Posted by: HAT | April 21, 2014

After Easter

An image of Mary Magdalene in the iconic style as the myrrh bearer

Mary Magdalene bearing myrrh early in the morning on the first day of the week

Hi, Gang!

Easter has gotten me thinking about something: Would you say that most people’s first impression of Christians is that they’re utopian?

Me, either.

In fact, I think the first thing most people associate with “Christians” and “Christianity” is just the opposite of utopian. “Conventional,” “traditional,” and “authoritarian” all seem like possibilities. I don’t think it’s my imagination. According to David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, in UnChristian, Americans under thirty are likely to think of Christians as on the whole old-fashioned and out of touch, hypocritical, judgmental, bigoted (especially when it comes to gay people), and partisan. Not exactly utopian.

When you come to think of it, though, this ought to be astonishing. I’m not saying it is astonishing, because I can see why we 21st century Americans wouldn’t think Christians, Christianity, and the Church are utopian. I’m saying that the fact that the objective utopianism of Christianity and the Church is so far from being “top of mind” ought to be astonishing. The fact that the predominant image of Christianity is so dystopian ought to make us wonder what has gone wrong, instead of just taking it for granted.

Because Christianity, at least in the abstract, could hardly be more utopian. Christian ideas are utopian ideas. Christianity has historical ties with the idea of utopia, going back to the origins of the utopian literary form. And Christianity affirms the resurrection of the body – arguably one of the most utopian ideas ever. And yet, we definitely think of Christianity more as part of the established order than as part of a movement to change that order.

Seriously: if you didn’t know I was talking about “Christianity” or “the Church,” what would you think if I said I knew a group of people who think that the elimination of all evil from human life is a real possibility, at least in the future, but to some degree in the present, along with its negative consequences, like disease, disappointment, and death; who believe life in a human community can reflect this condition, being harmonious, happy, joyous, and free; who teach that even while en route to this state, it is possible to experience its satisfactions in a limited sense in a regularly accessible utopian space and time, by following a set of simple procedures that are easily communicated to all the members of the community; who think that their community and its practices are oriented toward absolute goodness, truth, beauty, and love, and that all of that is ultimately fully compatible with justice and righteousness, individually and collectively; who are pledged to work tirelessly for the betterment of humanity, the elimination of things like poverty, hunger, thirst, imprisonment, disease, and homelessness, and who have a tradition that “humanity fully alive” is the touchstone of what they are supposed to strive for; who believe that human freedom is an even more important value than pleasure, comfort, or even life itself?

Aside from the issue of believability, which I am not discounting, would you say a group like that sounds utopian?

Me, too. Which is why, upon reflection, I think – it’s astonishing, and it ought to be more astonishing, that the main impression people have of Christianity and Christians and the Church in our culture these days isn’t its utopian character. The fundamental Christian understanding of reality, and the practices that are supposed to and that traditionally did follow from those, are wildly utopian.

The historical and theoretical connections are profound, too. According to my favorite introduction to Thomas More’s Utopia, the one by Paul Turner for the Penguin Classics edition, one of the literary genres that contributed to the work was ancient descriptions of paradise – and without mentioning “heaven” by name, the notion of the restoration of paradise in the heavenly city is an ancient element of Christian tradition. More himself was famously Christian, in the strictly Catholic sense, and so was his literary interlocutor Erasmus. Also according to Turner, there is a long-standing dispute about whether More’s Utopia is more Catholic or more political – but again, the fact that such a dispute can arise and fail to be definitively resolved for a long time indicates that there is enough in the Christian tradition to make the “it’s a Catholic tract” plausible. The Christian tradition is sufficiently chock full of utopian ideas, and those ideas have done enough to shape our very idea of utopia, to make it astonishing that “utopian” wouldn’t be one of the first words that spring to mind when someone says “Christian.”

And then there is Easter. The resurrection of the body. The idea of the resurrection of the body is practically the “gold standard,” as the people at the advertising agency used to say, for utopianism. Even Adorno said it: “What hope clings to, as in Mignon’s song, is the transfigured body.” [Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1995), 400.] That hope is the reproach against a metaphysics that has fully retreated to the “spiritual.” Utopian thinking wants the material world to have a bright future, a set of possibilities other than resignation, disaster, and ultimate collapse. The traditional Christian understanding of the world to come has always been fully material, so it has been responsive to that desire. Augustine, who literally wrote the book – The City of God, to be precise – on Christian eschatological expectation, gave it a fully material interpretation. Dante’s Paradiso is sensuous. However gnostic and body-denying actual contemporary Christians may be, and I know that can be very much, since the western prejudice against embodiment runs extremely deep, Christian tradition is on the side of the resurrection of the body.

And yet, the overwhelming utopian content in the Christian tradition and Christian dogmatics doesn’t govern the average person’s overall impression of Christianity, whether that’s the average non-Christian, or the average Christian. I think I’m being fair here. If the average person walks into the average Christian church, whether Catholic or mainline Protestant or even a big emerging new paradigm church like a Vineyard Fellowship, “utopian” won’t be the word that comes to mind. On a good day, it might be “nice people,” “friendly,” or “welcoming.” On a more typical mainline day, it might be “old,” “intimidating,” or “boring.” On a more typical evangelical day, it’s likely to be “conservative” or “capitalist” or “no place for gay people.” [Well, that’s always my first impression. I may be biased.] The first thing you are led to think is not how much these Christians are in the business of changing the world, to be a wonderful place to live and be alive, for everyone.

I don’t think people are missing the point or misreading the signals. Rather, I am wondering how the day-to-day reality of the church got to be so out of alignment with the message of Jesus about the Reign of God and the messianic charismatic teaching of Paul. I am wondering why talk about being like, becoming like Jesus seems … extremist, instead of routine. Much of the time, I think, we almost think it’s blasphemous to suggest that Christians could be like Jesus, since Jesus was so exalted we could never possibly aspire to that ideal. The idea that Jesus’ life was a genuinely possible human life, and that a life much more like Jesus’ life is a genuinely possible life for each of us, and if we lived that life, it would be a good thing, seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the line.

I know darn well that this is not the whole truth about Christianity, not even in the United States; it’s not as if there are no Christians who are trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and actually be, and bring, good news to the poor. This is part of the reality of the situation, too. But that activist version of Christianity is a minority phenomenon; from the perspective of popular culture it appears as the exception rather than the rule – and surely that has everything to do with us average everyday Christians, and how we live. We are not astonished by the gap between our lives and our professions of faith. We make it un-astonishing. We are far less utopian than our religion.

Why is that?

Why isn’t what’s possible, actual?


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