Welcome to day 7 of my new blog series on “accepting the world.” You can catch up on the entire series on its dedicated page here. It occurred to me this morning that it might be useful and interesting for you to get a more detailed sense of what “accepting the world” really means, according to the writing of Ivan Ilyin.
So I’ve decided to share an entire chapter of Foundations of Christian Culture. I hope it will help those of you who are still unsure of the worth of “accepting the world” for the purposes of culture creation. I will admit that some of his ideas are challenging, especially for us Orthodox in a post-diaspora world. So, I look forward to interacting with you in the comments section.
To Accept the World
(chapter 5 of Ivan Ilyin’s book Foundations of Christian Culture, translated by Nicholas Kotar)
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.
We know that in the history of the Christian church, there is an ancient tradition of rejection of the world (by this I do not mean monasticism, concerning which I will speak later, but an almost Buddhist strain of thought that rejects not only the sinfulness of the personal soul and its expressions in the eternal world, but the very thing we call “world”). Whoever followed this tradition seemed to be justified in not getting involved in the fate of the world or earthly humanity.
It was as though he was justified to go his own way and let people go where they will—even to perdition, to destruction, and to debauchery, into the power of the Serpent who deludes the nations (Revelation 20:3, 7). But he can only find such a justification if he himself accepts the responsibilities that flow out of such a rejection of the world—that is, if he actually quenched all that is earthly and human within himself and lived the rest of his days as though he were no longer present on earth, concentrated solely on imminent death, in the form (almost) of a bodiless spirit.
Truly, there was such an ancient tradition that rejected the world outright. This tradition was born from the eschatological passages of the New Testament, especially the Gospels and the Revelation. It became more widespread under the influence of certain Greek philosophical movements (Stoic and Neo-Platonic). Then, it reached an extreme form (such as the purported self-sterilization of Origen) under the influence of a formalistic, externally-focused legalism similar to Judaism. However, this tradition never expressed a complete or profound reference point for Christianity to God’s world.
It would be extremely instructive to do a detailed analysis of the presence of Platonic and Stoic abhorrence for, and rejection of, matter in Christian ascetic literature, because it coexisted with the Christian teaching of the grace-filled harmony of the world and the role of Providence in governing it, as well as the teaching of God’s omnipresence (which sometimes even approaches dangerously close to pantheism!). Before our gaze, we see two different, sometimes seemingly incompatible world views. It’s as though they stand next to each other, without pushing each other out, suggesting two ways of living to humanity: rejection of the world and acceptance of the world.
The first path was conscientiously explored and experienced in the first centuries of Christianity. According to this worldview, the kingdom of God is not only not of this world, but not for this world. The external world of the senses is only a temporary and difficult prison for the Christian soul; it has nothing to do with this world, for which it has no calling, nor any creative work. The world and God are opposites. The laws of the world and the laws of the spirit are incompatible. You cannot serve two lords, and the lord of this world is the devil. This world and the world to come are two mortal enemies.
In this worldview, the purpose of Christianity is to flee from the world, that is, through the extreme putting down of earthly human nature. A Christian has to hate all that is worldly and to separate it from himself, otherwise it will separate him from God. All earthly good things, all that is created has to be considered foreign. He must not desire any of this.
The Christian, then, should avoid the marriage state, he has no right to private property, nor should he serve his government. Moreover, he should go so far as to pray constantly that this world pass away and that its days be shortened. As for himself, he must condemn his flesh to slow death for fear of being deprived of the final blessing at the end. He should be ashamed of the fact that he has a body and bodily needs. He should come to see his flesh as an enemy and to abhor it. A healthy body should be a something undesirable; it should stand on the earth as though it were nothing but a sculpture, and he should live as though he were completely not in this world.
(These ideas, expressed with some of the language of the primary sources intact, is found in such ancient Christian texts as the Didache, Clement’s Second Epistle to the Romans, The Sherpherd of Hermas, as well as in the writings of some Montanists, Tatian, Origen, and others. We see hints of this in the later ascetic tradition of the Egyptian desert.)
But what can a Christian do in such a world? What sort of culture can he create? What does he have to battle for in this world? If Christ came to the world, taught, and suffered to lead his disciples away from the world and teach them abhorrence of all earthly matter, then the very idea of Christian culture is false and impossible. Such a Christian truly has no homeland on this earth, for it is already in the heavens. What sort of care can such hermit have for laws, for proper order, for justice or fairness? Why would a stylite be sad about the death of good science and the fact that museums are burning? With Tertullian, he is called to hate the world and think of death…
And if Christianity thus rejects the world, that is, matter, nature, the body, economics, private property, government, science, art, and all other such things, then it cannot lead mankind in this world. It can only lead mankind out of this world. Such a Christianity is incapable of blessing the earthly life and or inspiring us to bless this earthly life. If this is so, then earthly life is not given to mankind so that he would live and create, glorifying God by his life and his creativity (the very idea of Christian culture) but so that he would reject it and teach himself a slow self-mortification. A true Christian, then, has no creative calling or goal on this earth.
