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Why is the city so important for Christian theology?

YOU WILL NOTICE I BEGIN WITH A QUESTION: Why is the city so important for Christian theology? The question has been stated in different terms throughout the history of Christian reflection. In John's Gospel we have the confrontation between Christians and the world, in Augustine an examination of the relationship between the city of God and the city of the pagans, in Aquinas an inquiry into the Church and the Empire, in the Lutheran restatement of the two kingdoms, and in the various investigations from Barth, Tillich, and Maritain we have debates between religion and culture. These all form different aspects of my question of the Christian and the city. The "city" then is used metonymically to speak of the material and temporal realities in which we live. But it is used as such because the city today remains, for most Christians, the context within which we experience and exercise our dealings with contemporary culture, the state, and the world. The city is, for most of us, the living face of the national an d international bodies with their laws, ideologies and institutions of government. To raise the question, then, of the city's importance for Christians involves theology in a wide number of discussions: with the social, the anthropological, the political, and the economic at state and global levels. But in phrasing my theological enquiry in this way I want to resist the abstractions that can enter into discussions of the Church and the State, Christianity and capitalism, religion and culture, and human beings as social animals. Cities are where most of us live. In cities Christians, in their everyday practices, encounter living forms of capitalism, forms of society, forms of political organization at both macro and micro levels that are highly specific. The "world" in the Johannine sense of that term, is indwelt, shaping and forming Christian and non-Christian. It is not an abstraction--in our living as Christians we continually work with and in the world, and the world works with and in us. Christian theolog y must then not only involve itself with economics and politics and anthropology, it must involve itself with architecture and urban planning, with the dominant modes of civic living--with the theme bars, sport and fitness centers, the music, the dance scenes, the theaters, the cinemas and the fashions that characterize the contexts in which we are embedded. By the word "involve," I mean Christian theology has to seek to understand and communicate its gospel--the Christian theologian must seek to understand and execute his or her calling--with respect to this rich and varied environment. For whether we wish to criticize or extol aspects of contemporary culture what the Christian is here to do is not simply to interpret, to comment from some lofty distance, but to indwell and transform where we are. Christians are involved, in many different ways, in transformative practices of hope with respect to where they have been placed or where they have been called to be.

An initial answer to the question I raised would suggest that the city is important for Christians because in the West that's where most of us (and most other people) live. To return to John's Gospel, Christians are not extracted from the world, in fact we engage in that which is most truly ours in Christ: for though Christ was not received by the world, John tells us he entered into that which was "his own [ta idia]."

Now let us make a further theological move. The fall from salvation may well have taken place or have been conceived to have taken place in a garden, but when the state of Christian salvation attains its perfection it will occur within or is conceived to occur within a city. When the first heaven and the first earth are consumed in apocalyptic judgement, and the new heaven and the new earth are established, the book of Revelation speaks of a "holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down Out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband." I do not pretend to fathom the metaphors and allegories of the New Testament's final book, but the city in the Scriptures is an important figure, and, ultimately, along with the imagery of the bride, is employed to sum up the perfect life in Christ. Beatification is citizenship, the Church becomes the polis: "I saw no temple in the city; for its temple was the sovereign Lord God and the Lamb. And the city had no need for sun or moon to shine upon it; for the gl ory of God gave it light; and its lamp was the Lamb. By its lights shall the nations bring into it all their splendour. The gates of the city shall never be shut by day--and there will be no night. The wealth of splendour of the nations shall be brought into it." Note the repetition; this city is not characterized by its poverty and austerity, it is characterized rather by its "splendour," its wealth, its gemstone beauty and sublime proportions-equally owned and admired by all. Alongside other Scriptural images of this kingdom we are not talking about banqueting here, nor fasting, not hunger; we are talking wine tasting (Christ himself told the disciples at the last supper "I shall not drink of the vine again until that day when I drink it with you in the Kingdom of heaven"); with the language of bride and bridegroom, though there may be no marriage in heaven, we are talking of eros in ways Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine and St. Bernard of Clairvaux understood. What does all this mean for we, now, here and t heologically engaged? Well, returning to our question, the second reason cities are important for Christians is because, in ways that are mysterious in the Scriptures, civic living has eschatological significance because it is to be experienced (as Augustine recognized) in the light of the city of God as the true res republica.

