Earth’s crammed with heaven,Elizabeth Barrett Browning
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
I spent time in Washington, D.C. recently. I soaked in the beautiful fall weather and changing leaves along the Potomac River and other natural wonders in the Museum of Natural History. I walked through magnificent art and architecture around the Capitol and National Mall. I teared up during inspiring stories of political and civil rights heroes in the American History and African-American History museums and of technological innovators in the Air and Space Museum. I left feeling refreshed, inspired, and awestruck by the amazing world we live in.
I found it jarring, then, when in Sacrament Meeting my first week back the speaker–quoting President Nelson’s most recent conference address—described “the world” as “sin-saturated, self-centered, and exhausting.” Is there bad stuff in the world? Absolutely. Are there selfish people in the world? Yes. Can life be exhausting? Sure. (For some, the most exhausting part of life might actually be Church …). But what a pity to focus on that, to see the world through such a pessimistic lens to characterize the entire world–which we claim God created and is deeply invested and involved in–as “sin-saturated.”
I couldn’t help but contrast this with another view of the world–the view that Father Richard Rohr describes when he characterizes the world as “Christ-soaked.” One of the core themes of Rohr’s writing in his book The Universal Christ and podcast Another Name for Every Thing is that historically Christians have focused on the crucifixion of Jesus to the exclusion of an equally-important component to the Jesus story: the incarnation of Christ in Jesus. “Incarnation,” Rohr writes, “is the oldest Christian story. Through Christ, God is pouring God’s self into all creation. To be Christian, then, is to see Christ in every thing.”
In The Universal Christ, Rohr expands on this in six themes (summarized here, but the book is worth a read), the first four of which are particularly relevant here:
- “Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Christ has existed from the beginning. Christ is not the same as Jesus.” Jesus is Christ revealing Christ-self in an embodied form, but Christ exists in many forms.
- “Accept being fully accepted. God’s infinite love has always included all that God created from the very beginning. The connection is inherent and absolute.” When God created the world, God called it “good.” It didn’t have to do anything to earn its goodness! It was good and loved because God created it.
- “See Christ in every thing. I have never been separate from God, nor can I be, except in my mind.”
- “Original goodness. The Christian story line must start with a positive and over-arching vision for humanity and for history, or it will never get beyond the primitive, exclusionary, and fear-based strategies of most early human development.” Again, God created everything and called it good. The world is good!
This seems to me a fundamentally different way of understanding God, Christ, and the world than the one posited by Nelson and other LDS leaders. To them, Jesus Christ is a person separate from the world that is judging the world, dividing the world up between the good people and the (ever-increasing) bad people. We are capable of separating ourselves from God through unworthy acts. The world is fallen and only getting worse. Etc.
Does this difference in the way we perceive the world matter? I’d love your thoughts on this, but three quick ones from me.
First, this is honestly just a downer. It’s a depressing way to experience the world. For me personally, the attitude of people like Rohr is a more uplifting and inspiring one. As Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Second, the “world is getting worse and worse” orientation of the LDS Church is a large part of its tendency to label positive social change (like de-segregation, women’s rights, and gay marriage) as representing increasing evil in the world instead of representing the increased outpouring or revealing of God’s love in the world. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said (in a quote I was reminded of visiting his memorial last week) that “[t]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Many LDS leaders seem to think that the arc of the moral universe bends towards evil. If your default orientation is that the world is bad and getting worse, your instinctive response to change will be to characterize it as bad.
Third, labeling “the world” as “sin-saturated” places a barrier between us and people or things that are not “like us” because we worry they are “sinful.” This attitude of suspicion and skepticism about the goodness of other people and cultures gets in the way of our ability to connect with them–and to see God in them. Focusing on Jesus as having “overcome the world,” as Nelson emphasized in his most recent Conference talk, seems to put him at odds or in enmity with the world.
I also have to wonder *why* Church leaders tend to characterize the world in this negative way. Again, I’ll be asking for your takes, but I think it’s partially due to our millenarian orientation where we see the world getting worse and worse until Jesus comes back and burns the bad people and saves the good people. (I think this is extremely theologically, and practically, problematic.) I also have to wonder if, at least subconsciously, it’s because of the human tendency to unite against a common enemy. In this case, to create better social cohesion and loyalty among Mormons and to the institutional Church, we’ve got to unite against “the world” that only our Church leaders can guide us through and save us from.
Personally, I’d much rather live in a Christ or God-soaked world than a sin-saturated one. I’d rather sit in wonder at the good around me than whine and worry about the bad. That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of evil or injustice, although I define it quite differently than orthodox Mormonism. But makes me genuinely sad that Church leaders are peddling in fear and division, cutting us off from humanity and the world around us and thereby inadvertently cutting us off from God. Sad for them—that that’s how they experience this world. Sad for God–that they profane what God made sacred. And sad for my community–whose ability to experience joy is diminished by this mindset.
This section of a Mary Oliver poem I read this morning seemed particularly fitting, so I’ll end with it and then ask some questions below:
So it is not hard to understand
where God’s body is, it is
everywhere and everything; shore and the vast
fields of water, the accidental and the intended
over here, over there. And I bow down
participate and attentive…
I would be good—oh, I would be upright and good.
To what purpose? To be shining not
sinful, not wringing out of the hours
petulance, heaviness, ashes. To what purpose?
Hope of heaven? Not that. But to enterMary Oliver, On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate
the other kingdom: grace, and imagination,
and the multiple sympathies: to be as a leaf, a rose,
a dolphin, a wave rising
slowly then briskly out of the darkness to touch
the limpid air, the be God’s mind’s
servant, loving with the body’s sweet mouth—its kisses, its words—
- Would you characterize the world as “sin-saturated” or “Christ-soaked”? (Or, if “Christ-soaked” doesn’t do it for you, what terms would you use)?
- Do you think the world could be both or are they fundamentally different, mutually-exclusive orientations at viewing the world? Do you think the difference matters? How does it impact (for better or worse) how we related to other people or the natural world?
- Do you see more sin-saturated or Christ-soaked rhetoric at Church? What are so examples of either? Why do you think that is?
- If you think the world is terrible, then how do you explain this marvel?