In seventh grade, my English teacher assigned me to write an essay about my version of a perfect world—a utopia. I set about this philosophical prompt with all the panache of a barely thirteen-year-old kid and wrote an essay—shorter than this one—summing up societal perfection.
A decade later, I remember three things about the paper, the funniest of which is that McDonald’s was abolished entirely. The second thing I remember is that I wanted to name my society “Adam-ondi-Ahman” after the valley where Adam instructed his posterity and where the saints will gather before the return of the Savior to earth. I guess I wanted my utopia to be in Missouri, even though I’d never seen it. As Christ is the only perfect being, I thought “utopia” must be a society that pointed to Christ. I decided against the name for the sake of separating my religion from my public schooling and went with “Valmirria” instead, a remix of my friend Valerie’s name.
Letting a thirteen-year-old design a society wouldn’t end well, but it’s a good thought experiment. It’s been on my mind for a while; how would I design a utopia if given the chance?
Utopia has come to mean a perfect place, however, literally, the word means “nowhere” or “no place.” The book in which Thomas More first coined the term, bears this obnoxiously long title: “A little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia” (emphasis added). The book is often interpreted as satire, meant to expose the faults of 1500s Britain. Utopia doesn’t, or can’t, exist.
Unlike what I thought at thirteen, the idea of a perfect society is fraught. On one hand, pilgrims crossed the Atlantic in search of a new and better life; on the other, they became colonizers that drove native peoples from their ancestral homes. Does the utopia of one always come at the expense of another? Can we not all belong in a perfect society?
History seems to think not. From colonial exploitation around the world to rampant consumerism at the expense of the poor, from Hitler’s genocide of the Jewish people to Jim Crow laws and lynching in the American south, it seems that utopia is more a destructive nightmare than an idealistic dream.
Our literature reflects the same. We have an entire genre—dystopia—exploring how forced perfection goes terribly wrong. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the world is reduced to black and white; emotions are suppressed, interactions are empty, and “extra” children are euthanized without remorse. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, books are burned together with their owners, and the whole world is fixated on screens, playing make-believe and ignoring the outside world.
Each of these regimes, fictitious or historical, operated under the delusional belief that there are people in this world who don’t deserve to live because they don’t measure up to a narrow standard of “perfect” or “worthy.” That there are people who don’t belong. If that is what Utopia means, I want no part of it.
What kind of community do I want to contribute to? What are we building?
I think it’s time to tell you the third thing I remember about my essay. When I was supposed to read it to the class, I was so wracked with nerves that I couldn’t. Nothing in my life before or since was more mortifying than trying to not look at anybody while my teacher read it for me. My attempt at putting perfection into words in seventh grade fell woefully short. I don’t know if I’m any more qualified for this task now, but I’m going to try.
Exclusion and hatred are the opposite of the kind of society Christians are instructed to build. Rather, we are to build a city like that of Enoch filled with people “of one heart and one mind, and [who] dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). The name of this city wasn’t Adam-ondi-Ahman, nor Valmirria, nor the new island of Utopia. The name of this city was Zion. Zion can refer to the City of Enoch, the city of Jerusalem, the Jewish people generally, or the hill of King Solomon’s Temple. But in Hebrew it means the highest point. Zion is not the base of the mountain, but the peak: the place to strive for.
I like that.
We can’t make it to Zion on our own. We’ve seen how a single narrative of utopia can be damaging and dangerous, so I propose that we need multiplicity. Multiplicity of experience is where we find the together-ness of God. Our creator doesn’t see us as identical copies of Christ, he sees us as individuals perfected in Christ. We need not one kind of “perfect person” but billions of imperfect people striving as one towards the highest point. Rather than a no-place, we need a together-place.
If we, as a BYU community, want to create this together-place we must live up to the Christian values we espouse. The 2020 Statement on Inclusion asserts: “We value and embrace the variety of individual characteristics, life experiences and circumstances, perspectives, talents, and gifts of each member of the community and the richness and strength they bring to our community” (emphasis added). This is a statement without caveats: it doesn’t say, “we value and embrace individual characteristics except when those characteristics don’t conform to our idea of normal, standard, or acceptable.” But too often, that is how we—how I—act. I’m uncomfortable with the experiences of others more than I’d like to admit.
But I’m trying to be better because I know better.
I dug up a copy of my seventh-grade essay and read it. It’s very seventh grade. But I love the writer for this line: “Another responsibility of the citizens is to make sure that no one goes homeless or friendless or alone.”
This essay, by Lydia Hall, won second place in the 2023 BYU Humanities Center Essay Contest.
Pearl of Great Price. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/pgp?lang=eng
More, Thomas. Utopia. Penguin Books, 1965.