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Conquering the World

Out of the deep I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! (Ps 130:1-2 NRSV)

The night before offering himself, Jesus said that in him we have peace. He grounded this with the promise that “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33 NRSV). We who take courage from this today might not grasp what world he conquered, which is the same that crucified him. So little of the world in all its turning has changed. Oppressive structures have hardly shifted but have merely morphed. To penetrate the riddle of the world Jesus conquered requires an understanding of the world as one’s ego.

The world and the self reflect each other. Where does the world go when we sleep or faint? We cannot separate the world from the self arising in it. We experience them together. Just as we cannot talk about the world apart from our experience of it, neither can we encounter the world apart from our consciousness. Our point of view by which we perceive the world often reflects our orientation. The self projects this field of perception, forming a kind of bubble. Growing in faith, we grow in perception. This might explain how a movement of the Spirit perceived by one of faith might pass unperceived by another without faith. How does this happen? The self seems to perceive according to its inward or outward orientation. We might consider Jesus’ teaching on the Rapture: “One will be taken” inward, one who perceives a movement of God’s Spirit; “And one will be left” who, apart from inwardness, fails to perceive God moving (Mt 24:40, Lk 17:35 NRSV). Jesus named those oriented only to the surface appearance of events, “O you of little faith,” suggesting, “O you of little perception.” Jesus’ teaching on the Rapture and perception describes how our relationship with the world reflects our relationship with the self. 

Long before the West ever attempted to isolate the individual from the world, Jewish cosmology described the self in the world as part of a beginningless continuum of larger, concentric realities of God’s Presence. In Jewish Scripture, we shouldn’t confuse earth with mineral; neither should we limit heaven to the celestial. Rather, when Genesis says, “Elohim created the heaven and the earth,” (Gn 1:1) Jewish mystical commentaries on Genesis like the Zohar hardly discuss materiality at all, but its invisible, metaphysical structure: The light, sky, dry land, and all that teems, even the Adam, represent angels, celestial beings, and spiritual forces that invisibly build our material experience. These are beings-forces. From Genesis, mystical rabbis articulate a vast, interpenetrating reality of micro- and macro-dimensionality. Consider the fractal interpenetration of everything the Zohar intuited: “For just as a human being is composed of members upon members, all standing rung upon rung, arrayed one upon another, yet all one body, so too the world: all those creatures are members upon members, standing one upon another, which when all arrayed actually form one body” (1:134b). As systems of living tissues weave the microcosm of our body, so a matrix of spiritual powers weave the macrocosm of the world. Oversimplified, this Jewish mystical model of consciousness begins to describe the world inside of us as well as that outside of us. We reflect the world as the world reflects us. 

But ignorance separates the self from the world in an illusion that leads to sin and suffering. While we experience this separation, no such separation exists. This separation generates an illusion that we must dispel with God’s help. 

Mastering this illusion of separation requires self-knowledge, not of an ego, but of one’s origin from God. God’s Presence alone reveals whence we’ve descended; by the same path in return we shall ascend. Memory of our origin from God ushers our way back to God.

An unchanging metaphysical structure might explain why it seems as if the world has hardly changed, has always been what it is. Solomon narrated this when he said: “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow” (Eccl 1:7 NRSV). Figuratively, Solomon described how invisible forces become visible events. Mystical rabbis regard “the sea” as materiality. The elegance of Solomon’s image of “all streams” describes symbiotic circuits joining the invisible with the visible. Much as the Standard Model of particle physics articulates the invisible particles composing our visible reality, so a figurative “sea” of material structure outside depends upon invisible structures inside.

To remember that the world is visible and invisible requires vigilance. If we lapse in our vigil, consciousness often defaults to awareness only of the visible surface of the world. Entirely persuasive, even distracting to anyone caught in its riddle, the visible world reinforces an illusion of separation, inside out. But interrogating the self dispels the power of this illusion. Only from inside oneself can one begin to perceive what invisibly drives the world outside. Just as the appearance of any of us conceals an invisible world of intention, mind, and thought, so the visible world conceals a metaphysical drama of beings-forces. When Jesus rebuked the religious authorities, saying, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (Jn 7:24 NRSV), we may understand that “right judgment” is the opposite of “judging by appearances.” Right judgment, an inner judgment, comes from inwardness.  

