Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Utopian Visions, Part 2

Do we need a utopian vision to spur us on to try to create it?

The word "utopia" is an interesting name for an imagined perfect state of existence. According to Wikipedia, it's based on two Greek roots: "ou" meaning "not," and "topos" meaning "place." It comes originally from the book written by Sir Thomas More in 1516, "Of the Best State of a Republic, and of the New Island Utopia." The word seems to indicate that the place is an allegory, not a society that can possibly be created; why else would it mean, literally, "no-place"?

Since More may have been engaging in some ironic commentary on his own world of the sixteenth century, it was probably not his intention to lay out the ground rules for the creation of a perfect state. If that's the case, then our interest in the idea that we can create our own "perfected society" is probably a misappropriation of More's work. I'd say the odds are pretty good that he would have considered the creation of a perfect society by men of his day (or of our own) a pipe dream at best.

In our own time, we seem to be farther from a perfect state than we have been in years. The United States is characterized now by two political parties that can't seem to come together on anything to arrive at legislative consensus. Partisanship seems to be at an all-time high, with no interest on the part of either side to really meet in the middle. Instead, we see a scorched earth outcome as the only desirable result of our differences. Damn it, we'll show those frickin' ____________ (fill in your most hated party). The antipathy between the two parties isn't the end of that story either. Splinter political groups have arisen that feel as though neither major party truly represents them or their values. There's pressure to "take back my country." But whose country are we talking about?

And that's just nationally. Internationally, we find ourselves beset with new pressures to combat a resurgent China, a resurgent Russia, and the ever-present threat of terrorism from radical jihadis. Perhaps it's no wonder that ever since the advent of the Cold War, we've felt more identification with dystopias than with their more positive opposites. Who can believe that out of this we could create a perfect(ed) society? Our only hope seems to be in some future where the bad guys -- whoever they are -- have been eliminated and the good people -- whoever they are -- can be brought together into that promised paradise.

As I indicated in the previous post, I want to propose that this societal decay (which is itself debatable, in light of history's record of human societies in the past) is not because of the removal of prescribed prayer from American public schools since the early 1960's. Instead, I'd say it's partially to be blamed on a fascination with, and focus on, that utopian promise of an afterlife and lack of interest in the world that we currently inhabit. I also indicated that I can't find any physical evidence for life after death, or the promised paradise after our demise.

Now wait a minute, you may sputter. You're a Christian, right? Don't you believe in the promise of life after death and judgment day and all the other stuff that's written about in the Bible?

Yes, I am a Christian. And yes, I do believe in those things. What I also believe is that we can't prove that they're real, or will be real, by any scientific means that I'm aware of.

If that's the case, then, it appears that we have a stand-off. On the one hand, I believe in the value of good scientific evidence for things I hold to be true. On the other hand, I don't believe that scientific evidence exists for something that I hold to be true.

Maybe I'm just a crackpot... (Please, no cheering yet!)

So, to the question at the top of this post. Do we need a utopian vision to spur us on to create what we imagine?

Maybe we do. What we seem to have now isn't that kind of utopian vision, however. What we seem to have, in large part, is a willingness to forget about building the society we imagine, except the part about getting rid of the bad guys -- whoever they are -- and ignoring the fix we're in now, with all its complications. Instead of working to build something better right now, we're content to wait until everything is sorted out and we can enter that new Jerusalem ourselves.

So, in the paradigm of Jesus, we have a notion of murder, destruction, and hatefulness.

I'll have more to say on this next time.

1 comment:

  1. It was only somewhat recently that I cast off the idea that we don't need to worry about the world because Jesus will come back and fix it eventually. I used to not care about the environment or anything like that; the idea that the Lord would just mend every problem when he came back was a good excuse to be lazy, and I'm nothing if not lazy. But these days, I see it differently. The Lord did tell us to care for his ceation, after all.

    Do we need a vision of utopia in order to create it? Well, I've often been the sort who likes to have everything laid out before getting to work. However, that has often led to apathy on my part; if I've written the story in my head, do I really need to write it out on paper? I already know what happens! It's that logic that's kept me from writing for so long.

    It's good to have a vision of a house before you build it. But you don't necessarily need to know what color you're going to paint it before you've hammered the first nail. If you take too much time trying to plan every ittle thing before getting started, you may never start.