Utopia

            In the early 16th Century, before the Reformation[1] came to England and King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, Sir Thomas More penned his timeless masterpiece, Utopia.  More was considered perhaps the greatest Renaissance[2] scholar in England at the time.  He also happened to be a close personal friend of the King, and had won a reputation on the European continent as a cultured man of reason and letters, including the recently rediscovered study of ancient and New Testament Greek.

            As Chancellor of England (the equivalent of Prime Minister before any such position existed), More had the King’s ear and was able to offer refuge to scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus, who had gotten into hot water with the ultra-conservative faction of the Spanish Catholic establishment.  At that time, Spain ruled Erasmus’s homeland in what is now Belgium.  The two great scholars became friends and stimulated each other to pursue their studies of the new knowledge.

More chose the title of his work, written in elegant Latin (the term utopia is Latin for ‘nowhere’), to protect himself from the possible repercussions of openly critiquing the social, political, economic, and religious establishment of the day.  It was brilliant and won a wide readership among the scholarly and literate classes.  Erasmus considered it better than anything he had written himself.  Even King Henry professed to admire it, perhaps not suspecting that the book criticized English society (and by implication him as the embodiment of Divine Right Absolutism) as much as any on the continent.

We need not concern ourselves here with the specifics of More’s attempt to describe an ideal society.  As the name indicates, such a place does not exist anywhere and, as he explained, will not exist until God rules the world.  More was backhandedly also denouncing the Church’s betrayal of its true mandate to bring the Kingdom of God into the world according to a completely different kind of rulership from that of the secular powers of ‘this present age’.  More’s strongly implied point was that truly just, good, and Christian rulers should be working towards the kind of society he was attempting to describe.

More’s gift to the future was the term “utopia” as a symbol of an ideal society, and the goal that human society should be directed towards.  No previous work had ever attempted to apply the idea of a perfect social order towards the reform of society in the present.  More derived his concept from his reading of the Bible.  In the Books of Isaiah (Old Testament) and Revelation (New Testament, and the last book of the Bible), there are descriptions of such societies couched in mostly allegorical and symbolic terms.  More’s thesis was what such conditions might look like if humanity’s rulers dedicated themselves to creating a society based on those conditions in the here and now.

More was not a naive idealist, as some might ignorantly assume today.  Neither was he a religious fanatic.  I emphasize this because in our 21st Century environment, the tendency is to write off scholarship smacking of Biblical and theological overtones as irrelevant, if not downright dangerous.  Religious fanaticism of any kind, or the mere hint of it, immediately disqualifies ideas and concepts put forward by serious thinkers having drawn upon such sources in the eyes of our own age’s academic and intellectual establishment.

More considered himself a true Christian, but not a ‘simple’ or uninformed one.  He had no use for superstitious flimflammery.  He was fully cognizant of the failings of the Church as an institution and sympathetic to demands for reform.  He was a man of his time, and as such he believed in God and the Trinity and the life, crucifixion, death and bodily resurrection of Jesus.  He believed that history bore out the truth of the Christian story.

Utopia, his great masterpiece, was written and published on the cusp of an enormous upheaval in the West’s social, political, economic, and religio-spiritual order.  Change and reform were in the air.  Challenge to the establishment on all these levels was brewing.  Modern Science was just beginning to emerge, and deep dissatisfaction with the failing model of ‘Christendom’ was rumbling beneath the surface all across Europe.

But we mistake the powerful desire for change among the leading intelligentsia of that time as a growing disillusionment with Christianity, as a rejection of the Christian Gospel and a shift towards veiled agnosticism, if not atheism.  When 21st Century revisionist historians and scholars look back on those times, we facilely commit the ‘mortal sin’ of anachronism, transferring our age’s prejudice and bias against faith and religion to the thinkers of that age.

