Both / And
John A. Nelson
In many Bible passages that contrast “world” and “spirit,” it can seem that the Bible takes sides: bad world; good spirit.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” – 1 Cor. 2:12
In many Bible passages that contrast “world” and “spirit,” it can seem that the Bible takes sides: bad world; good spirit. It’s a common interpretation: pernicious, even. Evil world; holy Spirit.
St. Paul may have been contrasting those two as a rhetorical device — that is, to make a point rather than to give us an unwavering definition. But Christianity has a 2,000 year-old tendency to take metaphors and set them in stone (or doctrine). Cursed world; heavenly Spirit.
Bad world, good Spirit falls apart, of course, when we remember that God loved the world so much as to enter into it as a fully-human, fully-fleshed, fully-worldly person.
Paul doesn’t really say there’s an absolute contradiction between world and spirit. Overall his outlook is more Hebrew than Greek, with that rich Jewish tradition of attending to God’s loving presence in worldly, bodily life. Paul also tells us that if your only reality is the reality of your bodily senses, you will miss out on mystery.
The Bible doesn’t push us to decide once and for all between world and spirit, but it certainly urges us not to get stuck in one and ignore the other. God is using both to reach us. Both/and, instead of either/or. Rich world, glorious Spirit.
Holy One — you whom we know in this world, and in other-worldly Spirit — may this day bring fresh understanding of your gifts, your grace. Amen.
John A. Nelson is the Pastor of the Niantic Community Church (UCC/UMC) in Niantic, Connecticut.