The Common Good
July-August 2002

Utopia: All It's Not Cracked Up To Be

by David Batstone | July-August 2002

Have you ever noticed how much of our political language relies on binary logic? "Binary what?" you say—think the North and South Pole.

Have you ever noticed how much of our political language relies on binary logic? "Binary what?" you say—think the North and South Pole.

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Here's an axiom that's half a binary pair: Before making an appeal for political action, describe a moment when the problem did not exist, at least in the form or to the degree it does now. Creating this mental space will then enable people to make progress by looking backward, effectively re-creating a past social order.

Alternative to axiom one: Promise freedom and justice in a world that is yet to come. Although here and now life is alienated, the future will break into history and transform what we have here into an entirely new place.

Both these axioms of political language have their theological counterpart, of course. Since there is no place outside the Garden of Eden that is free from the traps of history, release from bondage can only truly occur in the realm of the ideal.

In the Judeo-Christian West, "time" was destined to become our holy grail. Redemption can be found in time past (the Garden) or time future (heaven), both of which are bound by eternity. Time so conceived has no organic link to place. The forthcoming (future) and the antecedent (past) are not contingent on the horizon of the present.

But understandings of time are by no means universal, a fact depicted exceptionally well in the 1991 movie Black Robe. The film relates the awkward and tragic relationships that evolved between North American Indians and the French Jesuits who came to bring them salvation. The Huron tribe is convinced that the clock is the foreigners' god, since it tells them what to do and when to do it. In one of the more poignant scenes in the movie, the Hurons are brought to the mission chapel where they sit down patiently, turn away from the altar, and face the clock. They wait in reverent silence for the cuckoo god to arrive and to announce the next sacred hour: Time is the transcendent, arriving from beyond history.

The European missionaries, for their part, are frustrated with their inability to communicate to these "primitives" a world of eternal destiny autonomous from their tribal relationships. The Hurons could only conceive the future in continuity with their present.

If we read the Garden of Eden story through the eyes of the Hurons—filtered by a logic of lived relationships rather than time—the thrust of the story would change dramatically. The much-maligned serpent would be the key to this reading. First, it is noteworthy that in many sacred traditions the serpent is a symbol for the primal relation of opposites, life and death. The serpent sheds its skin once its use has been exhausted; the death of its own being yields forth its life.

A second way that the serpent represents the vulnerability of living is in its mode of survival. The snake's body is one long digestive canal that is fed by eating other life. The survival of life demands feeding off life itself. Finally, the snake, which usually kills not by overcoming its victim but by injecting the victim with its venom, represents the fear of internalizing the forces of destruction. Social relationships imply inevitable infection.

When we read the story this way, the physical, ethical, and spiritual awareness of difference—in which we feel compelled, if not damned, to judge "good" and "evil"—is inevitable. That is the cost of living. Finding the unity of force that lies behind the differences is to tap into the mystery of transcendence.

A theological or political language dominated by binary logic, on the other hand, masks how terrifying reality can be. It splits off the differences, the contradictions, of reality and creates spaces where contradictions do not exist. They call these spaces "utopia," which literally means "no place," because they depict a space where the day-to-day occurrences of life are not implicated by their contradictions.

Therein lies the power of the imagination. Our mind can spin images that give visibility to the place where I am not, yet where I want to be. Sounds like a fertile womb for hope. But imagination can just as easy produce false hope when it calls me to identify with utopia, so that the place where I actually am becomes the illusion.

And that is what makes me suspicious of any language rooted in theological or political utopia rather than the language of lived relations. It asks me to move within a space where I am absent.

David Batstone, a founding editor of Business 2.0 magazine, is executive editor of Sojourners.

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