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Posts Tagged ‘utopia’

What does it mean to build a New Jerusalem? Is it possible to build a city or community for god here on earth? Is it desirable?

i have been curious about Salt Lake City for several years because of its history and why it was founded and built – as a place to practice religion, a place built for god. I am not a mormon, and several aspects of their faith do not call to me, but the idea of founding a place on this basis has always appealed to me.

But what i find here is a modern american city, well laid out and planned, but still a regular city – though with a certain underlying vibe – one that is based in the foundations of it, and it makes me wonder about the ideal. And around is sprawl, the sprawl of modern cities, the endless development up and down the valley – but i see that too is related both to the growth and development patterns across the continent, and to the original (and continuing) mormon corridor – of small communities, or stakes as they were called, built for people to live and worship. And like small towns everywhere, they have merged into one amorphous sprawl.

The curiosity with the origins of cities came to me when i was in San Francisco and Seattle and other places that were founded or grew because of the gold rush, and the old buildings were dedicated to business of the getting rich quick, and there it occurred to me to what extent does the foundation, the raison d’etre of a city in its inception, carry over to modern times.

For me the movement west in search of the ideal has always called, for i too have done it myself, the lure of “go west, young (wo)man” but what has been the ideal – a comfortable life, adventure, riches of gold, the possibility to be free, whatever that means, god. It has been symbolic of a place where you can be both free and safe to live your dreams.

The story of the latter-day saints of seeking to build a Zion, of fleeing persecution for their beliefs, and of finally arriving and building what was to be an ideal place called to me. And so i came to this basin, where they built the temple and called for believers around the world to join them in creating a new zion. for many years that is what they did – design a place that would reflect a living faith on so many levels from the physical design and layout to collective enterprises in an attempt to be self-sufficient.

Once i got here, i realized that part of why salt lake called is that it, in some way, represented the transition from the journeying to the building stage. A journey is a period of travel or movement and of seeking where new horizons continually present themselves. It can be hard and challenging, but it also is a period of growth and renewal, and important transition from one life to another. The pioneer stories are still a prominent feature of the mormon history, dramatic time.

However, the switch from one type of movement of searching to another of creating came about once they found a place. It may not have been ideal, a desert basin, but time comes to say enough, lets stop and build it here. Now according to legend, Bingham Young stood on top of one of the hills and knew or was told by a higher source, that it is here that you are to build. Was it divine inspiration and knowing this is it, and how much of it was weary fatigue, and saying this is the place where it will have to be.

I think this is where it differs from some present journeys where you are looking for a place that already exists and ready-made for you to come and join; here there was nothing, and it represented a palate upon which to build Рit was not already there and required vision to believe that it could become something more, something worthy of god here on earth. But then again, how many new frontier exist today in our ever connected and known world? Is it possible to just find a fresh place to transform Рa place where you can land fresh? A place where others are not already? But then again, was there ever such a place, for native americans were here already? Is it just the belief in such a place that has disappeared?

Another difference is, that while in the motion of a journey, the pioneers had a home in a community, one without stable roots in the ground, but one of interconnection to one another and to a higher source.

Still once you have stopped there is a shifting of gears – you are no longer searching for the place but you have found it – or rather you have found the locale where you are to build it. Your action changes from seeking and imagining to building and creating. You are now transforming the environment, and although it is a difficult time, you are guided by a higher vision and a concrete as well as abstract purpose and can see the progress you are making. Although they almost starved in the first years, and lived a harsh existence, it is a time that is now romanticized for it calls forth (or back) a higher ideal, and a time when the ideal called forth.

During those initial years this basin was transformed, a city and community and temple were built and thousands upon thousands of pioneers arrived, making arduous journeys of their own, but having a specific destination – of a place that was there, unknown and known at the same time, a place where they would help build and live. They were called forth to help build something greater than themselves and to join with others who had already begun, and were able to do so, making transitions and transformations of their own and thereby transforming the place to where they were called.

During the 1890s there was a switch in policy, where immigration to the new zion was no longer actively encouraged and organized, and instead people were encouraged to stay in their homelands and build there, and go out into the world as missionaries. I see this as a major shift, and this period marks a transition in the history of both the church and the society at large; the abandonment of polygamy, the entry of Utah into the nation and the national expansion in general, the economic downturn that swept across the nation, the end of one century and beginning of another. It also led to the decline of the more collective enterprises, and i believe, the realization that you cannot live totally apart or isolated from that which surrounds. Another century that we have passed through.

Before that time, with the building of the railroads many “others” came for very different reasons and the area was no longer homogeneous in terms of worship. Salt Lake and parts of Utah were no longer only for true believers, for members of the church. And this remains true today; while mormons still predominate in many areas of the state, Salt Lake is a diverse city – but one where you can, at times, feel the original influence of the pioneers – not only in the built material environment, but in terms of an underlying vibe.

