The Simple Life 1b
"Liberation" is the catchword of our day, so let's talk about liberation. We didn't do it in the previous chapter, but we could as well have cast Jesus' teachings regarding the simple life into liberationist terminology. Clearly, the simple-living Christian dispossesses himself of excess stuff precisely that he might he liberated from it and so left free to enjoy the view of the stars, to live out of his love and loyalty to God.
In a crucial passage from a letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul speaks very directly to the matter of liberation--although his remarks touch the simple life only tangentially. However, it will be easy enough to discover the implication his thought has for our particular topic.
Let us get the text before us:
... let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.
Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God....
I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as thought they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away....
I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:17-35)
There is one consideration that must be dealt with at the outset in order even to establish the validity of our using this passage. Clearly, one of the governing factors in Paul's thought is his expectation that "the appointed time has grown short," that "the present form of this world is passing away," that attention to the imminent, in-breaking consummation of history (the eschaton) should figure large in our ethical decisions.
Now the fact that more than nineteen hundred years have elapsed while the world has gone its "merry" way would seem to indicate that Paul's expectation was misplaced. Many commentators move, then, to the conclusion that, because the expectation was misplaced, Paul's ethical thought based upon that expectation is itself rendered invalid. Because he thought the time was short, he argued that the matter of getting a change in earthly conditions and alignments was of relatively low priority; but, because we know that the time is not short, the matter of earthly amelioration becomes of top priority. However, this interpretation needs to be challenged on several levels. In the first place, even if, for the moment, we grant such a reading of Paul, it does not follow that we now know that the time is not short. The fact that the eschaton did not happen then gives us no information one way or the other as to whether it will happen now. Paul's attitude of expectation is just as possible and just as justified for us as it was for him.
But the heart of the matter lies at a somewhat different spot. Paul's expectations of imminence were not founded upon any claim of inside information as to when the eschaton would occur. Neither he nor other New Testament writers claimed to he one up on Jesus in this regard. For one thing, time after time throughout the Gospels, Jesus is reported as warning people against trying to discover "signs" and decipher them (Mt. 12:38-40; Mt. 16:1-4; Mk. 8:11-13; Mk. 13:5-6; Mk. 16:21-23; Lk. 11:29-30; Lk. 17:20-25; Lk. 21:7-8; Jn. 21:20-23; Acts 1:6-8). Yet knowledge about the "when" inevitably will have to involve the reading of signs--which Jesus himself warns is a very risky and deceptive business at best. More, Jesus explicitly denied that he had any such information: "But about that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son: only the Father" (Mt. 24:36). And if Jesus denied that he did, who would he so presumptuous as to claim that he does?
And yet Jesus, like Paul, did have a very lively expectation of the end. However, that expectation was founded not upon any inside information about the "when" but precisely upon the lack of such information: the fact that I have not the slightest knowledge of "when" means that could be at any time, as well now as a thousand years from now. The crucial, summary statement in Matthew 24 makes very clear that this was the nature of the early Christian expectation:
Keep awake, therefore; for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in which part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Mt.24:42-44)
It is interesting to note, then, that, in the collection of parables that follow this text and illustrate it, the first (that of the untrustworthy servant) is the story of a man who got in trouble because he assumed that his master would return late when, in fact, he came early. But the next two (the wise and foolish maidens and the story of the talents) deal with people who are embarrassed because they assumed that the master (bridegroom) would come early when, in fact, he came late. The Christian expectation is one that can handle either eventuality precisely because it does not claim to know when and thus can and will continue to be expectant no matter what happens. The fact that I don't know when always means that it could be now.
Thus, there is all the difference in the world between an expectation based upon a claim to inside information with its reading of the signs and an expectation based expressly upon the lack of any such information. The first is completely vulnerable to disappointment: "I was sure I knew when it was to happen; it didn't; I was all wrong." However1 the second is immune to this sort of disappointment: "Yes, I have been expecting the event; true, it hasn't happened yet; but that doesn't mean I was 'wrong,' because I never claimed to know when it would happen; that it could be 'now' is still just as possible as it ever was."