No doubt, there were agnostics and a few atheists in the crowd, but the vast majority of the thinkers and scholars pushing a reform agenda were still theists at the very least, and most were still Trinitarians and believers in the Deity of Jesus Christ and his mission of bringing salvation to humanity and the broken, suffering creation as a whole.  Their disillusionment and cynicism was directed towards the frail human representatives of that mission who had fallen into the temptation of taking a share of power and the world’s enticements in the here and now.

Sir Thomas More eventually took a stand against his friend and master, King Henry VIII of England.  He paid for it with his life in 1537.  King Henry had decided to claim complete authority over the Catholic Church in England because the Pope would not grant him an annulment of his long-time marriage to Queen Catherine when she failed to give him a live male heir to the throne.  Henry’s solution to this impasse was to say that he, the anointed ‘temporal ruler’ of England, could rightfully also claim final spiritual authority over the Church within the bounds of his sovereign territory.

For More, the somewhat worldly but still firm believer in the Church’s heavenly mission to bring Christ’s light and rule into the world as it now is, this was too much.  It was too far from ‘Utopia’, the goal of moving the actual world closer towards the eventual rule of Christ on earth.  To have so brazen a power-grab confounded with a profound spiritual truth was ‘beyond the pale’ for More.  Henry, faced with this open challenge and denunciation of what he now stood for by his erstwhile best friend and closest advisor, could only respond by demonstrating his absolute authority.  He had him beheaded as a traitor.

More died as graciously and elegantly as he had lived, saying as he stood in front of the chopping block with a vast audience looking on, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”  Sir Thomas More was elevated to sainthood as a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church in 1934 on the 400th anniversary of King Henry’s apostasy and More’s imprisonment.

[1] The official date for the start of the Reformation is usually given as Oct. 31, 1517, when priest and Professor Martin Luther posted his challenge to the practice of indulgences on the main door of his parish church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The Reformation was a movement to bring radical reform to the Roman Catholic Church.  The Church rejected the demands of the would-be reformers and then excommunicated them.  This resulted in the beginning of the Protestant branch of Christianity and great strife in Europe over religion for the next 150 years or so.

[2] The Renaissance – the word means ‘rebirth’ in French – had begun in the late 1300s in Italy.  It was a movement to recover and study the Greek and Roman ancient philosophers and literature in order to develop new insights and bring balance into life.  The scholars felt a need to offset the sometimes oppressive control of the Roman Catholic Church over life and society.  The Italian poet and scholar Petrarch is credited with naming the movement.

Lincoln and Douglass

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

 

In 1838, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery under a cruel master and overseer in Maryland by jumping a train just outside Baltimore and making his way to Massachusetts.  He settled in New Bedford, close to Boston, the cradle of the Abolitionist Movement.  He worked hard to educate himself and became not only literate, but eloquent, both as an orator and a writer.

He became an icon of the Abolitionists, as well as the premier advocate for Black Rights, including the right to bear arms in the war.  He worked tirelessly to have Blacks become full-fledged US citizens with voting rights and freedom to do anything (legal) they chose and live freely anywhere in the country.

During the Civil War, his relationship with Abraham Lincoln was not warm, although the two met.  Lincoln found Douglass abrasive to deal with.  Douglass criticized Lincoln (as did many) for being ‘lukewarm’ on Abolition and not fully accepting Blacks as entitled to equal rights.  Lincoln saw that this had to happen eventually, but thought they needed to be educated into it and the country had to be prepared for it over time.

Perhaps there is some justice in Douglass’s critique of Lincoln.  Both were men of their time and products of their heritage.  Lincoln may not have been ‘modern’ in his views of the equality of the ‘races’, but he was vastly in advance of the great majority of his compatriots.  In his time, he was one of the most misunderstood, maligned, underestimated, and undervalued ‘greats’ of history ever.

As a young man of nineteen, Lincoln had already begun to abhor slavery and the oppression of ‘the African Race’ as an abomination.  Upon seeing his firt slave market in New Orleans, he had said, “If I ever get the opportunity, I will hit this thing hard.”  This was long before he had any notion of becoming President.  He was not yet even on the road to becoming a lawyer.