Now that is an easier statement to make than to understand. And to my mind nothing characterizes the theologian's situation more than this: he or she is always making earth-shattering statements that subsequently have to be struggled with continually that they might be understood. Remember, Hegel learnt about how fundamental self reflection was from his theological studies. Theology, par excellence, is a reflective craft because it asks questions it cannot answer and makes statements it cannot fully understand. So, allow me to think through something of the significance and implications of the city as an eschatological concept.

Step one: Somehow the very best of what being human means is summed up in being a Christian citizen in this Kingdom where the gates are never shut and all is illuminated by the light of the Lamb, the slaughtered Lamb (let us recall) but upon the throne (let us emphasize). Now, of course, certain Greeks--Plato and Aristotle, famously, Pericles and Solon also--understood something of this. The polls was a place for the formation of subjects who transcended their individuality by living in and through the friendships that composed true civic relations. Later apologists for cenobitic living also recognized a parallel between the polis and the monastic community. Philosophically, and existentially, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we were recalled to the dialogical nature of being human--by Hegel, by Heidegger, by Gadamer, by various forms of communitarian thinking from Taylor to MacIntrye. In other words, the eschatological value of persons as fellow-citizens reveals a theological anthropology. It sugges ts something of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God, for the destiny of being human is to be in community, as the triune God is himself in community. Let me pursue this association between citizenship and Trinitarian relations a little further, for it is the mysterious heart of the city's eschatological significance. The image for the presence of and participation in God in the Book of Revelation is light. The eschatological city is not simply illuminated by God but dwells within the illumination of God. To employ a Heideggerian metaphor, the Trinitarian relations--that is, one recalls, Trinitarian processions, i.e., Dynamic--provide a "clearing" [eine Lichtung] in which citizenship is perfected. Training in citizenship can, therefore, be understood as central to the operation of salvation. Put another way, spiritual development (even sanctification) is inseparable from sociality. The citizen is the opposite of the sinner--for the citizen is working out the destiny of what it is to b e human. The citizen understands that repentance, forgiveness, peace and reconciliation are not ends in themselves, but the means necessary for the good ordering of the city--an ordering governed by, because constituted in the space opened up by, the Trinitarian God. To be created in the image of God is then to be born into the discipline of being a citizen--in our imaging of God we reflect God's own existence as social. We might take this further and ask in what does good citizenship lie, and suggest it lies in being able to reflect, to be reflective. This suggestion would run somewhat counter to Kant's and Hegel's reading of the Fall as the Fall into self-consciousness (which was, for both, a felix culpa). Although by "reflect" here and "being reflective" I intend something far richer than just self-consciousness or mental deliberations. By "reflect" and "being reflective" I would propose a whole economy of response to the other--a mental act that is also a somatic action and a spiritual meditation that als o constitutes the giving and receiving of grace. Theoria is not to be divorced from praxis; nor reasoning from prudence (phronesis). To be reflective is, I am suggesting, the condition that makes possible the training in citizenship. It is not a product of the Fall. Sin, we might say, distorts the economy of reflection. When we look at each other, after the Fall, we see only ourselves reflected in the other. But, in the destiny of being human as the perfecting of citizenship, when citizens look at each other they will see reflected, and they will reflect upon, the glory of the Triune God. What we are being trained to see in our formation as citizens of the kingdom of heaven is the primordial and divine relationality in which we dwell and have our being.

