Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What About Utopia? (Part I)

So often, we hear the word “utopia” used either in hopeful salivation when someone is thinking of the future or in unmitigated disdain by those who strongly assert that utopian ideals cannot possibly be realized. However, the term in and of itself remain something of an enigma to all, for it has evaded full definition and has therefore taken on sundry meanings from being a “workers’ paradise” to a “land of milk and honey.” Nevertheless, I think that we must first consider what is the central matter at hand in a utopia before we cogitate on the possibility of its realization.

In some way, the humanity remains at the center of all utopianism. This may take the form of the whole of human society living a certain way or, on the nearly polar opposite, the unfettered freedom of the people. Nonetheless, since man is the one creating utopian visions, he is also the reference point for those ideas. However, to understand the necessary characteristics and functions of a possible utopia, we need another vantage point, namely an answer to the question “What is the good life for human beings?” This becomes the point at which philosophy and theology enter with their assumptions and arguments. For my purposes, I would like to show that both liberal democracy, as well as Christianity, come to the table with a beautifully-gilded, two-edged sword on the topic of utopia.

Both liberal democratic ideals as well as Christian morality teach that the “life worth living” is one which must be freely chosen. Although the objective content of this life are somewhat different in either one, freedom and free will remain central to their understandings of humanity. For the democratic liberal, choice becomes the moment of actualization of the individual, the moment at which he or she enters time and asserts his or her inner being in the concrete actions of life, actions which in some way must be aimed to the common good. In a way, Christianity takes this and also adds the assertion that humanity’s fulfillment requires the expression and reception of love, something which is wholly impossible without freedom. Therefore these two ideals set out a utopian vision where the individual requires the freedom to choose “the good life” because it is only by means of that choice that they participate in its realization.

However, this sword is two-edged. Liberal democracy also has a separation of powers as well as a continuous affirmation that one group should not rule. More directly asserted, this points to a central reality in Christian thought: The Fall and its continued effects among in reality. Christian doctrine recognizes the fact that people will always sin, that they will always fall short of the complete realization of the “life well lived.” Although it is less direct, liberal democracy has a relationship to this belief that fulfillment comes not in purely human hands. However, Christian revelation and philosophy takes this reflection a step further by redirecting us to eschatology.

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