American Longing for Utopia
There was a very interesting piece in the New Yorker this week reviewing two recent books on American Utopian communities. Two of the communities most Americans with some knowledge of history would know would be the Oneida community and the Shaker sect.
It’s interesting what these communities did and didn’t have in common. Both were “Christian” sects in that they believed some variant of the Christian story. Both were utopian and their utopias were related to beliefs about Jesus’ second coming. The Oneida community believed that Jesus had come in 70AD and that we were living in “the millennium” and that their community should reflect the triumph of Jesus over sin. The Shakers were also “millennial” but they imagined an immanent return of Jesus. Both communities were ardently committed to equality of the sexes but while the Shakers were asexual in many ways the Oneida community was polyamorous. Both communities imagined that they were building the kingdom of God in their midst and that their way of life was a precursor of the new creation that was about to come upon the whole world. Both communities are now extent leaving with us artifacts of their ideals, on in silverware and the other in furniture and architecture.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that both of these communities were derivative of the larger Christian narrative. Christianity has within its story a very utopian strain. We believe that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead and that the coming of the kingdom of God will mean that lions will lay down with lambs and all tears will be wiped away.
Many skeptics upon hearing this will scoff and note that the 2000 year non-return of Jesus and the 2000 year no-show of utopia are strong arguments that the Christian story is not true.
I would suggest, however, that utopian longings are deep within the American psyche and that atheist and secular people themselves, who have no narrative justification to long for such a reality themselves can’t let it go. If you are a strict materialist asserting that there is no providential hand guiding history to a better future then the kind of progressivist talk we find in politics and morality should be denounced as heresy to atheist belief. There can be no “better future for us” only a future that I find more pleasing and there is certainly no assurance that a better communal future will arrive. The only assurance we have is that at some point in the distant future the universe will grow cold and all that you love will be gone and forgotten. Your only comfort is that you will grow cold, forget and be forgotten long before that great end arrives, but this isn’t where we go.
Presidential campaigns that strike this nation as a fever every four years are full of both apocalypse and utopia. Each candidate promises that only their coming will bring utopia and warns that their rival will only bring apocalypse. They promise that the destiny is in our hands even though we know that voters in Ohio and Florida hold more power than we do here in California.
While Donald Trump has a sort of throw-back campaign slogan, “Make American Great AGAIN” his less superlative laden opponent tends to be on the side of a progressive liberationist utopia where our science and our knowledge and our freedom and our morality will create a society where each of us as individuals can have a shot at our best life now.
David and the Longing for Utopia
Utopian visions fill the pages of the Bible all the way back to the garden where God talks about the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent. God fuels this vision in Abraham when he promises to make him into a great nation. God renews the vision in Jacob when he promises to give him the land of Canaan for his children of his sons. Utopia for the patriarchs was all about people and place but along the way, through Egypt, through the desert, and now back into Israel utopia never seems to quite come.
The elders of Israel fearing annihilation in that broader farming and raiding culture saw the need for new political technology in a king and Saul would deliver Israel from what seemed her most pressing adversary, the Philistines. Saul himself, however, devolved into the war machine that instead of delivering Israel from fear caused Israel’s fears.
Samuel after his divorce from Saul snuck out under the Lord’s guidance to anoint shepherd, soldier, bard David and we’ve been following his rise. Last week we saw the climax of David’s moral struggle in his unwillingness to effect a coup by his own hand and the Lord’s moral intervention through Abigail in preventing him from killing Nabal. This is the climax of the “rise of David the King” story in Samuel as you can see on this outline of the stories features.
This rough outline of course hides a lot of the nuance and development of the story on other levels. Even though the author of the story sees the Abigail intervention as moral climax there is a lot yet to happen.
While the Battle of Gettysburg was in some sense the climactic, definitive battle of the American Civil War what followed would be a long, hard, bloody slog to finish the job, destroy the Confederacy and arrive at what might have been hoped to be a utopia of freedom for the slaves which of course never really came. The most predictable outcome for utopian dreams in this world has always been denial and failure.
What we see as moral courage in chapters 24-26 David sees with resignation. Saul is alive and dangerous and there will never be a safe space in Israel. What are his options? He’s got probably around 1000 people, his own basket of deplorables that he must now care for, including women and children and they have been trying to survive in the wilderness without the help of manna, quail, or a pillar of cloud/fire. David makes a decision to leverage his assets and see what kind of a deal he can cut with his enemies, the Philistines. He knows he’ll be safe from Saul there, but the moral and political hazards are very real for him. What kind of exiled king of Israel cozies up with their mortal enemies?
Eugene Peterson in his book Leap Over the Wall sends us straight into the irony of the situation.
