December 01, 2009

The World

In this session we will be talking about the way in which our community should interact with the world. In Holy Scripture, the world is understood to be the broader culture within which the Church exists; throughout history, that culture has taken a wide variety of forms, but the overall message of Holy Scripture is very consistent: we are to limit our exposure to the world.

In the texts that we looked at from the Holy Gospels, Christ Jesus draws a clear distinction between His Kingdom, which is “not of this world” (St John 18.36), and the world itself, which, even though our Lord and Master created it, is now ruled by Satan (St Luke 4.6; St John 14.30) and which did not recognize Christ Jesus when He came to save it (St John 1.10). The texts that we looked at from the epistles build on this basic perspective: in his Letter to the Romans, St Paul writes that we are not to “be conformed to this world” (12.2); in his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle states that we should “deal with the world as though [we] had no dealings with it” since “the form of this world is passing away” (7.31). In his letter, St James, writes that we are to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” (1.27), and, in his first letter, St John insists that we are not to “love the world or the things that are in the world,” and he adds that if we do love the world, “love for the Father is not in us” (2.15).

In Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry does a good job of describing the social and economic impact that the world has on the community of Port William. At the beginning of World War II, Jayber observes that
A town like Port William in this age of the world is like a man on an icy slope, working hard to stay in one place and yet slowly sliding down-hill. It has to contend not just with local mortality, depravity, ignorance, natural deficiencies, and weather but also with what I suppose we might as wellcall The News. (p139)

But by 1961, Jayber is able to be more specific about the nature of this News:
The News of the World seemed to have to do principally with The War and The Economy ... The War and The Economy were seeming more and more to be independent operations ... The War, I thought, was just the single Hell that is always astir in the world ... And the nations were always preparing funds of weapons and machines and people to be used up whenever The War did break out in full force, which meant that sooner or later it would…Also, it seemed that The War and The Economy were more and more closely related…The War was good for the Economy…(p273)

He then goes on to chronicle the death of Port William at the hands of The War and The Economy by describing how all of its businesses close, how it loses its physician and school, how most of its young people move away (or are sacrificed to the nation’s armed conflicts), and how the local economies of home and farm are rendered obsolete. The primary symbols of this death are the new highway and, even more powerfully and personally, Troy’s destruction of the Nest Egg. Jayber regards all this as almost inevitable, but he also wonders out loud how “the world is improved by [Port William’s] dying” (p273)

Jayber also spends a good deal of time talking about the moral and spiritual impact that the world has on Port William. The two representative figures here are Troy Chatham and Cecelia Overhold. Troy is the greatest advocate of the military industrial complex and also, through the loss of his son Jimmy and his personal financial ruin, one of its most poignant victims. Cecelia’s dissatisfaction with everything local mirrors our larger society’s need for uniformity to the point that, towards the end of the novel, Jayber can observe that “the world had become pretty generally Ceceliafied” (p274).

The residents of Port William are either swept up in the changes that the world introduces into their community, or they resist by moving to the margins of society. Jayber takes his barbering business down to the river; the Branches make do with second hand gear and subsidence farming. But by the end of the novel, the world has triumphed; the larger society has moved in and taken over, and the Port William Membership no longer exists. Jayber’s faith is intact, and he is able to forgive Troy Chatham; he finally gets that special smile from Mattie, and, in the on-going world of the novel, there are probably grandchildren of Danny and Lyda Branch who are even now making a go of it down on the river, but the world wins. That’s because, as Jayber once succinctly observes, “Hate succeeds” (p249).

That’s a powerful message to those of us who want to see our community flourish. Because what we are up against is not just social forces or cultural paradigms; what is ranged against us is nothing less than the Kingdom of the Ruler of this World. And, on a historical level, socially and politically, that Kingdom is going to prevail. Of course, in the Holy Gospels and in the Book of the Apocalypse, we are assured that the Church will survive this tribulation; however, we are never assured that individual communities will survive intact.

