The infinite loop of the utopian dream

The promised land is always promised

Liz Shemaria

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Illustration by Elisa Seitzinger

— According to Irwin Kula, a seventh-generation rabbi from New York City, utopia is a place that can never exist, even where there is a strong belief in a higher power.

“We don't want to live in Eden; there's nothing more boring. The human story, from a mythic perspective, cannot unfold in Eden. There is no story in Eden until there is transgression — perfection is static, utopia is boring. The second we actually found utopia, we would leave because the desire for more, the yearning for the infinite defines our humanness, that's what it means to be human and the desire to escape our humanness is both remarkably amazing, and has a dark side. There's no escaping our humanity, but there is enlightening our humanity and creating a world in which we all can grow and matter. That's a big enough utopian dream. But when we confuse the contemporary reality of our humanness with having accomplished a utopian dream, that turns into incredible toxicity and violence and danger.”

For Irwin Kula, a seventh-generation rabbi from New York City, the decision to become a spiritual leader was an intrinsic one. Kula is now president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, where he works at the intersection of religion, innovation, and the public good, or as he says, the “sciences of human flourishing.” He is also a co-founder of the Disruptor Foundation. He sees the modern religious landscape as an emerging post-religion religion, where the fastest-growing faith demographic in the United States is None — the disaffiliated, or the deinstitutionalized.

Maize: How are technology and innovation changing how people view and practice religion?

Rabbi Kula: There is always a gap between technological development and the access and power that technologies — in today’s case the fourth industrial age — are giving us and our psycho-spiritual, psycho-ethical advances. That just means that we evolve more slowly regarding consciousness than we do when we manipulate matter. So we shouldn't be surprised that the major religions, which are essentially Axial age — founded somewhere between 700 BC and the first century — are showing weakening, especially in the West. The data is pretty clear: 10,000 churches a year have been going under in the United States over the last decade. In fact, a third of the entire religion sector is projected to go under in terms of institutional religion. The societal issue isn't so much protecting and preserving the institutions and particular creeds, dogmas, practices of religion — which is what institutional leaders in any sector do in a moment of disruption — rather the issue is to lean in and understand the jobs that religion historically got done that are still central to flourishing human beings and healthy societies. For example, historically, religion helped us understand what it means to be an ethical, moral, conscious human being, one that loves, one that cares for others, one that has compassion, one whose virtues are developing — these jobs still need to get done. And the question is how are they going to get done? How will the existing religious sector reimagine itself? Can it? And is it possible that other sectors take on some of these jobs?

Maize: In what other sectors will some of those jobs be taken on?

Rabbi Kula: I have no idea what the next iteration of Judaism or Christianity is going to look like. I'm pretty sure that literally thousands and thousands of religious institutions will not be here within the next decade. But this doesn't mean that people won't be having spiritual experiences, that people will not be arguing about and worrying about the ethics of the day, the expansion of the moral imagination, the development of character and community. All that stuff will continue to happen, but where it will happen, how it will happen, in which sectors will it happen, that's under debate and everybody has to be involved in that. You have Fortune 500 companies that are hiring chief purpose officers, chief meaning officers, chief community officers — no Fortune 500 hired anybody like that even a decade ago. I was recently speaking to one of these chief purpose officers, of a Fortune 100 company, and she told me that from a very pragmatic level we have to reconnect purpose to work as a matter of retention of our best and brightest — millennials want work to be purposeful. Whereas we used to go to church once a week and connect our lives in general to some higher purpose, these days purpose and work need to be far more connected. In some ways, we are moving from the religious concern for the Meaning Of Life to the more embodied and daily concern for Meaning In Life.

Maize: In your book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, you talk about how people's longings are the gateway to self-discovery and how embracing taboos can help them live more fully. How could tapping into these realms lead someone to what they might call utopia?

Rabbi Kula: What we call the utopian dream to perfect everything, to have more knowledge, power, abundance, to have more health, wealth, and control over our circumstances, to have more peace and love — these desires are the animating energy of human life, these yearnings which we can reflect and act upon are what make us profoundly human. Utopia just becomes all the desires played out and realized to the Nth degree. Utopia is a ‘promised land’ fantasy. But it's always important to remember that the ‘promised land’ is always promised, it’s not the ‘gotten land.’ And so utopia is an aspiration. You show me a person who doesn't have any utopian aspirations or any sort of crazy wild fantasies about the perfection of the world, about a return to Eden, and I'll show you a person who's neither flourishing nor living to their fullest potential. Of course, the challenge is to understand that our utopian dreams are constantly changing as our moral imagination and possibilities expand. Utopia in the tenth century was different than today because our understanding of what perfection looks like is different. Our understanding of who is fully human was different. So we're always expanding the very definition of the perfect world we're yearning for, which means that desires change. Our desires, if we can become more aware of them and more conscious of them, are incredible sources of wisdom because they indicate what it is we lack and then examining that lack, we can determine whether it's a lack that is worth moving on and fulfilling, or a lack that comes from a space that is sort of psychologically distorted. And right now, this issue of understanding our desires has never been more important because essentially the Internet and specifically the business models of social media platforms are completely dependent on stimulating desire and enabling us to get whatever we want, however we want it, as efficiently and with the least amount of friction as possible. We've walked out of the Garden of Eden, we've bitten from the apple and we have unleashed consumerism coupled with a sort of surveillance state and economy. Friction is actually important in helping us manage our desires. We're not capable of managing the full range of desires that are being unleashed at this moment so we're flipping between utopian fantasies and apocalyptic nightmares. There's nothing wrong with utopian aspirations, but it's really toxic to imagine that we ourselves will achieve utopia.

