Thursday, December 30, 2010

The "Two Worlds" in John's Theology

In recent times, one of the more famous Gospel verses in US culture is John chapter 3, verse 16: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son." This passage was made famous by persons who wore rainbow colored wigs at major sporting events around the country and held this verse aloft, emblazoned on a large piece of poster board (usually written as "John 3:16"). The message, of course, is straightforward and clear: God has such regard for the world that he sent his only Son to save it and draw it into closer communion with himself. However, this passage and the meaning of it may be less clear than one thinks!

In today's reading from the First Letter of John (likely not penned by the Evangelist John but someone who was writing in his honor and memory), the author writes something that "muddies the waters" of the above mentioned scripture passage: "Do not love the world or the things of the world. 
If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." (1 John 2:15). So, what gives? Does God love the world and should we love it by extension or not?

To resolve this apparent and not unimportant dilemma, scripture scholars tell us that there are essentially "two worlds" in John's theology. The first world, the one that God "so loved" and that we are to love by extension, is the created world and everything that is in it (creatures, cultures, all that makes up a culture which is good, true, and beautiful or that strives for this, etc....) The second "world" that is mentioned in today's first reading are all those "attitudes" which are contrary to God's will, goodness, truth, and beauty.

The importance of understanding this distinction cannot be overstated. Many a well intentioned Christian has chosen not to "get their hands dirty" in the day-to-day affairs of the world (i.e., culture, politics, etc...) under the mistaken notion that it is somehow cut off from God. This couldn't be further from the case. When God took on flesh in Christ and when Jesus carried out his ministry throughout Judea, he was constantly engaging and "mixing it up" with persons from all walks of life, to include the politicians of his day (Sadducees, Pharisees, scribes). In understanding and abiding by John's teaching regarding the "two worlds", we are empowered to be "in the world" but free enough not to be "of the world" (as the famous saying goes). To be "in the world but not of the world" implies having the faith to engage the world in all of it's diversity and complexity, trusting that the Spirit of God and the Church will help us in discerning the one world from the other. Pat, TOR