Lincoln refused to succumb to radicalism, at least to the kind of Abolitionist radicalism of William Lloyd Garrison.  He was, however, a moral and constitutional radical.  Yet, even though he abhorred the evils of the whole slavery institution and system, he equally abhorred the idea of a wholesale violent demolition of it.  His view was that solving one great evil by wreaking havoc, mayhem, and destruction as some sort of hand of Divine Retribution (as per John Brown) would merely compound evil upon evil.

Lincoln sought a firm, measured, gradual approach.  He learned as he went, and grew into the man people would later revere.  He was far from a simple, simplistic ‘yokel’ lawyer from the backcountry of the Mid-West, as so many tried to portray him – ‘the Original Gorilla’ or ‘the Buffoon’, as the press so often vilified him.  Even his closest collaborators often failed to see the real man and the subtleties of his mind and soul being worked upon by ‘the Deity’, as he sometimes called the God he increasingly turned to as his need increased.

Frederick Douglass was understandably more one-dimensional and not privy to Lincoln’s gradual ascent into full recognition of the equality among races.  Douglass’s calling and mandate were simple and always remained clear.  His goal was fixed, and he strove to advance towards it for the rest of his life.  He too felt a sort of ‘Divine calling’ to do the work he knew he had been given.  It is perhaps understandable that he could not recognize, until it was too late, that, in a different way, Lincoln also knew he had been chosen for a great work and must see it through to the end.

For Lincoln, the work and the goal evolved in his vision and understanding as he was transformed into the greatest President the US ever had.  His basic persona did not change, but his wisdom and understanding increased, and his insight into how to move in practical ways grew exponentially and rapidly as he found himself catapulted into and engulfed in a context no one before him had ever faced, and perhaps never will again.

The Civil Rights Movement in the US rightly gives Douglass a prominent place in its pantheon.  He did much with little, and greatly advanced the cause of racial justice.  He also had enduring and significant support from a strong base of well-intentioned, well-positioned, and financially prosperous white Americans.  He was the leader of a nascent movement at a time when circumstances were opening new doors.

Lincoln was often surrounded by those who disdained him as a person, mocked his ‘inferior’ abilities (as they considered them), and questioned his every move (including many of Douglass’s supporters).  He would have said, if the expression had been in use then, that all this ‘came with the territory’.

Lincoln was rarely angered by attackers, detractors, and opponents.   He preferred to laugh – both at himself and the absurdities he was the target of.  He became exasperated at times, and frequently discouraged, but he would remain philosophical about the whole business, and seemed able to look at the issues with a kind of fatalistic detachment.  Like Douglass, once he could see the goal, Lincoln’s eyes remained fixed on it.  He began to see his way through the maze, how to bring some good out of the Apocalypse his country had fallen into.

One of Lincoln’s strongest opponents was his main rival for the Republican nomination of 1860, William Seward.  A second major opponent was Salmon P. Chase, a conniver who thought to supplant Lincoln in 1864.  A third was Edwin Stanton, a powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives who sought to bring every decision on the early conduct of the war under close scrutiny in order to discredit Lincoln and his administration.  Lincoln’s gift as a political genius enabled him to incorporate each of these one-time bitter opponents into his Cabinet.  Lincoln could have ruined him because of his secretive conspiring but instead, he successfully manoeuvred him into accepting the post of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  He brought Stanton into the Cabinet to replace the corrupt Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, in 1863, thus giving him a chance to ‘put up or shut up’ about how to prosecute the War.

What was the eventual estimation of the President by his former arch-rivals, men who saw him almost daily and got to know him intimately?  I will paraphrase Seward’s response to a critic of Lincoln still protesting his bumbling and mishandling of things in 1862, with the war in full swing and the North seemingly in disarray.  The critic suggested that the country would be far better off if Stanton took over, if they could somehow manoeuvre Lincoln into resigning or being impeached.  Steward told this man, “I have since completely changed my mind about Mr. Lincoln and his ability.  None of us measure up to him, and he outweighs all of us put together.”  Mr. Seward never changed this opinion thereafter.

