Utopia and Utopianism
UTOPIA AND UTOPIANISM
"Utopia" denotes an imaginary perfect society or ideal political or social goal. The term was coined by St. Thomas more from the Greek words for "no" and "place" and titled his 1516 book about an island society that was a model of moral and political achievement. Utopia has since passed into almost universal usage. The adjectival form "utopian" is used both in a complimentary manner to describe perspectives that call for positive social change and in a derogatory manner to describe perspectives that are unrealistic and ultimately destructive in their social expectations. "Utopianism" is not an ideological system in and of itself but rather a quality attributed to other "-isms" (e.g., Marxism, Communism, Socialism) that promote an ideal social state.
The term "utopian" has taken on new life in contemporary discussion concerning liberation theology, political theology, and the social teaching of the Catholic Church. At issue is the extent to which the Christian tradition either supports or critiques a "utopian" social outlook. Individuals on both sides of the dispute lay claim to a long heritage of literature and political philosophy.
Historical Background. Utopian thought of one form or another can be found in virtually all cultures and all periods. Utopias have varied as to whether they are past or future, realizable or dreamlike, worldly or otherworldly. Historian of religion Mircea Eliade has claimed that premodern societies are characterized by a longing for a return to a mythical time of peace and harmony prior to the beginning of historical time. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing in the 8th century B.C., described a prior Golden Age in his Works and Days. In the OT, the story of the Garden of Eden reflects elements of earlier mythological stories that depict an original ideal state of life.
Plato's Republic, although not without predecessors, is the earliest extant utopian work that details how social institutions should work. Plato portrays an ideal society governed by communitarian philosopher-kings. Aristotle's Politics, in contrast with the Republic, is one of the earliest works that can be characterized as anti-utopian. Aristotle argues pragmatically in favor of a workable though imperfect social order based on private ownership. Both the Republic and the Politics are cornerstones of a long heritage. Although not without exception, utopian literature generally has emphasized idealism, community, egalitarianism, and human potential, whereas antiutopian literature has stressed realism, individual rights, and human limitations.
The Old and the New Testaments provide a wealth of material for both utopian and anti-utopian mindsets to draw upon. On the one hand, a utopian dimension of the Scriptures is indicated by the communal stress in the Torah, the social critiques of the Prophets, the vision of the messianic age in Daniel, Jesus's preaching of the coming of the Kingdom of God, his warnings to the rich, the egalitarian elements of the early Christian communities evidenced in John, Acts, and Galatians, and the apocalypticism of Revelation.
On the other hand, an anti-utopian dimension in the Scriptures can be found in the pervading theme that the ideal society is not to be found in a final way in this world. In the OT, the creation is followed not long after by the fall from paradise. The people of Israel, despite their acceptance of kings, are never fully convinced that having an earthly ruler is in accordance with God's will. In the NT, Jesus's kingdom is both here and yet not of this world. The kingdom will not be simply the work of human beings building a better world but will be the work of God. Jesus did not propose a programmatic plan for social reconstruction. He counseled those who sought earthly glory instead to lift up their cross and follow him. Jesus's teaching to trust and hope in the Father and to take each day as it comes can also be interpreted as anti-utopian.
Some Christian utopias have reflected the ambivalence of the Scriptures. St. Augustine's City of God (426) combines an ideal vision of a humankind bound in peace, truth, and goodness in the love of God, with the recognition that in this world there is a coinciding bondage of a humankind that turns from God toward the love of bodily things. In the 13th century, the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, although it has much to say about the proper political order, is in line with the pragmatic realism of Aristotle rather than the utopian idealism of Plato.
With the Renaissance and the Reformation came a resurfacing of unambiguous utopian elements in Christianity and Western civilization. In the 15th century German philosopher Nicholas of Cusa manifested the Renaissance spirit by envisioning a globally unified and peaceful humankind. Thomas More's Utopia (1516) portrays the best possible social state that human beings could construct by their own doings, yet that society is still less than perfect because it lacks Christianity. Sixteenth century radical reformers such as the Anabaptist Thomas Munzer preached the need for a new social order and stirred the peasants of Germany to revolt. The radical branch of the Reformation spawned utopian communities such as the Hutterites and the Mennonites, and similar experimental communities proliferated in the New World.