Many New Testament scholars like to talk about "the delay of the eschaton" and how it caused a major crisis in the expectations of the early church and thus a radical theological readjustment. I confess that the evidence impresses me precisely the other way. The Gospel records indicate that Jesus (circa AD 30) held a very immediate expectation of the end. At least twenty years later, Paul (as per the selection before us) entertains just as lively an expectation. As much as fifty years after Jesus, the Gospel writers (particularly Matthew) must have shared the same expectancy or else they would have glossed over this aspect of Jesus' teaching rather than emphasizing it. And, I would maintain, the book of Revelation (whenever it was written) displays as strongly as ever this same sort of I-don't-know-when expectancy rather than making a claim to privileged chronological information. It is almost incredible that an expectancy of the latter sort could maintain itself in force for a half-century and more, too many people too often would have been proved all wrong.
And on the other hand, if there is evidence of theological modification occasioned by the delay of the eschaton, I submit that it should be understood not as a wise and proper adjustment necessitated by a growing insight into reality but rather as nothing more than a deterioration of faith. There is no reason at all why Christians today cannot and should not share completely in Paul's sense of eschatological expectancy and thus grant full validity to the ethical argument he presents here.
(The modern church, however, has really missed the point in this regard. It is divided into two camps. The ultra-conservative literalists are correct in holding a lively sense of eschatological expectancy, but they corrupt and falsify that faith by basing it upon claims of inside information, an uninhibited passion for "signs," and the making the Bible into a code book. Thus they are courting the very disillusionment Jesus warned against. The rest of the church, on the other hand, is correct in under-standing that God purposely is reserving the "when" of the kingdom to his own secret wisdom; but these people then jump to the completely unwarranted conclusion that eschatology is irrelevant to the Christian faith and life. And the biblical truth of the matter falls right through the gap between these two faulty viewpoints.)
Nevertheless, New Testament ethics in general--and thus the doctrine of the simple life in particular--are governed by eschatological tension. This is the case even where the expectation is not stated--although it very often is. Thus, for example, it would be proper to read invisible words into our key statement from Jesus: "Set your mind on God's kingdom before everything else, [for that kingdom is fast approaching its consummation,] and all the rest will come to you as well." When Paul points up the eschatological orientation of our thought, he is not adding anything new to the teaching of Jesus but simply making more explicit what had been there all along.
But what is essential now is to discover how Paul uses this eschatological expectancy, what role it plays in and what contribution it makes to his ethical formulation. It would seem, in the first place, that his expectancy does not change the content of the ethic, that is, it does not make anything right that otherwise would be wrong or make wrong what otherwise would be right. What it does do is sharpen and clarify priorities.
The economy is this: Let us say that there are two things that need to be done--No.1 and No.2--each of them good and proper in themselves. Now, if time is no factor--and particularly if No.2 seems to be the easier and more immediately manageable task--the tendency is to say, "Let's give No.2 the big push now, and we can get around to No.1 in due course." If, however, eschatological expectancy makes it very much a possibility that time may be limited, the word is, "We had better make sure that No.1 is getting the primary attention before we give too much concern to No.2."
On the face of it, the matter of ordering priorities would seem to be minor enough; but as we saw in the previous chapter and as we shall see now in regard to a somewhat different dialectic, there are at least some situations in which the order of priority is all-important. It is as with a radio set: it is not enough that it simply contain the proper components; unless those components are hooked up in proper order, properly related to one another, the set will not operate at all.
Thus, in one sense, his eschatological expectancy adds no new component to Paul's ethical analysis. What he says would be true in any case: No. 1, because it is in fact more important than No.2, should get priority whether that is the way things turn out or not. But the very vital contribution the eschatological expectancy makes, then, is as guide and insurance that the true priorities will be recognized and ordered in such a way that the system as a whole can operate.
Now Paul's is a system of liberation; this is his topic throughout the passage. He suggests that there are two different modes of liberation or, better, two different components that belong in the system. These form a dialectic; and yet (as in the instance of the previous chapter) it is crucial that the proper priority between the poles be observed.