This then is step one in the elucidation of the eschatological significance of the city: the revelation that the destiny of what it is to be human is to be a citizen. Step two returns us to the concreteness of our present urban contexts. For if as human beings we are to be reflective--in the manner I have proposed we understand that term--so that we might be formed as citizens, then we can see all our attempts to be the builders of earthly cities as expressions of a desire that structures all our intercourse and activity. Any city--London, New York, Berlin, Graz--becomes a human project, a corporate project, issuing from the desire to live as city-dwellers. As such, all cities bear an analogical relation to the heavenly city. They are sites for the formation of citizenship, and as such provide situations for the operation of what I have called reflection or the economies of response. Christians need cities then for their formation, their discipleship. In the practices of everyday living in our urban and subur ban environments Christian desire is disciplined and transfigured among neighbors and friends, lovers and colleagues, in the institutions we work for and institutions we work with, and with respect to the thousands of nameless and faceless others with whom we co-habit and on whom we are, to various degrees, dependent. But there is more than this. For if cities are understood as the greatest of human artforms, then the building and designing of cities is shot through with transcendental aspirations. The founders and builders of cities imitate a divine office. We should not then be surprised to discover in our cities intimations of the heavenly city. And to my mind--this is what gives cities their buzz, their kudos, their charisma, listen, in their writings, to the dreams of architects--the visionary nature of their ambitions. Their materials may be marble or brick, steel or glass, concrete or wood, but their constructions are of light and space. The builders and designers of cities are all utopians; some like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Courbusier explicitly so, in their elaborate plans for "Broadacres" or "The Radiant City." They are designers not just of buildings and boulevards, parks, pavements and shopping malls. They are designers of lifestyles. Every city is an expression of the way its citizens sought and still seek to live out their conception of the good life. All cities are orientated towards an ideal future--the creation and distribution of wealth and well being. All cities seek a timeless and universal perfection. They seek to show that "Here is a place where human beings flourish and prosper." They seek to make a name for themselves. Since the late nineteenth century; the establishment of the professions of town planning and urban development, Stadtebau, Stadtbaurat and Stadtebauer, and the pastoral idyll of the garden city, cities have aspired to the ideals of openness and transparency. It is as if the metaphysical and political ideals of the Enlightenment--the absolute freedom of the individual and t he promise of the New at the heart of the meaning of the modern--were now made technologically possible with the advent of steel-framework buildings, reinforced concretes and laminated glass. The towers of glass and the crystal palaces are demands for a city without shadows, whose values are immediate and self-evident. They are constructions of light and space, the homes and the workplaces of angels, those who are equally transparent and immediate. The classical and gothic imitations of those solid nineteenth-century buildings are affirmations of the importance of tradition and moral duty. But our contemporary cities, as cities of angels (los angelos) aspire not to the transcendent moral values of the good, the beautiful, the true and the justice, but to the lifestyles of those without conscience, and those beyond good and evil. They aspire towards a realized eschatology--to install the heavenly. Show me your city and I will show you what it is you long for. The towering achievements of Portman, Piano, Foster and Gehry in the newly conceived Potzdamerplatz in Berlin, for example, make a statement summed up in song by the British pop star Robbie Williams, "Let me entertain you." The buildings of Las Vegas make similar statements. The skylines of New York and Chicago announce the arrival of Promethean ambition, new attempts at the construction and completion of Babel--as the German film director Fritz Lang understood when he made Metropolis. You walk again among the Titans, these cityscapes announce--only the Titans now are international corporations and conglomerates. The precincts of St. Paul's in London and Wren's magnificent church speak of the founding of a new Rome, a new eternal city in England's "green and pleasant land." Cities compose our most complex ideologies and desires for eternal life.

