The Church’s Struggle with Utopia

The Church’s Struggle with Utopia February 26, 2015

It is not uncommon to read someone poke the church but no one pokes the kingdom. (There’s a story in that observation that can’t be engaged in this post but I discuss how to compare the two in Kingdom Conspiracy.) More often than not people poke the church because they have an eye (or two) on the kingdom. Which is a way of saying they poke the church because they are strapped to utopia. Much kingdom thinking spins between utopia and idealism.

The church of our reality struggles with folks who have utopian visions of the church and for the church. It only takes a good dose of reality, a theology of here-and-now reality, to reveal that the pokes are based on utopian visions that are not for the here-and-now-church.

Comparing our real churches with the glories of the future kingdom fastens us to depression or rejection of the church.

But what is this “utopian fallacy,” as Roger Scruton calls it in his book The Uses of Pessimism, and the Danger of False Hope? I will be using his observations about the utopian fallacy to stimulate our thinking today about utopia visions among those who are turning against and away from the church.

First, we have to get the utopian mind in view. What is it?

[Citing Aurel Kolnai, Scruton observes a utopian mind is] a mind shaped by a particular moral and metaphysical need, which leads to the acceptance of absurdities not in spite of their absurdity, but because of it (63).

By “absurdity” he means the non-real vision for this life. In fact, he observes that

… no doubt there is a tendency within every religion to embrace the absurd, as a kind of cancellation of this world and its imperfections (63).

So our faith is already strapped as a religion to some utopian thinking; we cannot be surprised by the utopian mind because the Bible steers us often enough toward a utopian kingdom of the future, but we need to be aware of utopian vision’s rhetorical problems and its real world limitations.

What are two examples of utopian thinking in the church world today? Go ahead and be a bit of a curmudgeonly pessimist for the moment!

It is a fact that utopians

… see the world differently. They are able to ignore or despise the findings of experience and common sense, and to place at the centre of every deliberation a project whose absurdity they regard not as a defect but as a reproach against the one who would point it out (64).

Second, we encounter a fundamental element of the utopian mindset and how it responds to those who don’t jump on the boat: it is very critical of those who don’t embrace the utopian vision. The one who points to reality is seen as the enemy, is defective, and lacks hope. That is, “Impossibility [arriving at utopia] and irrefutability stand unembarrassed side by side” (64).

Which is to say: the utopian vision operates, not so much by changing the world for the better but by condemning the present arrangements — the “institutional church” or “denominations” or “church structures” or “organizations.” Thus, Scruton observes that the utopian vision

serves instead as an abstract condemnation of everything around us, and it justifies the believer in taking full control (70).

[It does more because it] destroys the institutions that enable us to resolve our conflicts one by one (71).

Utopians, Scruton teaches us, cannot get to the utopia but they blame those who don’t join in as the reason they can’t get to their utopia.

Third, so what to do? The utopian vision is hope for transformation on steroids and instead of bringing in kingdom conditions it destroys them. What is the solution to utopian vision that still has hope running through it?

My term is Wisdom and creating a Wisdom culture. Why? Because… those who have gone before us have paved wise roads on which we are asked to walk. We don’t then make the way by walking but instead we learn the way by watching for the path has has already been walked by those who have come our way before. Thus,

The solution to human conflicts is discovered case by case, and embodied thereafter in precedents, customs and laws [=wisdom]. The solution does not exist as a plan, a scheme or a Utopia. It is the residue of a myriad agreements and negotiations, preserved in custom and law [=wisdom]. Solutions are rarely envisaged in advance, but steadily accumulate through dialogue and negotiation. They are a deposit laid down by the ‘we’ attitude, as it infolds through the norms of mutual dealing. And it is precisely this deposit, in customs and institutions, that the Utopian sets out to destroy (71-72).

But, fourth, we return to pattern: those who want a Wisdom culture are often perceived as enemies. So what happens to the utopians? They create a foe, an enemy, a victim, a scapegoat on whom they pile their resentments and on whom they blame a lack of implementing the utopian vision. There is then a

… constant and implacable need for a victim class, the class of those who stand in the way of Utopia ind prevent its implementation (74).

He concludes with this: “and the most visible mark of dissent is the ability to fix your eyes on reality, and prosper nevertheless” (75).

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