What Does it Mean to “Accept the World”?

In his wonderful book Foundations of Christian CultureRussian philosopher Ivan Ilyin begins one of his most remarkable chapters with these words:

Whoever wants to create Christian culture must accept Christianity, he must breathe it into the depth of his soul and turn back to the world with a new wholeness and freedom. Expressing myself in philosophical language, I would say that such a person is called to actualize within himself the religious “act” of Christianity, and from it to begin the creative work of transfiguring the world itself in a new spirit. Naturally, in order to do this, he must first accept the world created by God and given to us as a gift.

These are shocking words to some, and difficult to understand. Perhaps most difficult is this concept of how to “accept the world.” What does that mean? Are we not called as Christians to reject the world? But here, this most Christian of philosophers is equating “accepting Christianity” with “accepting the world.” What is going on?

A Personal Story

Before I get into that question, I’d like to share a personal struggle I’ve been dealing with. You know that passage in Psalm 54 that’s read during 6th hour? It’s one of several that are sometimes difficult to accept for literal-minded modern people. This is what I mean:

If an enemy had reviled me, I could have borne it…But it was even thou, a man of like mind, my guide, and my own familiar friend, who took sweet counsel with me at table; we walked in the house of God in concord. (Psalm 54:13-16)

The verse that follows is harsh: “let death come upon them…” etc. I have always been a little inclined to wonder at that strong language. But no more.

I had an experience recently that was so visceral, so devastating, that I immediately understood why David expressed himself thus. Truly, the Psalms sometimes describe our inner selves in frighteningly stark reality.

Without getting into details, I was unable to find the stores of gratitude necessary to counterbalance the injury and anger I felt by this betrayal. And that scared me, because I have much to be thankful for. But in the moment of anger, I couldn’t remember or even find that gratitude.

The Book of Delights

This morning, as things were finally coming to a calming-down of sorts for me, I read this amazing article from Brain Pickings. In it, a poet and gardener named Ross Gay described how he decided to be more cognizant of the delights of life that he missed by being inattentive. He sought to write a daily essay exploring daily delights. From the post:

Each day, beginning on his forty-second birthday and ending on his forty-third, Gay composed one miniature essay — “essayettes,” he calls them, in that lovely poet’s way of leavening meaning with makeshift language — about a particular delight encountered that day, swirled around his consciousness to extract its maximum sweetness. (Delight, he tells us, means “out from light,” sharing etymological roots with delicious and delectable.) What emerges is not a ledger of delights passively logged but a radiant lens actively searching for and magnifying them, not just with the mind but with the body as an instrument of wonder-stricken presence — the living-gladness counterpart to Tolstoy’s kindred-spirited but wholly cerebral Calendar of Wisdom.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve been shamed into thinking: “Why is it that secular people do this sort of thing much more often than Christians seem to?” We have a religion of great love and joy, and yet so often we are mired in personal and professional problems, unable to rise above anything other than merely managing to scrape by.

From such a soul-space, no good culture can ever be made. 

To Accept the World

And so, we return to Ilyin’s words about accepting the world. His vision of culture creation is rooted in a profound, discerning encounter with the created world, and acceptance of that world as a gift from God. Only after such acceptance can we enact his great project, which I’ve written about before:

And so. Science, art, government, economics—these are, as it were, those spiritual hands by which mankind takes the world. And the task of the Christian is not to brutally chop off those hands, but to imbue their work from within through a living spirit accepted from Christ. Christianity has in this world a great task of the will, which many never accomplish. This task can be characterized as the creation of a Christian culture.

A New Series

Photo by Mark Gibbon

I will perform an experiment. To store up tangible remembrances against the day of my next dark night of the soul, I will try to “accept the world” daily.

Starting on January 14, for thirty days straight, I will post a short essay that in some way will “accept the world” as God’s gift. Then I will attempt to incorporate that short “acceptance” into the larger project of culture creation for our time. If this works, I will consider continuing it beyond the thirty days. I invite you to come along with me for the journey.

4 comments:

  1. World in English as two meanings, one ancient but still current and one relatively more recent. World isxfrom the old English Wer + Aeld/Man + Age. It means millieu, and translates the Greek word Aeon. Thats why in older English liturgical parlance one encounters “world without end” the equivilent of “unto ages of ages”. Frankly i think the older form sings better.

    In a related but more materially contrained sense by world we mean this planet (as experience in this age), and by extention off either sense we mean creation and general. Thus we are called to love and accept the world as a gift, this planet, the cosmos, its life and substance, human culture and our place in it. But are also called to turn from the world…the millieu where it customs and values run awry. It is fallen. We are also to be its light, lifting it from darkness, its salt, preserving it and giving it savour, even healing it.

    It is an antimony that exists in English, but perhaps not so much in other languages

  2. If I may offer gently, I think you may perhaps be being too hard on yourself. Betrayal is a profoundly disorienting condition, where one of the trusted operating rules of our lives is violated. I don’t think it’s actually possible to *feel* delight or gratitude simultaneously with betrayal without enacting a kind of insanity. I agree that when a wave has passed, it’s the mature thing to do to redirect our hearts toward delight and gratitude, but I also think that sometimes the valley of the shadow of death simply has to be endured for a time, until it passes.

    But I think your project sounds like a salutary one, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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