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Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Joe Carter, Front Porch Republic, and the Problem of Utopia

Way back in late 2011 and early 2012 Joe Carter posted some helpful, interesting, and entertaining reflections on the Front Porch Republic. His main point is that, however intellectually stimulating their work may be, they cannot seem to escape a fundamental commitment to utopianism. This is a problem that is hardly limited to the good folks at FPR. It is an ecumenical sin, typically cropping up in those faithful and principled religious communities who feel the most incompatibility with the current cultural status quo. What we have currently has some deep-seated problems, and they recognize them, but they then react by rushing off into a sort of fantasy ideology, even if it is a very intelligent and attractive fantasy ideology. We see this philosophically in the “retreat to commitment,” and we see it culturally and religiously in the various attempts to recreate lost pasts or create nearly-perfect futures. In neither case, however, can there be a comfortable, even if critical, affirmation of the present.

Ironically, utopia used to be the archenemy of conservatism. In the middle of the 20th century, Thomas Molnar and Eric Voegelin both wrote extensively against it. Dr. Voegelin famously described it as “an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton.”1 For Voegelin this was a gnostic attempt to identify and control an eidos of history, something otherwise supernatural and outside the jurisdiction of “politics.” This attempt could be carried through politics and civil government, or it could be done through the visible church or break-away communities. In any case, invariably, it would reduce to absolute coercion.

Dr. Molnar wrote more specifically about utopia as a concept. For him, utopia was “a belief in an unspoiled beginning and attainable perfection.”2 We would qualify that he means something attainable in this world, and by temporal means. For Molnar, this belief becomes a quest which then organized the entirety of one’s life. It was the paradigm or grid by which all subsequent knowledge and experience was filtered:

The utopian, as thinker, is irrational and logical at the same time. Once he constructs his imaginary commonwealth (sometimes even an imaginary world with laws of physics different from ours), once he takes the big leap into another system of thought, he proceeds with strict logic, leaving nothing to chance. His human beings behave, or are made to behave, like automata; the organization of their lives never changes as they perform with clocklike precision the tasks assigned by the central authority. Precisely because he has established his own fundamental thought-system, the utopian thinker’s people are no longer bound by human nature and its rich variations as we know human nature; the utopian has authorized himself to deal with his dramatis personae much more freely than a novelist or a playwright. His characters, their umbilical cord with mother earth and ordinary humanity severed, are puppets, quasi-zombies, lacking historical dimension, bereft of freedom and choice.3

Now this can all come across very harsh, and in a way it is. Voegelin and Molnar were quite literally fearful of the immediate earthly effects of utopian thinking. However, for most of our theological utopians, the likelihood of implementing the reconstruction of the imaginary commonwealth is highly unlikely. In some cases it is explicitly rejected. Still, it captures the allegiance of the heart, and it often leads to bad things, even if only personal and emotional things.

And here Mr. Carter’s very practical and earthly comments are helpful. Utopian thinkers are good for our thinking because they are able to be imaginative and even iconoclastic. They force us to consider new possibilities and consider that it could all be otherwise. But whenever they also bring the consistent reaction of, in Mr. Carter’s words, “That’s nuts,” then there is a real problem. And we shouldn’t overlook it.

This is where the old Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is essential. It was actually at the very foundation of Luther and Calvin’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. Since a man is justified by faith alone, and this happens in the spiritual kingdom – which is internal and immediate –, then it is unnecessary and actually quite wrong to attempt to bring that justification, under the mode of final rectification and vindication, into this world through external means. This doctrine is truly acknowledging one’s limits. It is acknowledging that society, as well as one’s self, is always simul iustus et peccator. And that means that justification by faith alone calls for a decidedly non-utopian social and political vision.

  1. The New Science of Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1987), 120.
  2. Utopia, The Perennial Heresy (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967), 6.
  3. Ibid.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.