Stanton often found himself crossing swords with Lincoln over strategy and assignments of personnel and resources.  They could engage in bitter arguments, with most of the vitriol and bitterness on Mr. Stanton’s side.  Lincoln’s calm persistence, often attributed to plain stubbornness, frequently later proved the justice of his perceptions.  Stanton was eventually completely won over by Lincoln, although he continued to be headstrong.  When Lincoln lay dying after being shot in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, Stanton sat the whole night by his bedside mute with grief, for he had come to regard Lincoln as a true friend and a very great man.  When Lincoln finally expired, Stanton was heard to say with a tear-choked voice, “And now he belongs to the ages.”

Frederick Douglass also later recognized Abraham Lincoln, for all his ‘limitations’ on the race question, as a truly great and unique man.  It is amazing what time and perspective can do to help us see things more clearly.  He realized that if Mr. Lincoln had survived, the reintegration of the South and the racial integration of the Blacks would have gone much differently and with far less longstanding bitterness to pass on to future generations.

The survival of the United States was Lincoln’s true legacy, and his closest contemporaries, along with millions of his fellow citizens, attributed this uniquely to him, a man whom they concluded God Himself had chosen for the task.  Lincoln himself had an inkling of this, more than once voicing the premonition that when it all ended, he would be gone too, his appointed work finished.

Today, the US recognizes both Lincoln and Douglass, wary allies and occasional opponents, as unquestionably great men.

God in a Box

God in a Box

 “…God is absolutely the wholly other, who cannot be reduced at all to any religious or theological form whatever, who is always absolutely new and surprising, who does not cease to come in the “today” of the presence, who disturbs our ritual, morality, and piety.”

Jacques Ellul, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, p. 47

I have a longstanding issue with God.  If only I could convince the Creator to act ‘right’!  If only he/she/it would just obey the laws of the universe (as we conceive them, like the ‘non-interference-by-God law’) and see things the common-sense (my) way of justice.  (That is, deal with all the twits I think deserve punishment and retribution, and leave me and mine alone.)  If only God would just stay within proper bounds, confining him/her/itself to the defined appropriate venues like churches, mosques, synagogues, or temples – unless I really need divine assistance, and when I need it.  Come to think of it, if only he/she/it would just tell all those others they’ve got it wrong and should all recognize the truth!

But this ‘God-thing’ has a nasty habit of not always answering prayer the way I think is best (when I bother to consult the Deity), or of showing up in my conscience at the most inconvenient moments.  I keep being reminded that I am not a mere animal with a little extra capacity to reason and control certain destructive behavioural tendencies.

I keep trying to put this Rebel back in His box.  Even atheists find him/her/it a bloody nuisance and impossible to ignore all the time!  Silly, less reasonable people keep insisting that there must be a Creator, and not just a universal, anonymous ‘First Mover’ or ‘First Cause’ as Thomas Aquinas put it 800 years ago (building on Aristotle’s formulations of 1500+ years previous to him).

Well, can’t the Deity just be the ‘Kick-Starter’ at the however distant beginning?  Couldn’t this ‘Creator’ just be some sort of impersonal Super-Ego (as Freud put it) or Universal Archetype (Jung) that we can now declare an useless, still inconveniently genetically ingrained evolutionary vestige like the appendix?  (Oops! that has turned out to be pretty important after all!)

Then those are those religious zealots who keep telling me they have it all figured out.  They haul out massive tomes of theology and doctrine that set it all down for me, systematically, logically.  God – all nicely defined and categorized.  We have drawn up nice Divine personality profile and quite a thick portfolio to show all his/her/its achievements and ongoing works and projects – if you ever want to become acquainted with (fill in your preferred pronoun, or personalized epithet if you have a favourite – for example, ‘Jehovah’).