The 17th century abounded in notable utopian works, most of which showed the influence of Plato and More. In Christianopolis (1619) by the Lutheran humanist Johann Valentin Andrea, an ideal Christian city was presented in warm, glowing colors. Social life revolved around the self-governing guilds, and education was universal. Some utopian literature combined the tendency toward the socialist and the egalitarian with a belief in progress through technological advances. One such work was The City of the Sun (1623), by Tommaso Campanella, an Italian Dominican friar suspected of heretical views. People of this quaint utopia lived by a combination of Gospel and astrology and were governed by a high priest selected from the better educated. The economic system, as often occurs in utopia, was communistic. Marriages were eugenically arranged by the state. Francis Bacon's fragmentary The New Atlantis (1627) is important for its description of Solomon's house, a scientific research institute. James Harrington's Oceana (1656) probably had a direct effect on the thinking of American 18th-century statesmen: it advocates a series of political checks and balances to prevent tyranny.
In the 20th century the outstanding utopian writer was perhaps H. G. Wells, notably in A Modern Utopia (1905) and Men Like Gods (1925). Wells tried harder than most utopians to make room for the individual and for personal quirks, though he could be stern enough about enforcing genetic controls and fostering the common good through reason and science. Wells was an intermittent utopian. Some of his stories were grim tales of hideous societies, e.g., The Time Machine (1895) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). As the 20th century advanced, the hopeful mood of the preceding century darkened, and fewer major utopias have been written, though one should mention Walden Two (1947) by B. F. Skinner. It pictures a community kept happy and stable by psychological techniques.
In the modern world, utopian literature has often served to criticize what are taken to be advances in modern society. Denis Diderot implicitly satirized European society in his portrait of Tahitians in The Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage (1772). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848) directly critiqued the exploitation and alienation that had arisen in connection with the industrial revolution. Yet communitarian utopianism has throughout been balanced by pragmatic realism. Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) is a mainstay of contemporary anti-utopian sentiment. Edward Bellamy's socialist novel Looking Backward (1888) won so large a public that Bellamy societies sprang up in Europe and America, yet it was countered by Theodore Hertzka's free-enterprise novel Freeland (1890). Works such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell's 1984 (1949) augur a gruesome future for a humankind that tries to control its destiny through technology and totalitarian government.
The utopian outlook is rooted in the belief that human beings are perfectible, that the world would work properly if only it were arranged in the proper manner. The anti-utopian outlook is crystallized in the saying paraphrased from Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764): "Don't make the best the enemy of the good." That is, one should not trade an imperfect but tolerable situation for an intolerable situation by insisting upon unattainable perfection.
Contemporary Discussion. The term "utopian" was brought into the study of religion by the socialist Karl Mannheim in his Ideology and Utopia (1936). He used "utopian" to describe thinking that criticizes the existing order and promotes social change, in contrast with "ideological" thinking that serves to legitimate the prevailing social structures. The term was further developed by the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. In Das Prinzip der Hoffnung (1937–48), Bloch distinguished between "abstract" utopias that were unrealizable and "concrete" utopias that were sufficiently possible so as to lead to practical ideas for real social transformation. Theologian Gregory Baum draws upon these thinkers in his call for a "critical theology" that will examine the effect that Christian doctrine has on social practice and thereby foster religion that is "utopian" rather than "ideological."
Political theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Johannes Baptist Metz have stressed the traditionally utopian theme of the need to engage in the historical process by reforming existing institutions. In order to defend themselves from the appearance of an idealistic utopianism, however, they have relied heavily on a theistic version of Ernst Bloch's category of "hope" to make clear that they are not imposing a prepackaged idea of the future onto the present, but rather are trusting in God's eschatological promises.
Latin American liberation theologians, drawing upon the work of Karl Mannheim, have unabashedly promoted "utopia" as a positive and necessary category for Christian theology. Protestant Rubem Alves interprets third world liberation as a utopian movement extending what was begun in the Reformation. Leonardo Boff defines the "kingdom" taught by Jesus as "the utopia that is realized all over the world, the final good of the whole creation in God, completely liberated from all imperfection and penetrated by the Divine." A pervading theme of Latin American liberation theologians is that the social situation in which they find themselves is not simply imperfect but is humanly intolerable.
Gustavo Gutierrez has clarified the meaning of "utopia" in liberation theology by contrasting it with the idealistic usage of the term. Gutierrez argues in a detailed manner that "utopia" is not impractical but rather receives its verification in praxis, in the active creation of more human living conditions; "utopia" is not unrealistic but rational, accepting the findings of the empirical sciences and working in accordance with them. "Utopia" as used by Gutierrez is a technical category for uniting faith and political action:
Utopia so understood, far from making the political struggler a dreamer, radicalizes one's commitment and helps one keep one's work from betraying one's purpose—which is to achieve a real encounter among human beings in the midst of a free society without social inequalities.
