Theology for an Urban World (1) two views of the city
This is the first post in series on a new book by David Smith Seeking a City With Foundations: Theology for an Urban World which addresses one of the great themes of the 21st Century – urbanisation. Over half the world’s population now live in cities and the effects of such rapid and intense urbanization reach far further.
In the introduction, Smith outlines two popular theological responses to the city. Each one drawn from the biblical narrative that begins with a perfect garden and ends with a perfect city.
One dreams of an idyllic rescue from the city. A restoration of Eden. Where the city is a place to be endured now and again but not lived in. In this framework, the city is a disaster, the burden of civililsation, a place of darkness. Some sociologists point to the link between the rise of great industrial cities and enslavement, forced labour, and destruction. The city is linked with Empire, wars, invasion and power and militarisation. Smith talks of profoundly anti-urban traditions in various disciplines (including theology) that see it as a ‘parasite’, a ‘vampire’, a ‘man-eater’. This is city as symptom of human voraciousness and pride.
He doesn’t mention this here, but as a huge fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, you see his anti-urban theology bubbling away barely hidden under the story line in all four books. Just think the mechanisation and destruction wrought by Saruman and the orcs, his betrayal of Fangorn Forest, their ugly destructive militarisation, the scouring of the idyllic Shire and the simple good life of the rural Hobbits and so on … Tolkien didn’t like industrialisation and urbanisation. His books long for the past – for a utopian retreat from the ravaging effects of ‘civilisation’.
But there is another way to interpret the city. If you read the narrative backwards, the telos, the goal of the story of the Bible is the city of God.
The future – God’s future – is urban, and since the final image in the Bible is of a city whose proportions far exceed those of any existing megalopolis, the transition from rural innocence to urban civilization is granted the divine stamp of approval. p.23
And so in this framework the city can be interpreted as a place of creativity, life, vibrancy, culture, community, ideas, full of potential and leading to liberation.
And Smith brings in Augustine and his Two Cities. One dark and dysfunctional and of this world (Babylon) one full of light, hopeful and of the next world (the New Jerusalem).
The tension to be explored in this book is this promised urban future of God in which creation and civilisation are reconciled. This is no utopian retreat to a rural idyll. But a city in which humans dwell in harmony with their God and exercise their full God-given and restored image.
So what is your attitude to the city? Do you love the city and all it brings with it? Or do you avoid city life like the plague and certainly would not live there (joining the middle class ‘flight to the suburbs’)? Or somewhere inbetween?