Dystopia, Utopia or Paradise?
Ever since our expulsion from Eden at the beginning of history, human beings have experienced a profound longing for our lost homeland; that far-off country we remember yet struggle to name or describe. Sometimes, as CS Lewis remarks in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory”, we call it beauty, or love, or perfection or many other things. The tragedy of human existence is that we can never fully grasp what we long for, though we are surrounded by constant reminders of it. Lewis calls these reminders “good images of what we really desire”, which will break our hearts and destroy us if we worship them: food, sex, beauty, power, glory… These things are the “scent of a flower we have not found”, not the Thing Itself.
For some, this longing creates a very real crisis of existence, which strips life of all purpose or any possibility of happiness. For others, this longing is only faintly registered on the edges of consciousness amidst the demands of daily life. Regardless of the degree to which it is experienced, every human being grapples with the question of meaning at some point. Does existence point to something beyond itself, or are we just accidents of nature, bundles of cells with no purpose but to try and survive long enough to procreate?
Friedrich Nietzsche once argued that the only human experience that could be said to be universal was alienation. We are alienated from that which grants us meaning: from ourselves, from others, and ultimately, from God. According to the Bible, this is correct: human sin has damaged every aspect of life in one way or another. As a consequence, we are also fundamentally alienated from the kind of human society that we were created for: a world of shalom and love. Because of this alienation, our lost homeland has been replaced by a world filled with violence, exploitation, injustice, inequality, and hatred.
Attempts to repair this damage by means of human ingenuity, or technology, or social, political, and military power, is as old as Babel. The Dream of Utopia, of a perfect human society that fixes what is wrong in the world, however the problem is defined, always unravels because it can never truly fix what is wrong in us. It cannot remove sin from the human soul. It cannot remove anger and hatred and selfishness from the system. Whatever form these utopias take, whether Communist, Nationalist, Capitalist, Religious, Monarchist, etc, and regardless of the claims they make, they cannot produce redemption from ourselves or our predicament. Such utopian societies will almost always, in the end, resort to violent control and subjugation of its citizens to maintain order and to keep those with power in their positions of authority. Utopia quickly morphs into dystopia.
Although human history is littered with failed attempts at creating a utopian world, the 20th Century has witnessed perhaps the largest and most spectacular attempts at this, and each has failed in one way or another, with devastating human cost. National Socialism and Communism, the former based on the creation of a pure Aryan race, the latter on the dream of a classless society, are together responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. And both of these utopian visions emerged amidst the smoking rubble of Old Europe, once ruled by Monarchs and/or Religious Empires, who each claimed a “divine right to rule”, but which came crashing down amidst the artillery shells and broken bodies of WW1.
The memory of these failed utopian/dystopian horrors has been a significant theme in the art of the post-WW2 era, especially literature and film. From books like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, and the popular teen-fiction series The Hunger Games and The Giver; and films (many which are also based on books) such as The Children of Men, The Matrix, The Road, Blade Runner, Minority Report, Wall-E, The Cloud Atlas – it is clear dystopia has been a very popular subject. Whether these films and novels are intended to serve as warning about what will happen should we forget our recent past, or of a growing fear about some tragic yet inescapable destiny for the human race, it is clear that dystopian visions of the future grip us with a peculiar fascination. Perhaps this is because such visions of the future are looking more and more likely. The list of possibility calamities is well known: climate change, environmental devastation, total war, rapid technological advancement that spins out of control, artificial intelligence, and so much more. “Big brother is watching you” is no longer far-fetched. Indeed, in some societies it is the process of being implemented.
What is the Christian response to this? How are we to navigate between the dream of a utopian society and the fear of a dystopian future? Though we don’t put our hope in governments or in human attempts to repair our existential problems, at the same time, we are not called to be disengaged from politics or from involvement in social transformation. The church is called to be deeply engaged in healing human brokenness and addressing injustice, but how do we do that knowing we cannot (ultimately) heal the whole world? Where is our hope? What is the Christian vision of the future, and what does that tell us about how to live in the world as it is now?
