The Utopian Impulse

  This summer America witnessed the dying spasm of Sixties' utopianism, as visions of peace and love degenerated into mayhem and violence. I'm talking about Woodstock 1999, inspired by nostalgic memories of the flower children. By the end of the festival, teenagers faced off against the police, destroying property, looting, and setting fires—while chanting, "I won't do what you tell me," a line from a song played by one of the bands. In a microcosm, Woodstock illustrates the complete failure of utopian visions of society—and their tendency to devolve into chaos and violence. Utopianism has been among the most pervasive myths of our age. It lies at the heart of the great "isms" of the twentieth century, from National Socialism to Marxism. Utopianism denies the biblical doctrine of sin, defining the human dilemma not as moral rebellion against God but as ignorance, poverty, or oppression. The proposed solution, then, is simply better education or income redistribution or political reform. The promise is that if we reform unjust social structures, natural human goodness will flourish. A utopian society can be created. But how realistic is this utopian vision? Put bluntly, the entire twentieth century is a record of its failures. Everywhere utopian schemes have been put into practice— from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union to Cambodia— they have produced tyranny and famine, secret police and hard labor camps. Why? Because utopianism rests on the denial of a central Christian truth: the Fall. Christianity teaches that God created the world good, and that one of the good things He created was free will. But the first humans exercised their free will to reject God's commands, which brought sin and evil into the world--resulting in suffering and death. Modern thinkers often criticize the doctrine of sin as pessimistic and negative. But ironically, this doctrine is precisely what undergirds liberty. The American founders understood this clearly: They instituted A balance of power among three branches of government precisely on the grounds that due to the tendency to sin, power should not be concentrated in any one person or group. The founders built structures designed to limit the effects of sin, while maximizing liberty. By contrast, utopian systems deny the reality of evil, and thus they build no safeguards against sin— which gives free rein to evil and tyranny. Because of its biblical heritage, America has never had labor camps. Yet ever since the vaunted "idealism" of the Sixties, utopian ideas have moved into the mainstream: into education theory, psychology, government policy, and even the general culture—with the result that no one is responsible and everyone is a victim, entitled to government largesse. Nowhere does the clash of worldviews have greater social impact than in the denial of sin and the consequent loss of moral responsibility. As Christians we need to learn to detect false ideas and to show why they are wrong. For if we fail to recognize prevailing worldviews, the worst that may happen is that we ourselves will be sucked into false thinking unawares—and lose our distinctive message. And that would be disastrous, not only for ourselves but also for American society as a whole.


Chuck Colson



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