In the gospel according to John, Jesus says that he is “in the world but not of the world”. Or does he? He actually says “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it”. Which is different. But what’s important and interesting is that we’ve let it become something of popular culture to suggest the he said my first quotation.
The reason I think this is interesting is because often as Christians I think we’re more interested in thriving in our own bespoke, specific subculture than we are in existing within the subculutres of the world around us.
What do I mean by that? Well, look at the way that Christianity expresses itself today. At the two “extreme” ends of the spectrum of beliefs and practices are a penchant for tolerance and liberalism that water down Christianity into some nice thoughts and feelings; and at the other end a tendency towards a way of being which is so far removed from non-religious folks it is almost unrecognizable. Take for example high Catholic mass or a laser light and smoke machine church concert/service. Both are really, really weird – even when the latter is trying to be “relevant” and is just totally missing the point.
That’s not to say that Christianity is ever going to feel particularly familiar to those alien to it. Many people I share my faith with do not consider much of my worldview to make much sense. They disagree with various fundamental principles that lay beneath it. What I’m getting at here is that we’ve made it worse for ourselves by spending more time on our subcultures than on learning to connect with those who are different to ourselves.
Of course, you could argue that to try and connect with those around us is to in some way dilute our faith, to compromise our position, to rob ourselves of the holiness of our born-again faith (holy being of course a set-apartness; set apart from the world for God). Yet, Jesus came into this world from a place of absolute holiness and had a body which defecated, urinated, vomited, cried, hurt, injured and ultimately died. So if we’re following Jesus’ lead, we should be prepared to go to places which are uncomfortable and compromising, too.
I’m not saying we should open Christian brothels or start Christian wars (we’ve been there before, and that wasn’t too good was it?) or even find Christian ways to be consumers (CCM, anyone?). I’m saying that we should find a better way forward than the world or the Church as it currently stands.
In the passage quoted above, Jesus is, in my view, saying that we should live our lives fully as humans, recognising that we are in the Earth, we are here, we are a part of this existence. But we should also recognise that there is so much more. There. Is. More. God is Good. God is Love. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and so on.
And so what does a ‘better way forward’ look like? I think it’s something like this: Instead of indulging in our religious practices or spending every night of the week helping out in some “church” capacity or shutting ourselves off from the world and technology, or constantly obsessing about being as ethical as possible (that’s where I’m most guilty), we should prioritize those who aren’t yet familiar with the vast, wonderful love of God. We should be willing to take our faith to culture, not persuade people to drop their culture for our faith.
That means taking “Church” to places we wouldn’t normally want to. That means accepting the best kind of community on an estate might be in the pub. It means enjoying going running on a Sunday morning instead of belting out hymns; because that’s what our friends do. But instead of getting too drunk for our own good or competing the hell out of it, we can simply enjoy a good drink and share in life together; or keep ourselves fit, healthy and focused.
It means instead of shunning technology we can use technology in a healthy way. It means instead of avoiding anything that isn’t carbon neutral or fair trade we can lament the brokenness of neo-liberal trade. It means recognising the vast complexity of the world around us and accepting that narrow religion is never going to show the love that we know God has for us to those who can’t yet see it.
We need to make sure we are well and truly in the world, even if we choose not to follow in all of its’ footsteps.