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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Utopia on the Small Screen

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Talk of “utopia” often prompts a knowing wink and nod from seasoned consumers of culture: utopia, in life or fiction, is always either a convenient cover for, or a direct precursor to, dystopia. However, Christian Henkel, a fall visiting scholar at the Boisi Center and director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Interreligious Research at the University of Tübingen in Germany, takes a slightly different view. For Henkel, utopian thinking is already all around us. It is embedded in the digital devices and social media that govern our lives. Henkel calls this “Utopia on the Small Screen,” and in his September 20th, 2018 lunch colloquium at the Boisi Center, he argued that perhaps utopia needs to be reconsidered. A reimagined understanding of utopia is one way, Henkel suggested, to reframe political theology and social justice.

Henkel prefaced that utopias are likely to be irrelevant or even dangerous if not reimagined: irrelevant, like Thomas More’s fictional utopia on a distant, make-believe island, as they have no way of actually existing; dangerous, as they can foster autocratic ideas. Utopias can be easily dominated by singular figures and harmful ideologies. As an example, Henkel referenced the many failed utopian communities that dot America’s past. Henkel’s main argument, however, was that the utopian ideals that many of these American communities strived towards, particularly ideals of everyday living, have already been increasingly accomplished, almost without notice, by technology. Citing Saul Alinsky, Ruth Cohen, and Cornel West, Henkel pushed instead for a new, integrative, and interpersonal use of our digital resources. In Henkel’s view, if put to good use, digitization can aid in community organizing, help with religious education, and foster real human relationships. Heeding the warnings of failed utopias and the real limits, problems, and dangers of technology, we can reimagine these digital utopias in ways that better our use of them. A workable utopia cannot forget about the world’s injustices, and cannot be blind to its own shortcomings. In the end, Henkel’s argument relied on a “digital” version of Christian hope: utopia is possible, but only if we go about it in a responsible, ethical, and just way.