Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Myth of Utopia

I want to comment on a topic that is one of those issues that often declares its presence in the back of my mind. It is something I see as a critical factor underlying many of the social-political problems of contemporary western society. I tend to see traces of it everywhere. If any of us were asked, "What's wrong with the world?" there are probably three or four key themes that we would each gravitate toward. This is one of those for me.

It is the myth of utopia. Utopia is the ideal of a perfect world--a world without war or strife, a world in which everyone gets along nicely and all have what they need for a happy life.

There are two fundamental approaches to this idea. The first is the mindset that thinks a utopia is attainable if only we could find the right social system and the right people to run this system. The second mindset accepts the reality that a utopia is not attainable in this life and yet believes real progress in human society can always be made.

I am firmly of the second mindset. And as I get a little older and a bit more experienced in life, I observe that people of the first mindset are more likely (though I don't claim exclusively) to be those who have lost faith in God. People of the second approach are more likely to be people who have held on to a real faith.

Why the difference? A great deal could be said about this. In fact writing about this profound difference goes back at least to St. Augustine's great work, City of God. I will only attempt here a meager beginning.

Original sin. A classic Christian understanding of mankind knows that man is born with the stain of original sin. This view realizes that man, though not totally corrupted by sin, nonetheless is deeply wounded in his soul and because of this is not capable of acting in this world with perfect motives. Man cannot save himself from sin, and anything he does, no matter how hard he tries, will be tainted in some way by sin and imperfection. An inevitable consequence of this in the political realm is a realistic understanding that a perfect system of governance cannot be achieved in this life, no more than sin can be wiped out in this life.

I acknowledge that those who think a perfectly just social order is possible in this world do not use the term "utopia." But, I still claim that they really do, in practice, hold that it is attainable. They are forever acting surprised at corruption, injustice, dishonesty, and incompetence in others even as they are largely blind to these things in themselves.

What is the alternative to this implicit utopianism (which I think afflicts many on the politically hard left)? Should practicing Christians throw up their hands and say, "to heck with it!" because social perfection is impossible? Do we retreat to our homes and churches and pretty much leave the outside world alone? Some devout Christians do just this. But this is a serious mistake. And as I understand it, this has never been the attitude of Catholicism.

Why does Catholicism proclaim that quietism is wrong--that radical isolation from and lack of involvement with the world (apart from a monastic calling which is a particular detachment that is not without care for the world, but rather a separation from the world for the sake of spiritually benefiting the world) is not appropriate? In a word, the answer is grace! This is the key.

Serious Christians ought not despair about the world. Even though we know a utopia cannot be had--that hoping for such is a dangerous dream and a fantasy--we do know that grace is active. And because of this we know confidently, by faith and by experience of the Christian life, that human beings can truly be transformed for the better when we welcome and cooperate with the healing, elevating waters of grace.

And so here is the mindset of a properly aware Christian. It is the attitude upon which the culture of Christendom sprouted and grew. We look to the future with a balanced, hardened realism. On the one hand, we do not embrace naively idealistic political visions, imagining a social order of perfect peace and harmony could be realized if only we figured out how to structure society the right way. Nor do we indulge in a fantasy about finding and attaching ourselves to one special genius who would show us the way. On the other hand, we do not pull back in hopeless despair, washing our hands of the mess of today's political storms. Why? Because we know by faith, by the experience of our walk with Christ, and by the example of the Saints, that mankind can be transformed. We can, with God's help, overcome our demons. We can serve and love our neighbor. We can imitate Christ. We can be the Good Samaritan. Are we ever perfect? No. But, can we always become more loving, more like Christ? Yes! Even when we fall, grace is there to pick us up and help us start again on the path to wholeness.

We should look at society as a whole in a way similar to how we see ourselves as individuals being transformed by grace. It is a process. There are setbacks, even tragedies. But so long as we do not reject God, do not give up hope, and keep our eyes fixed on Christ, we can continue to be transformed. So too, society. There will be no perfection of the social order in this world. But there is always the possibility of genuine improvement. Though we cannot attain the social ideal we can always move closer to it, just as there is always the possibility of growth in sanctity for the individual person. And so we regard political leaders and political plans with a healthy awareness of the real condition of the human person--fallen, yet redeemed; tainted, yet transformed by grace. We are works in progress. And we never lose sight that two outcomes are possible--two extremes--sainthood, or depravity. The best leader can still fail and let us down. And the roughest slouch can rise to a greatness unforeseen.

So, two views of the world. Utopia as possible, or modest progress as possible. "Progress," not meaning something that will reach its zenith in this world but that will culminate ultimately in the life to come. Perhaps these two views boil down to this: Do we see this world as the sole endpoint of the human spirit's deepest hopes and aspirations? Or do we see this life as a preparation, a training ground, the antechamber, to that truly perfect society of unimaginable joy and vigor and peace which is life with God--heaven? One view, ignoring the full reality of the human person as fallen and then redeemed by grace, ironically leads to an endless struggle for power. The other at least makes possible an imperfect, though improving, society in which persons under grace may strive toward ever greater human flourishing until such time as this world ends and the next begins.

[For more on a related issue, see my post about the Catholic teaching on concupiscence.]

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