Faith in the perfectibility of man lies at the heart of much modern thinking. As John Kelly shows, this has had disastrous consequences for humanity.
Of all human propensities for self-deception and self-inflation, is any more prevalent today than the utopian notion that we are capable of perfecting ourselves, our society and our world without reference or recourse to God?
This chimera has achieved a popular contemporary status through song lyrics such as John Lennon’s Imagine, and has even had itself embedded in the revised Constitution of Europe. However, it is far from new: the psalmist sang resoundingly against its vacuity and futility: “The fool said in his heart there is no God”, and “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the workers labour.”
The secular utopianism that today postures as the means of human liberation, even salvation, in fact diminishes the full potential of humanity by confining people’s conception of their full possibility to this world only.
In ancient Greece, the sophist Protagoras provided the flattering slogan – opposed resolutely by the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – for the dawning of secular humanism: “Man is the measure of all things”. However, even Socrates, who constantly exhorted his followers with “Know thyself”, was not immune to the naïve assumption that knowledge of moral truth in itself would suffice to produce the practice of virtue.
The 5th-century Athenian dramatist Sophocles devotes almost a whole ode in Antigone to the euphoric celebration of apparently autonomous human accomplishment, taken up later by Shakespeare in Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man!…”.
Both great writers were steeped enough in real human experience, however, to recognise the presumption of such unqualified self-celebration, reminding their audiences of the inconvenient and ineradicable fact of death, which The Book of Genesis identifies as originating in the lapsarian sin of Adam and Eve.
Evidence of mortality and humanity’s record of chronic iniquities on the historical record notwithstanding, the myth of human self-sufficiency and self-perfectibility persists intractably beyond the Renaissance into the Enlightenment. It has been championed by writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Auguste Comte, and other popularly acclaimed proponents of a “natural religion” presided over by the state and based on flimsy optimism, philanthropic sentimentalism, wishful thinking and vanity.
Atheistic utopianism reached its 19th-century zenith in the great rhetorician and self-appointed prophet of modernity, Friedrich Nietzsche, who madly asserted the “death of God” as the precondition for human liberation and progress. In doing so, he was echoing and going a step further than Voltaire who, a century earlier, in the cause of a more reasonable and tolerant world, had called for the extirpation of Christianity, which, like Richard Dawkins today, he regarded as a pestilence to his notion of progress.
Essentially, utopianism, far from being life-affirming and enhancing, as its advocates speciously claim, is a form of life-denial. It is a flight from historical reality into political fantasy. It refuses to acknowledge the fallen-ness in what we are as members of humanity.
Observe how we reflexively find it difficult enough to accept the merest offence, real or imagined, against our personal egos. Not only that, but we are also reluctant to face the reality – so well attested in the Bible – of fallen humanity’s corruption.
As has been often remarked upon, the most abominable mass atrocities in modern times – concentration camps, gulags, pogroms – have been perpetrated by political ideologies, Nazi and communist, that are, at root, secular and utopian in their estimation of humanity and progress. Even committed contemporary apologists for non-belief, such as Christopher Hitchens, have been forced by nightmarish historical realities to concede this point.
The Christian doctrines of original sin and redemption are a far healthier, indeed salutary, starting point and ground for personal and societal progress. The alternative is the anaesthetised credulity about self-perfectibility and about the state as the instrument of salvation – a credulity which flies in the face of what we know about the human condition.
Doctrinaire utopians who propound the latter view often look to sociology, anthropology or science in an attempt to justify their beliefs. Some utopians use a false theology which can ultimately be traced back to Pelagius’s denial of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Original Sin.
The 19th-century churchman John Henry Newman, responding to the Victorian era’s utopian faith in science and progress, recognised that our acceptance of humanity’s “terrible aboriginal calamity”, both experientially and logically, was “the foundation of all true doctrine as to the way of salvation”. (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol.5).
He elaborated on this theme, in words no doubt offensive to secularist and libertarian ears, warning: “All teaching about duty and obedience, about attaining heaven, and about the office of Christ towards us, is hollow and unsubstantial, which is not built here in the doctrine of our original corruption and helplessness…”.
In “Love of Religion, a New Nature” (ibid., Vol.7), on the doctrine of original sin, Newman further says, with poignant realism and wisdom: “This is a point which must be insisted on for the encouragement of the fearful, for the confutation of the hypocritical, and the abasement of the holy.”
Newman’s words bear prophetic relevance today. For those dismayed and overwhelmed by a crown-of-thorns sense of their own delinquency, they convey a comforting perspective of human solidarity, albeit in spiritual ailment.
For those who pharisaically imagine themselves not to be part of the problem and who seek to replace sound religious and moral doctrine with improvised constructions of political correctness in order to effect societal amelioration, they offer remedial honesty and challenge.
Finally, for those in possession of God’s grace, they are an admonition against presumption, a cause for constant humility and gratitude for what Christ has accomplished, and a motivation to share the benefits of His redeeming, risen and Eucharistic presence with others.
The threadbare pretension of utopianism is revealed when weighed against the evidence of evil in the human condition and in the moral blindness and malefactions of us as individuals and groups.
The profound paradox of the Easter liturgy, when Christians gratefully and joyfully sing, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”, at once affirms the reality of our deepest need and God’s gracious, self-giving response to it – the life, death and resurrection of Christ our Lord and Saviour.
This alone can disabuse us of the great delusion and can remedy the personal and social ills that attend it.
– John Kelly is a South Australian secondary school teacher.