In the world but not of the world

Catholics and Amish might appear very different, but there is some continuity in their approach to the world.

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by Fr. David J. Endres

Editor’s note: Outside Perspectives is a column that addresses a religious topic and seeks to find a common element in another faith while emphasizing the  Catholic Church’s teaching. 

Every Christian must grapple with his or her relationship to the world. Jesus teaches that his followers are not to be “of the world,” but that they are meant for the life to come. For Christians, living “in the world” but not “of the world” is expressed in different ways: from doing without some material comforts by living simply to periodic fasting and abstaining from meat or even a lifelong commitment to celibacy.

The Amish, a Christian group originating among 17th-century German Mennonites, are known for choosing to live in the world while not being of the world. They are recognizable within American society for their simplicity and rejection of technology. Seeking religious freedom, the Amish immigrated to North America and can be found today especially in the Great Lakes region and the Midwest.
The desire of some Amish to adhere to a radically simple way of life resulted in a split in the mid- 19th century between “new order” and “old order” Amish. The “old order,” for instance, retains the traditional practice of wearing plain clothing: for men, broad-brimmed hats, solid-colored shirts and pants; for women, bonnets and long dresses. Most do not use electricity (unless unavoidable); they do not own cars but instead utilize bicycles and horse-drawn buggies.

The relationship of the Amish to the world is not born of antiquarianism or a desire for the old for its own sake. Based on a particular interpretation of Romans 12:2 (“Do not conform yourselves to this age”) and similar Scripture readings, the Amish value a simple form of communal life based on clear roles and structures of authority. They do not view technology as evil, but as a danger to their society if it diminishes solidarity or creates tension within the community. Avoidance of technology is a means to right living that gives priority to community and family, not individual expression or autonomy.

“Do not conform yourselves to this age.”

The Amish do not avoid all contact with non-Amish, maintaining commercial connections with their neighbors. However, they live apart in their own communities and do not marry those outside of it. They do not often attend public schools, choosing to educate their children themselves, and they refrain from participating in government entitlement programs, believing that the family and community should take care of their own.

Other Christians’ relationship to the world differs in marked ways from the Amish. Catholics, along with most other Christians, are usually indistinguishable from others in their appearance, utilization of technology, and fundamental interactions with others. Catholics embrace technology, but they may set limits on its use. They recognize that the use of technology is not inherently good or evil, but that it can be used inappropriately and immorally.

The Catholic Church’s understanding of the virtue of temperance helps provides balance in the use of created things. Since all of God’s creation is good, the Church instructs that the exercise of the virtue of temperance is not always the prohibition of something, but that the true and the good is often found in the middle. In short, the things of this world (unless immoral) can and should be enjoyed, but moderately. Immoderate use of a created good, however, can be sinful and can damage one’s relationship with God and others.

The Catholic “middle way” can be expressed practically in an individual’s life. The good of the person — physically, emotionally, and spiritually — might suggest, for in- stance, that someone take the steps instead of riding an elevator, limit video game usage to less than one hour a day, or refrain from drinking caffeine or eating sweets. While limited use of material and sensible things can be seen as a temptation, the Church has long understood that the formation of virtue occurs in the daily choice between moderation and immoderation. This ongoing moral formation impacts how Catholics approach the world around them.

“The true and good is often found in the middle.”

While outwardly Catholics and Amish might appear very different, there is much continuity in their approach to the world. Both, in fidelity to Jesus, discern their relationship to and their use of created things. Though expressed in different ways, all Christians are to be in the world, but not of the world, recognizing that their inheritance is not in the visible, sensible world but in the life to come. Christians join with their Amish brethren in looking to heaven where “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard … what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

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