In the current unhappy state of online Mormon discourse, stating the obvious is sometimes controversial, and for that reason all the more necessary.
For example: it is not uncommon for online Mormons to lament other Mormons’ use of “the world” as a catch-all phrase for all that is in opposition to God, his kingdom, his commandments, and everything else of good report. Doesn’t such divisive rhetoric represent an obstacle, they ask, to better relations with right-thinking people? And doesn’t it represent a failure to grasp how the world is becoming a better place? Can’t we just stop talking like this? Maybe that’s how they talk back in Utah, but in our city that’s not how it’s done.
The obvious answer is, No, this isn’t just Mormon usage; it’s part of the basic rhetorical toolkit of Christianity, and hard-coded via the scriptures into many basic teachings. If you need a dozen examples, keep reading; if not, you can jump past the bullet points.
- Modern revelation about the temple: “Now here is wisdom, and the mind of the Lord—let the house be built, not after the manner of the world, for I give not unto you that ye shall live after the manner of the world.”
- Modern revelation about Sunday worship: “And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day.”
- Modern revelation about the Atonement: “Behold, I, the Lord, who was crucified for the sins of the world, give unto you a commandment that you shall forsake the world.”
- Modern revelation about inequality: “But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.”
- Modern revelation about the world becoming worse: “Behold, the world is ripening in iniquity.”
- New Testament scripture teaching enmity toward the world: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him”; “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”
- Paul’s disdain of worldly wisdom: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.”
- Paul’s injunction to resist the world: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
- The words of Jesus about himself: “And he said unto them, Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world.”
- The words of Jesus about truth: “Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.”
- Some pointed words from Jesus about his relationship with the world: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.”
- Jesus’s description of his teachings: “I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”
- Jesus’s description of his kingdom: “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”
It is true that as Mormons we are not entirely dependent on scripture or tradition, and it’s quite possible for modern prophets and apostles to provide new guidance and create new space for interpretation. I think that contrasting righteousness with “the world” has some decent apostolic and prophetic precedent, however.
I am skeptical that deleting the parts of scripture we don’t like is a productive approach to religious practice, and taking that approach with the rhetoric of “the world” distorts both Christianity and Mormonism. We are the people whose key historical act, after all, was to take the commandment to go out of the world entirely literally.
It’s necessary, however, to state a few more obvious things.
The scriptures and Mormon usage have multiple discourses about the world, including positive and optimistic ones. The idea of building Zion is one highly optimistic view. It’s reasonable to look for the right balance between these discourses.
In actual practice, the Church has always engaged with the world in many different ways, even while taking rejectionist approaches in others. We were supplying forces to the U.S. Army at the same time we were leaving U.S. borders.
The world is a wonderful place. And it’s a horrible place. If you do not recognize its horrors, then you have closed your eyes to the kind of wanton genocide that crops up around the world periodically, among many other things. Your local world has its own beauty and its own horrors.
We can’t get rid of pessimistic discourse about the world without rejecting important parts of Christ’s message and Church teachings, but it is up to us to figure out how it applies and what to do with it. Ignoring it is both lazy and hazardous.
The concept of a wicked world can be cognitively and morally useful. It’s often easier to observe behavioral norms than to determine the right choice in a murky situation. When everyone else in the office or at school or on the Internet does something, it can be useful to have a cognitive model to avoid the overhasty conclusion that whatever everyone else is doing must be right. That in itself makes “the world” worth hanging onto.