Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Unspotted From the World

Having taken a look at the Flesh, it seems appropriate to look next at the World.

The Greek word that is usually translated "world" is rather interesting. It is kosmos, derived from a verb, kosmeo, meaning to arrange or set in order, especially in the sense of making something beautiful (thus cosmetics). As the English universe reflects the tendency of our own age to consider 'everything there is' in terms of a singular mass of hugely varying individual things, so the Greek kosmos reflects the tendency of the ancients to think of 'everything there is' in terms of a harmoniously ordered whole.

The word aion, typically translated 'age' (hence eon), can also mean 'world.' However, it has slightly different connotations. Where kosmos means the world as a physical location, aion tends to mean world more as we speak of 'the ancient world' or 'the modern world' or 'the Roman world.'

Both words contribute, probably, to the Biblical significance of the World as a source of temptation. All Christians confess that the world (kosmos), as it was made, was originally very good; however, that kosmos has become infected by evil in its very structure, both human and angelic, and hence this present world (aion) is contrasted in Scripture with the world to come, an aion of its own. Jesus, in descending from Heaven and executing judgment, will cleanse this kosmos of its present aion and usher in a new aion; He will cleanse the world itself of worldliness, as it were.

By World, then, are signified those temptations which come, not from our interior pressure to sin (what technically is called concupiscence by theologians, and which we have discussed under the name of the Flesh) -- rather, the World means those temptations which come from deficient or depraved structures of sinfulness. These are pressures not interior to individuals, but systemic in societies. It doesn't matter terribly what sort of society we have in mind: political, artistic, religious, economic; all are vulnerable to weaknesses flowing, not just from individual follies and failures, but from systemic and corporate sins and blind spots.

Stereotypically, the class of sins a person is willing to recognize depends upon their socio-political disposition, at any rate in our time and country. Conservatives are generally fairly good at seeing sins of the Flesh, and also in seeing that individual lapses have consequences for the rest of society too. The remedy to such things, as they say, is an increase of personal responsibility.

Liberals, meanwhile, tend to see systemic wrongs and injustices more clearly. Racism, sexism, environmental concerns, education, and the disparities between classes are problems in which political and economic systems are heavily involved, and the American left has become associated with advocacy for such causes. The solution they generally set forth is legal reform, so as to establish a system in which (as the slogan Dorothy Day loved goes) it is easier for people to be good.

And all of that would be fine, if it resulted in a united society with stereoscopic vision. Unfortunately, though rather predictably, what it has in fact produced is a society bitterly divided between people who cannot see individual responsibility, and people who cannot see anything else. Since, by and large, Christians tend (for reasons we need not examine just now) to fall among political conservatives in America, it is precisely the battle with the World that we have a tendency to be blind to -- and to lose.

The reality of the World is in fact difficult to impress on people's minds nowadays, even on Christian minds. And, in a society so saturated with depraved forms of sexuality and general excess of pleasures, it is natural that our minds should be directed very largely to the Flesh rather than the World. But the idea that our very struggles with the Flesh are, in part, imposed upon us by a system designed to vex us on such counts, and that not only personal devotion but societal repentance and reform are needed, is frequently forgotten or even dismissed as leftism. For example, the sufferings of the poor -- a group to whom nearly every book in the New Testament pays significant attention, let alone the warnings and imprecations of the Old -- are regarded as being perfectly soluble by hard work in a capitalist society; without any analysis of the real effects of capitalism upon a society, not to mention its impact on the individual heart. That the rich systematically oppress the poor, in this society like any other, is not clearly before the minds of our generation in the Church. That economic success can be an occasion of sin, or even a temptation, is not evidently considered even by very good Catholics, despite our Lord's reiterated warnings that the rich will find it hard -- impossible, even -- to enter the kingdom of God, impossible certainly while they maintain their attachment to the kingdom of the World.

There is a sort of foul parody of the Holy Spirit going on here. Since God is love, there must be present in Him a Lover and a Beloved and Love between them; and Christian teaching identifies these three respectively with the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Spirit is given a pale reflection in the way associations of people differ from the members that constitute them. The very fact of association brings a corporate entity into being; the association influences its members, just as they influence it; it is a Gestalt reality, greater than the mere sum of its parts. The problem is, the World is such a Gestalt too. The World can corrupt individual people, just as individual people can corrupt whatever society they find themselves in. All of us, to be sure, have our sins that we found our own way into. But is any of us so independently minded, that there are no sins we have been led into because 'everyone was doing it'? Things we would never have done on our own initiative, but which a corrupt system -- social, religious, political, etc. -- made possible and even compelling?

The remedy to the World's tempting power is the Church. This may sound clericalist or naive, but it is not. Our present generation of Christians has, aside from Catholics, a contempt of the institutional church that I have never understood, one which often smacks too of a diluted Gnosticism about the Body of Christ.

When I say the Church is the remedy to the World, I mean 'the Church' in every sense of the word. True, local institutional churches may be of little credit to the Church Catholic; true, the worldwide institution has at some times been a somewhat regrettable sight. But when it comes to opposing the systemic evils of the World, there is very little good in setting up another secular system to purify it. You cannot wash water. The Church on earth is not perfect, but she is that very society set up, by Christ Himself, to be a rebuke and a corrective to the sins of the World; if she fails at that, it is right and necessary to reform her, but abandoning her has never yet gotten anybody anywhere. The Protestant Reformation was many things, both bad and good; but only a complete ignorance of the real conditions of the lives of common people in Protestant nations thereafter, will allow anybody to say that leaving the Catholic Church improved society. Nor, nowadays (and stretching back into the nineteenth century), has the exodus of many former Christians from the faith noticeably improved -- well, anything really. The rebukes of ex-Christians, and especially ex-Catholics, to the Church, reveal a frame of mind unable either totally to leave the religion and either ignore it or else judge it with real impartiality (as, say, a Confucian might), or to return to it and truly understand it, from within. It must be admitted that such a preoccupation does nothing to help the World become better, in any dimension. Chesterton sums it up quite nicely, I forget where, when he says that "If the world grows too worldly, it may be rebuked by the Church. But if the Church grows too worldly, it cannot be adequately rebuked for worldliness by the world."

But the reason that the Church is the remedy to the World is that she is not simply part of the World. A non-Christian might not accept the claim, but the Scriptures plainly teach that the Church is, mystically, the Body of Christ -- the Incarnation of Christ in this world -- and this claim is, therefore, binding upon those who profess Him. She is admittedly an earthly society as well as a heavenly society; as Jesus whom she communicates to this planet was Man, as well as God. In giving our allegiance to the Church, we are literally commending ourselves to the coming aion in the midst of the present aion. It is only such a supernatural appeal that can fix any part of the present age for any appreciable length of time. This world, infected by the World, cannot sustain itself. The Church alone can do so, for she is the vessel specifically appointed to bear everlasting life into every society. We can no more do that by ourselves than we could clear away a rainforest with a penknife. In opposing a system of evil, we need not only individual holiness, but a system of holiness; principalities and powers must be answered by powers and by principalities.

And again the Devil led Him to the top of a high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and he said, "All these will I give to You, for they have been given to me and I may give them to whomever I please, if You will fall down and worship me." And Jesus said, "Get behind me, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God only, and Him you shall serve.'"

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