Urban Theology (3) the growth of the city

David Smith

Chapter 3 of David Smith’s book, Seeking a City With Foundations: Theology for an Urban World is called ‘The Birth and Growth of the City’.

He covers a huge amount of ground in this chapter which traces the development of the city up to the end of the 19th century. I’m sketching here with some observations along the way.

The underlying question is what is the meaning of the city?

The meaning of the city in the ancient world: The birth of urban living goes back to Uruk in Mesopotamia, 4th millennium BC – and other great cities like Ninevah, Khorsbad, Nimrud, Babylon and so on.

Smith sketches the meaning of these cities. The city was the centre of political and religious culture. Its walls were not only physical but spiritual – giving form and purpose and meaning. These were cities of empire. And from these cities armies would go out to extend their power and control and religious view of the world. Such empire building was to bring light and order out of the surrounding darkness.

Empire building assumes a superior civilisation and the right to subjugate and control others to sustain itself. And therefore violence lay at the core of such empire building – just have a wander around the British Museum to get a close up look at the warrior culture of the ancient Assyrians – violence is sanctified and justified and glorified. And such imagery (and writings) tell the story from the rulers’ point of view. Empire and propaganda go hand in hand. The great city will tell a story about itself and it is precisely here, at the level of worldview, that Assyrian and Babylonian and later Roman versions of reality came into direct conflict with the biblical world.

And all of this is applied supremely to Rome. The sacred heart of Empire. The eternal city. The centre of civilisation and of city building across the known world. The centre of military power and glorification of that power.

Athens provides an interesting alternative in that here the philosophers like Plato and Aristotle ask about the meaning and purpose of the city. What constitutes a good city, a good life? And the answer being something like a virtuous community. And Smith laments here,

Tragically at a time in history when we are most in need of the kind of ethical language employed by the Greeks, we appear to have lost the ability to ask questions concerning the meaning of our cities.  p.58.

I’m skipping chunks here to arrive at the Reformation which, Smith argues, grew out of an increasingly urban context, with a particularly urban theology. Geneva as the new ‘holy commonwealth’ – relating faith to all of life – economic, political and personal. And this model is taken elsewhere – Zwingli (Zurich), John Knox (Edinburgh and Glasgow). Here was an entirely different theology of the city.

And from here to the Industrial Revolution which transformed cities. Increasingly detached from their religious base, with an unfettered capitalism becoming the source of values; Cities were places to make money.

Smith has a story of Dostoevsky visiting London during the World Fair at Crystal Palace  He called London ‘Baal’, a city in thrall to materialism in the grip and concluded that ‘the unholy spirit of modernity that brooded malevolently over London’.

This raises again the meaning of the city. Has the ultimate purpose of the city become sheer profit whatever the cost?

My comments: Just think what ‘the city’ means when applied to London – shorthand for the financial services sector, money, bonuses, profit, and ‘turbo capitalism’. Just look at the recent history of Dublin. There has been little or no concern for the ‘good’ of its citizens – horrible unfinished homogenous housing estates, out of control speculation leading to a spectacular crash.

All  graphically illustrated by this monument to greed, hubris, arrogance and out-of-control capitalism – the unfinished huge HQ of Anglo Irish Bank. Now abolished, this one bank has pretty well single-handedly bankrupted an entire nation. Quite an achievement.

Great sociologists like Durkheim were torn between alternative readings of the city. He saw them as places of progress and development and ideas, yet simultaneously connected to the rise of anomie; anxiety, a headlong rush into an unknown future. An increasing ‘hardness’ in business and relationships in a community full of strangers.

And by the end of the 19th century the rise of the city is well summarised by Munch’s The Scream – a picture of anxiety and fear. While often seen simply as a work of existential angst, Munch himself explicitly tied it to a scream from nature on the encroaching power of the city.

And in the 20th century the newly industrialised nations, in Smith’s words, would ‘bomb each other’s cities to smithereens.’ And in the next chapter he considers the story of the city in the 20th century – a story full of ‘Urban Visions, Urban Nightmares’.

A personal comment here: this book is turning out not just to be about urban theology but a story of mankind – past, present and future. This is big important stuff. Smith is engaging with sociologists, geographers, philosophers, planners and futurists – as well as theologians. We should be grateful for his work and learn from his analysis – regardless if we agree in every detail with his conclusions or not.


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