But I have been speaking here of specific areas--Manhattan, Potzdamerplatz, St. Paul's--and this reminds us that cities are complex places, composed of different quarters geographically and different times, historically. The city is not one homogenous whole; they are places of plurality and they are palimsests--tablets of wax upon which things have been written and erased, though the previous writing still remains beneath the waxen surface. And we come now to the third reason why cities are important to Christians. For, in the attention to building our cities without shadows we can easily forget these other areas and these past but still haunting traditions. The creation of the city's focus, the city's name, the structural and infrastructural organization that makes the heart of the city these awe-inspiring monuments to human design and ingenuity, draws attention away too frequently from the other parts-from the dark spots, the overcrowding, the squalor, the red-light districts, the drugcorners, the ghettos w here strange tongues are spoken and customs practiced, the alleyways behind the exclusive shops and restaurants, the parts renovation has yet to reach, the dingy undergrounds and the old established rituals of living in certain quarters. The contemporary city, to feed its hunger for international reputation needs an image. In the halls of city counsels, they are increasingly concerned in an electronic age of globalism, with what their name conjures up in London, North American, and Asian stock markets, concern is expressed at how their city can be portrayed as an international commodity worthy of investment. And the best portrayal today, the most sellable, is the image of the eternal city--sleek, designer (that is, expensive) buildings opening out on generous, democratic spaces. The contemporary successful city is measured by how close it can approximate to being the radiant city, the city without shadows: transparent, under control, reliable, efficient, culturally interesting, embodying the very latest in hu man rights. But the city without shadows is merely a city of reflective surfaces (and hidden interiors). There is a task here, a mission for Christians in the city that is crucial--the English word inscribes the cross into the very word. But we need to take a step back to understand this task.

I said above that all cities aspire to the heavenly city, however far they fall from the perfection of that city. This isn't new, of course, nor is it simply a Christian concept. It is there in Plato, as I have said; as is also the disciplining of each as citizen--albeit citizen-philosophers. What is different in Plato is the way the form of the ideal city indwells the actualization of the concrete city. There is an ontological correspondence, to use a term by Gadamer taken out of context, zugehoerigkeit. But the relationship between our current cities and the heavenly city in Christianity is an analogical one. That is, whatever the extent of the similitude between the earthly and the heavenly--and who can measure the extent of this similitude or even characterize it?--there remains fundamental differences that can never be erased by purely human efforts and ambitions. While cities as interpreted by Christians bear, as I have said, an eschatological import, that eschatological import can only be "born from ab ove." The words come from John's Gospel and the meeting at night between Nicodemas and Christ. "I tell you unless a person is born from above [tis gennethe anothen] they cannot see the kingdom of God." Another bears the Greek meaning of both above and again. The kingdom of God is perceived only when there is a second birth, or a birth from above. There is no ontological correspondence between the earthly and the heavenly city. Whatever the perfection to which human beings aspire in their city-building--and these perfections, like cultural tastes, are ephemeral not transcendent (that is one of the paradoxical ironies of city-designing)--there is no social or cultural progress towards the heavenly city. Any city's eschatological import is perceived through the work of Christian's practicing their faith and becoming, as such, citizens of a kingdom that is here amongst but not yet realized. The Christian community, the very focus of any city's eschatological import, lives a hope that continually invokes the futur e as it works within the present. Everything a Christian does is an offering in hope for the realization of the future.

So what does this mean--this analogical relation between the heavenly and the earthly city in which difference has to be recognized simultaneously with similitude--for Christian living, for Christian theologians like you and me, but, just as important, for each man, woman and child who is being schooled in a citizenship within the different Christian communities in the city? What does it mean? Well it means at least two things, both related to the discipline of becoming a good citizen.

First, it means being involved in civic events and organizations, as Christians. That is, recognizing that the church as a sacramental body is also a social body and its members, through their various affiliations, are intimately associated with all of the other social bodies that make up city living. The Church is not a ghetto for personal consolation and retreat from the world. Whenever it becomes this then it is only a temporary role that it plays--binding up the wounded and the broken-hearted that they might, when healed and stronger-hearted, go out to engage the world and bear testimony to its true destiny. For too long the church has viewed itself as looking after the souls or the moral consciences of citizens, and in doing this has handed the very bodies of these citizens over to the secularizing disciplines outside its liturgies, sacraments and walls. For too long church-going has been a private, solitary affair and the church too has colluded in finding a position within the city as a guardian of the inner values, the spiritual values. That dualism of church and city, that dualism of soul and body, perpetuates forms of cultural schizophrenia that is anathema to a doctrine of the incarnation. Though it is so much more than a social institution, the church is also a social institution, like other social institutions making up the civic body. The Greek word ekklesia referred to a political body long before being taken up by early Christian theologians. The church cannot simply become a resistance community. Urban sociologists like Manuel Castells have shown that such imaginary communities work to further the atomization of any culture. But then the church cannot of itself be just a resistance community, for it is composed of many members with their several gifts. The church is one of very few, if not the sole, social body that operates across and integrates various different social groups. The city council is composed of elites, men and women with what the French socialist Pierre Bourdieu would have called symbolic capital (education and cultural connections) as well as economic capital. But the church in a city has among its members those who serve the needs of those below as well as above the poverty line, who register the effects of civic power on the poor as well as the wealthy, the dispossessed as well as the house-owners, the unemployed as well as the employed. And would to God the church itself could be composed of many more of those who are themselves the poor, the dispossessed and the unemployed. I can speak only of my own associations with the established Church of England--which is far too middle class if not in status then certainly in values. The church needs then to be consciously involved at every level of city life and to encourage such involvement. It must celebrate the city's eschatological import and point to what this means.

