Reflections on Two Cities

In the final chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews we are told that here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. My reflections will be a consideration of these two cities – the city that we have here, and the city which is to come. This consideration draws us at once into trying to understand the relation between the world as we know it, on the one hand, and the life that we are called to enjoy with God in Heaven, on the other. And this is not merely a speculative undertaking, concerned only with abstract possibilities, but on the contrary brings to light our actuality, the concrete situation we inhabit in the very moment we consider it, and in fact at every moment. For the world as we know it is not destined to last, because each of us lives marked by the unforeseeable inescapability of death. We are in the world, indeed, but only as subject, all the time, to undergoing the most radical kind of removal from it. And this demands of us that we cease imagining ourselves as rooted here, thinking of ourselves according to a belonging with all that palpably surrounds and contains us. Instead we must try to live by looking at another belonging. In this other belonging, everything that presently constitutes reality for us irretrievably falls away so that we may be brought face to face with God alone. In this unimaginable proximity there unfolds for us an abiding reality, the condition in which we discover our true and lasting permanence and identity.

And so Christian life can be viewed as consisting in this: trying to consider ourselves here in light of how we are shown to be there. We might describe this by saying that, as Christians, we endeavour to anticipate ourselves. That is, we try to understand ourselves not according to what is, but according to what at any moment may come to be, and at some moment certainly will: and that moment may perhaps be the next moment – it may, perhaps, even be now. And this kind of anticipation, of course, transforms every moment. It means that the Christian ‘now’ can never be the ‘now’ of the world, of the city that cannot last, but is instead the ‘now’ of the city that abides – the ‘now’, if you like, of eternity. And it is from its meaning, as an eternal ‘now’, that every worldly ‘now’ derives the significance in it that lasts. Which means, in turn, that the Christian anticipation of eternity is anticipation only in a certain sense. It is not that as Christians we are looking away from the present, and into the future. Instead, Christian anticipation is more like looking at the future as present in the present, as already present: we ‘anticipate’ by understanding ourselves according to a future that has already arrived, an arrival that faith alone can discern. For Christian faith there is, properly speaking, no passage from one kind of ‘now’ – the worldly kind – to another, which is eternal. There is no passage, because the meaning of every worldly moment is its eternal meaning – hidden, except to faith, but according to faith disclosed as what is most real. The Christian uncovers, within the passage of worldly time, a meaning which does not pass. This meaning abides, and is the light by which the Christian understands himself in living amidst the things which, also, pass away from him.

And so, for the Christian, it is as if each moment of worldly time becomes a Eucharist. The world, which is the bread and wine of our familiar belonging, is transformed, its familiarity is disrupted, because faith discerns in it, beyond the impermanence of its appearances, a presence and a meaning that does not pass away. This presence and meaning already inhabits our appearances and, because it inhabits them, it affords them their abiding reality and significance. At Mass, we are enabled to look ahead, into the future, which is our communion with the Trinity, only because that communion is already underway, is anticipated here and now, in the real presence which offers itself to us in the consecrated bread and wine. And in the same way, we can look ahead to the city that abides, beyond this world, only because it is anticipated, is already present, as the eternal significance of each moment of the world as it passes away.

And so the Christian finds his distinctiveness, and his mission, not so much in insisting on the difference between the present, in time, and the future, in eternity – not in thinking of himself as looking away from the world and looking instead towards heaven. What identifies the Christian is rather a particular way of interpreting the present, a particular way of apprehending the world. We might say that he interprets and apprehends everything in God. He can think of himself as, after death, standing before God, in the condition of being dispossessed of the world, only by thinking of himself as standing before God within the world, such that standing before God is not thought of as an alternative to being in the world, but as the meaning of his being here, the form of his engagement with things. And that meaning and engagement are called Love. Now we should try to understand what this means.

It means, first of all, that we must not set God and the world in opposition to each other. And yet thinking of ourselves as loving God while in some way repudiating the world – even loving God by repudiating the world – is for many of us a seductive way of picturing ourselves – or at least of picturing what we aspire to be. Many of us take something like this as the very definition of Christian holiness. But our attraction to it may not be owing simply and exclusively to a desire to become saints. We need to ask ourselves what kinds of reason motivate us to find sanctity, understood in such terms, to be such an appealing ideal. Even if repudiating the world really is something God demands of us, are there perhaps aspects to such repudiation that make it attractive to us, regardless of what God may demand? To say the least, few of us are immune to the appeal of embracing a sense of ourselves as not only different from those around us, but as superior to them as well. We know about racism, nationalism, various kind of cultural or social elitism – the seductions of finding some kind of sanction for converting difference into disdain are all too familiar to us. And what of the jealousy and disappointment which can easily originate in the frustration of worldly ambition, and are so readily transformed into a fierce distaste for the very things we once desired, and maybe desire still? Could the aspiration to attach ourselves to God and detach ourselves from the world be to some extent a Christian version of this kind of deeply entrenched, but very ambivalent, impulse? Applying such a question to ourselves would be an occasion for a very fruitful examination of conscience. It would be fruitful because it would take us deeper into ourselves than a conventional focus upon individual sins normally goes, indispensable though that focus of course is. Because, even if God does call us, in some sense, to repudiate the world, He presumably does not do so in ways which are entangled with our many resentments, or with our desire for individual or collective self-aggrandizement, even if these are clothed in religious garb. Of course it is true that God can, and does, use everything in us to draw us to Himself, even the uglier dispositions and motivations which sometimes seem to be at work in those who think of themselves as simply being good Christians and advancing the Christian cause. But even if God consents to work through our self-deceptions, that isn’t a reason to leave them un-interrogated.