Maize: How can taking a contemporary view of God and faith, either through a defined religion, prayer, or even someone's undefined spirituality, give them access to infinite happiness?

Rabbi Kula: Infinite happiness is a utopian aspiration. It is a very dangerous thing to think you're going to have it. Infinite happiness is a desire of finite beings. Happiness in general, let alone infinite happiness, is a strange quality as the second you think you actually are really happy, it begins to disappear. It's sort of like being in the flow. One of the jobs that religion historically got done was to help expand our moral imagination by using the technology of parables, allegories, stories, rituals, and practices, and this is a pretty serious job that still needs to get done. Presently, it is not getting done in the religion sector for increasing numbers of people. We are going to need as much innovation in the moral imagination and expansion business as we have innovation in every other sector. We are going to need early moral adopters just like we have early technology adopters. It's pretty clear we're becoming the gods we imagined. For most of the last 3,000 years, there was an idea in the west that we were known completely — all our acts, thoughts, and secrets and being known we were also loved. We projected this sense of being known and loved on the cosmos, imagining a God who loved us, protected us, nurtured us, and knew us fully in our most hiddenness. And now, it turns out, if you imagine this for enough time, technology — like The Jetsons, the 1960s cartoon family of the future — catches up to science fiction in one way or another, and our projections become realities. When things work right, the gods you create you become. And then the challenge is twofold: We need to make our gods bigger and we have to act with immeasurably more responsibility.

Maize: So, if we need sadness to find happiness, how does that relate to this idea of a utopia?

Rabbi Kula: Utopia is one side of a dualism. On the one hand, we generally think of utopia as good: It's heaven, it’s Edenic. And the opposite of utopia is apocalyptic: it’s bad, it’s hell. So I appreciate the utopian aspiration, but it's important to understand that you would never have that utopian aspiration if you didn't feel the hellish problems of life. And living and navigating this duality is what it means to live as human beings. And you can't escape duality because the ultimate duality is life and death. Now — this doesn't mean that we can't sometimes overcome that duality. That's what different meditation techniques do. And you can feel this when you’re in the flow, like listening to a Grateful Dead concert as dual consciousness dissolves and there's a sort of seamlessness with the person next to you who is no longer a stranger but someone you're dancing with. But we come out of this state as we can’t inhabit that level of oneness. Instead, we live in dualities: Happiness and sadness. Pride and guilt. Certainty and doubt. Gratitude and anger. You can’t have one without the other. And desire-satisfaction is another one of these dualities. A serious challenge today is that of abundance and the ability we have, because of the Internet, to stimulate our desires and then satisfy those desires as quickly as they arise. This is problematic, because the ability to examine our desires — Do I really need this? Or do I simply want it? — and say no to ourselves, is central to human flourishing and happiness. 

Maize: Ernst Bloch (The Principle of Hope and The Spirit of Utopia) is one of the few Marxist thinkers who took religion and faith seriously in the attempt to find a common root within communism and spirituality. Bloch talks about the anticipatory consciousness of a different world. His central operator was the Not-Yet, meaning that the tendencies latent in human development cannot be fully realized under our current conditions. It is therefore the spirit that carries these latent tendencies. Is the Non-Yet a driving force in our daily lives?

Rabbi Kula: The Not-Yet is another way of articulating desire. So the question is, there's always a Not-Yet, but on what plane of existence is the Not-Yet? So there's a Not-Yet in the physical realm, there's a Not-Yet in the psychological-emotional realm. There are Not-Yets in the intellectual-conceptual-philosophical realm. There are Not-Yets in the psycho-spiritual-ethical realm. Not-Yet is one of the driving forces of the human adventure. I worry about the people who actually believe that they have a handle and hold on God. They need a lot more Not-Yets. But I also believe that the people who think that technology is going to solve every human problem, they need a little Not-Yet, also. People can think anything they want about what defines utopia as long as they don't think they're there yet or that their path is the only way to get there. You want to call heaven utopia. You can call anything you want utopia, as long as you recognize that you can't get there so easily and it's never there fully, it's always Not-Yet. Show me someone who doesn't have any Not-Yets, and I'll show you either a really dangerous person, or someone who has not discovered the particular capacities, skills, and abilities they have to bring to this world and to align with what the world needs to narrow that Not-Yet gap.

Maize: Is a spiritual utopia possible? And, can utopia exist in religion?

Rabbi Kula: I'm all for aspiration. I think not having utopian aspirations diminishes the richness and potential of our humanness. Our ability as human beings to improve this world and to move ever closer to the kind of “peace on earth” imagined by the prophets and visionaries of every age depends on aspirations. And at the same time, we should never forget that the peace we aspire for, we never get more than a piece of. So I embrace the utopian dream and I recognize that it is “just” a dream. I yearn for the infinite and I celebrate my finitude. I embrace the utopian dream and celebrate its Not-Yetness.

WHO WROTE THIS?

Liz Shemaria
Liz Shemaria

Staff writer

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