Several of my books and articles focus on utopian, intentional communities. These consist of people who have come together to build communities with a common vision. Their mutually-held goals often are labeled “utopian”—by definition both perfect and unattainable. Because these goals are forever beyond reach, many use the word “intentional” rather than “utopian” to label them. Whether defined by themselves or others, these fascinating groups differ from those around them in their beliefs and daily practices.
These “intentional communities” share four defining and distinguishing characteristics, according to Professor Timothy Miller (University of Kansas). In addition to sharing a vision, the members live in close proximity to one another. They share economic or material goods. And they consist of at least three adults who are not biologically related.
Tensions Today and in Years Past
Whether existing today, such as the earth-centered Federation of Damanhur in Italy’s Piedmont region, or considered radical in the past, such as colonial America’s Quakers, each group’s shared visions unified members only to a degree. As my publications demonstrate, the visions also produced friction and tension. Of course, members sometimes struggled with outsiders as they attempted to live by their ideals. But they also wrestled with one another while determining their ideals within the communities.
A Few Examples
The examples are plenty, but here are only a few. When Shaker leaders introduced dietary restrictions into communities in the 19th century—calling for an end to tea, coffee, and cider consumption—controversy erupted. Not all habitual users were happy about “cold turkey” changes in their preferred beverages. In the 18th century, Elizabeth Ashbridge endured verbal and physical abuse as she was drawn to join the Quakers. Her husband, an “outsider,” was her chief persecutor as she became active in the faith. Even during recent years, as Damanhur has become more integral to politics of the Italian valley where it exists, some members have left with complaints about financial and emotional control and lack of freedom.
Additional insights to utopian, intentional communities and practices as I teach and write about them will be posted here. Check back, or contact me for more information.
Soon after I announced this summer’s spiritual formation trip, a full slate of travelers had signed up. (A “full slate” means small–a half-dozen or so, a dozen at the most. ) So we’ll be eleven, myself included, focused on “alternative communities.” We’re headed to the Italian Piedmont and Tuscany.
Mark Sundeen’s The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America ranks among the most interesting new books I read in 2017. Here are some highlights from my review of... More >
Linking “utopian” communal groups and American women writers in Italy, I spoke last weekend on Constance Fenimore Woolson and Zoar.
Woolson began her... More >
Occasionally I read a not-recently-published book that moves me so that I wonder how I missed it when it first appeared.
Divine Expectations is one such book. Since it... More >
Yesterday my son, just returned from grad school, told me he’s writing an essay on Vida Dutton Scudder. Before stating her name, he hesitated. Why the hesitation–in what was otherwise an enthusiastic report of his first term? Was it that Scudder, a Turn-of-the-Century and Progressive Era activist, is an... More >
Drawing from our interests in utopian communities and religious history, my co-editor Martha Finch and I highlight in Eating in Eden (U Nebraska 2006) American food practices that range from those of colonial English Puritans and Spanish Catholics to those of more recent groups of European Jews and Indian Hindus.... More >
In Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies, I examine the roles of reading and writing in the celibate, religious communities known popularly as Shaker villages. Questions driving the project emerge from the widely held belief that understanding and reasoning through texts (especially the Bible) under gird the best faith... More >
“Damanhur: Sustaining Changes in an Intentional Community,” is the first chapter in the book Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World. In it I probe the question of how a community in the mountains of northern Italy coalesced from small, urban gatherings of spiritual seekers in the 1970s to... More >
Vegetarianism is not a recent American trend, influenced by immigrant cultures and travel abroad. Waves of interest in meatless diets have surged and ebbed through the centuries. In fact, even 18th-century American “founding father” Benjamin Franklin abstained from meat as a young adult. According to his Autobiography, Franklin was motivated... More >