In Utopia, many modern intellectuals say Sir Thomas More advocates an ideal political and social order without private property, competition, citizens quarreling over worldly possessions, poverty and other “evils” supposedly brought on by a market-based society.

At least that is the way social liberals, including left-leaning Christians, tend to interpret this great saint’s 1516 literary masterpiece, believing the English Catholic statesman’s work presents his vision of an ideal Christian commonwealth modeled on the early Church (even if those proto-communist experiments failed).

Recently, Istituto Acton (Acton’s office in Rome) hosted an illuminating seminar led by the medievalist scholar, Dr. John Boyle, whose April 23 presentation Why Thomas More’s Utopia is not a Communist Manifesto addressed some of the common misconceptions of More’s political fiction.

Dr. Boyle is director of the Graduate Program in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and is currently finishing a semester teaching at the University’s Rome campus. He is also a former professor of mine from my glory days at the St. Ignatius Institute of the University of San Francisco in the late 80s. We welcomed him to lead our monthly “Campus Martius” seminar – organized for English-speaking students of the pontifical universities.

Dr. Boyle began the seminar by putting Thomas More’s Utopia in its proper place as a work of intellectual sarcasm.

The entire work, Boyle said, does not represent a paradise-on-earth scenario the English political genius and martyr actively searched for.

Indeed, Boyle explained that Utopia was so cleverly crafted in the Latin language that even erudite Renaissance humanists – the audience to whom More addressed the great social-political questions of his time –might not have understood the subtle brunt of his irony: “Utopia is certainly a puzzling work, which puzzled even More’s contemporaries. Indeed, Utopia is a work of stunning complexity and sophistication, written especially for More’s renaissance contemporaries,” Boyle said.

The seminar was attended by Zenit’s Rome correspondent, Ann Schneibel, who published a follow-up interview with Dr. Boyle yesterday.

While remarking on some of the main communist values playfully envisioned in Utopia (e.g. command and control economies, regulated lifestyles and fashion, shared gardens and housing for family communes, absence of private property, eradication of human envy, etc), Boyle told Zenit:

The political order is not the source of our happiness. This is a theological point, but it’s very dear to More’s heart. The political order can serve to help order men to their happiness, but it cannot achieve it. This is a matter of Church, of the City ofGod. Political order can more or less help, but it can’t achieve what I think, in the modern sense, is the Utopian dream.

Utopia is a very cautionary tale. I’d say it’s relevant in all kinds of ways, as well as reminding us of humorous good things,” Boyle said.

During the seminar Dr. Boyle explained that More’s life-long friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great Dutch humanist and Catholic priest who arranged for the publication of Utopia, wrote to his colleagues in private letters that if they really wanted a good laugh they had better read More’s book about the fictitious island.

“Some of the names [of places] used in Utopia are famously indicative of this [humor]…Utopia is a Greek neologism for ‘nowhere’, the principal city of the island is Amaurot, which means “foggy or phantom”, the principal river…is the Anider,  which is Greek for ‘waterless,’ and the man who tells the story of Utopia, Raphael Hythloday, [his surname] is probably best translated as ‘peddler of nonsense’.

To read the rest of Dr. Boyle’s Zenit interview, go here. For your pleasure, you can listen to the entire April 23 Campus Martius seminar below.

 

On October 31, 1998, Charles Colson came to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan to deliver the closing address at Acton’s “The Legacy of Abraham Kuyper & Leo XIII” conference, sponsored jointly with Calvin Seminary.

“This is a momentous time for the Church as we reflect on two thousand years since the birth of Christ, and as we approach the millenium. And the question, I suspect, that all of us are asking and that the Church should be asking across the board is the question the Jews asked of old after a time of great trial. And that was: How shall we then live?”

Joe Carter recently posted a summary of a new study conducted jointly by Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs that shows that college-aged Millennials (18-24 year olds) “report significant levels of movement from the religious affiliation of their childhood, mostly toward identifying as religiously unaffiliated.” He also noted the tendency of college-aged Millennials to be more politically liberal.

Just yesterday, the same study was highlighted by Robert Jones of the Washington Post, who wrote,

According to a newly released survey, even before they move out of their childhood homes, many younger Millennials have already moved away from the religion in which they were raised, mostly joining the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.

Jones goes on to say, “These findings have profound implications for the future of religious denominations that have, in the past, dominated American religious life.”

But is this true? I am not entirely convinced. (more…)

“Think, Think, Think” –Pooh

It’s always hard to sit down and write. There are a million distractions that tempt us away from the keyboard or notepad and entangle us in the details of life. Not that these details are bad. In fact, as a community focused on being On Call in Culture, many of those details are the whole purpose.
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Our friends at the Heritage Foundation have created an invaluable online tool for learning about the U.S. Constitution:

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Is religious liberty only for individuals or also for institutions? As Ryan Messmore explains, America’s founders thought that the Constitution’s “first freedom” is for both:

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Earlier this week the Christian Post published an article with some statements from me about evangelical (and more broadly Christian) debates about the federal budget proposals. In the piece, “Evangelical Christians Agree, Disagree on Budget Priorities,” I said that

The Church, the Christian faith, is not to identify with a single political order, or structure, party or platform. It does show something of the dynamism and vitality of the Christian faith that, in the midst of what the world thinks are the most important things, like politics, in the midst of disagreements about those things, Christians come together and worship every Sunday and say the same Lord’s prayer and in many cases cite the same creed, engage in the same sacramental practices, and so on.