But even apart from this, we have to ask the deeper question: does God in fact call us to repudiate the world? Well, He calls us to repudiate sin. But sin is not the world. The world is not sin but in fact the object of sin, the person or thing about which our sin is concerned, upon which it gets directed. The world, in short, is not sin, but the victim of sin. But how easy we find it to slip from considering sinful actions, flowing from a disorder within ourselves, to thinking in terms of sinful objects, outside of ourselves, as if it were the object that had fundamentally led us astray and caused us to sin, exercising upon us a malign power which we were too weak to resist. In this way we end up thinking ‘evil’ anything or anyone that tempts us; and this confused and, again, self-deceiving way of thinking leads us to suppose that since the world is an intrinsically tempting place, therefore of course it must be repudiated. But the world is not an intrinsically tempting place. Temptation does not flow into us, from the world; it flows out of us, upon the world, and every temptation is, precisely, not a succumbing to the world, but an impulse to misconceive the world and to misuse it. It’s true that in, one of his Epistles, St John tells us that the disciples of Christ should not be amazed if the world hates them, and this certainly makes it sound as if ‘the world’ is something opposed to Christ and to those who desire to follow Him, so that to repudiate it, as an enemy, must be nothing less than our duty. But what exactly does ‘the world’ mean here? Does it mean the people and things around us, everything and everyone that, after all, God Himself sustains in being from one moment to the next? Clearly that is impossible. Nothing that God makes to be is to be repudiated. St John means the world not as it is in itself, but the world as misperceived and misused by sin: and that means that it is really sin itself which is at stake here: it is sin, the mind and heart of sin, which hates Christ and hates those who desire to follow Him. It hates them because it will not surrender its relation to the world, will not think the world other than as it wants it to be: sin cannot accept the world as anything other than a playground for its own fantasies. The world that hates Christ is not the world, but sin’s imagination of the world. And of course sin’s imagination of the world is something which we must repudiate. But it’s important to note that this, though true, is not the conclusion that St John, in this same passage, actually makes explicit. He takes our repudiation of sin’s imagination of the world for granted: what he tells us explicitly is what this repudiation consists in. It consists, he tells us, in loving the world as Christ Himself loves it.

What replaces sin’s conception of the world, then, is love’s conception of it. We do not turn from the world, as something we can leave to the ravages of sin, turning instead to God; rather we convert, turning-again or re-turning to the world, this time not with sin’s heart but with the Heart of Christ. There, like Christ, we learn to lay down our lives for it. And this Christ-like laying down our lives for the world’s sake is what loving God means; we cannot, St John tells us, love God in conformity with the love which He pours into us, unless we love the world as He loves it. And that, as we know, is a love to which no limits whatsoever are set. Its contours are nothing less than those of the Cross. Now what does allowing those contours to become ours actually require of us? Answering that question is simultaneously the demand and the adventure of the Christian life for each one of us. One of the most fundamental perspectives upon the Cross of Christ opens up for us when we consider that God empties Himself and identifies so closely with sinners, that by means of the suffering and death which He undergoes, He removes from them their burden of sin. The burden of our falsifying and destructive imagination of the world is something He takes upon Himself, and He does this so completely that, when He dies, it is this burden which dies with Him. Now in a way which must remain mysterious to us, His identification with our burden even involved the Son of God experiencing the allure of sin’s imagination of the world, though without giving in to it; as the New Testament tells us quite explicitly, Christ, though without sin, was nonetheless tempted as we are tempted. But again, what does this mean for us, who are called to follow Him?

We live in a time of what are called culture wars, in which human life and human death, human desire and human fulfilment, are openly and even violently in question as perhaps never before. The conflicts are not just among individuals, but are being fought in the domains of law and public policy with a view quite explicitly to shaping the future not only of our society but of our whole civilization. So what are we to do? What are we to do as Christians? I think that in order to have influence as Christians upon these upheavals, we have to be ready not only to proclaim and defend the truth, but also, as deeply and comprehensively as we can, to understand the thoughts and emotions of those who are opposed to us. As Christians, we cannot assist in overcoming sin’s imagination of the world merely by insisting that we are right and that the others are wrong. We cannot counter sin’s conception of the world with love’s conception of it, merely by demonizing and casting out those who find themselves misled or confused or trapped or even in bad faith. We have to try to grasp what it is to be tempted as they are tempted. That means we have to try to see why they think that, let us say, abortion or euthanasia or the gay identity can constitute real answers to the difficulties which human beings must often endure. For only if you know, not only that someone is lost, but also, and much more importantly, where he is actually to be found, can you hope to show him a way out and the way back. In this willingness to leave behind a purely oppositional identity, we are enabled to abandon a merely secular and political engagement in the so-called culture wars, and begin to take up an authentically Christian one. And that is because only in this way will we take loving the world as seriously as God takes it, when He sends His Son into the world, not to condemn but to save it.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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