The hardest thing that a Christian can do in the world is to keep his balance. One thinks here of that wonderful image of G.K. Chesterton, where he spoke of the Church as having “the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that…It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands…the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect”. Keeping one’s balance in the world is difficult, but crucial—especially keeping one’s balance about the world.
The World is a major theme in the Scriptures, and much of the sacred text is dedicated to telling us how to relate to it. And its teaching is not that simple.
First of all the Scriptures tell us to love the world, because God loves it. In fact He loved the world so much that He gave His only-begotten Son to enter the world and die on a cross to wash it clean in His own Blood and bring it back to Him. God loves the world totally, indiscriminately, and unconditionally, sending showers of blessing and the sun’s warmth on both the just and the unjust, regardless of one’s colour, creed, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Whether you are smart and insightful or whether you are unthinking and reactionary, whether you belong to the Taliban or whether you belong to the KKK, God still loves you. God loves everyone because His love for mankind is not rooted in our worthiness or lovability, but in His own nature. And because God loves everyone totally and indiscriminately, we also must try to love everyone totally and indiscriminately too.
The big question, of course, is: What does it mean to love? Is love a feeling? Does God command us to have warm fuzzy feelings about everyone? Does love always involve approval, so that we must approve of everything everyone does? Clearly not, for God does not approve of everything everyone does, and indeed, in our best moments, we do not even approve of everything we ourselves do. That is why we feel shame and go to Confession.
Love is not a feeling, but an action, and consists of striving to meet the needs of those around us. If the World before us (a.k.a. “our neighbour”) is hungry, we take the action of feeding him; if thirsty, we give something to drink. That is why the Church has always had a concern for the poor. Certainly the rich also are our neighbours and they also have needs, but they generally ask for help rather more infrequently.
For not all needs are physical ones. Everyone has physical needs—a need for bread, for warmth, for shelter, and even for such intangibles as justice. But there are other needs as well, ones just as universal, such as the need for God. Those needs are harder for us to meet, because those having this need may not acknowledge it. If someone goes without eating for twelve hours, he will be keenly aware of his need for food, but if he goes twelve hours without praying, he may not be aware of his need for God. But everyone has both a need for food and a need for God, and love will strive to meet both needs, offering both bread for the belly, and the Bread of Life for the soul. Social outreach and evangelism are both ways of loving the world, and God calls us to both tasks. Loving the world will not be easy, and we must not imagine that the world will necessarily thank us if we feed them and give drink to the thirsty. They may receive our gifts and offer no word of gratitude at all. After all, God pours out His gifts upon them, and they don’t thank Him. Why should we expect them to thank us? Are we better than God? But whether or not we are thanked, our task of love and service remains. Let us prepare ourselves for it: love is not something soft and heart-warming like a Hallmark card. It is something blood-stained and difficult, like a cross.
Secondly, the Scriptures also tell us to reject the world. “Do not let the world squeeze you into its mould” (Rom. 12:2). “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). “Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). These warnings about the dangers of the world go back ultimately to Christ Himself: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16). “If you were of the world, the world would love its own, but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 16:19). Here the term “the world” describes not people so much as the ideologies that they create and embrace, the systems and structures of rebellion with which all societies have opposed God. As Christians we are called to beware of these ideologies and reject them.
Indeed, we are to define ourselves over against them. Once we were of the world, but in baptism Christ took us out of the world and transplanted us into His Kingdom. Now we are in the world, but no longer of it; now we live in the world as strangers and sojourners (1 Peter 2:11). This distinction is fundamental to absolutely everything in the Church, from its sacraments such as Baptism and Eucharist which create and maintain this distinction, to its canons that define and guard these boundaries. There’s nothing for it: the distinction between “us” and “them” is built into the Christian Faith and into our ecclesial DNA.
Here is just where the difficulty comes in about keeping one’s balance. It is easy to fall into either of two ways of relating to the world, both of them wrong. We can use this Church-World dichotomy to demonize the World, regarding “them” as legitimate objects of hatred and pulling up our Pharisaical skirts around us in an effort to have nothing to do with them. Or we can fly a rainbow flag, accepting and blessing everything and everyone in society in the name of love, and essentially deny the difference between the Church and the World. Both options are easy. Both options are wrong. God calls us to maintain the distinction established in baptism between the Church and the World and reject alien ideologies. He also calls us to embrace everyone in love.
Doing just one of these tasks is comparatively easy; it is doing them both together that can be difficult. It is simple to fall into error, and there are an infinity of angles at which we can do it. The challenge is to keep our balance as our heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages. We will have to stoop this way, and sway that way to avoid sprawling prostrate on the ground. The truth of our Tradition will indeed appear wild to the world. But it is the only way for us to remain erect.