On Worldliness

Or: The one where Luke would get flagged for [original research] on Wikipedia.

Over at catholictwentysomething*, there’s a good article about a counter-reaction against worldliness – or more specifically a “religious bubble” lifestyle which can, and is, a repellent for many potential converts to the faith. Miss Catholictwentysomething rightly observes that “[s]o many of the overtly Christian people I met seemed segregated from the rest of the world in a way that I knew I couldn’t handle.” This is a fact we can’t ignore among potential converts, and it’s something that I had an aversion to in my teenage years (despite being a regular Sunday Mass attendee). However, this “religious-bubble” application of Christian anti-worldliness is not an orthodox interpretation of our call to be “in the world, not of the world”. It is instead more like a heresy that takes a truth and extends it to the point of distortion. Allow me to explain:
*Excuse the blatant promotion :)

Now, Our Lord and His Apostles have plenty to say about worldliness in the New Testament. The following quotes should suffice:

“And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” (Luke 8:14, ESV)

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26, ESV)

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, ESV)

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17, ESV)

It is evident that we are called to a radical conversion, to throw off the things of this world in order to follow Christ. In the early Church this radical conversion materialised in Acts and the Epistles – and this lives on in the Church today from cloistered Carmelite nuns, to lay communities and movements, to a pope who cancels his own newspaper subscription. On the other hand, this is the same Church that is called to go out and make disciples of all nations – that is, not to bunker down and keep the Good News to herself. It’s on the interplay between these two facts where we can gain the true understanding of how Christians ought to approach “the world” (and where I derive my three components of “the world”). But its also precisely in misunderstanding this interplay where we see common errors emerge.

It was either this or Jersey Shore.

The first component is the practices of the world. These are the encouraged practices of our fallen nature which are either sinful or can easily lead to sin – the activities which we undertake in order to obtain an unsatisfying perception of happiness. Today’s obvious examples are mostly attempts at narrow self-centred pleasure: a lustful and drunken lifestyle – YOLO, GTL, et. al. As this is the most overt component of worldliness – the key promotional tool of the world if you will – it is the typical reference point when the 21st Century Christian speaks of “the world”.

Despite all this, Christians can still fall down on this front through denying the sinfulness of worldly practices. Dave Mustaine of thrash metal fame sums up the more extreme end in speaking about his born-again Christianity:

“Even though I’ve found God, I still love [sex], and I still say f***.”**

For all I know, Mr Mustaine may have changed his opinion on this, but this quote is a good representation of how far one can take the “once saved, always saved” mentality which subverts the radical change required in picking up one’s cross, and actively presumes on the mercy of God.
**Obviously, he didn’t say sex – but I’d rather not give free advertising to this flavour of sexual deviance.

Blind-spots: No fun.

Yet Christians who do not subscribe to these fringe fundamentalist positions needn’t be too smug, as one can find themselves also falling short in shedding the practices of the world through a favourite term of mine: moral blind-spots. These are the areas in which our conscience is dulled***, not-so-coincidently in the places where we need the most spiritual scrubbing. These are the barbed hooks which are painful to remove, and so we would rather leave them in: preferring to make excuses (“That’s just the way I am”) or feign ignorance (“It’s not *that* bad”) so we can keep on truckin’.
***Blunt conscience: Contrary to the currently-popular use of the term, a conscience is not some kind of infallible moral metal-detector. To utilise Bishop Anthony Fisher’s analogy, conscience is more like a satellite navigation system which we need to ensure has the right maps and is correctly calibrated – sharpened, if you will. Fallen man has a nasty habit of mistaking our will for our intellect, thus legitimising whatever one feels like doing as coming from one’s conscience (See the phrase: “Do what you feel is right”).

