12 July 2007

Utopian communities - synchroblog

Utopia has been a recurring theme in literature since Thomas More, an English lawyer and statesman, wrote his book with that title in the early 16th century. He described an island with an almost perfect society of peace, justice and freedom.

Many have had such a vision of a perfect society, but acknowledge that no actual examples can be found in the everyday world. Utopian literature was revived in the 19th century, with Samuel Butler's Erewhon, a satire on nineteenth-century Britain, and Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia Limited, in which the inhabitants of a remote island believe that the best way to achieve perfection is to turn their country into a joint stock company on the British model. I don't think it has been performed much since Margaret Thatcher came to power.

In the nineteenth century there were also a number of "utopian communities" -- groups of people who, while recognising that a perfect society could be found nowhere on earth, nevertheless tried to criate a microcosm that would reflect this vision.

In this sense, the Christian Church has always been utopian.

In the Christian vision, the perfect society is the Kingdom of God, a kingdom that is "not of this world" in the sense that there are no borders, nowhere you can show your passport to get in. But the Church itself is to be an ikon, an image of the Kingdom.

This applies even to the Christian family, as Father Alexander Schmemann points out in his book For the life of the world. The crowns in the Orthodox marriage service are symbols that the husband and wife are to be king and queen to each other in a little kingdom that reflects the heavenly kingdom. The vision may be lost, perhaps even in a single night. But the fact remains that every Christian family is a utopian community, trying to reflect in this world something that is not of this world.

Immigrants to new countries often gather for celebrations to remember their distant homeland. In many parts of the world one finds Caledonian Societies to gather emigrant Scots, Hellenic Communities for the Greek diaspora and so on. In a way Christian Churches are like this, in that Christians gather to remember a distant homeland. The difference is that those who gather to remember earthly homelands remember a place they have come from. Christians gather to remember a place they are going to.

As Peter Abelard put it once in a hymn:

Now in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high
We for that country must yearn and must sigh
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land
Through our long exile on Babylon's strand.

Some Christians, however, have found that the weekly gatherings of the Christian community are not enough. The "little kingdom" of the Christian family is not enough. They have looked for a more permanent expression. And so there have been monastic communities, which are, in the sense in which we are discussing it, utopian communities par excellence, trying to live the life of the heavenly kingdom on earth. As one monk put it, monasteries are the lungs of the church. In this world we breathe the polluted air of a broken and sinful world, but in the monasteries we breathe the pure air of heaven.

Christians are essentially eccentric, and Christian communities are eccentric communities. Eccentricity is another way of expressing the idea of utopia. It is having a different centre.

In his novel Perelandra C.S. Lewis conveyed the idea of eccentricity by describing eldila (angels) as appearing to people looking at them with earthly eyes as standing at a slant. When we stand, a line from our head through our feet, if extended, points to the gravitational centre of the earth. But the eldila are aligned on a different centre, and so to earth-bound mortals they appear slanted.

The "utopian" theme of this Synchroblog was inspired by an earlier post by John Morehead: Morehead's Musings: Searching for Utopia, and it has also been discussed a little in the Christianity and society discussion forum. John's post is a good introduction to the theme, and he includes some examples of utopian intentional communities.

Communes or intentional communities are not necessarily utopian. Many of them have quite mundane aims. To qualify as "utopian" a community needs to have an intention not merely to live together, but to create or express a way of life that is different from that of the society around them, or at least based on different values. A utopian community must be, in some sense, countercultural -- in other words, eccentric.

I've written about this before, then, as now, inspired by something that John Morehead wrote: Notes from underground: Morehead's Musings: Symbolic Countercultures and Rituals of Opposition, so I won't reiterate the whole thing here. The main point then was that the so called new monasticism needs to be supported by and linked to the old monasticism.

There have been many more dreams and visions of utopian communities than there have been actual examples. We need the dreams and visions, perhaps, but there is also the danger that Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns of in his book Life together:
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream... He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and ernest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions the visionary ideal of a community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.

Other synchrobloggers:


Pastor Phil said...

Thanks for a glimpse of heaven Steve.

Ormonde Plater said...

The inside joke of More's Greek title is that it means "no place."

Steve Hayes said...


Just as Butler's is "Nowhere" backwards.

Rob Scot said...

Great post. I have long felt that the "cultural home" provided by the Church is essential, not just in the sense of a gathering for those who have a common vision of their spiritual future, but as a means of providing a mooring and cultural identity for the here and now. In the U.S., sincere cultural communities are increasingly hard to find, but in the Church, we have the supreme community always at hand.

David said...

good post. love Bonnhoffer (sp>)

Jeremiah said...

I loved Perelandra.

Good stuff.


Steve Hayes said...

I've just found another post that would have been a worthy addition to this synchroblog: Utopia and escape


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