This short series will address these questions around three main topics:
Paradise Lost (And Found) – A New Eden – Ezekiel 36:16-38
On week one we will look at what is wrong with the world, and God’s cosmic vision for redemption. The important issue is this: knowing what the Bible says abut what is wrong, where are we headed, and the meaning of salvation, helps us to resist cultural stories or political claims that will lure us into thinking that salvation or healing can be obtained by some other means. There is only one final way to our true homeland, and that is through Christ. All other competing claims must be resisted. This invites us to hope in a good future, yet it is one that will be forged only by God not by human progress or power. How will God lead us into this new existence? What needs to change in the human soul in order for this to be realised? What does Ezekiel mean by the promise of a new heart and a new spirit? Reflect on the following passage from CS Lewis:
“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.
Yet the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited…
…at present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.” CS Lewis – The Weight of Glory.
What does Lewis mean by our true homeland, the far-off country? Does he mean heaven (as a place), or something else? In what way does the world continually tempt us to make God’s good gifts into idols, which attempt to become a substitute for our true homeland? Have we become captive to these idols? Could Lewis’ imagery of human longing be a way of discussing the gospel with those unfamiliar with Jesus? How might you go about having a conversation along those lines?
Paradise Lived – A New Spirit – Ezekiel 37:1-14
Week two will address the question of resurrection. As we discussed in week 1, though we must resist competing claims about salvation, we must also deal with the real world we are in. We are not in Eden yet, but pilgrims on The Way. The issues of the world are complex, confusing, and create conflict even among fellow believers – no one has all the answers and there is no single correct political vision. So how do we live faithfully as citizens of Heaven, while navigating the complexities of the world? What resources has God given us in the Spirit to help? How can we be involved in the world, without succumbing to the competing claims the world makes? The answer is that we must practice resurrection. We must put our hope in the one who can raise the dead, which gives us freedom to offer our whole lives to serving God in the world. Only those who trust in the promise of resurrection can be truly free to offer themselves to God and to others – even if it costs them their lives. Political utopias can be resisted by trusting in the promise of the resurrection; likewise, the despair of dystopia can be resisted by trusting in the promise of the resurrection. What do we mean when we pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” Consider the following quote by the Christian lawyer and civil rights activist William Stringfellow:
“The counsel of the Gospel is that Christians are free to enter into the depths of the world’s existence with nothing to offer the world but their own lives. And this is to be taken literally. What the Christian has to give the world is his or her very life. The Christian is established in such an extreme freedom by the power of Christ, which is so much greater than the powers of death, that the Christian lives secure from any threats which death may make.
It is in exercising this ultimate freedom in their involvement in the world that the Christian also understands they are to use whatever is at his or her disposal – money, status, technical abilities, professional training, or whatever else – as the gift of his or her own life. The Christian is free to enter into all of these ordinary realities of the world’s existence, knowing what they truly represent, without succumbing either to the lust of idolatry or fear of the work of death.
The Christian is so empirically free from the threat of death in his or her own life and in the existence of the world that they can afford to place that life at the disposal of the world or anybody in the world without asking or expecting anything whatever in return.” William Stringfellow — Free in Obedience.
Do you agree with Stringfellow? Is the counsel of the Gospel really that we are free to enter the world’s existence with nothing to offer but our lives? How does the vision of the dry bones free us from the fear of death? Are you free from fear? What difference has this freedom made to the way you live?
Paradise Regained – A New Heaven and Earth – Revelation 21:1-2.5
This final week will look at the hope of our salvation, which is a renewed and restored heaven and earth. Our future is secure in Christ. How does this give us courage and faith to live in the world as we find it? And what are we working towards? What does this picture of heaven tell us about God’s relationship to his creation? How can we partner with God in seeing this dream realised? Can it be achieved politically, sociologically, technologically, or in some other way? What is the church’s role in seeing this vision realised? We must let this vision captivate our imaginations, so we can live fearless and faithful lives in a world that looks so different from this final picture. How does this future promise address the fundamental human experience of alienation and despair? Is this picture only a future hope, or is it meant to change the way we relate to the world now? This vision comes to us as part of a letter sent to persecuted Christians, how does the context of the letter impact on how we read it? How will we be involved in seeing this vision realised in our own world, however small? Consider the following quote, again from Lewis:
“I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.” CS Lewis —The Weight of Glory.
Do you agree with this? How has this series changed your views on what it means to be a Christian serving God in the world? Where is your ultimate hope? Is it in the material, social, or political promises this world offers us, or is it in Christ and His Kingdom? Will this change anything about the way you live?
Site Minister – St Silas