Dear Parish Faithful,
At the beginning of his “pastoral” teaching in ch. 12 of his Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul delivers an admonition that is timeless in its challenge for serious-minded Christians:
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Loosely defined, to conform is to “take on the form,” or “to be like” someone or something; or to “fit in” in a manner that does not draw any attention to oneself. It seems as if most of us – Christians and non-Christians - are conformists by nature. We feel uneasy about standing out, or doing things that would be considered too “different.” Since the Church is not a “cult,” Christians are not expected to practice a kind of non-conformity in the everyday aspects of life that would make them seem eccentric or socially disengaged. We find this expressed as early as the 2nd century in the document known as The Epistle to Diognetus. This rather charming work, anonymously written, contains a passage that addresses some issues tied to the theme of conformity (and Christian non-conformity). In reading this passage, one is reminded of the general principle of being in but not of the world:
For the distinction between Christians and other men, is neither in country nor language nor customs ... Yet while living in Greek and barbarian cities, according as each obtained by his lot, and following local customs, both in clothing and food and in the rest of life, they show forth the wonderful and confessedly strange character of the constitution of their own citizenship. They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country. they marry as all men, they bear children, but they do not expose their offspring. They offer hospitality, but guard their purity. Their lot is cast “in the flesh,” but they do not live “after the flesh.” They pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven. (Epistle to Diognetus, v.)
In other words, the early Christians were quite willing to share the same “lifestyles” as their pagan neighbors, at least on the surface level of day-to-day existence. However, when faced with some contemporary practices that may have been legal and acceptable, but unacceptable from the vision of life in the Church, for the most part the early Christians chose the “higher law” of the Gospel. This prevented our spiritual ancestors from being too far drawn into a morally and ethically compromised way of life.
Yet what happens when our innocent conformity lacks a sense of balance? Or when we become excessive or even obsessive in our desire toward “conforming to this world?” What does it mean if our wardrobes keep expanding; our cars choices are more status-driven than ever; our houses keep getting bigger and more expensive to maintain; and our over-all consumerism leaves us spiritually exhausted in pursuit of the “American dream?” That sounds like “conforming to this world” in disregard of the Apostle Paul’s admonition. This can further spill into areas of a moral and ethical concern; as when we defend an ideology or political party that is contrary to the Gospel that respects human life, gender distinctions, the poor and needy, and peacemakers instead of warmongers.
How much time, talent or treasure remains in order to practice Christian stewardship when so much is poured into this world beyond our basic needs? In satisfying our desire to conform to this world, are we left with offering our “leftovers” to the Church, treating the Church in the process as a marginal attraction in comparison with the world?
It is hard to reign all of that in once it has taken on a life of its own and we are (hopelessly) caught up into it. If we can practice a form of “critical conformity” in which we carefully assess and discern our cumulative choices, then we can truly be in the world, but free of the world to a meaningful degree. This becomes possible when we “renew our minds” by “conforming” them to the image of Christ. To conform to the “mind of Christ” is to avoid conforming to “this world” in a conscious and deliberate manner. An internal non-conformity slowly develops that sharpens our vision concerning the relationship between the Church and the fallen world.
The Apostle Paul knew the cost of “conforming to this world” to the formation of a Christian conscience and a position of freedom in regards to the fallen world. His admonition remains timeless as we struggle with our choices.