No. 1 is an inner attitude toward external circumstances by which one can free himself from them even before the circumstances themselves are changed, even if they do not come to be changed. No. 2 is the changing of the external circumstances themselves.
Certainly it will not require more than a second's consideration to realize that all of the liberation movements that characterize our society today devote their single and exclusive attention to No.2. No. 1 is positively disdained--if its possibility is even recognized. Thus Paul's order of priority is entirely reversed (and undoubtedly the reason Paul wrote as he did was because, in his own day, some Corinthians were intent on making the same inversion).
But consider the consequences. That the focus of liberation now centers upon the external situation of oppression means, in fact, that it centers upon the external people whom I see as having created the situation, "the male chauvinist pigs," or whoever. An "adversary" alignment is created; and the picture immediately becomes that of a righteous, innocent, but misused "me" fighting myself free from the oppressive evil of the black-hearted "them." Of course, there also may be pious talk about the fact that we are getting free in order to free them as well; but neither the rhetoric nor the action can maintain that spirit or remain convincing on that point for very long.
The promise of liberation now becomes an invitation for me to ferret out and worry over every conceivable slight and inequity in my effort to convince the world how misused I am--this is called "the raising of awareness." And the motive power behind the movement thus becomes my offendedness and moral indignation, it becomes hurt, anger, resentment, rebellion--building precisely upon the "anxious care" from which Paul wishes to set us free. And there is something wrong with an effort that fosters the very thing from which it is striving to be liberated.
It is telling in this regard that one of the counsels Paul gives his readers is, "Do not become slaves of men"--this to people who, above all, are determined to fight themselves free from the men who have enslaved them. Obviously, Paul intends something different from the meaning they would attach to those words. He is saying, is he not?: "Be careful or in your very efforts at liberation you will let men enslave you into bitterness and lack of love. You are going after Liberation No. 2 exactly in a way that will lose you Liberation No. 1. What a tragedy!"
Now I do not believe that Paul means to eliminate entirely the effort to change external conditions or to suggest that such efforts are of no importance--although, because the Corinthian imbalance was so far the other way, he does come close to doing it, I admit. Nevertheless he does counsel the slave that "it a chance of liberty should come, take it." And I am confident that he also would want to say, "If a chance should come of helping some other slave be liberated, take it even more quickly." So Paul's real meaning seems to be that the finding and sharing of the inner freedom that rises above external circumstances takes priority and is the Christian's first order of business. But then, as opportunity presents itself--and if God should grant us time--it is altogether right to work at bringing about outward change as well. (And the so-called "delay of the eschaton" does mean this much if nothing else: to the present, at least, God has granted us time. Paul's doctrine offers no comfort to contemporary Christians who have done a miserable enough job of No. 1, to be sure, but who haven't got around to No. 2 either.)
But in this thought of Paul there also lies the explanation of a behavior that often has raised questions. Paul and the other early Christians (and Jesus himself) lived in a society that practiced human, slavery . . . and yet they made no apparent effort either to change, challenge, or even protest the situation. Why not? Because, in the shortness of the time of eschatological expectation, they were concerned, urgently concerned, to get to every slave (i.e., every person) that quality of liberation that makes bodily release seem comparatively unimportant. "For the man who as a slave received the call to be a Christian is the Lord's freedman, and, equally, the free man who received the call is a slave in the service of Christ." Then, if it pleases God to grant us time (as it turns out he did), we can work at changing the social institution of external slavery as well.
There would seem to be a further consideration Paul did not raise but we will volunteer to raise for him. A person who already has found Liberation No. 1 is bound to be much more effective in gaining Liberation No. 2 both for himself and for others than will the person who tries directly for No.2. The old One-Two (in that order) Punch avoids all the side effects of suspicion, accusation, and bitterness that we observed in the other approach. And so we reiterate an earlier formula: by rights, the liberationists should be the first to applaud when a person chooses to follow the Pauline priority rather than straightway joining the Movement; it is the best possible guarantee that the ends of the Movement will themselves be realized.
