Worlds Apart?

I am very interested in the relationship between worlds. What do I mean by worlds? The imageslanguage of Christian faith traditionally talks about this world and the next. I do believe there is a next world, although the mental picture of a world to come that is in every way a perfect solution to the ills of the present world in which I am confined until the happy event of my death, is not the way I tend to think about this. My imagination is more energized by the notion of parallel dimensions. I don’t know how many there are, and quantum physicists suggest there may be many, but I know there are at least two dimensions, one spiritual and the other temporal.

Temporal is an interesting word. The dictionary basically defines temporal as referring to everything that is not spiritual. This strikes me as being the opposite way round to popular thinking that views the spiritual as everything that can’t be explained within the parameters of the temporal, which suggests to me that our conventional stressing of the temporal as if this is all there is, is to place the proverbial cart before the horse.

My background as a psychotherapist increases my curiosity about the complex relationship between the worlds of inner and outer experience. I think my fascination for the notion of parallel dimensions is deeply rooted in years of exploring the interface between inner and outer experience, firstly in myself, and then through my relations with others.

What this has shown me is that the interface is hardly a solid line, a neat line of demarcation between separate spheres. The problem I have encountered is that the inner and outer worlds are bewilderingly intertwined. They interpenetrate each other so as to make it difficult at times to distinguish between them. They mirror each other.

Imagine the experience of looking in a mirror and not knowing which image of you is doing the looking and which is being the reflection? Further, imagine how much more complicated it all becomes when we consider how my inner world is projected upon or through your outer world and vice versa. Trying to clarify the complex dynamic of such distortions is the central work of psychotherapy.

To the Text

The Hardest Question is a weekly commentary blog that I like to follow. Writing about John 17:6-19, the gospel for the Sunday after Ascension, Danielle Shroyer [1] in What in the World? says: John’s gospel is what nowadays we’d call “New Age-y” because it’s always talking about “the world” as if it’s this thing outside of us, as if we could decide whether to be t/here or not. 

So, much of the way we have been conditioned to see the world leads us to separate things into this or that. This is what philosophers and theologians refer to as dualism. So we have heaven or hell, this world or the next, inner or outer experience, up or down, or as Jesus says in John 17: in the world but not of the world.

A little background

John 17 is a section that spans several chapters and is known as the Farewell Discourses. These are those passages in John’s gospel where Jesus talks endlessly, or so it seems, about his relationship with the father as a mirror for his relationship with the disciples. Now, this idea that Christians are in the world but not of the world has throughout history created enormous problems. It caused huge problems for the Johannine community, which after the death of John fragments into orthodox and gnostic factions. John’s view of Jesus becomes, on the one hand, the high Christology of the growing Church, and on the other, fuels the secret-otherworldly-conspiracy-laden-esoteric preoccupations of the Gnostics. For a flavor of Gnosticism read Dan Brown’s The De Vinci Code and other works in this genre.

Conformity or paranoia, take your pick

Too much emphasis on being in the world and the result is 1950’s conformist Christianity when the churches were full because at the height of a post-war boom of Pax Americana there was no discernable distinction between the Church and World. At St Martin’s in Providence where I work, this period is remembered as when St Martin’s was the Agawam Hunt Club at prayer. This time period, is one of many throughout history when Christianity became confined to the outer world as a reflection of the values and norms of human society.

This strong trajectory towards Christians as citizens of this world has only fuelled a counter-desire to create an Iron Curtain separating this world and the next. Here, Christian attention becomes firmly focused on being separate from the world. There is a strong element of paranoia – the dark feature of the American psyche, in the response of Christians to retreat into the inner world with the result that Christians absent themselves from the outer world by turning a blind eye to what I call business as usual. It’s not good for Christians to retreat from active engagement with the values and norms of human society for fear of becoming contaminated. This kind of ascensionism robs the gospel of its power to critique the World.

This coming Sunday is known as the Sunday after the Ascension. Rather like in a play one actor leaves the stage to make way for the next to enter, the Ascension – 40 days after Easter, is Luke’s way of removing the earthly Jesus from the stage to make way for the entry of the Holy Spirit. Note the symmetry, Jesus (the second member of the Trinity) ascends so that the Holy Spirit (the third member of the Trinity) can descend at the Day of Pentecost, – 50 days after Easter.

The theme of being in and yet not of the world is reflected in the fact that there are two collects for the Ascension. It’s as if the Episcopal Church wants to hedge its bets and present both sides of life in the tension between outer-temporal and inner spiritual experience.  In the first the emphasis is on the presence of Christ who abides in his Church on earth. In the second the emphasis reminds us that Jesus has ascended into heaven so we may also in heart and mind there ascend and with him continually dwell. Can you spot the difference in emphasis between Christians being fully engaged in the world and Christians absenting themselves from the world?

The hardest question

Being in the world and not being of the world is the way Jesus speaks of life in the tension of interpenetrating worlds. This world and the world to come are not chronologically sequential but interpenetrating spirals, each mirroring the other. For example, the Kingdom of God – the age-old hope for justice and peace is not a future hope but an expectation of the now. The joy of relationships that characterize what is essential in our temporal lives is a foretaste of a future communion with God.

So my version of the Hardest Question is this: living in the tension, which side do you tend towards? Two areas for fruitful reflection on this question might be:

  • how do you feel when politics and money are talked about in church?
  • does your Christian faith lead you to join with others in speaking truth to power in issues of human dignity, equality and economics, and the protection of the environment?

The tension for me is not how do I keep my faith free from being contaminated by the values of the world or from what I call business as usual? It’s how do I use my faith to protect me from facing an uncomfortable confrontation with the values of the world – the world of business as usual?


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