The Modern Condition of Theistic Critic
And right here we land in our anger and frustration with God. Weren’t we promised a utopia? This believe in a strong and controlling God in this world of pain and evil offends us deeply.
David’s Ziklag compromise is paused in the text in chapter 28 for a story that seems to be an intruder. If you skip ahead to chapter 29 you’ll see that the dreaded moment will come where David will be called upon to either expose the bloody lie he’s been living or turn his sword against Israel, but the narrator of the book wants to pause here and have us look back to Saul.
Paganism is the Post-Christian Retreat from this Sovereign God
If we recall Saul has always been a pious man from his youth. His moral struggle is unlike the struggle of the judges from the book of Judges. The question of Saul’s loyalty to Yahwist monotheism has never seemed in doubt but just like with David this civil war has brought both of them to their extremities. For Saul God has always been a way to secure what he wanted but God has now divorced him and won’t give him an audience.
If you want a very short summary of the difference between the Christianity of a strongly sovereign God and paganism it is precisely the question of whether you can barge into the courts of the Lord and demand an audience. Paganism promises that the means are at our own disposal to grab God by the lapel and force him to deal with us. Samuel, Yhwh and the rest of the Bible says “no”. If this God wishes to close his door to you you have no resources. It is for this reason that the character of this God as revealed by Jesus is vital, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Pious Saul, the one who could be counted among the prophets has to undo the law and regress back to “our search for God” by visiting the witch at Endor. In one of the most mysterious passages of the Bible God via the witch sends Samuel back to make one of the most ironic points in the Bible. “No Saul, God meant what he said. You’re done.”
The scene is so pitiful this witch, who had been Saul’s enemy now becomes his only friend. She kills the fattened calf for him and sets a table before him.
“You Prepare a Table Before Me in the Presence of My Enemies”
Why put these two stories before us? Why withhold the climax of David’s Ziklag episode to show us the nadir of Saul?
David and Saul are now in a sense seated at the table of their enemies. David has found security in Ziklag through deceit, and Saul now in despair finds solace on in the mercy of his enemy on the eve of his own destruction. Isn’t this the picture of the world you live in? Isn’t this the strange opposite of the utopian dream you’ve been promised by your religion and your culture?
Back to Peterson.
Are you living in what seems the opposite of Utopia? Have you through either your wit, your smarts, your shrewdness found yourself deeply compromised but flourishing on the outside while feeling like a hypocrite that may be exposed at any time?
Or perhaps you’ve decided to be spiritual but not religious. Perhaps you’ve decided that God had better not dare keep you out and that once God is forced to deal with YOU he will finally have to cry “uncle” and give you the utopia you’ve been dreaming of.
If you’ve ever been trapped you know it is the loneliest place in the world. Maybe you’re trapped by your success. Maybe you’re trapped by the power of your adversary, but there you are and there is nothing you can do.
Theistic criticism in its condemnation of God imagines itself more powerful than God, a imagination it can never back up. Submission to God puts us in a space where we have no control. We imagine that God sits on high holding all the cards and we imagine he will enjoy watching us helpless, lonely, alone. Why do we imagine this? Because this is exactly how we would feel if we were in his place. Jesus tells us otherwise.
In Jesus we see God coming down from his throne and standing in the place of moral monster David, and standing in the place of religious rebel Saul, and taking the blows for each.
What must die in both David and Saul are their utopian aspirations of self. They are both exposed. David is not charming enough, strong enough, moral enough to secure for himself the utopia he desires. Ziklag is both an emblem of success but also a monument to his lies and the blood on his hands.
Saul’s search for God has destroyed itself. Saul was forced to see that Yhwh never was his tool and this descent to try to conjure up the ghost of Samuel is his final spiritual humiliation. What counts is not that he can find God, this man who couldn’t find his own donkeys, but that God will search for him.
At some point you have to figure out how you’re going to live, what you are going to flee from or what you are going to run too. There are a lot of utopian visions out there and many of them make demands on you. Many of those demands are instrumental on whether or not you will achieve your utopia or whether some dreaded apocalypse will befall you. The book of Samuel speaks a different word.
If in fact there is a throne in heaven and if in fact the occupant of that throne is such a being that he doesn’t laugh at our helplessness or enjoy punishing us for our duplicity then we might decide that the best way to live is to honor that God with lives that please him and reflect his heart. We know that the circumstances of this world often drive us to the opposite of some utopian vision of purity, goodness and choice but a vision for the final victory of that God may lead us to endure the “less than” situations we are locked into in the hopes that our release will come with his victory. This is a very hopeful and joyful way to life.