What Price Utopia?

TIME: 1527

PLACE: The home of Desiderius Erasmus in Basil, Switzerland.

(The meeting and conversation described here never took place, but it could have, for all of the ideas and most of the actual words are taken from the writings of the three men.)


ERASMUS: This may be the one and only time that we three meet on this earth. Let us use the opportunity well.

MORE: You and I, Erasmus, have been friends for many years. But you, Dr. Luther, are known to me only through your writings and activities. I am pleased to be able, at last, to discuss your ideas in person.

LUTHER: It is only right that we should meet. We are perhaps the three most widely read thinkers and writers of our time. I was very familiar with your works, Erasmus, throughout my university studies. And, Sir Thomas, your famous book, Utopia, also affected my thinking.

MORE: I am aware that, at one point, you considered yourself a student of Erasmus. But I must admit to surprise at hearing that you have been in any way influenced by my book.

LUTHER: But of course! Your scarcely veiled attack on monasticism and your condemnation of the superstitions associated with the Roman Church lent welcome support to my own position. And your scholarly criticism of the monastery, Erasmus, also helped me to form my own opinion that the entire pernicious institution should be stamped out forthwith.

ERASMUS: What a fearsome egg we two stand condemned of having hatched, Sir Thomas!

MORE: It is one thing to criticize with the aim of reforming an institution, Dr. Luther, but quite another to criticize with the aim of destroying it.

LUTHER: You see yourself as a reformer, then, and me as a destroyer?

MORE: I am afraid the facts speak for themselves. The wanton destruction and violence even now being practiced against the monasteries and their orders in Northern Europe has repelled civilized people throughout the world. If my writings helped to sow the seeds of that cruelty and injustice I am afraid I shall have much to answer for on the Day of Judgment.

ERASMUS: Nonsense, Sir Thomas! Are you Jesus that you should assume responsibility for the sins of the entire world? And surely, Dr. Luther, you encountered other ideas in More's Utopia than the one you mentioned. What about his indictment of the senseless slaughter of war? And his criticism of poverty undeserved and wealth unearned?

LUTHER: If Sir Thomas will pardon me, I must say that those particular features of his make-believe society are astonishingly naive. Poverty in this world is willed by God for the many, just as He has willed a reward in Heaven for those who have labored in his Grace. Worldly wealth, on the other hand, may well be God's indication to the truly devout that they have achieved that salvation which comes not through good works, but by His blessed Grace alone.

ERASMUS: One might possibly agree with you that man can do nothing without the grace of God. But does it follow that that good works need not be sought by man?

LUTHER: Indeed it does. I am very certain of this. All mankind is putrid to the core and riddled with sin. Only God can do good works. By His Grace alone can the defiled be cleansed and the morally crippled made whole.

ERASMUS: We can have no certainty about these things. But I believe it to be more probable that, with the aid of God's grace, humanity can do everything. All human works can be judged good if their consequences for humanity in this world are good.

MORE: You put your faith in human reason and wisdom, and the human freedom to choose. I agree, Erasmus. However, I must add that my faith resides, as well, in tradition: in the universal system of laws developed through many centuries. The Holy Roman Catholic Church is a reflection of that reason and free will. Of course it is imperfect, because human will and reason are imperfect. Our priests are fallible and require reforming because we are all too fallible and in need of reform. Still, as an institution, the Church stands above the kings and other would-be tyrants in all the nations of Europe. It is the earthly symbol of God's eternal justice. The powerful as well as the powerless equally must answer to the laws of the Church. Believe me, my friends, it is our only protection against the winds of tyranny that even now are raging through the continent. It is my great fear that those same winds will yet create a storm in England.

LUTHER: You are only strengthening my argument, Sir Thomas. This church that you consider so sacred, you now admit is but a reflection of fallible human reason and will. How, then, can you be so sure that it is the sole reflection of God's Will on earth? To me, this much-vaunted human will of which you have both spoken so admiringly is but a poor beast being pulled between God and Satan. And the products of such a will -- even the Holy Roman Catholic Church -- can be naught but similarly beastly and laden with sin. I say destroy them, and begin afresh with God's Grace; His Word alone, and the conscience of man. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out! Likewise free will. I abhor it! I will not have it!

ERASMUS: I think we need to believe in free will, no matter to what limited degree it may exist. Or whether it exists at all.

MORE: What a strange thing to say! Not, as I have maintained, that free will exists as a certainty, but that man needs to believe that he possesses it. Why, may I ask?

ERASMUS: So as to inspire us to effort. So as to accuse the impious and entreat them to do better. So as to drive out despair. So as to acquit God of the charges of gross cruelty and injustice that He otherwise must bear for the sufferings of humanity.

LUTHER: I see that you have shocked us both, Erasmus. Of what use is your free will, then, if you cannot even be sure of it?