Paul puts his primary emphasis on the No. 1 Liberation that rises above circumstance, and it is this we want to be most careful to understand. Paul's personal experience is a very instructive example. His comparative de-emphasis of the importance of social change was not motivated by the fact that he was a well-to-do WASP male (he could have qualified on only one of those counts) who never knew what oppression was. He was, rather, an indigent social and ethnic outcast who spent more time behind bars and was more often hassled by the establishment than is the case with ninety-nine percent of the people for whom liberation is being sought today. And yet, while sitting in a jail on a bum rap, he could write:
Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:11-13)
The man who wrote that knows a liberation that goes deeper than any modern liberation movement has dreamed of. And, consequently, Paul's writings show a marked absence of complaint, demand, rant, rancor, and sneer; he is free enough from his oppressors that he does not have to allow them to dictate the mood of his existence.
On one occasion (Acts 16:25ff.) Paul and his companions were in prison when God acted through an earthquake to change the external circumstances and grant them a No. 2 type liberation. They declined to leave their cells. And why? Because to do so would get the jailer into trouble. When people can afford to take such an attitude, so diametrically contrary to what characterizes much of modern liberationism, it is proof enough that they already have experienced an infinitely higher quality of liberation. However, it must be said, too, that action of this caliber never can come about by trying to make people stay in their cells or by preaching at them that this is what they should do. Only those who have experienced Liberation No. 1 are free enough to act so; and then they do it because they want to.
But perhaps our most telling example comes from Jesus rather than Paul. Recounted in Mt. 17:24-27, it has to do with whether Jesus is obligated to pay the temple tax. Jesus' first response is that such a tax cannot rightfully be claimed from him; to impose it upon him is an injustice. Nevertheless, precisely because he is free and has the liberty in this regard, he chooses to express it by voluntarily paying the tax because "we do not want to cause offense." This willingness to suffer offense rather than offend others by demanding that they give attention to my offendedness again is the mark of a quality of liberation that is altogether different from what any "movement" knows. But recall, too, what we suggested above, that the cause of external amelioration itself will be better served by this attitude of Jesus than by that of those who are ready to try anything in the effort to throw off the oppressor.
This is what Liberation No. 1 looks like--but what is its source and economy? There is one sentence in our Paul passage that speaks to the topic: "What matters is to keep God's commands." Now, at root, that idea is almost identical with Jesus' "Set your mind on God's kingdom before everything else"; but perhaps Paul expresses his thought somewhat more felicitously at another point: "I count everything [including external amelioration] sheer loss, because all is far outweighed by the gain [the liberation] of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 3:8). What we here have called "Liberation No. 1" is simply the personal consequence of the inner relationship to God that we earlier called the "Before Everything Else."
We are supposed to be talking about the simple life and are ready to do so again. We have taken a roundabout way to get here, but it enables us to state directly what now needs to be said. Although not mentioning specifically that which has to do with the simple life, Paul's argument is very near the mark even so. His "I want you to be free from anxious care" parallels Jesus' "I bid you put away anxious thoughts." However, the difference in wording may be significant. The most Paul can do is to express his hope and desire that his reader will be freed from anxious care; but only Jesus has the authority and power to command, "I bid you," and then grant what he commands.
But as regards "the things of life," anxious care indicates that they enslaved one. When a person's lanterns keep him from enjoying the view of the stars, they have deprived him of a precious liberty. And I think it hardly is necessary for me to write anything aimed to convince the reader that masses of our contemporaries have become trapped into the slave march of making money and spending it--production, consumption, luxury, keeping up with the Joneses. We need a liberation movement here as much as in any other aspect of life.
But Paul's argument would indicate that liberation from this slavery is not to be won by a direct attack upon the "things" in themselves, by a first-priority attempt to modify the externals of one's style of life. No, the key to liberty lies primarily in an inner change of attitude toward these things. And this attitude Paul (in the middle paragraph of our I Corinthians text) characterizes with the phrase "as if not." The man with many possessions is to consider them as if he had them not; the man without possessions is to consider that lack as if it did not exist. And such an attitude does, in itself, free one from the tyranny of "things"--even before any concrete change is made regarding the things themselves. And it goes without saying that the only action that can bring about this new, as-if-not attitude is "the expulsive power of a new affection." "I count everything sheer loss, because all is far outweighed by the gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."
