On “This World”

Senior Editor’s note: As the 2015 Synod on the Family heads into its second week of deliberations, more dissident voices are raised, although Robert Royal (@RobertSRoyal) is heartened by the strong and faithful resolve of most of the American delegation. And one productive step may be the emphasis by many of the Fathers on, as Dr. Royal reports, a “significant period of a virtual catechesis on marriage before a wedding, followed by continued spiritual and practical formation.” Read the rest of Bob’s report, “Impressions and Misimpressions,” by clicking here. – Brad Miner (@ABradfordMiner)

The Biblical expression “this world” refers to Christ’s reminder that His Kingdom is not of “this world.” (John 18:36) Logically, if there is a “this world,” as seems obvious, we must also be aware of another Kingdom that is “not” of this world. Does “this world” mean “this cosmos”? “this planet?” In Scripture, “world” can mean what is created, or what is against God, or this earth.

Some scientists are working to lengthen the number of years of a human life on this planet. The average age at death has generally increased over the centuries. Still, less-than-a-hundred holds most of the time. The vast majority of human beings on this planet have lived for many fewer years than a hundred. “Why is this?” Does the “fact” have a “reason”?

Such a limited span of years may be all anyone needs to achieve (or not to achieve) what he is “for.” A common reason given for efforts to transfer members of this human race to another planet is that man has an “obligation” to keep himself functioning even when this planet is incapable of supporting human life. “To whom” we owe this “obligation” is not always clear.

Most of Scripture suggests that this worry is not very real. We have to assume that each of the billions of human beings who have ever died at any stage of their lives did or did not fulfill his purpose in being. If anyone did not, we have no way of rescuing him.

Our time in this world is not to fill the rest of the universe with, precisely, “us.” The amount of time our species has been given is generous, but it is designed so that many billions of us have occasion to decide just what we are about. Once we embrace this purpose by our decisions and actions, not much sense can be found in our sticking around with nothing important left to do. Theories of reincarnation that give us second and third chances just push the problem back without solving it. And if we hold that no “purpose” of any sort is found in our individual and personal existence, then it is difficult to see what difference it makes. Once we are gone, that is the end. Book closed.

Yet “this world” is also presented in Scripture as something to be avoided. It seems odd that we should be warned away from our physical environment. But perhaps we can conjure up two “worlds.” One is the world, the planet, and its given make-up, what it contains and what it tends to. Things do seem to blow up like volcanoes, burn out, change, whether we like it or not.

"Christ The Judge" by Laurent de La Hyre, c. 1650 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]
“Christ The Judge” by Laurent de La Hyre, c. 1650 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]

But secondly, there is the world as we understand it, the one that exists in our minds, whether it accurately depicts what is out there or not. Indeed, the world seems to exist precisely so that we could know it, or better, that it be known. And if it can be “known,” this fact means that something in it can know the world. This knowledge informs us of what we do not know except from examining this world.

Moreover, we quickly run up against the curious fact that we, the knowers, are also in the world. However the whole world came to be – rather than not be – we were included in the original package. This fact must imply that one species of beings in the world was placed there so it could not just be, but be known.

The world without man seemed incomplete, as if to say that it needed a completion. What could this completion be? We are aware of the rise and fall of empires. That is, any “improvement” would itself be subject to decay. So perhaps the completion of the world does not look to the earth, except insofar as it can provide a setting for man’s purpose. But “man,” understood to be the whole collective species, does not seem to have a “this worldly” purpose other than to provide for something that transcends it.

What might this “transcends the world” mean? If we were not of a Christian heritage, we might easily end with Socrates’ immortality of the soul. This is where the strange teaching of the resurrection of the body comes in. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will remain.” (Matthew 24:35)

The “Word” was made flesh. The “word,” whereby each of us finally defines himself, is judged. John tells us the “Prince of this world” is “already” judged. (16:11) So are all of those who have preceded us. We are the ones who “remain” waiting. The center of this world is not the Sun or the sidereal spaces. It lies in the word and will of each of us responding or rejecting the Word made flesh.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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