In this twenty first century, our world is smaller than ever because we are more connected than ever. We are aware of the politics and climate changes in countries thousands of miles away. And so the timeless question of how we should relate to the world is even more timely for us. Before we can know our relationship to the world, we must understand what the world is. In “The World is our Enemy,” Blessed John Henry Newman explains the different meanings of “the world” and the responsibility of Christians in it.
The first meaning of “world” is the “the present visible system of things, without taking into consideration whether it is good or bad.” There is a clear difference between the world and the things in the world. For example, 1 John 2:17 reads, “And the world passes away, and the lust of it.” The world in this sense is not sinful, but its lusts are. Newman adds that this present visible system is attractive to us and we need to be cautious in our approach to it.
This system Newman describes as our different socioeconomic classes, labors, relationships with one another, duties, “social virtues” such as honesty and prudence, and our need of one another. In other words, our strictly human life here on earth, including our bodily death or “this course of things which we see carried on by means of human agency.”
This world then is good because it is “framed” by God, but it is still the enemy of our souls; not because it is sinful, but because we are sinful. We are told not to love the world and the goods therein, because our crooked hearts will be tempted to worship created things rather than the Creator. Newman says we may be like a traveler on business who stops to enjoy the beauty along the way and does not reach his destination. Perhaps we are tempted to put all of our sweat into feeding impoverished peoples, educating students, rising in our career; all of these are goods, but being so good they can easily seduce us (through no fault of their own).
Now, there is another meaning to “world.” The world as utterly sinful, as 1 John 5:19 reads, “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one.” After Adam’s fall, all that was created good was shot through with sin, from our relationships to our work to our politics and more:
“The infection of sin spread through the whole system, so that although the framework is good and divine, the spirit and life within it are evil. Thus, for instance, to be in a high station is the gift of God; but the pride and injustice to which it has given scope is from the Devil. To be poor and obscure is also the ordinance of God; but the dishonesty and discontent which are often seen in the poor is from Satan.”
The history of the world, Newman says, is evidence enough of this infection. He asks what state has been established without the shedding of blood? Moreover, the
great art and beauty in the world has been perverted by sensuality and rebellion. The sciences have been twisted toward dystopian ends. The world is, in this sense, thoroughly sinful.
In our next reflection, we will hear where the Church stands in relationship to the world in this sinful state and how we can prevail over the world our enemy. For now we can reflect on these two threats to our soul: the threat of idolatry toward the goods of this world, and the threat of sin in every area of human life. By increasing our prayer for our souls and others, we will gain ground in this cosmic battle.