Today we see both the search for community building upon common ideals and migrations of so many around the world, of people coming in who you believe are different. In my weeks here i have pondered many questions, many that have been churning beneath the surface on my journeys through the west, through small towns, both ideal and shattered, through divided cities, and intentional communities. Can you build a place for those who share common values? Should you? Can you build such a place and also be connected to the world be it via rail or ideas? Can you change or control the others who come for their own reasons? Can you remain distinct within? should you? What do you need to give up? Is it central to your core or essence, or is it just a minor part of your being? But how does giving up a minor part affect the whole? Do you engage with those “others” who come in? Do you just coexist (to quote a popular bumper sticker) allowing each to remain in their own worlds? Can you? Should you? What do you take in and how do you change? Do you welcome “them” and want them to join you? Do you try to keep them out? Are you afraid that some of you might join them? Do you ever merge and become one? Is it possible that all are transformed, intertwined, but unique? Can you move beyond the notions of “us” and “them” and realize that all definitions and boundaries are fluid and ever-changing and shifting?

This is a dilemma that i see being played out over and over again, not only here, or with many ideal utopian or intentional communities, but all who seek to create a life where you are surrounded by common values, lifestyles and cultures. With the splinterization of society, we see more and more pockets being built, and while you want live in a certain way, can you ever separate yourself or your “group’ and what are the consequences of trying to do that? This is a common theme that runs throughout my thought and i am certain to write more about it.

They mormons also came to Utah not only feeling that they would be free to practice their religion, but that it would also be safe to do so. They had been persecuted and had to flee one locale after another from New York to Missouri to Illinois, attempting to build and then being at times brutally suppressed for being what they were. They fled the nation to what was a land where they could be safe and free, but soon after arrival what was mexican territory was suddenly under the jurisdiction of the united states. Does what you seek to flee eventually find you? And they were not free from persecution in the forms of attacks and legislation. Did they discover that there is no truly “safe” place where you can go? And it asks when is it time to lay down and flee as they did across the land? when is it time to fight and what are the consequences of that – as with the mountain meadow massacre when they attacked a wagon train of pioneers? When do you take a stand? Do you build walls to protect yourself? Can they stand? But just what do you keep out and what do you hold in? Is it what you imagined that you would? And when the walls start to crumble, as they eventually will, just what comes pouring in and rushing out. Or do you spend so much time maintaining those walls, that you neglect to nurture what is inside? And what becomes of those who stand looking at the walls from the outside? Can you just be and let the light shine out? Is it possible when the forces against you will not let up? When do you compromise and how do you do so without giving up?

The temple was finally completed in 1893 and many compromises were made to allow for the continued existence of the church and the society. But from what i sense as an outsider looking in is that the LDS movement was transformed from something quite radical and dynamic to something that is now more staid and conservative. As i went exploring the history it occurred to me more than once, is that while i could not see myself ever joining the church today, i might have been inspired in its earlier days when it seems to be more a movement and a journey rather than a stable institution. But wasn’t that the goal all along? Still, it seemed that something major changed around that time.
With the statement on polygamy i see a shift from building communities to building (and today, maintaining) nuclear families and a focus more on individual behavior with words of wisdom and rules taking on a greater importance, as did obedience to authority. With the separation of church and state (which are still intertwined) the communal aspects of economic togetherness seemed to have faded away.

But i have to ask how much of that came from the specific compromises made and how much of it from the ending of the journey and the building process. Once, the journey kept people engaged and provided a goal and means of togetherness, and then once a place was found, its transformation and building served that role again. But once you have stopped the building, then what do you do? what does life become about? What guides your worship and practical purpose in the here and now? How do you stay connected and inspired? Do you keep building or can you say – yes, this is done. But then what? what do you concern yourself with? You have the building, to go in and worship – is it what you imagined? Are you still connected? Do you feel that you have landed or do you feel a loss? Can you step into what is the next phase? And does it take you along the path, and how does that path transform?

Or do you just try to be and shine your light and encourage others to do so all around? Do you try to build other communities of light around the globe not separate or cut off but within the larger whole? But can you? Is that what this church tries to do through the missionaries and expansion around the world? But can you join with those whose light is different from yours and shine together but unique? Has the ideal changed, or has it just expanded knowing that this planet is so interconnected? But then are we not just building zones? And as one grows does another shrink back? does the energy just move around, rather than being increased to a new vibration for all?

I thought i might answer my questions through the act of writing this, and while i have answered some (for the moment), i find that what i have done is come up with even more questions to be answered.

I began this thinking of my college study of social movements and the progression they go through – from radical idealism to settlement and stability. But how can you stop and still grow and change, how is movement possible within the calm – for all does move, but is much more subtle, and the changes may not be recognized until they have occurred. Can you guide them without trying to cling to the old, without hindering movement and change, without becoming defensive of what you have and closed to all that happens around. Salt Lake is now a modern american city – you can still see and feel the founders, but while the city and area expands, it now does for different reasons, and you can sense a defensiveness and protectiveness of what is here, and at times it is hard to imagine the inspiration, activity and faith that was needed to create what was here. But it is all change.

I still ask can you build a “New Jerusalem” here on earth? While Salt Lake does not seem to be a New Jerusalem at all, and i feel that the goal was abandoned long ago (in terms of american history), i also wonder if that might be a blessing after all. The city is not being torn apart by war and strife as is the holy city in what is currently isreal. But then again, can you not try to do so and is it our abandonment of the quest of building cities and communities for god (however named or defined) that has led to the deadened places and strife around?

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