Utopia, Dystopia, and Sublime Apocalypse in Montana's Church Universal and Triumphant

Article excerpt

The human experience constitutes a search for secular and spiritual salvation--for the direct path to a life enlightened by beauty, order, reward, and purpose. Places are humanized landscapes, an ultimate artifact of cultural aspiration, and the transformation of space into place is a compelling vernacular record of an ongoing quest for order and community (Tuan 1975, 2002). Greed and ugliness define many a human construction, but deliberate changes are often made with an eye toward betterment that embodies a creative geography. As J. B. Jackson, Donald Meinig, Dolores Hayden, David Harvey, and Yi-Fu Tuan remind us, the recasting of land into graceful life is a long-standing geographical goal, if not always reliably achieved (Casey 1996, 1997).

An imaginative striving after geographical perfection heavily marbles human history. Although the "everyday" involves its share of woodwork crude with splinters and rough edges, the shape of utopia is more than an abstract intellectual exercise; it looms as a real-time goal (Hine [1953] 1983; Elliott 1970; Harvey 2000). Too often, when the abstract is crafted into an actual experiment, noble intention is derailed by a potent cocktail of paranoia, madness, and violent death: People's Temple, the Branch Davidians, the Temple Solaire, Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven's Gate, and, early in this new millennium, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God are but a handful of recent examples in which perfectibility turned pogrom (Singer 1996; Economist 1997; Foote 1997; Niebuhr 1997; Carey 1999; Heard 1999; Lifton 1999; Fisher 2000).

Concepts of utopia and dystopia sort into five general, if disparate, classes: religious, political-economic, psychosocial, military, and apocalyptic. With forms both concrete and contemporary, the search for utopia manifests an unmistakable geography, as we argue in our brief examination of the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), an entity watched with trepidation through the 1990s in Montana. Its utopian initiative once had high potential, but even in its gloaming days the CUT bristles with an uncertain if looming likelihood for tragedy. Perhaps that will end with personal frailty winning out over apocalypse. In the specific case of the CUT, long-witnessed or at least much-suspected mental pathologies of cult leaders are in evidence, and within that is made clear a telling tale of charismatic decline. A general potential for the distortion of religious utopias into violence is identified in ten key dystopian traits, attributes that are in their own way notably geographical.

UTOPIA AND DYSTOPIA

The rhetoric of paradise is as old as language. Eden, Zion, and the Elysian Fields are more than metaphors for the ideal; they are templates for changing the face of the earth (Levin 1972; Todd and Wheeler 1978; Levitas 1990). Test cases for an idyllic Earth often start as fictional sketches. If a degree of vagueness is tolerated in the background of oil portraits or landscapes, in a utopian literary vision realistic geographical details are crucial compositional elements in a view of the perfectible. In rare cases the blueprints of literary paradises graduate to actual experiments. And precisely there, between the written and the real, is an abiding tension that constitutes the utopian crumple zone.

In the "Epic of Gilgamesh," 3,000 years old, the legendary King of Uruk made a dangerous journey to Dilmun, the Sumerian land of eternal life. After surviving trials by darkness, mountain firmament, and the visitation of sundry wild beasts, Gilgamesh ascended to leisure, health, contemplation, and eternal youth (Kumar 1991; Huddleston 2003). This ancient story reveals geographical and architectonic components at the heart of a desire to commingle Heaven and Earth. From similar cloth the early English cut an imaginary Land of Cockaygne, a place rumored to be so perfect that cooked birds flew into your mouth, rivers ran with wine, sleep produced wealth, sex was abundant, and no one ever died (Elliott 1970). …