World bad/Jesus good
I heard it again; another sermon that first decries the evils of the world and then follows up with a come-to-Jesus call. The idea goes something like this: the world is sick, confused, and going to hell in a handbasket, society is corrupt and on the eve of collapsing into chaos, but Jesus is the solution. In these sermons, it's technology, science, economics and worldly philosophies that are commonly singled out as the bad guys. These antagonists are responsible for spawning the evils that are now corrupting the youth of Athens. Once these sources of evil and their progeny are sufficiently denigrated, Jesus and the Church are presented as the hero. You’ve probably heard this model sermon a few times in your day. Let’s call this type of sermon the “World bad/Jesus good” model. But is it true and is it effectual?
First, I would argue that the “World bad/Jesus good” model is largely false. At the moment, society and lives in general, are not careening off the cliff into chaos. In fact, anyone who takes a broad view of history will realize how much better the world has become and is likely to become still. Poverty is at an all-time low and the trend looks to be continuing. Wars and their resulting deaths and economic consequences are also in steady, if not, exponential decline. Diseases are being managed or eradicated, freedom from tyrannical governments is up, and human rights are being advanced on an unprecedented scale. Is the world perfect? No. But neither is it on the brink of descending into madness. This is in large part due to the technology, science, economic development, and yes, even shifts in social paradigms that are not all bad. Those things have repeatedly and greatly benefited humanity. In fact, Christianity has been a significant historical impetus of these advancements. It is therefore somewhat dishonest to preach the “World bad/Jesus good” model when the world has never been better and looks to continue that trajectory.
Let’s also be honest and recall that scripture clearly has some things to say about the evil of the world. Just to name a few, consider these:
· “the days are evil,” (Eph. 5:15)
· “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…” and “the world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (I John 2:15; 5:19)
· “Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this evil age,” (Gal. 1:4)
· “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God” (Jam. 4:4)
How, then, do we reconcile these with other scriptures that suggests the goodness of the world? Consider these:
· “Then God saw everything He made, and indeed, it was very good,” (Gen. 1:31),
· “For God so loved the world…” (Jhn. 3:16).
Does God love evil? It would seem that sin and the lusts of the flesh, inflamed and prompted by the evil one, are evil. In that sense the “world” is bad. We must also acknowledge that the world is passing away, something which with the grace of God we can even hasten, “nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
One might object and point out that technological, scientific, and economic progress has come with a price. Yes, but those negative effects should be viewed as problems that reason, science, technology, and economic development can continue to address, which when guided by Orthodox faith may be pointed in the right direction- towards God. Problems are inevitable, and sin is not the product of earthly progress (Adam was capable of sin without the iPhone). Would we really want to go back to the days before such progress? Would we want to see high infant mortality rates, near universal poverty, oppression under dictatorial regimes, subjugation of women and minorities, and a world where war and infectious diseases are the norms? No.
The challenges presented by technological, scientific, and economic advances can be dealt with- loneliness, climate change, postmodern sexuality, etc. Dangers brought about by progress should be assessed honestly. I am even willing to say that Jesus is the solution, but to hysterically preach the world is plummeting into bedlam is dishonest. Granted, our Tradition suggests Christ’s coming on the heels of some serious birth pangs (see Luke 21, Matt. 24), but we do not know when. The “world bad/Jesus good” model, although it avoids giving a precise date, quietly suggests His coming imminently based on all the bad things taking place. The problem is not so much whether His return is imminent or not, we should always be ready, the issue is that the reported birth pangs are not nearly as bad as the labors of the past. He will come at an hour we do not expect, that is for sure.
Secondly, I suspect that sometimes standing behind the “world bad/Jesus good” model lurks a false impression of a civilization’s golden age such as the 18th and 19th century America, Russia under the Tsars, or the Byzantine Empire. Is it possible that the “World bad/Jesus good” model pines for, and hopes to restore, a time when people lived Godly lives and the Church was the compass of the state? Sadly, such a time did not exist. Throughout history, emperors and citizens have been less than Christian. Tsarist Russia and the Byzantine Empire were certainly not always modeling the city on the hill. Neither has America. Those cultures are laudable in many ways, but an honest appraisal sees many flaws (again, we are blessed to live when and where we do). In the past, heresy was just as rampant, and the same concerns of an impending societal collapse existed. Although communism was a faithless descent into societal devastation killing millions all over the world, the overall trend toward geopolitical and economic stability remains. Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, but sometimes the “world bad/Jesus good” model subtlety suggests that if we come to Jesus, society’s problems will be alleviated and the Church will subsume the state or is it that the Church will become diffused within the government. Check with Ivan Karamazov.
But the most significant objection to the aforementioned model might just be that it is ineffective. At least here in America. It is true, in comparison to the life Christ calls us to live that many people are confused, rebellious, or otherwise missing the mark. But most of those people probably don’t believe they’re confused, sick, or descending into chaos. Will we then convince them with the “World bad/Jesus good” model? Unlikely. I offer no statistics on this, but my hunch is that the model motivates people in the short term, out of fear and not love (although the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom). In the long run, the model fails to develop a depth of Christian character, repentance, or even bring in new members.
We can take a different approach. We can affirm the good things of the world, use Egypt’s gold, not demonize the world every chance we get. With discernment and prayer, we can even incorporate the best the world has to offer that doesn't compromise our faith. We may even be able to champion and encourage those developments while simultaneously preaching the Good News. And yes, that preaching will necessarily require us to call out the evils of the world and in the hearts of men, to say “repent,” but our words will be much more palatable if we ourselves can first “so love the world,” as Christ did. And He loved it so much that He died.
“The Church, being the theandric entity, finds itself in society and outside of it at the same time. We should most seriously ponder on bridging the artificial gap between the life of society and traditions of the Church. The Early Church did not fear to incorporate into its tradition the best of what was available, for instance, in the fundamental concepts of philosophy, or achievements of the classical Greek and Roman cultures. Such integration is a very delicate process that demands not only time but also thoroughness and wisdom. Therefore, it is very important to cultivate an active dialogue of the Church with the world of culture and to considerably expand the area of the Church's cooperation with scholars. The Church is open to contacts with all those who sincerely wish to maintain this dialogue.” - Patriarch Kirill