This means, then, that the degree of a person's liberation, the quality of his freedom from "things," cannot be gauged simply by looking at how many things he owns. For example, I am certain that there are people who have possessions of a price I could never dream of owning who nevertheless are further liberated from "things" than I am. Likewise, I am certain that there are many people owning far less than I do and yet have tasted nothing of the liberation of Christian simplicity. But even so, as soon as we have said this, it is incumbent upon us also to say that there are some things which to own--and more particularly, there is a way of owning things--which makes it apparent to even the most casual observer that the owner is in no way free of his possessions.
It is right, then, to urge that the experience of Liberation No. 1 not end with that but move on into the external changes of Liberation No. 2. Yes, an as-if-not attitude can free one from the tyranny of his possessions; nevertheless, possession is itself a snare continually set to jerk a person out of his freedom. Jesus very put the matter very cogently in his conversation with the disciples following the encounter with the rich, young ruler.
It had become evident that that young man could not hold an as-if-not attitude and continue to own his wealth at the same time, so Jesus commanded him to rid himself of it.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said,
"For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." (Mk. 10:23-27)
Now the disciples were operating under the old Jewish understanding that saw wealth entirely as a sign of God's approval and blessing (a view regarding which many Christians still have not caught on that Jesus rejected and even reversed it) they simply had never thought of wealth as a trap and enslavement. They were flabbergasted, then, when Jesus turned their conception upside down by stating that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
For most of us, certainly, the indicated response to Jesus' observation is that wealth is something we would be smart to get rid of, choose not to seek, and be happy to do without. And yet he does not say--he specifically does not say--that every wealthy man automatically is disqualified from entering the kingdom of God. No, when he says that everything is possible for God, he can mean nothing else than that some people will be able to find the true Christian liberty of "as if not," even without actually divesting themselves of what they happen to possess.
Those must start with the inner matters of relationship and attitude rather than with any external changes regarding "things." Granted, this setup leaves the field wide open for us sinners to deceive either ourselves, other people, or both. And that is why, in the final analysis, the whole matter of Christian simplicity will have to be left in the hands of God--which is precisely where it belongs anyhow.
Earlier we suggested that the Christian concept of the simple life cannot he equated directly with sheer rejection of the prevailing social order. We saw that neither Jesus' teachings nor his example could be forced into so simplistic a pattern. Yet certainly, both for Jesus and for us, the simple life does entail elements of a witness against the world and its ways. The matter will need to be made dialectical.
It is this particular dialectic we propose to develop now. We already have noted some New Testament texts that deal with the subject, and we will bring in some others. However, what is perhaps the best early Christian statement comes not out of the New Testament itself but from a bit later in history, perhaps during the second century. Even so, all the indications are that this text is a fair representation of the New Testament's own teaching.
The document is a rare and little noted fragment of an early Christian apology known as The Letter to Diognetus. Very little if anything definite can be said about who wrote it, when, where, or how. And we will use it, then, not so much as the thought of a particular author but more as an almost accidental peek into the culture of the early Christians and their practice of the simple life.
Christians are not different from the rest of men in nationality, speech, or customs; they do not live in states of their own, nor do they use a special language, nor adopt a peculiar way of life.... Whether fortune has given them a home in a Greek or foreign city, they follow local custom in the matter of dress, food, and way of life; yet the character of the culture they reveal is marvelous and, it must be admitted, unusual. They live, each in his native land--but as though they were not really at home there. They share in all duties like citizens and suffer all hardships like strangers. Every foreign land is for them a fatherland and every fatherland a foreign land. They marry like the rest of men and beget children, but they do not abandon the babies that are born. They share a common board, but not a common bed. In the flesh as they are, they do not live according to the flesh. They dwell on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the laws that men make, but their lives are better than the laws. They love all men, but are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, yet are more alive than ever. They are paupers, but they make many rich. They lack all things, and yet in all things they abound.2
This passage is a beautiful example of dialectic, even if nothing else. The concluding lines specifically but also the tone of the whole make it plain that the style of these Christians was a simple one; their lives obviously were not centered upon material values. Regarding the relationship, then, between them and the society around them, it also is made plain that this style was obnoxious to those who observed it; they interpreted it as a threat to and a judgment against their own values. So much was this the case that we are told that the Christians actually were persecuted and killed in consequence.