And when you cast a cursory glance over the cultural history of mankind for the last centuries and see this process of a mass exodus from the Church and Christianity, then sometimes I can’t help ask myself if this process is not at least partially explained (in addition to the aforementioned spiritual crisis) by the fact that Christianity has not yet completely defeated this world-rejecting strain within itself, the one that teaches us to leave the world, but does not teach us to enter conscientiously into the world and to joyfully create within it for the glory of God?
If we turn to the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament and examine them thoroughly, we are forced to conclude that the term “world” has several different meanings, and the very problem of rejecting or accepting the world must be resolved in different ways. Sometimes, the world means all of creation taken as a whole, as created by God Himself (see Romans 1:20, Ephesians 1:4, and others). Sometimes, the “world” is the unity of all nations to whom Christians must preach the Gospel (see especially the Great Commission in Matthew 28). It is very unlikely that Christ taught us to reject God’s creation or the unity of all nations who desire the good news and who can receive it. Even this simple juxtaposition of several passages should illustrate just how carefully we should approach this problem. What is the “world” that is rejected by the New Testament?
In the Gospels and Epistles, the “world” is only rejected insofar as it has itself fallen away from, standing in opposition to Him as something independent of Him and foreign to Him. This is the world that finds the confirmation of its values and reality without God and against God. This is the world the tempts and deludes mankind by awakening man’s fallen sensuality (see Mark 4:19 2 Peter 2:20, Timothy 4:10, and others) and leading him to Satan. Insofar as the world “lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19) and is subjected to the prince of this world (see John 12:31), any friendship with this kind of “world” is against God, and “whoever wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
A Christian cannot and must not love such a world. “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 lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father but of the world… And the world is passing away, and the lust of it, but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15, 17). Such a world cannot know God (John 1:10, 17, 25); it hates Christ and His disciples (John 7:7); it accepts and acknowledges its own (John 15:19).
But Christ has defeated the world (John 16:33), and “whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” (1 John 5:4) Everything this world considers foolish, weak, ignoble, humiliating can actually be, before God’s face, worthy and chosen (see 1 Corinthians 1:27). This world has its fallen joys and its own, dangerous sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10). Its image is passing away, the faithful must not become attached to it, for temptations exist in it, to which “people of this world” abandon themselves (Luke 12:30). And they will be judged and condemned together with the world (1 Corinthians 11:32).
This sort of “rejection of the world” cannot possibly be interpreted as hatred of the matter created by God or as an essential failure of the earthly in human nature.
The cosmos was created by God—the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them. God is the Lord of heaven and earth (see Matthew 11:25). “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible…And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” (Colossians 1:16-17) Thus, His “eternal power and Godhead” are clearly obvious “since the creation of the world” “being understood through the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). This world must not be rejected out of hand.
But this refers to mankind as well, and even more so. Mankind was not rejected by God, and therefore we cannot reject mankind either. On the contrary, God saves and illumines mankind. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) This is only one among many such quotes that demonstrate the power of Christ’s incarnation and His desire to save all mankind.
All this means that the world may be rejected only insofar as it is not in God or is against God, not in Christ or is against Christ, insofar as it is a source or weapon of godless lusts. And the world must be accepted as created by God and having received from God its own meaning and its own calling, which is encapsulated in the incarnation that sanctified not man alone, but through man, all of creation. The meaning of this is expressed by these phrases: “I have overcome the world” John 16:33) And therefore “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18) and “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father.” (Matthew 11:27) And the calling of the world is as follows: “that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He may gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.” (Ephesians 1:10)
This is the purpose and the justification for Christian culture.
This rich and profound tradition of Christianity didn’t stop with the rejection of the God-created world and interpreted Christ’s teachings in a different sense. It gave to asceticism a specific meaning—the precious means by which we purify our souls and free them. The Church worked out an entire system of spiritual purification—monasticism. According to this system, asceticism is a path that leads to knowledge of God both in heaven and on earth. Rejection of the world is not the essential and final task of the Christian. On the contrary, Christianity took on the world, blessed mankind in the world and began to teach him not only a Christian ending to our life, but Christian life itself, including creative work.
What else can we do except take on the world when it was created by God, loved by Him, saved, illumined, redeemed, and given to the authority of Christ, the Son of God? When God, who required nothing good for Himself, created the heavens and the earth for mankind, giving through them the pleasure of many good things? When in the world there is not a single place which Providence does not touch, where God is not, so that the one who wishes to see Him need only to look at the good order of everything and His Providence for all? (These are paraphrases of St. Anthony the Great, the father of monasticism) And this entire created nature is nothing other than a great book, in which man can read the words of God whenever he wishes (according to Evagrius the Monk). When the Christian is given the great task not only of preaching Christ in all the world, but to inspire everything earthly with His Spirit?
