For some reason, I always go back to the year of my birth, as if that explains something about my adult self. Nineteen sixty-three was the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Although just an infant, I imbibed something of that utopian spirit that has shaped so many of my adult choices. I didn’t actually hear that sermon until I was around twelve, but it was one more confirmation of my utopian mindset.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together”
This paragraph is based on a Biblical passage, which is one of the most utopian in the whole canon. I have never failed to be inspired by passages like this one. However, I have found that this message is not the dominant theme in the Bible. There is plenty of pessimism and, what seem to me, to be backward ideas in it as well.
It seems my life has been about journeying from pessimism towards utopianism. My father, also a preacher, was a classic hell-fire and brimstone Pentecostal. No utopian heaven on earth for him. He preached against liberals, feminists, and peaceniks. In short, he preached against everything I have become. And that, as they say, is a story in itself.
Breaking with Pessimism
After graduating from high school in 1981, I attended a Pentecostal college, and it was there I first began to think outside the pessimistic viewpoint I had inherited. The first break came over a matter of doctrine that might seem minor to folks outside the Pentecostal ghetto, but it made a world of difference to me in that context. The standard doctrine said that Jesus was going to “rapture” all real Christians from earth, leaving most humans behind to face the “Great Tribulation.” The horrors of Armageddon, massive earthquakes, plagues, and fiery comets would be rained down on sinners for seven years.
I came to believe that God wouldn’t deprive the earth of his best servants during earth’s darkest hours. I believed that Christians would face the Antichrist and be used by God to resist evil’s power. This made me a heretic and a radical. After all, being a Christian was about saving souls, not helping people. I had begun a long journey of rejecting a deeply ingrained world-hatred. I didn’t return to college for another seven years.
Reaching for Love and Community
Before I left college, I did manage to meet and fall in love with my wife, Teresa. She seemed intrigued by “radicalism” in contrast to most of the other students and teachers. One of my few campus radical buddies was her good friend and that made it easier for her to accept me. We became good friends while touring with the college choir, and eventually a romance blossomed.
We married in November of 1982, and began a search for whatever utopia we could find together. I was still finding inspiration in the Bible and this time it was found in Acts 4:32:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”
Four years later, we moved to Evanston, IL to become part of a Christian community, Reba Place Fellowship, which utilized a common treasury.
However, just before that move, love came into my life in its purest form. My daughter Melissa was born on October 10, 1985. My father once said to me that he never felt truly adored until my little sister was born. I now know what that means. Even though I have always felt like fathering was challenging, I still see in my children — my son was born three years later — the truest legacy I will ever create. No job or masterpiece I could craft will have the same impact or meaning as my children.
Let me digress about fatherhood a bit. My own father, as may be obvious by now, was an angry and unhappy person and abusive towards his wife and children. We led a double life, with Dad preaching Jesus and salvation in church, but giving us pain and unhappiness in the home.
Although I had an instant bond with my daughter, when my son, Christopher, was born, it was harder to feel that same affection. I can’t recall my father ever expressing genuine love for me. I have worked through that resistance, but my father’s patterns of short-tempered lashing out still lurk in my subconscious.
Returning to Reba Place, it was there that I was first challenged to look at the pain and suffering of my childhood. After one of my angry explosions was aimed directly at my lovely little girl, I had no choice but to get into therapy. I was diagnosed with depression and began an eight-year pursuit of emotional healing.
There were two breakthroughs in therapy. First of all, I reconnected with my “inner child” in a very intense therapy session. I know that this idea is much scoffed at, and the session did not start out with that goal. We were revisiting a pivotal childhood experience of abuse. As we worked through memories, it became clear that a part of myself had been deeply damaged and unable to cope with that experience. It was only as I embraced that abused child part of myself that I began to heal from all that pain.
The second breakthrough was more mundane. I had been placed on anti- depressants as far back as 1987, but they all had fairly limited effects. Not long afterwards, Prozac was released, but I didn’t take it until much later. When I finally did so, it worked its famous magic on me. Within a few months all my depressive thoughts subsided and I knew that I was fully cured. This is not the typical case, of course, but I have been symptom-free for over seven years. I do not know how much a factor the “inner child” breakthrough was in the success of the medication. My guess is that they reinforced each other.
My life at Reba Place came to an end a couple of years later. My new emotional health gave me a new freedom in religious matters, and for all its good things, Reba Place was still holding on to traditions and ideas that began to feel constrictive. My journey towards utopia was about to take its latest turn.
Reba Place was part of the Mennonite Church, a biblically based peace church. I was drawn there as much by pacifism as by the communal lifestyle. I began to go through serious questioning of the Bible and Christian doctrines, including doubts about Jesus’ divinity and resurrection, the nature of God, and the authority of the Bible. I was still a pacifist and religious, but I needed to find a new community that could accommodate someone given to heretical ideas about religion.
I found that community in another utopian sect, the Religious Society of Friends, commonly called “Quakers.” While they started out with a biblicism similar to the Mennonites, modernism and unorthodox ideas became much more accepted among Quakers about a hundred years ago. Many Quakers had been involved in the struggle for the abolition of slavery, but this experience undermined the traditional culture of Quakerism as world-shunning sect. They shifted from a vision of communal perfection to one of social service and activism. This new focus brought Quakers into contact with unorthodox ideas about the Bible and Christianity. Quakers had already undergone some splits over doctrine, but the faction that embraced modern activism and theology has become today one of the most theologically diverse religious bodies in the USA.
I located the closest Quaker meeting to my home and began attending just over four and a half years ago. Among Quakers I have found a community that I believe will be my spiritual home for the rest of my life. They are far from perfect, but part of my healing has been accepting imperfection both in myself and in others.
Still Longing for Utopia
A. J. Muste, the pacifist founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, once remarked that his demonstrations against war were not only about changing the world, they were also intended to keep the world from changing him. That resonates with how I regard my utopian spirit. While I have been changed many times in many ways, those changes have been aimed at purifying the utopian impulse. The 1960s still stand out for me as a period of history when lots of people discovered a vision of a better world. They failed to realize it completely, but I believe the world is better for that vision having dawned in the lives it did.
As for where my utopian impulse will take me next, that’s something of a mystery to me, as it has been all along. I know that one of my real gifts is writing and there is so much to be written about the details of utopian visions. I have had a couple of articles published and really hope one day to write a longer book on my experience and philosophy.