Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Faith, Reason, and Virtue: The Religion of Utopia

Last week’s post on Thomas More’s Utopia promised this week I’d focus on the religion of the Utopians. Some of you might have been puzzled by Mildred Campbell’s understanding of More’s Christian humanism as a “fusion of faith with the pagan belief in reason and virtue…a kind of humanitarian deism which abhorred religious intolerance.”

“Isn’t that what we progressive Christians believe?” you might have asked yourself, “What’s pagan about reason and virtue?”

Though I’ll get to that, I first want to point out what I’ve been saying all along on this blog. Progressive Christianity is not new, it is traditional. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who say that our ideas are some kind of contemporary accommodation to modern day values and beliefs are mistaken. Actually, they are the new kids on the Christian block.

Let me clarify that when I use the term “evangelical” I mean the political movement bent on enforcing their limitations on belief and behavior. I happen to consider progressive Christians as evangelical in the traditional—since Jesus—sense of the term, as bearers of good news (gospel).

American founding fathers and mothers are best described as humanitarian deists, in my view, not as fundamentalist or evangelical Christians. Their faith was as much informed and inspired by the Enlightenment (Reason) as the classical concepts of virtue and truth. They may have read some Bible stories literally, but they recognized truth and virtue beyond its pages and valued human reason.

So now I get back to explaining Campbell’s reference to More’s faith, mirrored in that of his Utopians, as being combined with “pagan belief in reason and virtue.” More was influenced by Plato, a “pagan” only because anyone who was not Christian was so-called, and frankly, in Plato’s defense, he preceded Christ by four centuries. But Plato has something in common with the monasteries of More’s age as well as the first church: his support of communal property. More believed deeply in the ideals of monastic orders, which included shared property.

Not surprising then, that More’s “mouthpiece” explaining Utopia, the mariner Raphael Hythloday, would explain that in Utopia there was no private property. (See last week’s post.) There were other monastic influences on the religion of Utopia, including the belief that meditation and worship focused better in the shadows of worship centers, lit by candlelight and stained-glass windows. But in Utopia, women could be priests, though reserved for the widowed and very old.

What is surprising is how Utopia itself came to be. It makes me think of our own religious and political divisions in this country and beyond. Its predecessor nation was so divided by religion and religious quarrels, King Utopus could use their divisiveness against them to conquer the country. (Think, win the election!) Their religious divisions resulted in political divisions that prevented their unifying to fight him off! Thus, when he assumed control, he decreed freedom of religion, believing that “God likes and inspires a variety and multiplicity of worship” and further, that such freedom would increase rather than diminish religion.

Utopians did resist those who refused to believe in the human soul, or who believed “that the universe is carried along by chance without an over-ruling providence,” disallowing them from public service, but no more, “for [Utopians] are persuaded that no one can make himself believe anything at will.”

When the mariner’s colleagues introduced Christianity they gained some converts (especially Utopians appreciated that early Christians held all things in common). But one whose zeal and testimony “began to wax so hot on his subject that he not only praised our religion above all others, but also utterly despised and condemned all others, calling them profane, and the followers of them wicked and devilish and children of everlasting damnation,” was punished not for his different beliefs but as “an inciter of dissension among the people.”

The most and wisest number [of Utopians]…believe that there is a certain divine power, unknown, everlasting, incomprehensible, inexplicable, far above the capacity and reach of [human] wisdom, dispersed throughout the world, not in size, but in virtue and power. … To [this God] alone they attribute the beginnings, the increasings, the proceedings, the changes and the ends of all things.

One person commented on last week’s blogpost about Utopia that she had read the book as “dystopian” rather than “utopian,” because of its seeming inability to incorporate all human conditions. But, like what I said about saints not being perfect: utopian treatises point the way without necessarily arriving.

The preamble to the U. S. Constitution includes the high-minded goal, “in order to form a more perfect union,” and we’ve been trying to get there ever since!

I will be co-leading a contemplative retreat April 27-May 1, 2020 to which you are welcome:

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

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