Monday, June 25, 2007

Searching for Utopia

Last week I spent some time in the local Barnes & Noble bookstore and as I perused the titles of various magazines the cover of What is Enlightenment? magazine caught my eye with its cover theme of "Searching for Utopia: Exploring humanity's timeless quest for heaven on earth." This topic is of great interest as it surfaced as a consideration during my Burning Man research and thesis. As I commented in the third chapter of my thesis where application for the festival is made to Christianity in the West, the desire for a utopian community has been a facet of human experience for quite some time, and we see it expressed in a variety of ways, whether through Burning Man and its temporary community or a plethora of other forms.

What is Enlightenment? (WIE) summarizes their special feature on utopias in this way:

"From the idyllic Garden of Eden to Teilhard de Chardin's enlightened noosphere, our conceptions of utopia have changed dramatically over time. WIE takes a closer look at the evolutionary significance of humankind's enduring impulse to make heaven into a place on earth."

WIE includes a number of features in its exploration of utopias, and the first is a dialogue between two New Spirituality leaders, Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilber, who discuss "Community and the Utopian Impulse in a Post-Postmodern World" in an article titled "Creative Friction." While their entire discussion is of interest, the following excerpt on individualism and community in postmodernity seemed especially significant:

COHEN: And a big part of the postmodern predicament for so many people, is that we find ourselves very sophisticated, very evolved and developed, but very much alone and experiencing a deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual sense of alienation. We all long for deeper connections, but we are unwilling to give up our attachment to our self-importance in order to be able to experience that connection. One extreme example of this is in Holland, where they have the most liberal society in the entire world. It's fairly common and socially accepted for couples to have this funny thing called an 'alone-together relationship,' which means, 'We're in a relationship, but we live separately so we can each have our own space.' The idea is to hold on, at all costs, to one's own space, personal freedom, and autonomy. I've spent a lot of time in that crazy country and most people are really unhappy.

WILBER: So I've heard.

COHEN: It seems that we've evolved and developed, this truly miraculous capacity for individuation has really put us in a very difficult predicament. And so a big part of the evolutionary impulse right now is calling us, compelling us to find a new way to connect, not only with our own deepest sense of self but also with other people at a deeper level. I think it's very difficult to even think about spiritual development today without speaking about how it relates to this desperate urge to connect with others.

WILBER: Right. Relationship seems to be more important than ever and yet more elusive than ever. That's the real irony of the postmodern situation, that the thing that is probably valued most highly, which is relatedness - everything is contextual, everything is relational - is the thing that people have the least of in any authentic sort of way.

Another facet of WIE's exploration of utopia in this issue is an interview with historian Fritzie P. Manuel in an article titled "The Utopian Propensity." Manuel worked with her late husband Frank to research utopias and together they co-authored Utopian Thought in the Western World, 3rd ed. (Bellknap Press, 1982). As this interview unfolds the discussion turns to a comparison of nineteenth-century intentional communities with those that arose with the 1960s counterculture in America. The contrasts are interesting:

WIE: We think of the "radical sixties" as a time of cultural upheaval and change, with many younger people pursuing alternative lifestyles. However, you point out in your book that these countercultures experiments were often not as novel or "utopian" as the communities that emerged over a century earlier.

MANUEL: Yes, I think that's true. There were many groups that got together in the sixties, but I didn't think of them as utopian....In one respect, these groups were similar to the communities of the mid-nineteenth century - they tried to live lives that were very different from the society around them. But I think the nineteenth-century communities had different ideals. They wanted freedom, but not drug-induced freedom or freedom derived from being irresponsible. And they didn't place themselves in direct opposition to society at large. They was isolation and separation, but not attack, as there was in the 1960s. The nineteenth-century groups were trying to reform society, not reject it. That's a generalization, but I think there's some validity to it. I don't remember any reforming zeal in the 1960s. They were thumbing their noses at society at the same time that they were using the luxuries of the world they were criticizing. That doesn't go for everyone, but it goes for many. The flower kids were also organizing communities on the West Coast, and they obviously wanted individual freedoms that my generation didn't have. I suspect they were thinking about society as a whole, but I was curious to know if these groups were merely seeking refuge from a society that seemed cold and headed in the wrong direction or if they really wanted to change this world.

