Near the dawn of the modern period (1500’s), the Reformation set in motion a world of ideas. If the old world of Medieval Catholicism was to be discarded (reformed), what should take its place? The earliest answers were largely those allowed and dictated by the various political states of Europe: Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Calvinism, etc. On the whole, this was a moderate answer. But change is heady stuff – once it’s begun, how do you stop? By the 1600’s new answers began to appear. In England especially, reform led to experimentation, and experimentation gave way to Civil War. At the same time, England was exporting its religious combatants to America – a place that would become the incubator for every imaginable religious experiment.
It is striking to me that a number of those experiments were utopian in nature. The question became not how to create a better world, but how to create a perfect world. When the Great Awakening (1740’s) swept through New England, the quiet Calvinists villages of the region erupted into an amazing number of extremes. There were claims by some of the newly-awakened that they had reached a state of sinlessness. A few even declared that they would never die. Groups like the Shakers and others experimented with a variety of communal forms that today are largely known only to specialists in American religious history.
But the fervor of that religious revival, mimicked by the Second Great Awakening in the 19th century (which gave us Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a host of new denominations), never disappeared. What began as a religious phenomenon quickly became a political pheonomenon (religion and politics in America have had a long, troubled marriage). The utopian dreams of one century became the political dreams of another. What today can be described as “modernity,” is nothing more than a secularized version of those dreams. The perfect world dreamed of by some, has become the better world of today’s political parties.
Christian evangelism first taught advertising how to sell a product. Advertising is now its own secular evangelism in which its believers are called “consumers.” If the world is to become a better place – it will be because we bought it.
These dynamics are easy to see within our cultural mix. They hang over us, particularly in the meta-world of the powers-that-be. However, they are not the stuff of our daily lives (for which we should be grateful). We still move from task to task each day, with human interactions (for good or bad) creating the landscape of our lives. We are never any closer to a perfect world (much less a better world) for the simple fact that the human interactions around us are as flawed as ever. The adoption of the latest utopian-designed, non-oppressive beliefs by a jerk never result in anything other than a jerk with some new ideas (to put it crudely). And none of that alters the bumps and bruises of our day-to-day tasks. Indeed, it often only complicates matters further.
There is a manufacturing company that I pass by on a regular basis. For some strange reason, it has an electronic sign on the street where messages can be regularly posted. Sometimes the messages can be quite practical, telling passers-by what the pay would be for a starting position: “now hiring.” However, most days, the sign proclaims that we are now in a special month – set aside for the one or another perceived minority group. We are closing in on utopia a month at a time. What I’ve learned by watching the sign over the past couple of years is that there is a zealot somewhere in the HR department who is in charge of the sign. It also sends signals (for some) that becoming part of such a workplace may come with extra problems beyond the day-to-day tasks with which we all must struggle. The Soviet utopian project was famous for its slogans.
It’s in light of our daily lives that I repeatedly suggest that there is no such thing as progress. The landscape changes. The advance in technology now enables me to sit on hold for an hour, waiting for a human voice, while holding enormously sophisticated (and expensive) device in my palm. It does not change the boredom of that hour, bring meaning to my existence, nor make the world a better place.
Nor should we mistake technological “progress” with the Kingdom of God. If the few social successes (end of slavery, etc.) of the past few centuries constitute moments in the Kingdom of God, then I am severely disappointed.
I do not find such interests (or lofty schemes) within the gospel record of Christ. There are miracles aplenty. However, those miracles are very much of the day-to-day variety. A woman with an issue of blood is healed. A woman bowed for 18 years by some crippling disease is loosed. A paralytic is made to walk. A leper is cleansed. A couples’ daughter is raised from the dead. A request to make a brother (or sister) abide by a better set of rules is refused (“make my brother divide the inheritance”…”make my sister help me with the housework”). And on the stories go – each one quite specific. None of those who are touched by such miracles enter a utopia, nor do all of their miracles add up to such a sum.
There were other miracles of note. A man who made a very good living by cheating and defrauding the citizens of Jericho had a life-changing dinner invitation. He went from tax-collector to Son of Abraham in a short matter of time, distributing half of his wealth to the poor and restoring four-fold any damages he had done to others. In that encounter, I see the Kingdom of God.
Christ taught that the “Kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17:20). What we see in the stories of these individual encounters, is the Kingdom of God unfolding within the lives of people around Jesus. We have a more long-range image of that process in the lives of a few of His disciples and apostles. What we also see in the rear-view mirror that is history, is the long, tortuous tale of the Church, the single work that Christ gave to the world. It is a tortuous tale because it is unavoidably the aggregate of individual lives stretched over day-to-day experience. It is as wonderful as the life of a saint, and as shameful as the life of apostates, or those, who in the name of Christ, become the sponsors of great evil. That same tale is living its way out in each of our lives in the present moment.
Progress is a sales slogan. Politics is a sales slogan that takes your money and buys guns.
I am a child of the 60’s. Born in 1953, I was nurtured on the same slogans as the whole of my generation. I shared many of their dreams and sang the songs. A life-changing event occurred in my 15th year. Somehow, I stumbled on a book of essays by Leo Tolstoy. I never became a Tolstoyan – but I was deeply impacted by his treatment of the Sermon on the Mount. It was the first time I had encountered anything that made me want to read the Scriptures – much less with the idea that they could actually be pondered and practiced. Any number of Christ’s sayings in those two chapters seem extreme or beyond our abilities. Nevertheless, they formed a picture of the Kingdom of God. It created a hunger in me that has persisted through the years.
Seek first the Kingdom… the rest will follow… without slogans or vain imaginings. It is within you.
Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.
Featured: Kingdom of Heaven icon, 19th century, from Saint Petersburg