Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Man’s Utopian Consciousness and Religion

The concept of utopia represents an "ideal and perfect state where everyone lives in harmony and everything is for the best." The term was first formulated by Thomas More from the Greek words for "not" (ou) and "place" (topos) and thus meant "nowhere." "Utopias can be extravagant castles-in-the-air, nostalgic Shangri-Las, provocative satires, and rank political tracks thinly disguised as novels" (Hick, J., "Science fiction", Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ultimate Reference Suite, Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010). It is "… a kind of dream; … the kind that strongly appears to be unrealizable … [that] belongs to the future … [and] cannot belong to the present or it will cease to be that which we call it (utopia)." (Egbuogu, M., Eschatological Hope As Christian Theodicy: An Appraisal of Some Attempts at Explaining the Existence of Evil and Human Suffering, Enugu: Snaap press ltd., 2006, p. 265). The words "utopian" and "utopianism" deriving from "utopia" are words used to denote visionary reform that tends to be impossibly idealistic. Man, in the face of the suffering and misfortune that characterize the vicissitudes of everyday living and being often unable to cope with the exigencies of political and economic life and activities, is always wont to project 'utopias'. He is concerned for the future that is unknown and that looms. He is also aware that he is responsible for his history, the present and the future – yet to come - and that he can produce his historical future as he possibly wills. He is imbued with an innate sense of optimism.


Thus traditional cultures, sociologists, politicians, economists, philosophers, etc., have, relying on collective memories and individual hypotheses, projected selective pictures of the mystified past, of ideals, and of scientific rationality that represent a 'utopia', a model, a canon of living. Various words are used to refer to the utopian past, viz: an ou-topas, a no-man's land that never existed, or a golden age. The reference to a particular past as a norm for both present and future living is a conservative utopia. This form of utopia is readily associated with traditional cultures and also with the ageing. The Igbo of Nigeria, for example will say "mgbe elu uwa ka bu ala osa" (when the world was still faultless), "mgbe uwa bu uwa" (when the world was pristine). Another form of utopia is the futuristic utopia that is often associated with modern thinkers. It is a progressive utopia. In this format, what is the model of existence is not an ideal past as such, but a golden age yet to come and that has never been. The future explains and conditions the present. The concern here is for change in the search for meaning. Selective elements of the past only serve as inspiration and not as norm.


In contrast to these two: the conservative and progressive utopia, there is also a scientific or rational futurology. Here the question of mankind becomes a question of (1) science and technology and (2) of rational political action, i.e. of the "critical, free and liberating use of human reason, which to this end also makes a critical investigation of the presuppositions, the social consequences, the ethical implications and finally the goals of science and political action." The three fundamental aspects of this sense of utopia are "prognosis, rational or 'enlightened' projection of the future, and planning."


The conservative utopia leaves no room for any new meaning to arise. Meaning is already given in the ideal past. It stifles progress. The futuristic utopia on the other hand is open for meaning to be created. Nevertheless, both views are subject to a particular concern for the future. They build from selective remembrances of the past (or even the present) and thus desire the future to be either like this past or unlike this past/present. They are dogmatic; they create absolute single phases in the past or in the projected/hoped-for future that are not subject to verification or criticism, and regard these as the blueprint on which societal progress depends. The scientific utopia on the other hand is pragmatic, it can scientifically objectify and analyze human practice. They are also effective as they connect theory to practice. Hence they also act as viable ethical imperatives. Without the practical reference to utopias, they become merely visions and without any special force. We cannot totally underestimate the influence of utopias in history; they reveal that innate human structure of expectancy and remembrance that continually drive man to action and feeling and also to critical productivity.


Utopianism is evident in the optimism of secular humanists, who dream of justice, peace, and plenty to be achieved progressively in the course of history; in the enlightenment campaign; in the post-modernist thought; in Marxism; in utopian socialism, i.e.,
socialism based on a belief that social ownership of the means of production can be achieved by voluntary and peaceful surrender of their holdings by propertied groups; social utopia, which is the result of a transition from the end-time expectation; etc. Many critiques of religion have also characterized religion and the religious consciousness of a transcendental future as a form of utopianism. These thus see the language of faith as the language of utopia. This is because for them, the language of faith likewise refers to the "yet-to-come", to a future Christian ideal, that is at the moment non-existent and apparently untenable. This is an aberration. Man's utopian consciousness finds a response only in religion, and precisely in Christianity. That lacks, emptiness or imperfection in man that constantly lures man to an ideal golden age/moment, to utopia to perfection is the urge for the infinite, the divine, the urge for God which finds absolute expression in religion/Christianity. Hence, St. Augustine the great African Bishop and Doctor of the Church would write: Our hearts are restless until the rest in God.


Major Source

Schillebeeckx, E., Christ, The Experience of Jesus as Lord, trans by Bowden, J., N.Y.: The Seabury Press, 1980.


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