In Defense of a Hymn
Or, when was the vice of worldliness dropped from our vocabulary?
There is a hymn that I’ve witnessed a number of times now, and for the same reason each time, get short shrift among theological compatriots of mine. This is something of an unhappy occurrence for me. The hymn is one I grew up with. Moreover, it’s a hymn that I think harbors more Christian wisdom than we might at first glance appreciate — which is why I’ve taken to writing in its defense. I don’t think it’s as easy a target as its detractors let on. The criticism leveled against it strikes me as unfair: mainly because it situates the hymn in the wrong conversation, making the hymn say more than it means, all the while there’s another context of intelligibility in which its point would be perfectly germane and edifying. If only we would contextualize its counsel here and not there, our misgivings would be dispelled. As I see it, to object to this hymn for the reason I keep hearing is to fail in imagination, and so too in sympathy for the hymn’s speaker.
The supposedly objectionable portion of this hymn is the latter half of its refrain. The speaker tells the troubled soul that if they would look to Jesus, then “the things of earth will grow strangely dim / in the light of His glory and grace.” What’s worrying to some is the notion that the light of Christ has the effect of dimming the things of earth. It’s feared that the hymn is subtly condoning ecclesial retreat from society. Why, they ask, would Christ’s glory eclipse the glitter of the world and its genuine goods rather than bring them into sharper focus? After all, doesn’t Matthew 25 teach that service to Christ is to be identified with care for the world? Wasn’t it an achievement of Vatican II’s spirit of aggiornamento to exhort, in Gaudium et Spes, that “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age…these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ”? Is it not patently clear that Christianity values solidarity over solitude, this-worldliness over other-worldliness, activism over quietism? Is it not the gospel message that Christ is saving the world rather than saving us from it?
To all of these questions I’d respond that they raise valid points. There will be conversations where their insights are decisive. Nevertheless, they don’t tell the whole story, nor do they apply in every contingency. It is still the case that “the world” is not a univocal theological category. If we’d survey scripture, we’d discover that its senses and uses are multiple, and it’s connotations ambiguous.
Let’s compare just two of its value-laden senses, one affirmative and another negative. First we might think of the world as God’s creation and possession. Consider the following:
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. [Gen. 1:31]
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. [Ps 24:1]
From this vantage, our hymn will certainly seem a mystery. Why would we ever want to lose sight of the things of earth when our world is a gift God means for us to enjoy and to garden? On these terms, the relevant precedent for engagement with the world just might be set by Jeremiah’s instruction to the Jewish people exiled in Babylon:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. [Jer 29:4-7]
In the city’s welfare is your welfare. It’s not to be denied, here’s an image that captures one scriptural impulse on the theme of nature and grace. This theme of course has various permutations to which this world-affirming thread in scripture might speak, e.g., questions over the conventional binaries of church and state, Christ and culture, theology and philosophy, divine and human action, the analogies of being and faith, the value of the environment and the material world, etc. (I hope it’s clearer that more could be broached on the basis of this line of inquiry than the recovery of a single hymn.)
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, I should introduce a second biblical evaluation of the world. In the more pronounced apocalyptic sensibilities of this conception, the world is neither a benevolent nor innocent habitation. It is instead a source of temptation. Consider the following:
Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. [James 4:4]
Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. [1 John 2:15-16]
At this point it’s probably clearer now which sense of “the world” our hymn is taking for granted. It’s “the world” that church tradition has long deemed one of the three, along with the flesh and the devil, perennial tempters of the faithful. Maybe it’s less objectionable that this world be obstructed from view? In any case, we might well ask, is our welfare still to be found in the welfare of this Babylon too? Revelation’s answer, at least, is a resounding no!
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, … He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, … Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, … for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. [Rev. 18:1-5]
Come out of Babylon, my people! Given the directness of this message it would be difficult to deny that scripture also harbors a separatist impulse as clear as any other. (Knowing when to invoke either Revelation’s or Jeremiah’s Babylon takes more than a little tact, cultural literacy, and sensitivity to the Spirit.)
For my purposes here, I’m willing to leave it an open question whether we can or need to resolve the tension between these two incongruous senses of the world — though it will be noted that the sense of world we foreground in our imaginations will have its share of repercussions. Mainly all I’m trying to accomplish with this post is the recovery of a context of intelligibility in which our disparaged hymn might once again be heard as profitable instruction — lest we needlessly self-impoverish the range of our piety. I think there is such a context. And it has scriptural precedent. If we fail to see it, the problem lies, I’d suggest, not in the hymn’s theology, but in the standing limits to our lives. If only we could expand the reach of our imaginations and the breadth of our sympathies, we’d begin to find room enough for our estranged hymn.