The Quest for Utopia

Gulliver in Lagado crop
Man doggedly chases after a fantasy, "driven equally on by hope and despair," and in the end only makes his life worse.

Man is on a constant search for utopia, that is, a perfect place. For the pagan who believes that death means personal extinction, the only hope for utopia is in the here and now. Through reason and science, the pagan hopes to establish equity and peace and eliminate poverty, hardship, and injustice.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the English satirist who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, was skeptical about man’s attempts to establish a utopia. In one of Gulliver’s adventures he finds a flying island called Laputa, whose inhabitants study nothing but mathematics, astronomy, and music, and who become so enwrapped in their own thoughts that they must have special servants with them at all times to slap them in the face when they need to engage others in conversation. After spending some time on this flying island, Gulliver descends to the mainland and stays with a lord of the land. Gulliver notices that the lands are poorly cultivated, the inhabitants are shabbily dressed, and the buildings are in ruins. The lord’s lands, however, are well tended, his clothes fine, and his house well-built. When Gulliver inquires why the country is generally in ruin, the lord says:

“That about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and, after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region: that these persons, upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors [people who come up with new projects] in Lagado; and the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair: that as for himself, being not of an enterprising spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms, to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did, in every part of life, without innovation: that some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same, but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant, and ill common-wealth’s men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.” (Gulliver’s Travels, Part III, ch. 4)

And so it goes. Man seeks utopia and creates something that more closely resembles hell than heaven. It’s ironic that the word “utopia,” coined by Thomas More, is Greek for “no-place.” Man doggedly chases after a fantasy, “driven equally on by hope and despair,” and in the end only makes his life worse.

As Christians, we have our utopia (in the sense of a perfect place). We have church and the Christian congregation here on earth that give us a foretaste of eternal life in heaven. We can content ourselves with the houses our ancestors have built without innovating ourselves to death in a bootless quest for the unattainable. This life won’t be perfect, which is a livable state of affairs when accompanied by the grace of Christ. And our Lord has promised to take us to himself and wipe every tear from our eyes. In the meantime, we wait in hope: not the hope of the pagan whose hope is mere wishful thinking, but true hope that knows what the future holds because that future is guaranteed by the blood of Jesus.

In Christ,
Pastor Richard

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