Most of the above is tongue in cheek, of course (or at least some of it).  Forgive the ‘unchristian’ sarcasm.  (Did you know Jesus had a bit of a sarcastic streak?  Check Matthew 23.)  We humans cannot avoid trying to describe and categorize.  It allows us to do science, to ‘advance’ and ‘progress’ and ‘subdue and have dominion’ as the Book of Genesis puts it.  The problem for many of us is that, although we have been gifted (by our Creator, one might say) with this amazing ability, which sets us apart from the regular animal kingdom, we think the Originator who gave us this faculty should submit to it.

But the Divine One has to be above our understanding, or he/she/it/they, etc. or cannot be the true First Cause.  My categories don’t fit, can’t box ‘Him’ in.  It’s like trying to dress an octopus in a tuxedo.  It doesn’t matter how consistent I think my categories are; as the Lawmaker and Giver, operating within any boundaries I think exist, or should exist, the only applicable boundaries are such as ‘He’ chooses to impose on ‘Himself’.

That is what Jacques Ellul was getting at in the opening quote of this reflection.  It is not that there is no truth to be found.  It is just that I cannot be the final judge of what the boundaries are.  So it does no good for me to ‘kick against the goads’, as Jesus is said to have told Paul in the Book of Acts.  Our protests against God’s ‘disorderliness’, ‘His’ insistence on ‘messing us around’, really makes us ‘Ophelian’, as per Hamlet’s comment on his would-be beloved’s protestations of innocence, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

Jeremiah said the same thing a little more ‘Biblically’ or ‘prophetically’ (paraphrasing liberally): “Does the pot have any right to say to the Potter, ‘Why did you make this way?’  Doesn’t the Potter have the right [and the power] to form the clay into whatever kind of vessel best suits his purpose?’”

We pots fight hard to be our own potters so that we can try to remake ourselves in some other image than the one the Designer had in mind.  We fight so hard we even blind ourselves to the Designer’s signature on every piece of handiwork.  We redesign (in our own wisdom) the box itself, with no outside access points, so that the Creator can no longer bother us inside (our minds, at least).  Therefore, when this “absolutely wholly other” acts “in the “today” of the presence”, we automatically conclude it cannot be so.  The paradigm, the ritual, is broken!  God forbid! (and we really mean, ‘God, forbid yourself to be God’).

God in the road

I met God in the road one day

but I failed to see him there.

He said and did what I forbid,

and looked weighed down with care.

His plans seemed wild, too like a child’s,

but when I walked away,

some deep truth struck my heart.

I turned back ‘round,

to find he’d gone,

like from that empty grave.

Time to Reflect

The pace of events and life in this age leaves little time to process, let alone reflect on what is happening.  We are bombarded, deluged, swamped by endless stimulation.

As resilient and versatile as humans are, as we see from the range of environments we have successfully adapted ourselves to live in, there is a limit.  Science now corroborates what the ancient sages have told us for millennia – we need to step back, step away, find solitude and quiet, even silence, in order to regain balance and ‘reset’ psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

As has been said, there is no such thing as complete objectivity, even in the ‘hard’ sciences.  No observer is ever totally unbiased.  No matter how true one’s observations may be, they are limited by the observer’s position in time and space, and other factors such as presuppositional bias drawn from a host of factors, many of which are unconsciously acquired from birth on.

How frequently does one need to stop and take stock?  This seems to depend on the degree of continual (over)stimulation to which we find ourselves subjected.  There are also personal factors involved – basic personality and character traits being among them.  For example, it appears that extroverts need to get away from the social maelstrom less often than introverts – but they tolerate the isolation of the wide open spaces of nature less successfully than introverts.

This illustration is merely to state the obvious.  This space is intended to be a sort of ‘getaway’ within the maelstrom.  A retreat for those who want to take a little time to think and process.

The subjects presented here are the choice of the author of the blogs.  They will hopefully offer those who read them some opportunity to say, ‘Wait a minute!  That’s worth thinking about a little more.’  And perhaps in turn the reader will take a few moments to do their own reflection – even to take a different perspective from and perhaps even correct and challenge the blogger’s.

If so, that is entirely welcome.