What this eschatological import means for the earthly city is made clear in the second of the two aspects of the church's life with respect to the city: that the church's celebration and involvement in civic life must also be prophetic. Let me emphasize here that it cannot be prophetic from the margins of, or from a purely countercultural position to, civic life. The eschatological import of a city can only be recognized as such by those who can recognize God's presence in the complex weaves of human ambition, greed, aspiration and dreaming. And one only comes to such a recognition by working with various groups and various personalities--where "working with" means simultaneously laboring and praying. The church's witness can only be prophetic from its involvement in civic life. Anything less than involvement and commitment to the organization of local living smells sanctimoniously of moral righteousness--and there is no room for moral righteousness. The church is as political and full of self-serving sinners as any other social institution composing a city. Where it differs from these other institutions is in the office it bears, the charisma it bears, the hope for transformation and flourishing it bears. It carries into the workaday situations the gospel of Christ. It works out in the earthly city the recognition that these things will pass away, they are not eternal; their eschatological fulfillment lies in the city of God. Every city believes it stands for ever--it builds towards a future it can never conceive as ending. if it saw that all its best endeavours will only pass away, it would stop its work--and retreat to the countryside. And this happened in Western history once--the retreat from civic life came with the onset of the Dark Ages. There are two interrelated tasks then for the Christian witness. First, in the midst of the self-congratulatory celebrations of city-living and the erection of transcendentally inspired monuments to reaffirm that city living, it has to challenge the Titanism and the Prome theanism: we are not gods. The second task, is pointing to the fact we are not gods by reminding the citizens of this earthly city that there are other parts of the city, other parts of the civic body, that are suffering or neglected.

Let me be specific here. At the moment in my home city, Manchester, we are preparing to host the British Commonwealth Games in July this year, with a view to persuading the world, through media attention, that Manchester is a good place for hosting the Olympic Games in the future. The city has made two bids to date to host the Olympic Games. There is tremendous excitement as the center of the city is refurbished, with glorious new buildings suddenly emerging and huge new shops with international names opening. Everywhere in the center there is new building, or the conversion of old buildings into penthouse apartments or executive suites. The church in that city must celebrate this rejuvenation, it has experienced depressions in the past and the city is emerging gloriously from its post-industrial anxieties. There is a new confidence, a new pride, that remains even when Manchester United do so badly, comparatively, in the national and European football leagues. But at the same time as the celebrations are proc eeding and the high-tech designs are creating new skylines, there are darker notes: quite recently there was a large protest outside the town hail at the number of areas in the city where it is unsafe to walk, areas ruled by rival drug gangs. Alongside other concerned citizens, the Christian has to remind the city that all is not as well as the polished surfaces suggest. In fact, the attention to the city center is sometimes at the cost of attention to the margins, the suburban areas. Resources, financial and aesthetic get sucked towards the center where the rich get very rich indeed and leave the areas outside that center exhausted, festering. Heavy no-tolerance policing, one solution at the moment, is not going to alleviate the social dysfunction that is growingly evident. At best heavy no-tolerance policing simply restrains the violence, the boredom, the racial, drug, alcohol and abuse problems--holds them back, that is, from making a public spectacle in the center of the city.

