Utopia

Utopia

In the early 16th Century, before the Reformation[1] came to England and King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, Sir Thomas More penned his timeless masterpiece, Utopia.  More was considered perhaps the greatest Renaissance[2] scholar in England at the time.  He also happened to be a close personal friend of the King, and had won a reputation on the European continent as a cultured man of reason and letters, including the recently rediscovered study of ancient and New Testament Greek.

As Chancellor of England (the equivalent of Prime Minister before any such position existed), More had the King’s ear and was able to offer refuge to scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus, who had gotten into hot water with the ultra-conservative faction of the Spanish Catholic establishment.  At that time, Spain ruled Erasmus’s homeland in what is now Belgium.  The two great scholars became friends and stimulated each other to pursue their studies of the new knowledge.

More chose the title of his work, written in elegant Latin (the term utopia is Latin for ‘nowhere’), to protect himself from the possible repercussions of openly critiquing the social, political, economic, and religious establishment of the day.  The book was brilliant and won a wide readership among the scholarly and literate classes.  Erasmus considered it better than anything he had written himself.  Even King Henry professed to admire it, perhaps not suspecting that More was criticizing English society (and by implication him as the embodiment of Divine Right Absolutism) as much as any on the continent.

We need not concern ourselves here with the specifics of More’s attempt to describe an ideal society.  As the name indicates, such a place does not exist anywhere and, as he explained, will not exist until God rules the world.  More was also backhandedly denouncing the Church’s betrayal of its true mandate to bring the Kingdom of God into the world according to a completely different kind of rulership from that of the secular powers of ‘this present age’.  More’s strongly implied point was that truly just, good, and Christian rulers should be working towards the kind of society he was attempting to describe.

More’s gift to the future was the term “utopia” as a symbol of the ideal society, and the goal that the human community should be directed towards.  No previous work had ever attempted to apply the idea of a perfect social order towards the reform of society in the present.

More derived his concept from his reading of the Bible.  In the Books of Isaiah (Old Testament) and Revelation (New Testament, and the last book of the Bible), there are descriptions of such societies couched in mostly allegorical and symbolic terms.  More’s thesis was what such conditions might look like if humanity’s rulers dedicated themselves to creating a society based on those conditions in the here and now.

More was not a naive idealist, as some might ignorantly assume today.  Neither was he a religious fanatic.  In our 21st Century environment, the tendency is to write off scholarship smacking of Biblical and theological overtones as irrelevant, if not downright dangerous.  Religious fanaticism of any kind, or the mere hint of it, immediately disqualifies ideas and concepts put forward by serious thinkers having drawn upon such sources in the eyes of our own age’s academic and intellectual establishment.  If we so offhandedly dismiss More and most of our intellectual and spiritual ancestors in the Western tradition, we are cutting ourselves off from immensely rich (re)sources that underpin the very foundations of our civilization.  We are also robbing the rest of the world of all that is noblest in the Western tradition.  When the roots are cut, the plant must soon wither and die.

More considered himself a true Christian, but not a ‘simple’ or uninformed one.  He had no use for superstitious flimflammery.  He was fully cognizant of the failings of the Church as an institution and sympathetic to the demands for reform.  He was a man of his time, and as such he believed in God, the Trinity, and the life, crucifixion, death and bodily resurrection of Jesus.  He believed that history bore out the truth of the Christian story.

Utopia, his great masterpiece, was written and published on the cusp of an enormous upheaval in the West’s social, political, economic, and religio-spiritual order.  Change and reform were in the air.  Challenge to the establishment on all these levels was brewing.  Modern Science was just beginning to emerge, and deep dissatisfaction with the failing Medieval model of ‘Christendom’ was rumbling beneath the surface all across Europe.

But we mistake the powerful desire for change among the leading intelligentsia of that time as a growing disillusionment with Christianity itself or a wholesale rejection of the Christian Gospel and a shift towards veiled agnosticism, if not atheism.  When 21st Century revisionist historians and scholars look back on those times, we facilely commit the ‘mortal sin’ of anachronism, transferring our age’s prejudice and bias against faith and religion to the thinkers of that age.

No doubt, there were agnostics and a few atheists in the crowd, but the vast majority of the thinkers and scholars pushing a reform agenda were still theists at the very least, and most still held to the Deity of Jesus Christ and his mission of bringing salvation to humanity and the broken, suffering creation as a whole.  Their disillusionment and cynicism was directed towards the frail human representatives of that mission who had fallen into the temptation of taking a share of power and the world’s enticements in the here and now.

Sir Thomas More eventually took a stand against his friend and master, King Henry VIII of England.  In 1537, he paid for it with his.  In 1534, King Henry had decided to claim complete authority over the Catholic Church in England because the Pope would not grant him an annulment of his long-time marriage to Queen Catherine for her having failed to give him a live male heir to the throne.  Henry’s solution to this impasse was to say that he, the anointed ‘temporal ruler’ of England, could rightfully also claim final spiritual authority over the Church within the bounds of his sovereign territory.

For More, the somewhat worldly but still firm believer in the Church’s heavenly mission to bring Christ’s light and rule into the world as it now is, this was too much.  It was too far from ‘Utopia’, the goal of moving the present world closer to the eventual rule of Christ on earth.  To have so brazen a power-grab confounded with a profound spiritual truth was ‘beyond the pale’ for More.  Henry, faced with this open challenge and denunciation of what he now stood for by his erstwhile best friend and closest advisor, could only respond by demonstrating his absolute authority.  He had him beheaded as a traitor.

More died as graciously and elegantly as he had lived, saying as he stood in front of the chopping block with a vast audience looking on, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”  Sir Thomas More was elevated to sainthood as a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church in 1934 on the 400th anniversary of King Henry’s apostasy and More’s imprisonment.

[1] The official date for the start of the Reformation is usually given as Oct. 31, 1517 when priest and Professor Martin Luther posted his challenge to the practice of indulgences on the main door of his parish church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The Reformation was a movement to bring radical reform to the Roman Catholic Church.  The Church rejected the demands of the would-be reformers and then excommunicated them.  This resulted in the beginning of the Protestant branch of Christianity and great strife in Europe over religion for the next 150 years or so.

[2] The Renaissance – the word means ‘rebirth’ in French – had begun in the late 1300s in Italy.  It was a movement to recover and study the Greek and Roman ancient philosophers and literature in order to develop new insights and bring balance into life.  The scholars felt a need to offset the sometimes oppressive control of the Roman Catholic Church over life and society.  The Italian poet and scholar Petrarch is credited with naming the movement.

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