Utopia-we still haven’t found it, but we haven’t stopped looking for it, either. That seems to be the message behind a recent exhibition organized jointly by The New York Public Library and the Bibliotheque nationale de France. The exhibition, which was intended to mark the new millennium, was called “Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World.”
Utopia has been defined as “a plan of an imaginary government in which all things are perfectly ordered for the common good” [Dictionnaire de l’Academie francaise, quoted in Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World, ed. by Roland Schaer, Gregory Claeys, and Lyman Tower Sargent, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 316]. The man who invented the word was Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the famous Lord Chancellor of England. “Utopia” is actually a play on words. “Topia” is easy enough; it comes from the Greek word “topos,” which means “place.” But what does the “u” signify? Either it represents “eu-topia,” which means “good place,” or it represents “ou-topia,” which means “no place.” That is precisely our problem: we are searching for a perfect place, but we can’t seem to find it.
People have made thousands of attempts to describe and even to create the perfect society. The exhibits in New York and Paris contain hundreds of books, photographs, paintings, drawings, maps, and other artifacts documenting the history of utopia-everything from Thomas More to the French Revolution, from the commune in New Harmony, Indiana, to the kibbutz movement in Israel.
Utopians look at the world’s problems and imagine how they could be solved. “The utopian answer,” writes one scholar, “is not through the idealization of human nature nor of the natural environment, nor through divine grace, but through the idealization of social organization” [J. C. Davis, quoted in Schaer, et al., p. 101]. In other words, if we could just get ourselves organized properly, we could create heaven on earth, or something close to it.
The truth, of course, is that we always fail. While the “Utopia” exhibit is a place for dreamers, it also includes its share of nightmares. In the twentieth century, the quest for a perfect society produced terrors like Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, which resulted in the loss of more than one hundred million lives. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were all utopians; fascism, socialism, and totalitarianism are the dystopias that they unleashed on the modern world.
The never-ending search for utopia is a quest of deep spiritual significance. Why do we long for the perfect society? It is because somehow we know that we used to live there. We are haunted by memories of paradise, and we are always trying to find our way back. Why can’t we seem to get there? It is because of our sin, of course. There was a vivid illustration of this at the New York Public Library, in the form of a picture from an old German manuscript, dating from the fifteenth-century. It was a drawing of Adam and Eve holding bright red fruit, ready to take the sinful bite that lost paradise, and thus began our quest to find our way back.
We will not make it back on our own. The problem with utopia is that, by definition, it is man-made. The biblical heaven is very different. For one thing, there really is a heaven. It is not “no place,” but someplace. For another thing, it is built by God rather than by human beings. In his revelation of paradise, the apostle John wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… . And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:1-3). Of course! The Holy City of New Jerusalem must come from God, because if it came from us, it would be an unholy city.
Sometimes I find myself longing for the holy city to come down from God. When life is difficult, when the task seems too great, when I am weighed down by sin and suffering-both my own and that of others-I set my face toward heaven and watch for the dawn of eternity. In his vision of heaven, the English utopian Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) wrote: “the arm of the Lord only shall bring these mighty things to passe, in this day of his power… yet wait patiently upon your King, he is coming, he is rising, the Son is up and his glory will fill the earth” [The Law of Freedom, 1652, quoted in Schaer et al., p. 111].
I found myself longing for heaven a few weeks ago. I was in this sanctuary one night, praying (as I often do) for God to bless Tenth Church. I found myself wanting to talk to an old friend, a friend who has gone far, far away. When I went back up to my office, something was propped against my door. It was a framed engraving of an old sign, a print copied from colonial Williamsburg. The first thing I noticed when I picked it up was the name at the bottom: “James Montgomery Boice.” The engraving had come from his office. It read as follows: “Notice to all Patrons! I Have been obliged by the sheer Weight of Fatigue to quit my Post, & repair to My Dwelling-house, until I have fully recovered My Usual Composure. All Patrons will find Me of a cheerful Demeanor, and in Readiness for Business or Consultation, upon a return.” To me it seemed like a message sent from heaven, a reminder that there really is a perfect society-not utopia, not “no place,” but our eternal home.
© 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org