For Latter-day Saints, the new millennium has been pretty hard on “The World.” It has become the primary adversary in the war we imagine ourselves fighting—the sum total of everything that stands against us, and of everything that we must stand against.
We can all agree, of course, that the regular old world—meaning lakes and trees and mountains and stuff—is a wonderful thing. It is beautiful, pure, and divine. The world is just as God meant it to be, and we should all be grateful for its beauty and wonder.
But what is true of the world is not true of “the World,” by which we mean all of the people we interact with every day who hold different views about lots of things, nearly all of which have something to do with sex. “The World” is evil. It is full of lions and tigers and gay people. Even if we have to be in it, we should certainly ever be of it. It is what we must keep ourselves unspotted from.
Nothing new here. The distinction between “the Church” and “The World” is as old as, well, churches and worlds. In the Old Testament, the two principles often go by the names “Zion” and “Babylon,” about which the prophets had much to say. But the analogy is far from perfect. The Old Testament prophets were far less concerned than we are about sex. They were more worried about stuff like ignoring the poor, profiting from unrighteousness, and permitting rampant inequality in what was supposed to be the Kingdom of God —things that rarely rise to the level of “apostasy” in the modern Church.
Nonetheless, the distinction between “us” and “the world” persisted into the time of the New Testament—to the point that the first generation of Christian converts almost failed to build the Church because they were unwilling to have anything to do with “The World.” This pathology went all the way to the top: Peter, the head of the Church refused to have anything to do with gentiles until the Lord personally (well, in a dream at least) told him to cut it out:
On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. (Acts 10: 9-16)
This is perhaps the most significant thing that happened in the Church from the Death of Christ to the Reformation. The Lord told Peter very clearly that he has a responsibility to engage that part of “The World” that he has always kept himself separate from—even if it means that he has to accept things that he has always believed to be the worst of sins.
In a season when we are encouraged to be thankful for the good things in our life, I reflect on how grateful I am for the world. And also “The World.” There is really no difference between the two. There is not a “good world” full of flowers and trees and a “bad world” full of people who hate God and want to drag us down to hell. There are only God’s creations, all of which are exactly what God intended for them to be. They are not there for us to despise or define ourselves against, but to love and cherish and figure out how to incorporate into the Kingdom of Heaven. Like Peter, we are not allowed to use God as an excuse to avoid this sacred responsibility.