The prophetic witness of the Christian then issues from the perception of the eschatological city amidst not only the glass, steel, and high-tech concrete but also the slums and red-light districts of our present cities. The witness is complex in what it announces. It is not simply negative--pointing out continually what has not been done, what the city has failed to do or failed in doing. It has to be a witness of transformative hope: for the church of Christ participates in the spirit of Christ, the spirit of resurrection. But because that transformative hope rests upon the operation of God's grace, then the witness is not simply pointing out ways in which to make the city's services better, or to distribute them more fairly. It will make constructive and practical suggestions (along with other people), as it will also point out what or rather who is being forgotten as the city advances towards being recognized as an international center of excellence (along with other people). But the witness must also off er a spiritual pathology. By that I mean that because the earthly city stands in analogical relation to the heavenly one, the heavenly city enables us to define and understand the earthly one. Christian testimony points to what is really being aspired to in the urban desire for transparency, light and healthy prosperous living. The witness has to point to what people are really hoping for, dreaming of--the heavenly city, the eschatological import of all city-building and dwelling. In doing this, the witness will then have to point out the human limitations and finitudes in being able to build the heavenly city here on earth out of earthly resources. It has to point to the working of sin in it various guises--uncontrolled capitalist greed, the terrible violences born of emphasizing competition and difference at the expense of commonality and teamwork, the structural and oppressive inequalities, the enormous seduction of surfaces, the profound nihilism that lurks in the emptiness of human beings reduced to be c onsumers. The prophetic witness has to continually remind the earthly city that it cannot of its own will and ambition, make virtuous citizens. It cannot engineer moral perfection. The witness has to testify to that one who sits at the center of the heavenly city, the slaughtered lamb; point like Gruenwald's St. John to the crucified one; recall each to the necessary work of a divine redemption.

Let me emphasize again this prophesying does not come from "on high," from those sitting on the city walls, so to speak, it comes from those living and working as citizens themselves; from those involved. This is important because the prophesying does not only speak of transformative, that is redemptive, hope it performs that transformative, that is redemptive, hope. The work of testimony is the work of bringing the eschatological into focus in the ordinary and mundane; it is itself participating in the unfolding of the eschatological. The Kingdom of God is already here.

Before I sum up and conclude let me point to the questions that are opened up by what I have said and which I need another occasion to develop. I have not detailed the means by which social relations become Christological relations, a further aspect of which would be how the immediate Trinitarian community of God relates to the communities of men and women. I have not examined the obvious questions about the relationship between God and time, salvation and history. These questions follow and are at the heart of my current work. All I have sketched is the importance of the city to Christians: First, because creation is most truly Christ's and so Christ indwells those worlds we create. Second, because of its eschatological import the city is the place where Christians are trained in a citizenship perfected and performed in the city of God. Incarnation directs that spirituality is intimately associated with sociality. Third, because of the difference (what the Greek Fathers term diastema) between all earthly cit ies and the heavenly city Christians have a prophetic role to speak of the telos of human living, the destiny of being human. That speaking is an involved speaking, a practical reasoning, that both celebrates and, in comparing present realities to future perfections, necessarily judges.

If you like the church is given to cities that cities might come to understand their destiny in Christ; the city is given to the church that it might come to understand and fulfill the nature of its vocation, the destiny towards which it moves and the power which maintains and sustains it in hope. Ultimately, eschatologically, as the bride descending adorned for her husband, the church and the city are the same. But the labor that teaches the meaning and the nature of love, the love in Christ that is the church and is the kingdom, is carried out here in Graz, or Vienna, or Berlin, or Manchester.

This paper was first delivered as a lecture to the theology faculty at the University of Graz in June 2002 to initiate that city's celebrations as European cultural capital 2003.

Graham Ward is a professor of contextual theology and ethics at the University of Manchester. His latest books include Cities of God (Routledge, 2000) and True Religion (Blackwell, 2003). He is the executive editor of Literature and Theology.
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Author:Ward, Graham
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Date:Jan 1, 2003
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