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Utopia Sightings 14 May 2008

Posted by mecca in Culture, Spirituality.
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I have Visions of Utopia, a book comprised of essays by three scholars on the proposition of utopia, its problems and value in human life. Martin Marty, an expert on religion in America, defends utopian visions regardless of their perfect record of disappointment. I’ve always wondered about those who plunge into bonfires of utopia and the problems this creates, that is, psychologies unable to negotiate reality. They are folks who refuse to accept the difference between what should be and what is, one sure sign of extremist thought or something more clinical, with a Latin name and everything. I don’t mean to say that life should work like a New Yorker short story, a rigid realism that yanks the enchantment out of life. Well, Martin Marty says this:

Yes, I know of utopian failures. Yet the world would be poorer had no one ever dreamed dreams of the no-place (u-topia) that is home to perfect sets of human arrangements. One looks for a way to rescue something positive from utopian experiments, since they can also inspire world-weariness and cynicism in the mode of those who groan: “Everything has been tried. Nothing works.”

Marty goes on, often tediously, with examinations of utopian works, mainly from the early Christian realm. I appreciate what Marty has to say about the importance of utopian paradigms as a source of ideals, but I see seeds of thoughts that seem alien to Islamic theology, which never claims that the objective of earthly life is the achievement of perfection because, for instance, it’s not consistent with the Adamic essence, which we all inherit without recrimination or fault. Remember the Quranic narrative of the Garden-Satan episode in which Adam (and Eve) erred but did not embody the model of fallen man. Rather, he was the forgiveness-seeking man and, per Quran, forgiveness receiving. The salvation narrative goes back to this paradigm and shakes the legs of utopian exercises: we’re in a world designed for the impossibility of perfection but for the possibility of receiving mercy and forgiveness, intangible qualities sought through intangible means, like sincerity, or extraordinary qualities sought through extraordinary means, particularly rites (remember them?). No violence necessary. Seeking what is impossible seems like the precursor to postmodern despair.

Visions of Utopia, by Edward Rothstein, Herbert Muschamp, and Martin Marty. Oxford University Press, 2003.

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Comments»

1. Baraka - 15 May 2008

Salaam dear Ibrahim,

Loved your insights here:

…we’re in a world designed for the impossibility of perfection but for the possibility of receiving mercy and forgiveness, intangible qualities sought through intangible means, like sincerity, or extraordinary qualities sought through extraordinary means, particularly rites (remember them?). No violence necessary. Seeking what is impossible seems like the precursor to postmodern despair.

I just finished reading Chris Hedges’ “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” in which he surveys the “new atheists” and their visions of a utopian future without religion (particularly Islam) and the violent methods they are prepared to excuse and use to make that vision a reality.

If you have time, you may want to pick it up.

Thank you – a beautifully observed piece, as always.

Warmly,
Baraka

2. Ibrahim A. - 15 May 2008

Thanks, Baraka, for the comment and the book tip. I’ve been meaning to read a good response to the atheist movement and its momentum. I’ll start with your recommendation.

3. ABD - 16 May 2008

this is all music to my ears, except for one important wrinkle i haven’t straightened out in my own mind. perhaps you can help.

abstaining from utopian experiments in this world and looking for perfection elsewhere suggests an apolitical stance consistent with the historical position of sunni ‘ulama–which is to say, after the ummayyad and abbasid dynasties. but what about the sunnah? is the prophet muhammad, on him be peace, islam’s first and last revolutionary?

4. Ibrahim A. - 17 May 2008

I’m not sure exactly what the question is, Abd. I don’t see a wrinkle nor the connection between revolutionary and utopian ideals.


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