The second component is the idols of the world. These are the substitutes for God which the above practices are directed toward; the false idols which the world promises are essential to our happiness, but are ultimately the mere filler which fails to patch the deep longings of our heart. What are these idols of the world? Fr Robert Barron, in referencing St Thomas Aquinas, identifies them as wealth, pleasure, power and honour. Now each can be good given a proper context and sober approach, but it is all too easy to build these up as the ends to which we aim. In doing so, they become the poor substitutes which distract us from the true source and end of our joy: God.

And here I was thinking St Thomas Aquinas wouldn’t feature in this post. I should really know better.

As to be expected, this is the most difficult component of “the world” to deal with, as the vast majority of Christians will spend their whole lives attempting to shake off these idols which not only demand our attention internally due to our concupiscence, but externally from the proclamations of the world. Further, they are not simply cast aside once we abandon the practices of the world, as we can just as easily direct seemingly pious or good acts toward such evil ends. To take Fr Robert Barron’s own example, his desire to perform well in the academic realm from childhood to his priestly life was consistently nudged by the desire for honour in the form of praise for himself instead of God. Plenty of other simple examples exist: bishops tempted to careerism, professionals tempted to pass up their family for a promotion, concerned persons tempted into the pleasures of snarky gossip over charitable correction. These are all massive temptations, especially for those who have developed a distaste for worldly practices.

It must be noted that on correctly identifying misguided intentions within ourselves, we should not then be fooled into ditching pious activities altogether. Rather we need to perfect our intentions and, after prayer and deliberation, direct our good efforts toward God. Just as good yet imperfect contrition warrants perfect contrition rather than an abandonment of confession, so does imperfect intention warrant perfect intention.

The third component is the spatiotemporal dimension of the world. This is less about what “the world” is, but what “the world” isn’t. “The world” is not a geographic place, it is not a physical entity, it is not the things of creation. “The world” is that which separates itself from God by seeking to be less than what God made it to be. All of God’s creation is good, as God said in the beginning.

Yet the Church has been continuously fighting against the notion that creation is evil since her very early days, when Gnostics would contend that the material world ought to be despised. This has continued down the ages from Manichaeism to Catharism to Puritanism; such heresies concerning the physical world have repeatedly popped up wearing fashionable clothes. Within Catholicism there can sometimes be a risk to view Western secular society as evil in of itself, viewing the societies in which we live as akin to living in the wreck of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. This is understandable: when I look at a TV to see a group of people pointing fun at young woman who desperately sold her body on a now-leaked video (thus ruining her life)****, the urge to pack up shop and live at a compound in central NSW becomes attractive.
****Yes, I did actually see this television programme. On free-to-air. At midday.

Not for hiding lights under.

Not for hiding lights under.

Catholictwentysomething is correct in identifying this as a problematic view of how to approach the world, as it forfeits our responsibility to evangelise to all nations. Much like the errors in the above two components, this error too is a failure to pick up our cross and follow Christ. It is imperative that we engage the culture around us, even if that means approaching them where they are (without screaming about their sinfulness). This is the call for all Christians who don’t have a vocation to cloistered religious life, which is presumably most of us.

So how do we understand and implement a true understanding of engaging “the world”? My admittedly simple answer is to come to terms with this quote:

“There is only one sorrow: not to be a saint” -Léon Bloy

By aiming toward our true end, by aiming toward sainthood, by aiming toward God: we can delve into the richness of Christ and His Church. We find this richness in prayer, in Scripture, in the teachings and Tradition of the Church, and the writings of great saints (and those who long to be great saints). It is in this richness that we undertake not only an inner conversion (and thus purge ourselves of worldiness) – but an exterior witness for all nations.


One thought on “On Worldliness

  1. Blatant promotion excused…and very much appreciated :P

    I liked this post so much I really have nothing to add, except that I wanted to stand up and applaud your simple but oh-so-true conclusion! It’s easy to fragment our thoughts and actions by consciously struggling between ‘worldliness’ and ‘holiness’ – but if we simply give our all to God in the true spirit of sainthood, our lives will be an amazing witness to all those we meet.

    Though that central NSW compound is awfully tempting at times :P


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