This conviction is one of the things that animated my thinking when I wrote Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

One of the driving figures in the case made in that book is Paul Ramsey, who wrote that “the specific solution of urgent problems is the work of political prudence and worldly wisdom. In this there is room for legitimate disagreement among Christians and among other people as well in the public domain—which disagreement ought to be welcomed and not led one way toward specific conclusions.”

I was reminded of this perspective again when listening to the interview Gabe Lyons did with Chuck Colson back in 2007. At one point in the interview, Gabe asks Chuck about younger evangelicals’ disenchantment with the politicization of evangelical Christianity. One of the things Chuck says is,

I do a very unscientific poll myself whenever I talk to young people and I know exactly the kind of answers you’re getting. They’re turned off by what they regard as right wing politics. Which is unfortunate. I wrote a book about this called “Kingdoms and Conflicts,” recently re-released and updated by Zondervan as “God and Government.” It says Christians shouldn’t be [in the hip pocket] of any political party. It’s a mistake when we are looked upon as marrying an ideology.

On the danger of ideology, he continues: “The greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology. Ideology is a manmade formulation about [how] world [ought to] work. We don’t believe in that. We believe in the revelation of truth in Scripture.”

In returning to my comment cited above, I think we can see corporate worship as a kind of litmus test for what does and does not inspire us, ideologically, confessionally, and otherwise. Perhaps there are churches or parishes or even denominations and ecumenical bodies that we deem unfaithful, or at least distasteful, for the way they have integrated a social or political ideology into the corporate life of the church. But even so:

Would you be comfortable worshiping next to someone at church on Sunday morning whose political convictions are diametrically opposed to yours? If so, why? And if not, why not?

On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg addresses the “considerable fractures” that continue to divide conservative and libertarian positions on significant policy issues as well as on “deeper philosophical questions.” He pulls apart the “often tortuously drawn distinctions” surrounding the political labels and then offers some reasons why the “often unconscious but sometimes deliberate embrace of philosophical skepticism by some conservatives and libertarians should be challenged.”

Perceptive critics of skepticism have illustrated that the concern to be reasonable and avoid self-deception about reality is the starting point of any quest for philosophical truth: i.e., the very knowledge that skeptics believe we can’t know. What reason could skeptics therefore have for desiring to comprehend that, in the final analysis, all is unknowable, unless they are engaged in a quest for truth? In other words, skeptics draw their deduction that we should be philosophical skeptics from foundational assumptions they cannot doubt.

Also self-refuting is the common skeptic claim that reason is purely instrumental. For to defend this position, the skeptic’s reason necessarily engages in a non-instrumental task. He presumes it is good to know the truth of skepticism, and on grounds of reason rather than feelings. It is thus inconsistent for skeptics to assert that all philosophical viewpoints are arbitrary opinions. When skeptics posit that humans can only be motivated by sentiment rather than reason, they are not proposing this statement as their own impetuous preference. They claim to be making a rational judgment.

Read “Beyond Conservatism and Libertarianism” on Public Discourse by Samuel Gregg.

Acton University alum R.J. Moeller looks back on Chuck Colson’s life-changing influence. R.J. produces a popular podcast for the Values & Capitalism project at the American Enterprise Institute and also works as the director of communications for radio talk show host Dennis Prager and his Prager University. Moeller:

Since embarking on a career in writing, podcasting, and anything else related to the articulation of a God-fearing, free market-defending worldview that can pay my bills> Whenever I’m asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I always answer the same way: whatever it is Chuck Colson does.

The name of Chuck Colson was revered in my home growing up.  His books adorned our shelves.  His voice echoed from the speakers that my mom always had turned to Christian radio.  Before I ever read a single word of his, I knew Chuck Colson had something to teach me.

And boy did he ever!

It was a little over a decade ago, when I started college at Taylor University, that I finally sat down and read Born Again and How Now Shall We Live?  Nothing was ever the same.  I learned that ideas mattered (and have consequences).  I learned that God cared about the way we conducted ourselves in the culture and that we had a duty to learn about things like history and economics.  I learned that politics and party affiliations weren’t “ends” but “means” toward a free and virtuous society.

I learned that one didn’t have to compromise conviction for compassion.

For all the things that other prominent conservative evangelicals of the past 30 years have not been – whether that be the loud, pushy, painfully nuance-free voices that should have remained silent, or the indifferent, silent voices that should have cried out in disgust as Rome burned – Chuck Colson lived the life others talked about living.

Full of redemption, service, passion and truth, his was also a life worth emulating.

It’s wildly unpopular these days to label yourself anything.  People are either afraid of being pigeon-holed into something they don’t really understand, or become convinced that staking an ideological claim will cause them to “lose their witness.”

An entire generation of religious, free-market conservatives has Chuck Colson to thank for being the tip of the spear, voice in the wilderness on behalf of our values for more than three decades.

“Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference which is an elegant name for ignorance.”
G.K. Chesterton

The long and tragic history of government control of property on Indian reservations has led to economic nihilism and moral breakdown. In this week’s Acton Commentary (published April 25), Anthony Bradley argues for a new approach that encourages local control and entrepreneurial business formation. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
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