ERASMUS: What would be the use of man himself, and all his wondrous faculties, if God merely acted upon him as a potter on a lump of clay?

LUTHER: I do not understand you, Erasmus. As for myself, I must confess openly that I should not wish free will to be granted to me. I would not want my eternal salvation to be left to my own hands. I should, in that case, be compelled to live in such unbearable uncertainty. As it is, I can be certain that I am indeed saved, no matter what happens, because His Grace and Mercy have been visited upon me.

MORE: Can you be certain, as well, that you will not have to answer for any of the blood shed in the Peasant Uprisings of the past few years? For was it not your teachings that inspired the peasants to plunder the monasteries and castles? And was it not your urgings that encouraged the nobles to turn on those poor people with fiendish fury, slaughtering them by the thousands?

LUTHER: If you are seriously asking for my position on that particular debacle, I advise you to read my pamphlet titled <"Against the Thievish, Murderous Hordes of Peasants.<" I did, in fact, urge that the perpetrators be hunted down like mad dogs. Indeed, I will repeat my published conclusion that nothing can be more poisonous, harmful or devilish than a man in rebellion against the established authority of the state.

ERASMUS: I wonder! Does not such a premise give men in political authority far too much power? And temptation to abuse it? On the other hand, to be fair, Sir Thomas, Dr. Luther has at no time recommended social or political revolution.

LUTHER: Precisely! What I was recommending was a revolution in habits of worship. Clearly, the bloodshed was an expression of God'>s unfathomable will.

MORE: But that is monstrous! I can no longer attempt politeness. You and your ilk are open enemies to the faith of Christ! For, by blaming all of your sin on God's ordinance, you affirm that we do no ill ourselves, by any power of our own will, but only by the compulsion and handiwork of God. We do not sin ourselves, but God commits the sin in Himself! This is a most villainous rebuke on the great majesty and goodness of God!

LUTHER: Not so. God, in His infinite Mercy, has chosen those individuals who will be redeemed from the universal human state of sin on the Day of Judgment. And He has given us His scriptures to guide us to this State of Grace.

ERASMUS: These are mere subjects for Scholastic disputation, regarding which no one man is better qualified to know the truth than any other. How trivial are the objects of all this strife! I would like to return to the question of warfare pursued in the name of the "truths" of men. I am heartsick about this rush to violence throughout Europe. It is gathering momentum daily. I fear that we three will not live to see its end.

LUTHER: I have no fear of a just war, a war in the cause of my new religion. If God should choose to end the world in a glorious religious war, I would welcome it, along with the Heavenly reward that it would usher in for the faithful.

MORE: I have long since rejected the concept of a just war, be it religious or otherwise inspired. It has been my experience that violence and justice do not rest easily together.

ERASMUS: The most unjust peace imaginable is better to me than a "justifiable" war. If we would but take a reckoning and compare in earnest, for every historical instance, the cost of war as compared to that of peace, we would soon understand that peace is obtainable at one tenth the care, effort, hardship, danger, exposure and bloodshed of war.

MORE: Granted. But how can we stop this folly when even priests, such as our present colleague, actively encourage it?

ERASMUS: I refuse to believe that Dr. Luther intends to promote war. Rather, he is willing to accept it as the necessary price for the achievement of his ideals.

LUTHER: Absolutely! Man must be willing to die for what is right.

ERASMUS: Even if we could determine for certain what is right, I would still not be willing to accept that. History appears to teach that the road to absolute truth is a dead-end pathway, strewn with human corpses. What nature of a God would have imposed such a fate upon his creation?

LUTHER: Ah, now you reveal yourself as what I have long suspected -- a skeptic -- a Lucian, or some other pig from the Epicurean sty -- bereft of all faith and hope. How can any normal man live in such a condition?

ERASMUS: Be that as it may, even a feeble Epicurean is not without hope, nor even without a form of faith -- perhaps a faith in the potential of humanity? And as to that, I believe there is no hope for humanity apart from education. However, this does not mean that any study of any book will rescue us from the slime. Idiocy, irrationality, distortion of history: all of these can be taught effectively by means of teachers and books. I have always maintained, rather, that good books make for good people. This brings us back to your book, Sir Thomas, back to Utopia where this conversation began.

LUTHER: Back to Utopia! Or should we say, forward to Utopia for those of us who are fortunate enough to be secure in the Grace of God.

MORE: I fear that I might not approve of the shape of your Utopia, Dr. Luther, nor yet its price.

ERASMUS: Aye, the price. The price! What ghastly price in blood and suffering is too oft demanded by men's illusions of certainty! What price Utopia? Now there's a question to echo down the ages!

A "playlet" excerpted from Pat Duffy Hutcheon, On the Shoulders of Giants: Senior-level R.E. Curriculum for Unitarian Universalist Churches, 1987.