Do you long for a better world?
Would you like to see the many wrongs around you made right?
Do you wish everyone lived in a world of peace and justice?
Clearly we’d all answer yes to these questions.
The real question is, how can we accomplish these ends? How can we achieve a perfect world?
These are the questions Dr. Paul Cleveland addresses in his book, The Great Utopian Delusion.
“There is an idea that has the world in its grip,” Cleveland states. The idea is that we can achieve a perfect world through the government. While this idea has had many names—liberalism, progressivism, collectivism, communitarianism, socialism—Cleveland argues the real name for each of these movements is utopianism.
Maximum Happiness…On Earth?
Cleveland explains that the main goal of utopianism is to achieve maximum happiness on earth.
This very foundational fact about utopianism should give us pause, for the four-chapter gospel informs us that we cannot reach heaven on earth.
Jesus has come to this world and redeemed his people through his sacrifice for sin on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, rising to sit at the right hand of the Father. Jesus’ miracles, in the chapter of Redemption, show us the way things could be. In the feeding of the five thousand, healing the leper, and raising Lazarus from the dead, we see a glimmer of hope. Jesus shows us the way things could be—a world without starvation, illness, and death.
But, Restoration will not be fully accomplished until Jesus’ second coming. We get to be a part of restoring God’s creation, which we do through our work, in our communities and families, and by sharing the good news of Christ. However, we cannot experience heaven on earth. A perfect world is a delusion, as Cleveland’s title indicates, for as fallen beings we will never reach perfection.
Devastating the Spirit of the People
After discussing the goal of utopianism, Cleveland argues that in order to reach utopia, the culture must be rid of anything that supports or encourages individuality.
When people emphasize individuality, the thought goes, they cannot be serving the common good and working toward utopia. Therefore, the culture must be rid of individuality and self-interest.
Yet, each of us has been created uniquely in God’s image, with distinct gifts, talents, and passions. We are made in his image so that we can know him better and help those around us know him. Further, we have been created such that we use our gifts to pursue our own well-being. When we are limited and compelled to be like everyone else, we lose this ability to image God in the way we were made to and the ability to fully care for ourselves.
In our work, our unique talents allow us to use our comparative advantage and specialize in order to increase value. Our unique passions and desires fuel creativity and fulfillment in living out who God has created us to be. As Cleveland notes in the book, creating a culture of look-a-likes is devastating to the economy and the spirit of the people.
The final piece of Cleveland’s assessment on utopianism is that in order to achieve a culture without individuality, government force is required. By nature, we are unique individuals, therefore force is needed to cause people to act in ways contrary to their own self-interest. The government is the only entity large and powerful enough to enact this change.
Going into Our Communities, Families, and Churches
Cleveland helps the reader understand the true problems behind utopianism through compelling stories and historical facts. He explains why utopianism does not work, why it goes against our nature, and why it is important to warn others about its unfulfilled, misrepresented promises.
Yet, knowing that utopianism is not the way to better this world does not stop us from wanting to make the world a better place. Cleveland ends the book by helping the reader think through alternatives. He states that the answer is individual responsibility. He indicates that collectivism creates irresponsibility, using a tragedy of the commons type of argument. He goes on to say that we need to break out of reliance on the government and that the “Invisible Hand” of market forces will help us do so.
While I agree that individual responsibility is key, the final chapter of this book leaves the reader unsatisfied. The book is a dire warning against collectivism and utopianism, but there is not a satisfying response or suggestion that helps the reader know how to use that warning to fuel a change.
We all see injustice, suffering, and poverty around us. The answer cannot simply be to take care of yourself and let the invisible hand do the rest. We are made in the image of God, made as relational beings. And, we are called to love our neighbors and serve the least of these. How do we do that?
This book is a good start in terms of discussing the flaws of utopianism. We now need to take this start to our communities, families, and churches, and discuss how to be inspired by its message to make a change in the world.
Editor’s note: Read about tangible and effective ways to reach out and help those who are hurting in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.
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On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This article was previously published on Dec. 15, 2015.