Nevertheless (and here comes the dialectic) it also is made clear that the Christian style was not purposely designed to irritate other people or even willfully to demonstrate a difference and distance from them. Quite the contrary, we see these Christians making a deliberate effort to identify with the larger community; the entire first half of our passage points in this direction.
The normative principle behind their action seems to be this: except where their allegiance to Christ clearly dictates otherwise, they feel a real obligation to be identified with the people and affiliated with the culture in which they find themselves. Nonconformity is not valued as an end in itself. The one end is that which we have been emphasizing all the way through: loyalty to Jesus Christ and, through him, to the kingdom of God. Obviously, at points, this loyalty is going to show itself as nonconformity' to the world; yet even there, the loyalty rather than the nonconformity is the motive and goal of the action. Absolutely no value is given here to nonconformity apart from such an act of loyalty.
Now, when the Christian, out of his loyalty to Jesus, does perform in a way that amounts to a rejection of the world's way, it is quite possible for the world (or at least some people in it) to see this as an exposé of its own evil and consequently be moved to a change of heart and of life. But it is God's business whether or not things do work out so; there is no evidence to suggest that Christian simplicity ever was meant as a strategy for protesting against the world or attempting to reform it. In a word, the validity of Christian simplicity is determined entirely by the good of that to which it does conform, namely, the kingdom of God, rather than by the evil of that to which it refuses to conform--even though God may choose to use that nonconformity as an injunction against evil. Or, to put it again in the terms that form the true basis of our thought: "Set your mind on God's kingdom before everything else, and all the rest [including the condemnation and possible reformation of the world] will come to you as well."
From this analysis it should become apparent how different is the economy of Christian simplicity from the superficially similar simplicity of the contemporary counterculture. That movement, it seems quite apparent, is motivated almost exclusively by reaction, rebellion, protest, defiance against society, a society deemed to be essentially evil. Completely contrary to what we found in the Diognetus description, there now appears a conscious effort to discover and invent arbitrary symbols that can express and dramatize the stance of distancing and rejection. Whereas these early Christians were seeking out opportunities (Christianly permissible opportunities) for expressing their identity with their fellows of the larger society, the counterculture seeks out opportunities for expressing dissociation and contempt. Nonconformity is promoted as a good in and for itself.
Behind this difference, of course, lies the fundamental discrepancy that the counterculture lacks a positive center. Because it has nothing integral or true upon which to focus in the positive, it has to orient itself simply as protest against the negative. And as much of a positive witness as the counterculture can muster is the questionable assertion that simplicity is more sensuously satisfying than luxury is (see our earlier discussion of "hedonism").
It needs to be said that the counterculture's "rebellion toward simplicity" does have sociological significance and perhaps even a contribution to make in exposing the deep sickness of our sensate, materialistic, technique-dominated society. But how disastrous it would be to confuse this symptom of sickness with or equate it to that Christian simplicity which is the cure of sickness--and that because it points to and is controlled by the one who is himself the Great Physician.
A second passage from Diognetus leads us into a theological analysis of the simplicity that the first passage described.
In a word, what the soul is to the body Christians are to the world. The soul is distributed in every member of the body, and the Christians are scattered in every city in the world. So, Christians live in the world, but they are not of the world. The soul which is guarded in the visible body is not itself visible. And so, Christians who are in the world are known, but their worship remains unseen. The flesh hates the soul and acts like an unjust aggressor, because it is forbidden to indulge in pleasures. The world hates Christians--not that they have done it wrong, but because they oppose its pleasures. The soul loves the body and its members in spite of the hatred. So Christians love those who hate them. The sold is locked up in the body, yet it holds the body together. And so Christians are held in the world as in a prison, yet it is they who hold the world together.3
Now admittedly, this author's doctrine of the soul is wide open to criticism--both on biblical grounds and on the grounds of modern psychology and anthropology. However, because neither he nor we have any interest in discussing the soul as such, this need present no difficulty. Our one concern will be to grasp his picture in order to understand what he is talking about, the Christian's relationship to the world.
