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HANDOUT 1: Utopianism and Apocalypticism

Whether implicitly or explicitly, much of radical political thought falls within established patterns of either utopian or apocalyptic thought. Utopian thinkers believe a better society can be created in a particular place and time. They sometimes put this theory to the test by retreating to utopian communities where they seek to develop their vision of a perfect society free from the constraints of the dominant culture. Apocalyptic thinkers, however, believe a better society will come after an event which reorders human social structures. Progressive thinkers—including many Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists—have been influenced by both of these ideas in greater and lesser ways.

Utopian thinkers believe social transformation can take place in the present moment when people change the way they relate to each other. Rather than waiting for a new society to be born as a result of events in some distant future, they seek to create a new society by acting as if the new world has already arrived. The thought of such utopian thinkers might be best summed up by the peace activist and pacifist A.J. Muste who proclaimed:

There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.

Some utopian thinkers, such as the Jewish theologian Martin Buber and the Sufi Hakim Bey, argue that the utopian experience is by its very nature temporary. The vision of society utopians seek to create can never be realized for all time. It can only be approached in the moment when people live and act in accordance with their highest ideals.

Utopian practice and thought can be found in the efforts of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears to create utopian communities, including Rakow in 17th-century Poland, and, Hopedale, Brook Farm and Fruitlands in mid 19th-century New England. Utopian thinking informed a number of social justice movements and religious thinkers in our history. Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay taxes to support the United States government's war with Mexico, can be understood as a utopian thinker. In his essay "Civil Disobedience," he argued that ending slavery did not require the changing of any laws but simply a choice on the part of people to refuse to cooperate with the laws that upheld slavery. In his view, noncompliance with the laws—acting as if they did not exist—would render such laws irrelevant and produce the abolition of slavery.

By contrast, subscribers to an apocalyptic worldview believe a better society will only come into being after some event causes a fundamental reordering of social and economic relations. Both secular and religious movements have underpinnings in apocalyptic thought. Secular adherents to apocalypticism believe that a human-created event, such a revolution, can bring about a new era of human relations. Believers in a religious apocalypse think a divine event, such as the coming of the Messiah, for example, will transform both humanity and the natural world.

By its very nature, early Universalist thought was a form of religious apocalypticism. Early Universalists believed either after death or at the end of times, all people would be transformed, and united with God. Apocalyptic thought appeared in the abolition movement when people such as John Brown and his supporters, among them Unitarians Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Samuel Gridley Howe, sought to spark a revolution that would destroy slavery. Unitarians, including William Howard Taft, who argued for fighting World War I because it was a "war to end all wars," held a kind of apocalyptic world view. They claimed that permanent peace would come after the war's conclusion. In 1861, Unitarian Julia Ward Howe offered an apocalyptic vision in the famous lyrics of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic:"

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

He hath loosed the fateful lightening of his terrible swift sword.

His truth is marching on.

Though often presented as opposites, utopian and apocalyptic notions can sometimes be complementary. The contemporary environmental movement has both utopian and apocalyptic tendencies. Fears of catastrophic global warming, rising oceans, mass hunger, and extinction of species all have at least a tint of apocalypticism to them, offering a vision of environmental destruction as a way to spur a change in human behavior. Some of the proposals for delaying or avoiding these cataclysmic events are utopian in nature, asking people to live in a sustainable manner in the present moment, for example, decreasing behaviors that generate large amounts of carbon dioxide. Thus, a change of behavior in the present moment inspired by apocalyptic fears could alter, forestall or prevent a cataclysmic change in the environment, bringing humankind closer to living an environmentally utopian vision.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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