Truly, Christ Himself accepted the world and was incarnate not to teach us to reject the world, to abhor the creation of God, but to show us the true path toward faithful, Christian “world-acceptance”. To teach us to faithfully accept and creatively bear the burden of materiality and the burden of human separation and individuality, to teach us to live on the earth in the light of the kingdom fo God. We are not greater than Christ, and Christ accepted an earthly life and returned it to us shining in His grace. And whoever accepts the world includes creatively taking on this world as part of his life’s journey; that is, he assumes the task of the perfecting of self, neighbor, and matter itself through his spirit.
This is also the essence of Christian culture.
Man, by his nature, (and that means “from God”) is given a certain form of earthly life. From the various circumstances flowing from this earthly life, we are given many inescapable tasks and responsibilities that we must accept, sanctify, and illumine with the light of Christian revelation. Practically, this means a life of labor, danger, even suffering, as we approach the divine and overcome that which is contrary to the divine. By His incarnation Christ did not reject this way of life, but accepted it and overcame it. And we must follow His footsteps and do His work, since it is the will of the Father, but not by the “oldness of the letter”, but in freedom and “newness of the Spirit.”(Romans 7:6)
This means that we must accept the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, pastorship, carpentry, even the ass; golden and frankincense and myrrh, bread, fish, and wine, and the joy of the wedding feast; tithes, both to the Church and to the state, the authority of Pilate, given to him from above, and whips against those who buy and sell in the temple; fear and trembling before the old and authoritative word, but also the singing of angels that brings news of the divine to us mortals. We must accept all of this as a gift and a task, as a Christian means leading to a Christian goal; as a creative life that can create a Christian culture. And to accept all this, we must do it “as free, yet not using the freedom as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.” (1 Peter 2:16)
In the first centuries AD, it was often thought that we had to accept Christ, but reject the world. The “civilized elite” of our time accepts the world and rejects Christ. But in the middle ages, the West offered yet another temptation—to preserve the name of Christ but to combine the spirit of His teachings, adulterated with the legalism of Judaism, with a cunning and power-hungry acceptance of a world not transfigured by Christ.
The best way out of all these situations is to accept the world as a consequence of accepting Christ, and to build Christian culture on top of that edifice. Thus, flowing from the Spirit of Christ, we may bless, give meaning to, and creatively transfigure the world, not condemning its external forms and laws, not to debilitate its spiritual power, but to overcome it all, transfigure it, and beautifully give it form through love, will, thought, labor, creativity, and inspiration.
This is the very idea of Orthodox Christianity.
The essential purpose of Christianity in this sphere is to sanctify every moment of earthly toil and suffering, from baptism to the funeral service, in the prayers before the beginning of school, in the call of the peasant to send rain to the suffering earth during drought, in the blessing of wheat, wine, and oil, and in all the sacraments especially.
The Kingdom of Christ is not of this world (John 18:36); however, the world and mankind were saved by Him, and so the idea of the Kingdom is for this world, as its calling and promise. It is incorrect to think that the Kingdom of God is like earthly kingdoms. It is equally incorrect to think that it exists for this world. But this world exists as a great field (see Matthew 13:38) for the sowing and for the growth of the Kingdom of God.
The good news of the Gospel does not consist in the fact that heaven and earth are opposed to each other or severed from each other because of sin. Rather, the heavens have already come down to earth in the person of the God-Man, and “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). There is a real and permissible acceptance of the world possible, even a transfiguration of the world. This is promised to us.
The Gospel brings to the world not a curse, but a promise, and to man not death, but salvation and joy. It teaches not flight from the world, but the Christianization of the world.
Therefore, Christian rejection of the world is the soul-purifying life of a monk who rejects so that he can find anew, who closes his eyes so that he can come to see with spiritual vision, who seeks solitude and concentration to come to know God, man, and the world anew. In such cases, the Christian rejects not God’s world as an objective reality, but his passions and the passionate content of his experience. Then, having been purified and illumined, he comes to see that there is “nothing unclean of itself, but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” (Romans 14:14)
Any other rejection of the world is blindness, a darkened spirit, something approaching blasphemy and heresy. It is a path from spiritual sterility to physical self-mutilation.
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.
Today, when the pernicious phenomena of atheistic science, godless government, spirit-less art fill God’s earth like a foul stench, Christians can neither turn away from it all, call themselves neutral, or hide behind their so-called rejection of the world. On the contrary, they must find inside themselves the faith and the will for sincere, creative, Christian world-acceptance and for a battle for their own field and their own crops. Then, healing may begin.