[Abba Poemen] said: “If a man makes a new heaven and a new earth, he still cannot be safe from temptation.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.24A

The Roman Catholic saint Thomas More famously coined the term utopia in his book of the same name. It is actually a play on words: “topos” is Greek for “place,” whereas “ou” is Greek for “no” and “eu” is Greek for “good.” Thus one may understand it either way (“no place” or “good place”), though the likely intention is to say that the perfection of utopian societies is unattainable this side of the parousia, the return of Jesus Christ. It seems that Abba Poemen would agree.

Utopia as a concept is much discussed in the context of political theory and public policy. I do not wish to explore that here, though having found this saying I don’t doubt that I will reflect on it further in that context in a more appropriate forum at some later date. For now, however, I would rather examine the dangers of utopian thinking for our everyday, spiritual life.

At the heart of utopianism is an ancient Christian heresy, one directly concerned with ascetic practice. Named for its originator, that heresy is known as Pelagianism, and I will add, often grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. I do not intend to conclusively clear up any of those misconceptions here, but rather (much to my own chagrin) mostly to use the default understanding.

I will attempt a little clarification, however. When people talk about Pelagianism, to be very general, they mean an understanding of the Christian life in which one’s salvation is entirely a matter of one’s own will, apart from divine grace. Or, conversely, we may characterize it as a downplaying of the weakness of human nature, will, and action in the midst of our messy, sinful existence.

I say that it is at the heart of utopianism because the conviction of those who advocate various visions of utopia has this common thread: paradise can be built by human means alone, and whatever currently stands in our way or oppresses us can be overcome by human means alone.

Abba Poemen clearly warns against this sort of thinking. Christians believe that one day there will be “a new heaven and a new earth,” but that it will only come by the power, will, and action of God. Any man-made paradise is ultimately utopian (in the negative sense): it is a delusion, a tragic fiction in which one naively believes that overcoming temptation is merely a matter of proper engineering, rather than spiritual struggle and divine communion.

Indeed, the great barrier to our perfection is our own weakness. As St. Augustine succinctly put it: “as strength is made perfect in weakness, whoever does not own himself to be weak, is not in the way to be perfected.” It takes humility to cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” It takes courage to ask for help. Yet true humility is the mother of all virtue, and true courage does not assert one’s own will but sacrifices it for the good of oneself and others.

It is easy to declaim political utopias, but how often do we engineer spiritual utopias in our hearts? How often do we think, if I just had more time to pray or if only I could fast more faithfully or if only I could live more simply and shed some of these possessions and so on? While it is good to pray more, fast more, live more simply, or whatever else we wish we could do more, there is a great danger in then blaming our failures on external factors, real or imagined.

Why do we not progress in perfection? It’s not our fault! We would do more if all these other things in life didn’t get in the way! If only the people we lived with understood our perfect plan for spiritual enlightenment instead of always bothering and inconveniencing us!

I realize that I am the first among sinners in this regard. Too often I fall into this sort of Pelagianism, this spiritual utopianism. My salvation does not depend on my perfect little plans, but upon my cooperation with divine grace, freely and firstly given to me by God.

Why do I so often fail? Because I lack humility. I lack the initiative to begin each day with a true confession of my own insufficiency, weakness, and sin.

Yet I know, perhaps in degrees so small none would notice their supernatural origin, that the grace of God ever comforts and converts me, and that the power of God is made perfect even and especially in my weakness.