“And the weakness of All Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon.”
G.K. Chesterton, Heretics
Chesterton’s words in 1905 remind us of how little people have changed. Everyone is still trying to solve the world’s problems without admitting that we, as people, are the problem with the world. But this problem is not limited to world-building. We, as modern people, have a tendency to carry over the problem that Chesterton associated with building utopias and make the same mistakes in dealing with the problems in our own lives. Let me tell you what I mean.
Dallas Willard wrote a book on the human soul. That’s a strange subject, but the fact that it is such strange thing is one of the main problems with our society. Willard talks about how in our society, from a very young age, children become spiritually malformed. He writes, “[m]arching forward in life, these little people become big people and move on with their malfunctioning souls into workplace, profession, citizenship, and leadership. From them proceeds the next generation of wounded souls.” (Willard, Renovation of the Heart) This spiritual malformation blossoms into social problems that affect all spheres of life. But our response to these social ills is not an emphasis on spiritual formation, rather, it is what Willard labels, “sickeningly shallow solutions.”
Think of a husband and a wife who are going through marital problems. They might try to work on their marriage by communicating more, having better conflict resolution, by setting aside intentional time alone. All this is good. But all of it will fall apart if they do not get to the root of their issues, and the root is that they are sinful. Neither loves as they should, neither are willing to give up their own interests for the other, neither is willing to overlook being wronged. To be the sort of spouse that loves well is a long painful process of changing your soul. And this process starts by considering Jesus, who put our interests before his rights. And who, for the sake of love, humbled himself for those who hated him. (Philippians 2:1-11) To ask how long date night should be without dealing honestly with your own soul is the same as ignoring human nature and instead focusing on the method of distribution.
And we see that across our public discourse. We’ve seen it recently in the protests against racism. Now, racism is a great evil and ought to be opposed. When something racist happened in our college student body, I marched in such a protest. I look back now, however, and wonder what exactly I was trying to accomplish in that protest. I knew racism was wrong, but I did not have a vision towards the next steps that the protest was supposed to accomplish. Who was I trying to influence by protesting? What did I want those people to do? Hatred of another human being is something deep in the soul of the racist, and to expect the government (or college president) to remedy that situation is about as fruitful as asking them to make husbands love their wives. The government can stop husbands from beating their wives (and indeed that is the proper place of government) but to ask them to force a husband (or a racist) to feel a certain way? Even if it was possible, I don’t think that’s something we would want. Racism dies the same way all other hatred dies, when, in the shadow of the cross, people see their great sin, and pride (racial or otherwise) is crushed beneath the two overwhelming truths of being stunningly unworthy and stunningly loved. But that’s a process, and one that will not happen by force.
We must never forget that we deal with people who have souls, and any structure or program that does not deal in that reality has set itself up for failure. Soul work is difficult, soul work is slow, and soul work comes about ultimately only by the grace of God-which is likely why we are so adverse to it. But the more we ignore the souls of people and focus on our systems and processes, the more we are like the doomed utopia builder who stays up all night trying to figure out whether the goods should be delivered by balloon or by car.