Man-Made Utopias: A Lewisian Assessment

The Almighty Mind of Man can do anything, we’re often promised. Every age has its share of utopians who believe that societal perfection lies at the other end of that proverbial rainbow (if only we could ever find the location of the “end”).

Karl Marx was positive that his scheme would usher in the perfect society where there would be no more government, no more religion, no more philosophy, and no more family.

The Age of Aquarius, that illusion of the generation in which I grew up, is no closer to reality now than it was when the Fifth Dimension sang about it so enthusiastically.

Dreams of a man-made utopia have always been with us, and I feel sorry for those who put their faith in those wisps of smoke. A more sober assessment, one based on Scripture, needs to take root. C. S. Lewis, in his superb essay, “Is Progress Possible: Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” offers such an assessment:

[By] the advance, and increasing application, of science . . . we shall grow able to cure, and produce, more diseases—bacterial war, not bombs, might ring down the curtain—to alleviate, and to inflict, more pains, to husband, or to waste, the resources of the planet more extensively.

We can become either more beneficent or more mischievous. My guess is we shall do both; mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there.

The Christian message is clear and forthright: all have sinned; sin destroys; mankind will never save itself; there will be no human utopia; salvation comes through One only; the genuine utopia is a place called Heaven, which will be established by God, not man.

While we work to make our existence on this small planet better, we must never lose sight of those Biblical truths. There are limits to what will be achieved, and we must understand those limits.

Each emerging generation seems to think it can achieve what no other generation has achieved, yet the message of the book of Ecclesiastes still rings true: there is nothing new under the sun.

Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

Lewis: When Progress Is Not Really Progress

I think the words “progress” and “progressive” have been terribly abused in our day. The latter has been captured by the Left of the political spectrum and is now used for anything that gets the government more involved in our lives, as if that should automatically be considered progress.

C. S. Lewis wrote about progress in a much more reflective vein. For instance, in his essay, “Is Progress Possible” (which has as a subtitle “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State”), he defines the term differently than how others might:

I care far more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.

Yet isn’t longevity an obsession for most people? Medical science is always trying to make our lives longer, which is nice, but when that becomes our measuring stick for progress, we’re focused on the wrong thing.

Progress can only be measured by looking at our lives from an eternal perspective. We need to realize that there is One who has given us the standard for what is good and what is not. As Lewis notes in another essay, “Evil and God,”

If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate.

There is no sense in talking of “becoming better” if better means simply “what we are becoming”—it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as “the place you have reached.”

Another irritation, to me at least, is when people say, “You can’t turn back the clock.” As a historian, I reject the concept that history’s path forward is already determined, that there is an inevitable flow that all must accept. I have far too  often heard the silly comment about being “on the right side of history.”

In his classic, Mere Christianity, Lewis deals with that whole turning-back-the-clock cliché and ties it in neatly with an understanding of true progress:

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? . . .

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.

If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man [emphasis mine].

Let’s use words like progress and progressive in their proper sense, based on God’s standards, not man’s.