Contemporary utopian theology is not without its anti-utopian critics. Michael Novak draws upon the heritage of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas in favoring patience and prudential wisdom over idealistic solutions. Novak distinguishes between two approaches to the theology of political economy: the "utopian" and the "realistic." According to Novak, both approaches have ideals, and both are directed to the future. The "utopian" approach, however, seeks an imagined social order that has never existed; it "argues from abstractions about a future that has never been." The "realistic" approach uses practical judgement to compare what in fact has worked and what has not worked; it is "concerned with concrete realities, proximate next steps, and comparisons based upon actual existents." According to Novak, the blanket condemnation of capitalism by liberation theologians, along with their acceptance of socialist principles, is based upon poor practical judgement concerning what has actually worked in concrete historical reality.
There is a need for utopian theologians and antiutopian critics to come to terms. Gutierrez uses "utopia" in such a way that it is contrary to "ideology"; Novak uses "utopia" as contrary to "prudential wisdom." Gutierrez insists that "utopia" is supremely practical; Novak argues that it is impractical as long as it offers nothing but generalities about what the new society will be like. Gutierrez takes the position that thought is either "utopian" or it is not open to change; Novak holds that anti-utopian thought is not ideological in that it promotes reasonable and even dynamic change. The word "utopia" is used so differently that at this point it may inhibit rather than promote clear discussion.
Karl Rahner argued for a dynamic relationship between "utopia" and "reality": "The Christian understanding of existence can be defined as the conviction that what appears as utopian is truly real and that what is called reality must be seen as highly relative and provisional." For Rahner, "utopia" refers not to the unreal but to whatever we should strive toward; human beings are to reach out to God without leaving so-called reality behind. Christians, therefore, are summoned to work toward "utopia" in concrete, practical ways in this world, "even though attaining it is difficult, uncertain, or even impossible."
The Christian ambivalence toward "utopia" is reflected in contemporary papal and episcopal social teaching. In Populorum progressio (1967), Pope Paul VI wrote that "the Bible teaches us, from the first page on, that the whole of creation is for human beings, that it is our responsibility to develop it by intelligent effort and by means of our labor to perfect it, so to speak, for our use." In the same document, however, he cautioned that
a revolutionary uprising—save where there is manifest, longstanding tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country—produces new injustices, throws more elements out of balance, and brings on new disasters. A real evil should not be fought against at the cost of greater misery.
A similar dynamic can be found in the U.S. Catholic bishops pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All (1986). The bishops say that "the life and words of Jesus and the teaching of his Church call us to serve those in need and to work actively for social and economic justice." At the same time, though, the bishops point out that
the quest for economic and social justice will always combine hope and realism…. It involvesdiagnosing those situations that continue to alienate the world from God's creative love as well as presenting hopeful alternatives that arise from living in a new creation…. This hope is not anaïve optimism that imagines that simple formulas for creating a fully just society are ready at hand.
The discussion in contemporary theological circles thus reflects the polarity between the utopian and the antiutopian that can be traced throughout the history of civilization. It seems to be an eternal struggle to strike a proper balance between the fulfillment of human potentiality and the acceptance of human limitations and sinfulness.
Bibliography: g. baum, Religion and Alienation (New York 1975). m. l. berneri, Journey through Utopia (Boston 1951). m. buber, Paths in Utopia, tr. r. f. hull (New York 1950). j. carey, ed., The Faber Book of Utopias (London 1999). i. ellacuria, "Utopia and Prophecy in Latin America," and j. b. libanio, "Hope, Utopia, Resurrection" in Mysterium Liberationis, i. ellacuria and j. sobrino, eds., (New York 1990). r. gerber, Utopian Fantasy: A Study of English Utopian Fiction since the End of the Nineteenth Century (London 1955). g. gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1973). o. hertzler, The History of Utopian Thought (New York 1926). k. mannheim, Ideologie und Utopie (Bonn 1929), tr. l. wirth and e. shils as Ideology and Utopia (London 1936). f. e. manuel and f. p. manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, Mass. 1979). j. l. mumfurd, The Story of Utopias (Gloucester, Mass. 1959). m. novak, Freedom with Justice (San Francisco 1984); Will It Liberate? Questions about Liberation Theology (New York 1986). g. negley and p. j. max, eds., The Quest for Utopia (New York 1952). k. rahner "Utopia and Reality," Theology Digest 32 (Summer 1985) 139–144. f. t. russell, Touring Utopia: The Realm of Constructive Humanism (New York 1932). c. walsh, From Utopia to Nightmare (New York 1962).
[d. m. doyle/