Sometimes the classes I am teaching hit really interesting issues and the students and, even I, are challenged by the idea and have to figure out what we really think. This happened recently. Often I can see these issues coming and know the students will be challenged. Other times, I am as surprised as they are. This latter was the case on this one.
Students were reading a chapter in a book on contemplative spirituality. However, one student picked on what could have been an obscure, not very important sentence in the chapter. But the question turned out to be not only interesting, but also challenging. The sentence talked about “being in the world, but not of the world.” The student said that she was perplexed by what this meant. And the minute she confessed that she was perplexed, about twenty-five more said they were unsure what it meant. We had engaged an interesting text and issue.
Sometimes in these situations, I have no more clue than the students. But I do have more practice in thinking about something. And in most cases, I am a little more experienced in analyzing something like a text that is difficult or obtuse. And to be honest, I think I am usually more patient and willing to stay in the place of not having an answer---especially the right answer---than the students are. Maybe this is generational or maybe it is a matter of experience. It does not matter. But it also means that I might be able to model patience and a willingness to hang in there with a tougher issue until some light is shed.
In the case of “being in the world, but not of the world” I did have an advantage. I had some knowledge. In the first place, I know that Jesus says some things to this effect. And more precisely, I know there is a second century Christian text that explicitly uses this phrase. A late second century writing called the Epistle to Diognetus talks about the Christian presence and place in the world. Of course, the world at that time for Christians was the Roman Empire and Christians were not legal and, essentially, not wanted. The specific quotation from that text reads, “Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.”
While it is a Christian quotation, I think it is easy and appropriate to see it as a spiritual text---a broader context than Christianity. It also clearly fits the context for contemplative living. This means a contemplative, as I understand it, also realizes that he or she lives in the world, but not of it. Let’s unpack this and see what it means.
It is obvious to me that we all live in the world. Human beings take up space and are in a place. Even if we are homeless, we occupy a place. Your body is somewhere. Your identity if formed by some kind of culture. It is impossible to be non-spaced and non-placed. We all exist in the world. Perhaps death delivers us out of the world, but until then, here we are. The trick is to understand what it means to be “not of the world.”
To me this is not a literal thing. Let’s take it on backwards and discuss what it would be “to be of the world.” In spiritual language the “world” represents culture, environment, etc. So my “world” is American culture, middle-class ways of living, what is “normal” for people like me. The “world” is a set of attitudes and perspectives. Typically my “world” is what I would consider normal and usually I am relatively unaware of that perspective. Because my “world” is normal to me, I never think about it.
However, if I am spiritual and a contemplative, I begin to think about it. I become aware. I begin to realize my “world” might best be accessed by watching tv commercials! What is being sold that makes up my world? What kind of car should I drive, clothes I should wear, thoughts I should have, etc.? My world shapes me and my expectations. It might be said that most of us are in some bondage to our world.
Our world shapes us to be, so think, to do and to behave in predictable ways. We don’t really know who we are. I might buy a big, racy red car because that is the identity I have chosen for myself. I am my car! Or my clothes, hairdo or whatever! At this point my spiritual awareness slams on the brakes and asks me who I really am? Do I even know my true self? Can I live as that true self in the world? Because I am in the world…no avoiding that.
My spiritual, contemplative pilgrimage is a journey of awareness and choice. In the first place I want to be aware---aware of the traps lurking for all of us who are “of the world.” But awareness is not sufficient. Based on my awareness, I begin to choose more authentic, more appropriate ways of being and doing. In old Christian language I become a new self. I die to the old self and am raised a new self. This is not simply a Christian thing. A Buddhist, who is becoming enlightened, experiences a similar awakening.
The path is clear, but not detailed. We accept that we are in the world---at least in this lifetime. But we can choose how aware we are, what choices we want to make. We might choose to become of the Spirit of God and not of the world of commercials. We have a choice by which standards we want to live.