Given the many warnings about the “crisis of Christianity,” the inevitable rise of secularization, and the decline of our public witness (etc.), it may not be all that surprising that the most popular verse of 2014 focuses on the key tension the underlies it all.
According to data compiled by YouVersion, the popular Bible app, that verse is none other than Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
This peculiar position has confounded Christians since the beginning, and serves as the primary focus in Acton’s new film series, For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles. How are we to be in the world but not of it? How are we to live and engage and create and exchange in our current state of exile? Beyond simply getting a free ticket to heaven, what is our salvation actually for in the here and now?
We can respond to this in a variety of ways, and as Evan Koons notes early on in the series, the more common tendency is to resort to three faulty strategies: fortification (“hunker down!”), domination (“fight, fight, fight!”), or accommodation (“meh, whatevs”).
Each stems from its own set of errors, but all tie in some way to an undue divorce or clumsy conflation of the “sacred” and the “secular.” We embrace one to the detriment of the other, falling prey to our own humanistic imaginations, and in the end, leaning on the very “ways of the world” we are seeking to avoid. We hide; we coerce; we blend in. We embrace God’s message even as we ignore his method.
Yet God has called us to a more mysterious obedience: to hear and heed his voice, to conform to his will and purposes, and in turn, to serve and spread the love of God in all areas. To seek the good of our neighbors, the flourishing of our cities, and the prospering of the nations across all spheres and through all “modes of operation”: our work, families, education, creativity, political involvement, and so on.
Paul sets the stage for stewardship in a way that ought to reorient our imaginations around the mystery of God’s purposes, reminding us of the source of all that is “good and acceptable and perfect,” and stretching our dreaming, believing, and doing beyond both the walls of our church buildings and the cramped confines of “secular life.”
As Alexander Schmemann explains in his book, For the Life of the World (the inspiration for the title of the Acton series), achieving all this means recognizing the true state of a world without God, and reconsidering the full goodness of the Gospel as applied to all things: material and spiritual, “secular” and “sacred,” and everything in between:
The world is a fallen world because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world. And even the religion of this fallen world cannot heal or redeem it, for it has accepted the reduction of God to an area called “sacred” (“spiritual,” “supernatural”)—as opposed to the world as “profane.” It has accepted the all-embracing secularism which attempts to steal the world away from God….The fall is not that [man] preferred world to God, distorted the balance between the spiritual and material, but that he made the world material, whereas he was to have transformed it into “life in God,” filled with meaning and spirit.
But it is the Christian gospel that God did not leave man in his exile, in the predicament of confused longing. He had created man “after his own heart” and for Himself, and man has struggled in his freedom to find the answer to the mysterious hunger in him. In this scene of radical unfulfillment God acted decisively: into the darkness where man was groping toward Paradise, He sent light. He did so not as a rescue operation, to recover lost man: it was rather for the completing of what He had undertaken from the beginning. God acted so that man might understand who He really was and where his hunger had been driving him…The light God sent was his Son: the same light that had been shining unextinguished in the world’s darkness all along, now seen in full brightness.
How do we spread this light to the world around us? How do we share this love and life, not just in our churches, but through the work of our hands, the orientation of our hearts, and the full harmonic song of our stewardship?
Rather than run from the world (fortification), let us run to it. Rather than bludgeon the world with our billy clubs (domination), let us seek ways to serve it. Rather than surrender to the world (accommodation), let us stay bold in bearing and declaring the good news of Jesus Christ in all things — in truth, goodness, and beauty, and born out of the love of God. Let us neither diminish the spiritual nor run from the material, but take both together as we are transformed into “life in God.”
Let us be in the world, as Christ is in us.