Further on in this issue is a feature titled "Prototyping the Future: Four radical communities dream of a better world," which profiles differing contemporary intentional communities as those embodying a utopian vision. The groups profiled include The Vistar Foundation in Stamford, Connecticut which began in 1994, Or Haganuz ("Hidden Light") in Merom Hagalil, Galilee, Israel which began in 1989, Sekem ("Vitality") in Belbeis, Egypt which began in 1977, and surprisingly (given that WIE is a magazine with a New Spirituality orientation) Mars Hill Church is also featured, located in Seattle, Washington, which began in 1996.

One of the last features of the magazine that touches on the theme of utopias is an article titled "Dreams of a Digital Utopia." This article looks at how the Internet and technology have impacted the utopian dream. One section of this article references Fred Turner, author of From Countercultures to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2006). Turner is quoted in this section:

"[Turner] suggests that for the last several decades there has been a 'countercultural dream of empowered individualism, collaborative community, and spiritual communion' that hovers around the idea of the internet and computing like a mythological halo. It is, Turner explains, the 'image of an ideal society,' a utopian ideal, this once digital and networked, which has become part and parcel of the conversation around the explosion of ubiquitous global computing and the tremendous social upheaval and transformation it is causing worldwide. In the same way that Eastern philosophy, LSD, and countercultural ideas once provided the means of radically reframing the context of individuals' lives in the 1960s, Turner's book chronicles the development of the idea that the microchip and the adoption of increasingly sophisticated computer technology are having a similar effect today - reframing the context of life in our global society by destroying rigid hierarchies and bureaucracies the world over; transforming the slow and inhuman institutions of government and business; rendering dictatorship politically unfeasible; making business uber-responsive, efficient, and consumer driven; and remaking loose social networks into newly empowered collaborative virtual communities."

There is quite a lot that his worth considering in this issue of WIE for those interested utopian studies, new religions, and the New Spirituality. I was especially struck by something Fritzie Manuel said in her interview:

"The utopian propensity is a universal impulse. It's just like thinking or breathing. If we lost our minds and totally stopped thinking, then we could stop dreaming....Sometimes we go through periods of discouragement where we don't see the possibility of evolving to a better society. But those are very black moods, and they are not sustained for long. Inevitably, we dream again."

Sometimes I wonder whether evangelical Christianity has stopped dreaming the utopian dream. I don't refer to a desire for escapism into a realm beyond this one that Christians frequently talk about with the notion of heaven. I mean the realization of the restoration of the totality of God's creation in the here and now, and a taste of fully realized individuals fit for real relationships and community between themselves, creation, and the Spirit. Maybe Christians haven't stopped dreaming so much as we're dreaming the wrong dreams, and we're sadly content with attempts at the realization of utopia through the political process, or being content with the fulfillment of the utopian vision after death. For many people this is not enough. It is time to dream again.


Steve Hayes said...

You raise many important issues in this post -- it is impossible to comment on them all. Perhaps they need to be dealt with in a continuing discussion forum, and they could also be a fruitful topic for another Synchroblog.

There is the relation between individual, collective and person. There is the search for community in the modern world (postmodernity is part of the search, I would say). And there is the search for community in electronic communication.

One of the interesting 19th century utopian communities was the Zionists (not Israeli nationalists, but the oens from Zion City, Illinois). It has its echoes in South Africa, where the Zionists are among the fastest-growing Christian groups, and millions attend the annual Easter gatherings of the largest Zionist church, the Zion Christian Church, at Moria.

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for your comments, Steve. I'd like to see an ongoing discussion forum on this and related toics. Perhaps touching on this in a Synchroblog could help start the process and introduce it to others.

Steve Hayes said...

A synchroblog could be a kick-off, but the Christianity and society forum could be a good place for continuing discussion.