Do not be afraid: Searching for a new maturity
‘Be in the world, but not of the world!” Great advice, but not easy to follow. We struggle with this tension. On the one side, the temptation is to keep ourselves pure and unstained by the world but at the cost of excessively separating ourselves from it, not loving it, not leaving ourselves vulnerable as Jesus did to feel its pains, and not modelling how someone can live inside the world and still have a vibrant faith. The other temptation is the opposite: to enter the world and love and bless its energy, but to do so in a way that ultimately offers nothing in the way of being salt and light for the world.
We will never be free of this tension. However, in order to live within it more healthily we need a certain theology and spirituality to guide us and we need a greater personal maturity to sustain us.
What kind of theology and spirituality can help us? What kind of personal and collective maturity is being asked of us?
In terms of a theology and spirituality, what we need is a vision that holds in proper tension our love for the world and our love for God. We need to be able to love the world in such a way that we bless and honour its goodness, its energy, its colour, its zest, and its moral strengths, even as we stand where the cross of Jesus is forever being erected and speak prophetic words of challenge in the face of the world’s moral deficiencies, injustices, self-preoccupation and proclivity to greed. But prophecy is predicated on love. Unless we first honour and bless what is good in the world we don’t have the moral right to criticise it.
We need to be in solidarity with the world in everything but sin, blessing it with one hand, even as we hold the cross of Christ with the other. But that’s not easy. We don’t just lack the vision, we also lack the moral and emotional strength needed to imitate Jesus. He could walk with sinners, eat with them, embrace them, forgive their sins, feel the pain and chaos of sin, yet not sin himself. He could challenge the world, even as he blessed and enjoyed its energies.
And the struggle to do that is not abstract, but earthy: mostly we can’t live as Jesus did simply because we lack the maturity to walk amidst the temptations, distractions and comforts offered by the world without either losing ourselves in them, selling out our message, or unhealthily withdrawing into safe enclaves to huddle in fear.
It’s no accident that our church communities sometimes look fearful, grey, sexless, and uninviting. We remain religious, but often at the cost of being unhealthily fearful, timid, frigid and depressed. But Jesus was not like this. We often are because we need to protect ourselves, given that we haven’t got Jesus’ maturity. In the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola looked at the Church and thought a new maturity was needed. He founded the Jesuits in response.
We need that today. Someone needs to found a religious community with no rules because, for its members, none would be needed. Everyone would be mature enough to live out a poverty, chastity and obedience that does not need to be externally prescribed and over-protected by symbols that set it apart. Attitudes and behaviour would be shaped from inside and would emanate from a commitment to a community, a vision and a God that puts one under an obedience that is more demanding than any outside rule. The community would be mixed, men and women together, but strong enough to affectively love each other, remain chaste, and model friendship and family beyond sex and without denigrating sex. The community would be radically immersed in the world. Its members, sustained by prayer and community, would be free, like Jesus, of curfews and laws, to dine with everyone, saints and sinners alike, without sinning themselves. This community would give itself to the world even as it resisted being of the world.
Perhaps that’s naive but whenever I voice this fantasy to an audience the reaction is always very strong: where can I find that? I’ll join tomorrow!
The world needs mature Christians who, like Jesus, have the strength to walk inside the world, right inside the chaos of sin itself, without sinning themselves. Like the young men in the Book of Daniel, Christians must be able walk around inside the flames without being consumed themselves, safe, singing sacred songs in the heart of the blaze.