Of course, American Christianity has yet to really come to grips with any of this. In fact, much of American Christianity is still trying to use the world to reach out to people who are without faith. But there is nothing in Holy Scripture to justify such an approach, and the results are plain to see: communities will start out using the world’s music or technology or thought processes in an effort to do mission work or evangelism, but the world always has a far greater impact on those communities than those communities have on the world. Other communities approach social and political issues as if the world was somehow less evil forty or fifty years ago; the thinking is that if we can just go back to living the way our grandparents or great grandparents did then everything would be fine or at least a whole lot better. However, the Kingdom of Satan is still the Kingdom of Satan no matter where it’s located in the course of history.

A relatively new approach to all this is one of almost complete isolation. Down through history, Christians have attempted tried this from time to time, but it has started showing up again in the last couple of decades here in America. However, most of the people who attempt this approach are not consistent. They home school the children—until it’s time for them to go to college. They do without television—but they use the internet. They don’t listen to mainstream music—but they follow less popular, more obscure artists. At least these people are trying to put the teaching of Holy Scripture into practice, but the approach tends to be piece-meal and unsustainable over the long haul since it is hardly ever grounded in a community.

Unfortunately, in this country, Orthodox Christianity doesn’t provide us with a lot of good role models when it comes to dealing with the world. We have very worldly parishes, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, we have monasteries, but there is not much at all in-between. So what should we be doing as a community to limit, as much as possible, our exposure to the world?

To begin with, we should never underestimate the world’s virulence. Historically, politically, socially, and economically, the world is a highly complex system which involves the interaction of all sorts of different factors, but, spiritually, it all belongs to Satan, and he wants to destroy us. So, the world is never, ever a benign or neutral force, and that means that we interact with it at our peril. As in the case of Port William, the nature of that peril may not become clear until decades have passed, but we can be sure that the danger to us and our community is genuine.

However, having said that, we must not be afraid, since, as St John writes, “greater is He that is in [us] than he that is in the world” ( ). If we are motivated primarily by fear, then we will end up with a parish that is controlling and isolated in an unhealthy way—and this is precisely what happened to the community that the Longs were are part of back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This is what also happens to some of the folks who home school or house church or otherwise band together in order to ward off the evil influences of the world. Of course, the world is full of evil influence, but if a community’s primary reason for existence is a negative one, then it won’t be a community that reflects the divine life of the Most Holy Trinity; it will be a community that reflects the moral, spiritual, economic, pedagogical, and political values of a particular group of anxious people.

We must also get to the point where we no longer think of our interaction with the world in terms of personal life-style choices. On the one hand, we are free to watch any sort of movie or read any sort of book or purchase any kind of car or wear any kind of clothes or eat any sort of food, but, on the other hand, every one of those choices also has an impact, for good or for ill, on the other members of our community. So, for example, the decision to cultivate a relationship with a friend who is coarse and profane and dishonest and cynical is going to have consequences for everyone in our parish because if we are not stronger than this particular individual, if we are not capable of resisting and/or overlooking his or her ungodly qualities—or, worse yet, if we are actually attracted to this person because of those qualities—then we will eventually introduce those qualities into our community. We may regard our friendship with that person as no one else’s business, but we will still infect others with the contagion that we pick up from this individual.

So where do we place the boundaries? And how do we make those decisions? Confession and counsel with our spiritual father is a good place to begin, but that can also lead to an atomized, individualistic approach to dealing with the world, and that is precisely what finished off Port William, because when push came to shove, each person in the town made their own decisions about how to relate to the world. So, if we want to be an authentic community, then we will have to begin working on some of these issues with each other. Right now, we have a number of settings in which those discussions can occur (coffee hour, girls’ night, man night, the Wed Home School group, etc), but the question is whether we are willing to be open with each other and possibly surrender our individual wills and preferences to the will of the Most Holy Trinity as the purpose of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is revealed in our parish (and on this pt we would do well to recall what we said during our discussion about authority). The health—indeed, the very survival—of our community depends on whether we will take this step.

fr. aidan

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