One of the fundamental instincts we walk around with is that “things are not as they should be.” Indeed, I would say that, while what we do with this instinct varies enormously, the instinct itself might even be called a universal truth.
One of the reactions to this instinct could be called idealism, which for my own purposes I’ll define as the construction of a lofty notion of the way things should be. This is particularly complicated for Christians, because we do have an apocalyptic hope for the in-breaking of the kingdom of God and therefore have a very different idea of the way things should be. However, this idealism can (and does) become idolatrous at many points.
Idealism becomes idolatry when it breeds an anti-incarnational attitude. This attitude is exmplified when we prefer to live in our ideas of the way things should be and begin to despise the real world we find ourselves in. This gnostic tendency is especially pervasive in North American Christianity, as it justifies our lack of working towards the kingdom amidst the mess we find ourselves in.
On a related note, idealism becomes idolatrous when it breeds hatred of those people who do not measure up to our ideals. After reading the prior sentence, you probably picked out some group that was especially guilty of this. This makes you guilty of it as well. (Count me in.) I won’t belabor the irony of a group whose founder commanded love of neighbor and enemy being filled with hatred for those who don’t measure up. I just don’t get it.
Idealism also often tends towards narcissism. We are very proud of ourselves for knowing the way that things should be. Look at us, we’re so clever and superior to the rest of you idiots! Pointing at our ideas also tends to serve as an excellent distraction from our actual behavior, which might just be miles away from what we’re talking about. This narcissism applies equally to individuals and groups, and is usually used by groups to reinforce their identity against an exterior group. For Christians who believe that we are saved by grace and that all we possess is sheer gift, this is unconscionable. And common, Lord help us.
Idealism quite easily produces paralysis, as the gulf between our ideals and the way things actually are can loom large. We cover up this paralysis by redoubling our efforts to guard the boundaries of our ideals, defining them with increasing precision so as to guard them from being debased by anything low and common. Idealism produces warriors of words who would be shocked if someone asked them why they aren’t doing anything about making their ideals happen. They have mistaken thought for life.
Finally, idealism in many of its instantiations should be called nothing less than anti-Christ. A basic tendency of idealism is scorn, mockery, and disownership of anything that does not live up to its lofty ideals. This is anti-Christ for two reasons. Firstly, Christ occupies a much better vantage point than we do from which to make the various judgments required to measure just what does and does not measure up. Secondly, when Christ views those who do not measure up, he does so with compassion, as the doctor sent to tend to the sick, not the healthy. It is for the sick, the less-than-ideal, that Christ came. He looked upon those who fell so far short of anything that could rightly be called holy and, instead of scorning them, gave his life for them. Idealists cannot generally even bear to be civil to them.
Now, for full disclosure. I am an idealist, and this is a polemic against myself. Insofar as I have snagged anyone else in my net, please join me in asking for mercy, grace and truth from the Living God. Idealism is hope turned inwards. Lord, turn us loose with a reckless hope.