What in the World…?

By: Brian Emmet

World is an interesting word: “What world do you live in/what planet are you from?”  World can refer to a physical place or space (the Earth), to a self-contained system (the world of higher education), to humanity (Apple’s latest device set the world buzzing), to life organized apart from God (“don’t love the world or the things of the world,” the Bible admonishes us), to a realm of human activity and endeavor (the world of medicine, of the arts, etc.), to a historical era (the world of the ancient Greeks).  Some of the early European settlers of North America left the Old World in search of the New World, “world” here referring to a culture, a whole way of living and of understanding life and our place in it.  World can also point towards ways of being and living that aren’t yet “real” or fully realized: “O brave new world that has such people in it!” cries Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The truth is, we inhabit all kinds of worlds.  We are creatures of and within the natural world.  The family in which we grew up helped form the world of childhood.  As we grew and matured, we entered the world of adulthood, the world of work, the world of singleness or of marriage and family. We may earn our living in the retail world or the digital world.  When we’re daydreaming, we are “in another world.”  So we are residents, denizens, citizens of a variety of worlds.  Let’s think about what a world is.

world can be a physical place, it can be located in space and time.  Additionally, a world is a home, it provides an environment and the resources necessary to sustain particular kinds of life: we describe certain people as “lost in this world” or “looking for a better world,” meaning that the world they inhabit doesn’t feel like “home” and doesn’t provide them what they feel is needed for life.

world is also a story, a particular narrative framing of life.  In this sense, a world helps tell us where we are and who we are.  A world typically has a cosmology (or “origin story”), an anthropology (what it means to “be human”) and an eschatology (“here’s where everything is going, here’s the goal towards which things are moving”).  Cosmology, anthropology and eschatology typically blossom into an ethical system: because we originated in this way, because we are the kinds of creatures that we are, and because we are moving towards this goal or exist for this purpose, we therefore ought to live, to behave, to conduct ourselves in these kinds of ways.

world also describes and embeds us in a way of relating to others.  According to the worlds we inhabit, other people can be seen as competitors for scarce resources, obstacles to my self-realization, neighbors to be served and loved, resources to be used, fellow “divine sparks imprisoned in the material, physical world, or fellow pilgrims on a journey from “earth” to “heaven,” among many other options.

The various worlds we inhabit can often be in conflict.  A person who lives too much “in her own world” may have real difficulty earning a living, building healthy relationships or sustaining basic health and well-being.  We are increasingly aware of the tensions between “the natural world” and “the industrialized world.”  The latter world can affect the former in damaging and destructive ways. And the natural world may well make some demands upon the industrialized world that that world would see as restricting, limiting, “anti-progress” and so forth.   We have stories that aren’t necessarily coherent with one another, and the origin stories, anthropologies, eschatologies and ethics they put forth may be irreconcilable.

“In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus told his disciples, “but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  This suggests to me that we have real choices and decisions to make about the worlds we will inhabit, and the ways in which we will engage with them.

For example, one of the worlds we inhabit, in modern North American culture, is the world of mass consumerism.  The origin story runs something like this: “in the beginning” there was a constant struggle against scarcity and a great lack of comforts and satisfactions.  Only a few had wealth, and the masses were condemned to lives of poverty.  Then, illumination: through the insights of Adam Smith and many others, we came to understand that there was a better way to distribute goods and services, what we now call “capitalism.”

The anthropology of this world goes something like this: the essence of humanity is to produce and consume.  In a popularized form, “I shop, therefore I am.”  Anything that is needed or valued—food, animals, manufactured goods, art, auto parts, weapons, children, human organs—is best distributed through markets that are as free as possible.  Since in this world we are fundamentally consumers, anything that impedes or limits consumption is an offense against our dignity and freedom.

The problem with the many worlds we can and do inhabit is not that they are not “real,” it is their claim to be more real than they are.  One of the key features of every world is the claim it makes to ultimacy, to being the one and only world, the “real world” that encompasses and contains all lesser worlds.  So each of our worlds has at its heart an idolatry, a claim to supremacy and ultimacy that can only belong to the one by whom, through whom and for whom all things are created and have their existence.  In brief form, “Jesus is Lord!”

There is much that is good in nearly all of our worlds; each one directs our attention to some things that are good and true, and perhaps even beautiful.  The problems arise when we attempt to make a world into the center of everything.  When we seek to center our lives on worlds that cannot be true centers, we find that the false centers cannot hold and things begin to fly apart.

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