The search for Paradise, or Utopia, or Heaven on Earth (pictured above as Hemel en Aarde – Heaven and Earth) has been a thing for humans for probably as long as we have been human. Certainly it has figured in every religious narrative. When Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt, it was the “promised land” for which they were destined. And for the modern day typical Benedictine Anglican Monastic, it is still a thing…
So when I saw a book titled Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman, I heard it call my name. In our modern day Utopia, where instant gratification is highly to be desired, I could download it as an ebook in no time – and I must say my gratification has been quick and significant.
Bregman caught my attention (and that of many others) by telling the assembled billionaires at Davos that they needed to be talking about fair taxation rather than philanthropy. Though he is a young man, wags are now noting that this will be the last time he is invited to speak at Davos… but it is his ideas of Utopia, not taxation, that I want to think about.
Various cultures over millennia have had a common myth that caught the attention of Carl Jung. It is the story of sailors (or other travelers) who somehow come ashore on a tropical paradise where everything they want is provided in abundance. They have no cares and no worries – and after a short time they can no longer stand paradise.
Bregman, in his opening discussion of paradise, or utopia, quotes Oscar Wilde on finding paradise, and it was a revelation for me. Wilde’s notion, as I understand it, is not there is anything wrong in paradise that makes us restless. Its that we must be looking for the next version of paradise. We don’t need to leave paradise to go home. We need to go further.
In medieval times paradise was the land of plenty – where food was abundant and lives were long. And here we are. There are still many problems in the world, including hunger, but we live in a world of great abundance. And we live pretty long lives. We have arrived in someone else’s vision of paradise. We should be grateful and we should be looking for the next paradise.
What, from our perspective, does paradise look like? Bregman drops two clues into this pot. First, he suggests that simple desires beget simple utopias. I think this could be a positive or a negative assertion. Second, the crisis is that we can’t come up with a vision
of what paradise might look like – we can’t envision something better. We surely can envision improvements, but utopia is not an incremental correction.
Utopia can be approached in two different ways. We can either find the place where the folks who make the world less than Utopia are gone. Or we can find the place where everyone can be helped in. Obviously I’m for the second option – because the first route is the path that Hitler, among others, chose. We get rid of the problems and we’ll be left with Utopia. At least that is the thought. The reality of that approach is we are left in hell.
The vision of utopia, or heaven, that speaks to me most is the description found in Revelation: The New Jerusalem, the heavenly city. It has three gates in every direction. All the gates are open by day, and there is no night. It is heaven because everyone can enter. Whatever we may have achieved by way of Utopia these days, this is a still-bigger vision.
I still have much to think about in Bregman’s book, but I am extremely grateful for where it has taken me so far. It is not a book about despair, but rather about hope. We have managed to attain, by many measures, the Utopian vision of our ancestors. Our Utopia is turning a bit dystopian – but that is as it should be. Its time to move toward the next Utopia. Our only mistake is in thinking that we are finished. The journey to Utopia/Paradise/Heaven is a journey made in stages.