Without daily prayer and continual inwardness with the Lord, our consciousness often defaults to appearances, subjecting us to the vicissitudes of the world. Without faith, one easily falls prey to tension, escalation, and even conflict. To perceive the world only on its surface reflects shallow consciousness, a trap wherein nothing really changes, but often tragically, even absurdly, repeats itself. To oppose events in the world from surface consciousness, in an illusion of separation from the outside world, will not resolve suffering. Conflict outside arises from conflict inside. One will remain a victim of circumstances on the outside until with faith they perceive their role in their interior life. 

Inside of us, the whole of the world reflects the outside of us. To prevail, our struggle must pivot from outside to inside, “Not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12 NRSV). Duality “in the heavenly places” should not surprise us. Paul’s teaching supposes an intricate early Christian cosmology parallel with that of Jewish exegetes of Genesis. We will find no “heavenly places” high above our heads, but deep within, even structuring our consciousness. Whatever idea, thought, or imagining passes through our mind reflects what Paul means by invisible forces in “heavenly places.” We find this duality “in the heavenly places” right inside of us. How often do our intentions, mindsets, and thoughts oppose each other? What moves us to think, speak, and act as we do? Angels inspire us to love. Rulers compel us to compete. Demons possess us to destroy. All that we observe happening in the human world begins inside us. The self in the world intersects visible and invisible forces structuring reality. 

We may observe how invisible mentalities and forces unfold through visible politics. When the prophets of Israel framed their preaching of world events with political images, we must remember that they were addressing rulers on earth and rulers in heavenly places. According to rabbinic tradition, behind every head of state stands a heavenly prince; over each of the seventy known nations in the biblical world stands its own celestial ruler, who represents mentalities and paradigms in concert or conflict with Israel. Daniel explicitly describes such princes of Persia, Greece, and so forth, whose conflict in heavenly places played out through events below (Dan 10:20 NRSV). Anyone can be easily caught up in stories of political intrigue, corruption, and evil among political leaders, but this distracts from the deeper reality moving from within and behind the surface of events. Unlike the gossip and soothsaying that masks most corporate news today, the prophets cut through the surface of every figure and event to lay bare a play of invisible forces subjecting the hearts and minds of people to the illusion of separation. As oracles of conscience, the prophets’ most essential message invoked turning inward toward the Holy One: the source of our life, well-being, and reality. 

Integrity, transparency, and humility demand that we turn away from all outward illusions of power. Turning outward subjects us to distraction and fragmentation; turning inward aligns our focus and integration. 

But very few of us seem free of the world’s gravity, for we assume that the self exists independently of its context. Worse, we might hear God’s promise of eternal life with our ego. Such an ego doesn’t exist as it thinks it does. Observe the elite and powerful, whom the world often corrupts. Even while they appear to prosper or even escape accountability for their crimes, their influence affords them the same illusion of separation binding any soul, but on a greater scale. The rich and the powerful suffer miserably because of this illusion of separation.

Jesus cut through this illusion of the ego, amplified by the worldly consensus, when he asked, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mk 8:36 NRSV). By equating influence in this world with forfeiture, he clearly warns that for whatever degree of power one strives, it will cost the soul. Let anyone with ears to hear, listen! 

“Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 3:7 NRSV). Hear the mystical reflexivity of the divine. Is the Holy One ever absent, or have we turned away? Little happens to us that we’ve not brought upon us. What’s happening outside of us arises from inside us. Our collective experience wells up from millions, even billions of overlapping, interior lives. 

Until one’s awareness dawns of the reflexivity of the inside and the outside, one belongs to the world. This might ruffle those who are so certain of their individuality. But a deeper observation of the self reveals that it depends upon everything in its context. No one, nothing, exists “self-made.” Rather we create and perpetuate individualism, an ego-projection upon reality. Our construct of individualism stands alongside innumerable other “isms” we invent, which at the same time act as forces upon us. As one imagines inside, so goes their imagination outside. As one visualizes, so it often comes to pass. In other words, we exist simultaneously as predicates and subjects. Just as we have ideas, those same ideas have us. Beliefs we hold become imagery which we see and hear in our reveries, the same that speak and act through us. 

These ideas, beliefs, and mentalities ground something of what Paul meant by “the rulers,  authorities, cosmic powers,” and “spiritual forcesto which minds and hearts continually turn. Even our secular society still worships, but what? Our hearts and minds pray day and night, but to what? What about all the things that fill our time and attention? We shout at games. We cheer at concerts. Or how about fashion week? Or sixty-hour work weeks? Or the commercialization of Christmas in the US? These examples belie much subtler idols. Consider how a church often means a building, rather than the faithful. Or even how an idolatry of doctrine eclipses the gospel in many congregations and parishes. How many are Americans first and Christian next? What constant vigil does our public image require? We engage in deep and daily communion, but with what?