He does not envisage the soul as many of us may, as an ethereal blob hidden somewhere within an individual; for him, the soul is an invisible, insubstantial body congruent with and contained within the person's material body. Further, the soul is by nature good and manifests a concern for the virtue and welfare of the person as a whole, whereas the physical body is interested only in its own sensual pleasure.
As before, the author's prime concern is to establish the dialectic character of the relationship he is exploring. He achieves his most succinct statement of it, perhaps, in the sentence: "So Christians live in the world, but they are not of the world." He did not invent this idea, although he may have been the first to put it just this tersely. But in the Gospel of John, Jesus' high-priestly prayer for his disciples includes each of the elements we have found here in Diognetus.
But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them as the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. (Jn. 17:13-18)
This passage can help in interpreting and elaborating what the Diognetus author has said. He pointed us in the direction of giving the "in-the-world" pole of the dialectic proper attention along with the "not-of-the world" pole. But Jesus makes it specific that his prayer is precisely not that his disciples should be taken out of the world. Yet, truly, the evidence suggests that what we have called "counterculture simplicity" does represent an attempt to get "out of the world"--no, not out of the natural world, of course, but out of the world of human society. The prevalence of drug use in this culture is perhaps the clearest indicator that this is the motivation involved.
But Jesus, too, is talking about the human world rather than the natural world; the final sentence of our John text makes that plain. To say that Christians be "in the world" implies much more than the simple-minded observation that in the world is where we happen to be and that we ought not try to fight the fact. Far from being merely an unavoidable fact of our existence, Jesus insists that Christians be "in the world" because he himself sent them into the world just as God sent him into the world. The Christian way of being in the world, then, is the way of conscious and deliberate religious commitment rather than the way of automatic and inevitable happenstance. And thus voluntary association in the world of men can be the only possible intention behind Jesus' words.
It goes without saying that God sent Jesus into the world for no other purpose than to love, serve, suffer with, and suffer for the men he found there. It follows indubitably that Christians are sent into the world with the same assignment. Now it obviously is impossible to communicate love and concern for one's fellow man unless one is willing, at the same time, to communicate the desire to understand, feel for, become involved and even identified with him. In that regard, Jesus' own ministry was so effective that the New Testament can say of him, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin." (Heb. 4:15).
The calling of the Christian impels him to be working every bit as hard at being in the world as at being not of it. In fact, just as soon as one of these tasks is disregarded, the other loses its validity at the same time. Many Christians have become so good at being in the world that there no longer is any evidence of their being not of it. That's worldliness; and that's bad. But the situation isn't helped when those of the counterculture overreact to that hypocrisy and become so scrupulous about being not of the world that they fail any longer to be in it. That's self-righteous contemptuousness; that's bad, too; and it is a hypocrisy of its own sort.
The Christian's not-of-the-world simplicity will offend people; both Jesus and the Diognetus author make this clear. Yet the Christian loves these very same people, knows that he is one of them, and wants to be known as one of them. Even though they find his action offensive, it is not that he wanted it to offend them; he was not out to "bug" them and takes no satisfaction in the fact that they got irritated.
In this regard, one of the most questionable assumptions behind the counterculture and its Christian camp following is the idea that one helps people by getting them riled up and pushed out of shape--or that any of us is wise and righteous enough to administer such therapy. Now if at times (as I fully believe is the case) a person's becoming offended does turn out to be the occasion for an achieving of new insight and his coming to repentance--still this is an outcome that had better be left in the hands of God. The Christian, it seems clear, is called to express his love of the neighbor in a more direct and unambiguous way--in a way that the neighbor himself will recognize as love.
Christians love those who hate them, and it is these Christians who hold the world together. This is what the Diognetus author tells us, rather than that they are those who work at tearing it apart in hopes of getting it all together. And so Christian simplicity must at all times be dialectical. And if its practitioner is to be in the world even while not of it, he must find the way to differ from the world without telling it to go to hell at the same time.