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Thomas More, such a realistic Utopia

Michel Barlow

April, 2017

Translation canon Tony Dickinson

In 1517 Thomas More (1478-1535) an English lawyer, philosopher and theologian, wrote a highly original work, “Utopia”, a satire on his own age and a description of an ideal world.   In it he advocates, among other things, the suppression of private property, complete religious tolerance and he denounces the abuses of the Church.  

It might seem eccentric to search in Thomas More’s “Utopia” for a text which is a precursor of liberal Protestantism, even though this ironic parable was first printed in 1517, a few weeks before Luther posted his famous 95 theses!  However, its author appears a long way off from the perspectives of the Reformation:   this fervent Catholic paid with his life for his attachment to the Roman Church and is considered by that Church as a martyr.  In his capacity as Chancellor of England, he fought against Henry Vlll’s project of founding a “schismatic” Church to the point of shedding his blood.  His most famous work, “Utopia”, therefore seems completely disconnected from his political career and his confessional convictions.

“Utopia” is a work of “religious fiction” and of “political fiction”:  etymologically, Utopia is the land of nowhere (ou-topos), a country which has never existed, does not exist and (alas!) never will exist.  Besides an irrevocable denunciation of the death penalty, More affirms, three centuries before Proudhon, that “property is theft”:  “equality”, he writes, “will be impossible in a state … where wealth… ends up falling into the hands of a small number of individuals who leave to the others only poverty and wretchedness”.

In religious matters, the Utopians are a model of tolerance:  they “number among their most ancient institutions the one which stipulates that no wrong should be done to anyone to anyone on account of their religion.”  From this fact, “although they may not profess the same religion [they are aware that] all traditions in their myriad varieties, converge by various routes on the one goal which is the adoration of the divine nature”.  “So you cannot see any image of the gods in the temples, so that each person may have the freedom to conceive of divinity under the form which agrees with his belief.   … and no prayer is recited which cannot be repeated without wounding someone’s religious conscience.”

In the kingdom of Utopia, women are not excluded from the priesthood and, under cover of describing his imaginary city, More offers an acerbic criticism of the corruption of the Church of his time.  He has a dig at the “prelates who become rich at the expense of their faithful” and, like Luther and Rabelais, challenges the monastic state, and even asceticism:  “cruelty towards oneself and proud ingratitude towards nature, which leads to trampling underfoot the benefits of the Creator.”   With a delicate irony he denounces equally the drift of the Christianity of his age, notably a quasi-magical conception of providence and of God’s direct action in the world, with all the pious superstitions which that can entail.

Likewise, contrary to a Catholic moralism which is always more anxious about avoiding sin than about doing good, More sketches an ethic which is copied directly from the parable of the Last Judgement:  praise then to those citizens who “seek to deserve heaven only by an active life and kindnesses done to their neighbour”!

It is undoubtedly in his irony and his recourse to writing fiction that Thomas More comes close to liberal theology, at the same time as he suggests an original method of thinking.  With his pretended naiveté, he suggests a pleasing way of purifying thought and religious experience.  In imagining a theology and behaviour as different as possible from ours, we might try as a result to denounce the drift of Christianity by showing how far it is from the ideal which it claims to serve.  It is beneficial work to strip Christianity with a smile of all the clutter which weighs it down!  Definitely, humour can open unsuspected ways into theology!

À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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