Q — What does it mean to be “in the world, but not of the world”?

A — A very fine question! A number of possible responses occurs to me. First, in attempting an answer, care needs to be exercised so that we do not depreciate the world understood as God’s good creation. Beginning with the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, Christians are invited to acknowledge creation — in our context here “the world” — as invested with the very presence of God the Creator. Creation/the world reflects the Creator and in that sense is good. This fundamental conviction is what lies behind, for example, that wonderful poem of the 19th century Jesuit priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…” In that very basic and positive sense Christians are both in a world and of a world that is very good indeed.

Second, however, not everything in this world is good. Due to the misuse or abuse of human freedom what is at root good may become bad. For example, all the nutrient materials that constitute our food are good, and it is good to eat them, but gluttony is bad. Gluttony is an abuse of God’s good creation of food-stuffs. Another example could be taken from human sexuality. Properly ordered, human sexuality is one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind, and is therefore a fundamental human good. At the same time, it is all too easy for human beings to abuse the good gift of sexuality through the domination, exploitation, coercion and control of others. Such abusive expressions of sexuality are bad/immoral.

Third, to be in the world but not of the world is to recognize with great gratitude God’s constant gift-giving to us, to see through the creation to the Creator. It is to see the chaliced hands of the Creator behind and in and through all of those good things that make for our human flourishing/holiness.
A deliberate and real appreciation of the gifts that does not flow in and out of an appreciation of the Creator would perhaps be a version of being “in the world and of the world.”