Our spiritual focus demands that we cultivate continual awareness, without which we default to unconscious programming and habitual patterns of our perception. Such programs and patterns are the beings-forces that we feed with our attention. If we live unconsciously, we subject ourselves to their metaphysical drama. The ego might even come to believe itself a victim, in separation from God. 

In the wilderness, Jesus faced and prevailed over the drama of the ego, which is itself an agent of separation, dividing us within ourselves and against God and one another. Whenever the mind defaults to insecurity, unconsciousness, or forgetfulness, the Satan appears. When the Satan approached Jesus at the most vulnerable point of his retreat, we witness a threefold test of power: a test to manifest anything desired, to publicly display authority, and to rule (Mt 4:1-11 NRSV). Had any aspect of Jesus’ mind remained unintegrated while the full force of the Divine was coursing through him, he would have fallen in separation to temptation.

We’ll find no Satan outside, only inside. Our ego too often traps us in the non-existent future, in everything hypothetical: the source of all anxiety. Observe its grammar here with Jesus: “If you are the Messiah” (emphasis added). Beginning with “if” already assumes a separation between Jesus and his identity, a wedge of doubt. Had Jesus debated with “if,” he would have been in a defensive position to prove himself. Instantly perceiving this trap, he resolved the hypothetical “if” by responding with God’s Word. This same hypothetical “if” traps any who are vulnerable in outwardness, subjecting them to lack or doubt, compelling them to gain the world. 

We might even regard “if” as the worldly ambition which drives all that is done under the sun. Solomon called all its empty absurdity “breath,” the gap in ourselves that compels us to try to gain the world. Again, “What will it profit if one gains the whole world but forfeits their life? Or what will one give in return for their life” (Mt 16:26 NRSV)? Satan offered Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world. How else unless they belonged to him?

But believers have heard to be “in the world, but not of the world.” This teaching is not directly in the Bible but likely comes from Jesus’ final prayer over his disciples: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (Jn 17:16 NRSV). But what does it mean not to belong to the world? To what kind of world do the people of God not belong? John’s Greek word for “world”—kosmos—holds multiple and nuanced meanings that range from everything ignorant and even hostile in human societies to the infinity of outer space cradling our planet. The sense of kosmos most useful to us here articulates a continuum of everything invisible manifest visibly. The physical world depends upon greater concentric, metaphysical worlds. To be “in” or “of” the world is a matter of identity, of orientation, and of starting point. One “in” the world lives from faith inside. But one “of” the world lives from the ego outside. 

This is why “The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt 7:14 NRSV). Put in another way, to be “in” the world climbs upstream; to be “of” the world falls downstream. Jesus demands our whole self, even the integration of our ego in service to his Kingdom. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35 NRSV). Rather than forfeiting our soul in exchange for the world, we come to integral, indomitable life. His wisdom shows us how to conquer the world.

We’re here in the world to remember and embody God whence we’ve come. Jesus showed us how through similes of the Kingdom of Heaven. Seven of the Matthean similes—a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure hidden in a field, a merchant in search of pearls, a net full of fish, a master of a household who brings out treasures, and a landowner who pays the first and the last of his workers the same—all describe God’s immanence hidden and revealed in the world. The sophistication of these images unfold from their materiality. How Jesus’ teaching extracts heaven from earth demands our deepest imagination of how God dwells here, despite the world.  

Going inward, past the projection of our ego, dispels the illusion of the world. If we question any and all assumptions of a fixed self, an ego, we come to perceive God at work by way of the world. Jesus said so more explicitly in the Gospel of Thomas, saying three: “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.” Watch next how he directs our awareness to the kingdom: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.” [1] With astonishing concision, Jesus resolves the riddle of the world, its power of illusion. If we’re ignorant of our place in God, Jesus tells us in this saying that we “dwell in poverty” and that “we are the poverty.” The illusion of the world, the ego, subjects us to suffering. But if we know ourselves, we transcend this world, the ego.

Such simplicity demands deep, continual, and gentle practice. Because the ego is the world’s subject, it cannot think its way out of it. Rather, the space we daily hold for prayer and for meditation—observing the movements in our heart and mind without comment—helps us distinguish between what is in the world and what is of the world: what is of God and what is of the ego.

 1. Marvin Meyer, Gnostic Bible (Boston: Shambhala, 2011), 45.

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