Is a Perfect Society Possible?

Lessons from Anna Neima’s book, The Utopians

September 1, 2021 by

There are some history books that, while talking about the past, strike you as being about the present.

Anna Neima’s The Utopians ticks that box. In a very readable way it tells the story of six post–World War I efforts to reimagine how society could be, and importantly, to try to put that reimagining into practice. “To many,” the introduction explains, “the combined destruction of the war and [Spanish Flu] pandemic seemed so terrible as to destroy any hope for the future . . . But to the optimistic and the determined, the end of the war offered the possibility of a new beginning: the motivation for establishing an enduring peace, snatching paradise out of the jaws of hell. For such people, it seemed that there had never been a more apposite moment for radically rethinking how to live.”

And that is where most of the attempts came unstuck.

UtopiansEmbed Photo by Danny Burrows.

Post-COVID, we are faced with the same question that faced people after World War I. How should we rebuild society? We may not be dealing with bombed cities, but there have certainly been changes in the way we live that have put a spotlight on some pre-existing problems:
  • Why do people struggle to find purpose and belonging in the richest societies history has ever known?
  • Why do so many people die alone in nursing homes?
  • Why do we find it so hard to get along with those whose political ideas differ from ours?

The Bruderhof is seeing an increase in the number of people who want to come and visit. I know several people who are serious about starting an intentional community of some sort, and you see people working through these ideas on social media. Several media outlets have highlighted the experiences of intentional communities during the pandemic recently. People want something more.

So where are the new “utopians” who will dare not only to have lofty ideas, but to put those ideas into practice? People want a different life and surely it isn’t beyond the wit of humans to build something better.

But there is a problem: almost all of the efforts highlighted by Neima ultimately failed. Some scarcely got off the ground. Others were just plain crazy. In fact, the only one that still properly exists is the Bruderhof. One of the few negative reviews of the book, in The New Criterion, has this perceptive quote:

Just who is the most conceited among Neima’s gurus is unclear. What is very obvious, however, is who is the least: Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof, whose model for the ideal society was the first church in Jerusalem, where members were of ‘one heart and one mind, and shared all things in common.’ … It was not only the fact that the Bruderhof was faith-based and rooted in tradition that kept the community vital—it is the only experiment which has survived intact—but also the fact that it was the least utopian.

The Bruderhof was certainly the least utopian because it was never intended to be a utopia. Utopias seek and demand perfection here and now, which is impossible. Eberhard Arnold, and the men and women who have joined the community over the past 100 years, simply wanted to put the gospel into practice – not build something perfect. Indeed, the imperfections of the Bruderhof allow normal mortals like me to feel comfortable living here. I live here to serve God, not to become a god!

All attempts at trying to construct a different way of life outside the mainstream will be criticized, and it’s true that they won’t be perfect. But it is better to accept this reality than to try to pretend otherwise. In fact, all the problems experienced in communities are also experienced in mainstream society – broken relationships, marital infidelity, addiction (the list could go on) – because they are human problems, not community problems.

So despite the fact that almost all attempts to create a different life ultimately fail, I still think people should keep trying. And if you read The Utopians, you might even pick up some clues as to what should be avoided.

But there is especially good news for Christians in the book. We don’t need to find some guru to help us find self-realization. We don’t need to learn sacred dances. We don’t need yoga, meditation, or mystical farming practices. We simply need the Gospel. The Gospel gives us the blueprint for building a life that answers the needs of so many. We just need to put it into practice.

Are we going to spend our time trying to get our churches back to how they were before the pandemic, or do we allow the pandemic to show us where our churches weren’t really doing what Jesus requires? It might be impossible to predict what will go wrong next in this world. But we can confidently say that the best preparedness-plan is found in the teachings of Jesus.

Bernard Hibbs lives at Darvell community in East Sussex, UK.


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