There’s No Place Like Utopia

“All the paradises we have had are the paradises we have lost”

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “The Tower of Babel”, 1563
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “The Tower of Babel”, 1563 (photo: Public Domain)

It was the hot, windy night of Columbus Day last year when the utopian Thomas Lake Harris’ Fountain Grove Round Barn went up in flames for the final time. Harris’ “Theo-Socialist” paradise had burnt before. But this past October dealt the final blow to the landmark red barn on Santa Rosa’s forested edge. Harris’ “Brotherhood of the New Life,” with its group marriage and Tantric sex magic lost its final remnant.

But Harris’ communal paradise is hardly the only Californian utopia to come to a disastrous end. At Olompali State Park overlooking Highway 101, there are charred Victorian ruins where the commune the Chosen Family once baked bread in the sun for the Summer of Love and the Grateful Dead posed for an album cover. Along the Russian River in Cloverdale, all that remains of the Icaria-Speranza commune, which lasted only five years, is a historical marker. All these failed paradises had the common goal of making Heaven on Earth.

California, with its spectacular coast, redwood forests, oak savannahs, and majestic mountains seemed akin to Paradise on Earth. In the vastness of the American West, utopians thought they could remake Eden. California was hardly alone with its bounty of failed communes, however; neighboring Oregon had Edmund Creffield’s Bride of Christ Church in Corvallis as well as Aurora, the state’s first historic district. Originally, Aurora’s founder, William Keil, envisioned it as a “Second Eden.” While the commune ended after three decades, Aurora is now known for antique shops.

Utopias fail because of disregard for human nature and Original Sin. In their hubris, they assume humans know how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. When Jesus had transformed water into wine at the wedding, He understood human nature and how people would try to exploit Him (John 2:23-25). People had seen Him as a means to an end, rather than God incarnate. Even the Apostles vied with each other over greatness in the Kingdom at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24-27). Jesus taught that His Kingdom was not of this world, for it was passing away.

One of the first utopian communities, the Tower of Babel, fell because of pride (Genesis 11:1-9). Utopians think they can perfect human nature without God. They are a form of Pelagianism that sees humans as able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to overcome Original Sin. This heterodoxy often degenerates into extreme forms of control.

In John Humphrey Noyes’ upstate New York Oneida community had “free love” but a complicated bureaucracy. When the Oneida community took up “stirpiculture” (‘positive eugenics’) in 1869, Noyes and his committee specifically selected couples to be parents. The children were to be raised communally. The “experiment” ended a decade later when Noyes fled to Canada for fear of being arrested for statutory rape. The Oneida community formally closed in 1881.

Utopias have a tendency toward elitism, even if they preach equality. At Oregon’s Aurora colony, William Keil exempted himself from the communal confession and manual labor required of everyone else. In California’s Mojave Desert, the remains of the Llano del Rio Cooperative Company crumble. Job Harriman, who failed in his bid to be Mayor of Los Angeles, started the commune in 1914 with Gentry Purviance McCorkle. While Llano del Rio billed itself as a socialist paradise, Harriman and the board of directors dictated all; only whites were allowed to join. In 1918, Llano del Rio collapsed because of power struggles.

The utopian enterprise par excellence that has infiltrated society at large is the sexual revolution. “Free love” promised freedom from stultifying strictures; the Pill promised freedom from bondage to natural processes. No-fault divorce, artificial contraception and abortion were touted as improving relationships between the sexes, and liberty, especially for women. Instead, it has led to broken families, widespread poverty, traumatized women and fatherless children. The sexual revolution promised liberation, but instead it has led to lustful enslavement. The entire progressive political project claims it can make Heaven on Earth. On the contrary, it has led to material and spiritual poverty, most notably in the cases of Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea.

At this time of year, we contemplate the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Utopias, on the other hand, focus on finding paradise in this life.

Our Lord warned against worldliness. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the Apostles (John 15:18-19), “If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” While human utopias are doomed to fail, there is hope in the Lord. As St. Paul says (Philippians 3:20), “But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Humanly constructed utopias are hopeless, but our hope is in Jesus. As Our Lord says on Holy Thursday (John 14:2-3), “In My Father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you will be also.” The soul longs for Heaven, and our history is full of engineered Edens. But God has prepared one for us, and it doesn’t fail.