Idealism and Realism
I may have talked about this a little in my previous post, but the difference between idealism and realism is one which has captured my meditation for some time. This has in a large part been due to the accusation of being “idealistic” directed toward me by a few people, and also because I’ve noted others employing the term about certain individuals who tend to be outspoken and, as it would appear, “unrealistic” in their hopes, at least from the perspective of the people using the term.
It seems that the two qualities, then, have become mutually exclusive in our own minds. My friend Jeremy, a pastor for One Church Ministries, tells me that in his view, idealism comes when we fail to understand the realism of our situations. I have seen this sentiment echoed somewhat from other friends of mine, not in those exact words, but rather in a general sense of defeatism. That is, what good is it to stand up for a particular set of values if the rest of the world looks ridiculously probably to never adopt those values for itself? Surely we just become voices lost to the cries of an insurmountably-opposing crowd?
The argument I am quite often up against, even from my own brethren, is “one person cannot make any difference.”
With the utmost respect and love toward these friends, I must say that I have grown to despise such words. What fatalism, what utter defeatism, is present elsewhere moreso than in the idea that we individuals have absolutely no influence over the world around us? If this pathetic response were taken to its fullest logical conclusion, what would be the point in ever working for a better world at all? And from a Christian perspective, what good of ever working to build the Kingdom? Why even bother being a disciple at all, to stand for the cause of goodness, to provide a witness to the nations of a better way of living?
To save ourselves from Hell? Is it that to which the Gospel of life and transformation has been reduced?
I feel that to hold ideals shouldn’t be treated as a distinct position from appreciating realism. To those who would say that one person cannot make any difference, I submit to you the power of the One who overcame the world (John 16:33). I would also submit that as long as others continue to think the way we might do upon this point, then defeatism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy since none of us has ever even tried to effect any change.
Beyond these points, I would even go so far as to say that realism should not hinder us in any respect from enacting the ideals we wish to see propagated in the world within our own lives. To act in testimony for an alternative world is first to be obedient, and then to speak one’s own voice even in the event that no one will listen to it. What is the point of that? The point is to be that prophetic witness, and to allow others the opportunity to follow. As Leo Tolstoy has said, “People often speak of changing the world, but no one thinks to change themselves.” Therein lies the meeting point between idealism and realism.
To speak of my own ideals, I as a citizen of the one Kingdom will not pledge my allegiance to any kingdom on earth, and I will do everything in my power to enact fairness and justice within my own life. Does that mean that I expect governments to topple over, capitalism to fall, and the entire world to come together in harmony anytime soon? Of course not, only the power of God when His Kingdom comes in fullness will this be accomplished, but I endeavour to stand as the embodiment of that Kingdom in the here and now.
As a vegan, do I expect the entire Western world to stop eating meat and for factory farms to shut down? Of course not, they will probably exist from now until the end of our civilisation. However, must I support these industries myself, and become an integral part of what fuels their corruption and exploitation of the earth? I will not.
As a peacemaker, do I expect that governments will one day relinquish their arms, shut down their armies, and commit themselves to nonviolence? I don’t know about you, but I cannot envisage them ever doing that. What is there to say, however, that I must then resign myself to the ideals of warfare and violence without even speaking of the divine way?
There is a very good chance that none of these things will change until the Kingdom come and God transforms the reality, but to enact it isn’t always about establishing change now, rather to embody the hope that it is coming. Injustices against humanity, creation, and beast alike will doubtless all continue until the end of the age, but we who are in Christ are building justice and bringing the god of this world to shame. The people who are of this world will do what they will do, and we who are not of it will do what we will do. Therein lies not just idealism and realism, but also the serenity and passion of Christian hope.
When all of this is kept in mind, one person can make all the difference.