us fluttering in a state of dissatisfaction around the honey pot of fulfilled desire. The world’s tragedy is that it cannot in fact fulfil the desires it creates.

The reason is simple: if all of us are to be at the summit of the pyramid of esteem, who will provide the base? If we are all to be applauded, who is to do the applauding? Maximum esteem implies a world of esteemers, of applauders – so if we all seek it, most must be frustrated – and those few who are not must then be envied, and thus supremely vulnerable to the ambition of those who have been denied what they also seek. Here we find the explanation for the rise and fall of ‘Great Men’. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, archetypally, is driven by the desire for the unprecedented esteem that had been accorded to Alexander – but his very success evokes the murderous envy of those to whom he thus denies the very thing he has acquired. Great Men closer to our own time and place are these days going through a similar experience.

Here we find also the explanation for the vulnerability of celebrities today: no-one is more vulnerable than the Beatle, the one who has climbed the pyramid of (especially female) esteem to its summit. Out from the wings comes the stalker, at once fascinated by, and dangerous to, the object of his (seldom her) fascination.

And so those at the summit of popular esteem and fascination can sometimes go full circle, now desiring that which is possessed by the non-esteemed: privacy. In other words they desire a state of not being an object of fascination, of being unknown.

Yet most of those who are unknown feel for that reason unesteemed, and so simultaneously desire the very thing the celebrity would disown, if that were possible. Desire is never-ending.

Unless we can somehow come fully awake from this fixation and say, truly, that all of us are equally worthy of esteem by virtue of our creation – and live our lives, and relate to others, on that basis. I believe that the Incarnation is, historically, the means by which this is to be achieved.

To the extent that our world proclaims and serves the principle of genuine equality, our church lags behind, remaining itself, by deliberate choice, a medieval pyramid of esteem that must change. To the extent that our world remains actually, and at the same time, a pyramid of esteem that promotes unfulfillable desire, the church must stand apart and proclaim a different value system. These are not irreconcilable positions.

The Church must do, in other words, what Jesus did. Proclaim – in deed as well as in word – a different kingdom in which esteem is as much the birthright of everyone, as is the life they have been given by the giver of everything.

The most extraordinary and mysterious thing about the Gospels is their revelation of a life lived in rejection of the pursuit of worldly esteem, within both the religious and the political worlds – and in proclaiming a different kingdom. It is so outrageously transcendent of all human ‘greatness’ that it will forever critique it. Yet the Church that proclaims this life at the same time retains a culture and structure it borrowed from a world of Emperors and kings, which also awarded esteem with blatant inequality. Why else these days would some Cardinals be elbowing one another for media attention, and careerist bishops be a phenomenon prevalent enough to be deplored by a Cardinal in a position to know?

Which of us is the greatest? This is the game we play daily – as much on the motorway as in the boardroom and the Vatican. It is the original sin, the source of Cain’s intolerance of Abel. Which of us is the least? This is the question asked by Christ, who showed the way. Humility, the essential lived quality of the incarnate God, should also be the essential characteristic of Christian leadership. It is the only source of peace, freedom and mutual esteem in all communities, civil and religious. To the extent that the church superstructure withholds equality of esteem from the least of its members – women especially – it becomes a simulacrum, not a contradiction, of the God-opposing world

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