The realities of good and evil are powerfully evident in our time, as in most others; the conflicting messages from Christmas (“peace on earth”) and from horrific tragedy (Newtown, Conn.) remind us that the world we sing about in this season and the world we live in are not the same.
The rather arbitrary threshold of the new calendar year prompts us to think about new beginnings, and resolutions of many kinds abound in our personal lives as well as our collective reflection.
Discussions in response to our recent public tragedy have clarified some options for us in a number of areas: security, mental health, gun control, even the economic realities when the costs of various options are considered.
While the heat of these discussions is often fueled by ideological passion, their result for some is a clearer picture of the realities we face and the challenges that are before us as well as where the constructive voices are coming from.
Listening to both public and private conversation has raised for me the question of whether our new year (this little measurable segment of our future) will be shaped more by a fear of the bad things that can and do happen or by a vision of the possibilities that result from a commitment to a common good.
If I live in fear of what you might do to me, or what your need might take away from me, we will never have community with each other.
If we work toward a relationship of trust and a commitment to each other’s well-being, fear loses its power as a guiding force on small scales as well as large.
So, what can we hope and work for in the coming new year? Is a better world possible?
Blueprints for an ideal society have a long and influential history. Plato’s “Republic,” Augustine’s “City of God,” Calvin’s theocracy, Thomas More’s “Utopia” and behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two” are a few better known of the many.
More’s title has even become the label for such blueprints – utopian visions.
The name itself contains its own critique: u-topos means literally “no place,” suggesting that the idea of perfection in human society is either a fantasy or an unattainable goal.
Experiments with perfectionist systems have usually been short lived.
An interesting suggestion to the critique of unrealistic perfection plays on a variation of the word: u-topian thinking can also be eu-topian thinking (as in eu-logy, eu-genics or eu-phemism) – a shift in the emphasis from a dream of a perfect world to a passion for a good one.
In the conclusion of his recent book “Speaking Christian,” Marcus Borg observes: “To realize that a utopian vision can never be achieved does not mean that we should cease seeking to embody it, however imperfectly. Rather, it calls us to participate in doing what we can to move toward that vision. Being Christian includes participating in God’s passion for the world.”
Forty years ago, Jurgen Moltmann introduced a similar emphasis into the theological conversation with his “Theology of Hope.”
Hope, he suggested, is neither the kind of nostalgic dreaming of a restored golden age when all was better, nor an apocalyptic vision of some future “fix-it.”
Rather, hope is an active engagement in the process of history that learns from the past, envisions a future and works actively in the present to bring these dimensions of history together.
It is probably a naive optimism to think we will ever have a perfect world, but it seems a faithful hope to believe that we can have a good one.
To embrace a theology of hope with its vision and commitment to live for that possibility makes more sense than to surrender to the politics of fear the right to define who we are.
Would a vision for the good, rather than a fear of the bad, have implications for how we deal with such specific issues as security, immigration, gun control, health care and poverty?
It would seem that it might make a significant difference in how they are approached.
Maybe the world we sing about and the world we live in really are the same. Could it be that the difference is in which voices we let name it for us?
Those that would frighten us with a threat of losing something we value and those that would call us to a new level of community seek our attention.
Which ones we listen to, individually and collectively, will likely have a significant impact on the character of tomorrow’s world.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.