Holding on With a Light Grip: Paul’s ‘as if not’
I have taught a theological foundations course to mostly college freshman for a few years now. Over the course we read Thomas Aquinas’s Sermon Conference on the Apostles’ Creed. And in his section on the suffering and death of Christ, Thomas says that one of the many things we learn from the example of Christ’s passion is how to despise the things of this world. I have observed a certain amount of confusion among the students regarding Thomas’s claim. They generally react in one of two ways. Some roll their eyes, declaring this to be just another example of that old, tired, repressive, puritanical Christian ethic (which we would do well to leave to the past). Others (most probably in an attempt to impress the teacher) piously affirm that of course they know that, as Christians, we Christians are not supposed to like this world, or anything in it!
I don’t fear as much for those who wish to be ‘out with the old’ (Christian ethic) and ‘in with the new’ (progress—that terribly ambiguous term). If they follow their pursuit right the way through, they will find—they have always found—that the end of all their progress is something quite as old as the Christian ethic: the human proclivity toward disorder. They do not find something new; but they do find something far less stable. They find not an answer to the Christian ethic, but the reason for it. It may be hoped that such a discovery will bring about in them a change of mind.
I fear a bit more, I must confess, for those who think that the Christian ethic demands we go through this life disliking it. This is a kind of feigned spirituality. The truth is, of course, there is so much in this world that is likable; and we are the sort of creatures who really do like it. We can’t help it, at least not at first. We are only able to maintain a posture of dislike at the high cost of internal discord (and often a fair bit of external awkwardness). A spirituality of dislike has little to do with Christian spirituality. If these follow their pursuit, sadly, they may just succeed. They will not succeed in destroying the beauty of the world, to be sure; but they may succeed in closing their own eyes to it.
1 Corinthians 7 and Paul’s ‘as if not’
I think the Apostle Paul gives us a better way. Though, it must be admitted, it comes in one of his more obscure passages. I well remember in my early twenties reading 1 Corinthians 7 with frustration and puzzlement. The whole chapter, quite frankly, is difficult. At least this much can be said for the context. Paul had been asked by the Corinthian church several questions regarding marriage, singleness, and sex (shocking, isn’t it, that I would be so taken by the passage in my early twenties). So he is responding to these inquiries.
The somewhat veiled passage culminates in this way (vv. 29-32a):
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live 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 goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties.
It may be helpful for the moment to dispense with the particulars in order to see the skeletal structure, as it were, of Paul’s argument here. It has three steps: (1) the appointed time has grown very short. Therefore, (2) we should live ‘as if not.’ So that, (3) we are free from anxieties.
What does it mean that the time has grown short? The term Paul uses means ‘drawn together,’ scrunched up, as it were. Think of an accordion, which may be contracted, concealing its full length. Perhaps, then, Paul means something like ‘the end draws near,’ temporally speaking. History as we know it, or ‘the present form of this world’—whatever exactly that is—is soon to conclude. But I think Paul has something else in mind.
The contraction of time, for Paul, has occurred in the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ brings the ‘end’—or better, the ‘goal’—near to us. Not in the sense that God decides to cut out a bunch of time in the middle, and so make the end come more quickly. But in the sense that time has been ‘scrunched.’ The end, the goal of humanity has been brought into our purview by the resurrection. To see Christ’s resurrection is to see, fully and gloriously, the end of this present world order (sin, decay, death) and the beginning of resurrection life. It may be that there is still much middle-time yet to play out; but God has given us a close-up view of the end.
And this has radical implications for how we live in the world. Paul says that we should live in marriage ‘as if not,’ and we should mourn and rejoice ‘as if not,’ and we should buy and sell and deal with the world ‘as if not.’ What does he mean? Note that these examples cover the fundamental aspects of human life in this world: biological, social and relational, commercial and economic.
I say ‘aspects’ of human life, but the truth is they drive human life. Our biological make-up, our socio-politico involvements, our familial units and circle of friends, our economic status and commercial endeavors, these are the great determiners of the human enterprise—or so it feels, anyway. But Paul adds a crucial qualification. They are determiners only in the present form of this world. What he is saying by this wonderfully mysterious ‘as if not,’ then, is that on account of our new view of the end, we no longer live as determined by these worldly realities. We are free from their tyrannical rule. Gordon Fee captures the thought nicely. For the Christian,
One’s existence is determined by God, so now one does not so much live “detached” from the world (after all, Paul expects the Corinthians to continue to do all five of these) as totally free from its control. Therefore, one lives in the world just as the rest—married, sorrowing, rejoicing, buying, making use of it—but none of these determines one’s life.” (NICNT, p. 341)
The ‘as if not,’ is a kind of freedom. A freedom from anxiety, the kind of anxiety that follows on the tyranny of the present world order. There is no need for a feigned spirituality of dislike. We are now able to see the biological, social, economic dimensions for what they are, not chains but gifts from God to be received with thanksgiving.
But the ‘as if not’ is also a freedom for the world. And here I think that those who roll their eyes at the Christian ethic would do well to consider more carefully what is meant by that old phrase ‘despising the world.’ In the passage alluded to earlier, Thomas Aquinas says that following Christ’s example, we ought not let things like clothes, fashion, status, things like wealth and prestige, even things like food and drink so influence us, so captivate us, that we can’t give them up. Why not? Because sometimes it is required of us to give them up for the good of the world. It was precisely because Christ despised the world in this way that he was able to complete his mission of love for the world.
Back in my early twenties I also took a few golf lessons. The very first lesson consisted entirely of learning how to hold the club. It turns out that gripping the club too tightly seriously distorts the swing. Of course, letting go of the club at any point during the swing will also substantially impair your ability to play good golf. The pro informed me that the key to a great swing is learning to hold on with a light grip. I think Paul’s ‘as if not’ allows us just that right balance. The Christian’s relation to the world is one of holding on with a light grip. After all, we know how the world ends.