7th annual Somerville Lecture: Christian voices in the urban jungle

  • November 1, 2007
{mosimage}Editor's note: John Bentley Mays, an award-winning journalist, art and architecture critic and author, presented the 7th annual Henry Somerville Lecture on Christianity and Communications on Oct. 18 at the Newman Centre in Toronto and Oct. 19 at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo. His title was “The Creative City: the Future of Christian Urbanism.” Below is the entire text of his speech.

At the present time, the cities of the global West are enjoying a remarkable moment in the sun. In Toronto, the city I know best, architects, urban planners and social theorists who learned their lessons about liveable cities well from Jane Jacobs have come of age and occupy positions in city bureaucracies, the design professions and the universities.

From these platforms of influence, they nudge politicians to curb suburban sprawl and protect well-rooted neighbourhoods from reckless real-estate development. They battle to keep the streets open for pedestrians, free of gridlock. They work against the hegemony of the car, and the many forces at work to make Toronto more safe for cars than it is for citizens. Addressing urban design, many of these people have renounced late Modernism's preoccupation with the beautiful urban object – the monument, the majestic skyscraper – and turned their creative energies to the ethical task of mending the damaged urban fabric, the connective tissue ripped apart by bulldozers during the post-war vogue for 'urban renewal."

Even as these senior figures campaign for urban improvement, young artists, filmmakers, writers, architects and persons without portfolio are rediscovering the city, The people captivated by this cool passion can be recognized by their patient gaze at what most others ignore or find offensive – the sidewalk clutter of signage and graffiti, construction debris, untended laneways – and by their meditative preoccupation with odd rips in the urban fabric: vacant lots, condemned buildings, naked electrical transformer stations, other places where the skin of urban propriety has been torn or worn away.

But this phenomenon is hardly limited to specialists and connoisseurs. The citizenry at large has a new enthusiasm for the city – one often spurred on by the baleful things that developers and bureaucrats occasionally try to impose on the texture of urban life. I have found that many ordinary Toronto citizens will gather on the slightest pretext to talk about what makes the city work, and what can be done to make it work better.     

But one thing is conspicuous by its absence in Toronto's new ferment of urban fascination and discussion. It is the almost complete silence of Christian voices, speaking in the public marketplace of ideas from the standpoint of Christian cultural values and out of the riches of Christian history, theology and experience. I cannot explain this silence, and I do not understand it.

However it is explained, the public silence of Christians about the contemporary city must be accounted a significant failure of imagination and will that should concern all believers. The day of the city has arrived. Decisions are now being made that promise to shape the living textures and structures of the secular city for generations to come. The future development of Toronto's public realm has been thrown into question by financial problems and fiscal shortfalls, the press of a deteriorating infrastructure, and a sudden fluorescence of private wealth that seems to have little interest in the enhancement of our public space. At the same time, we are faced with an unprecedented influx of millions of  immigrants over the next 30 years. Now is the acceptable time to speak the Lord's Word in the city, to make known His saving work.

Moreover, we are being called to proclamation, as we have been called in every age and place. We do this in words, and we do it by actions, recalling in our words and deeds and the shape of our community the new life that God won for us in Jesus. This mission, which stands at the heart of Christian identity, is no less urgent today than it was at Pentecost. To be sure, Christians face formidable obstacles to the mission. We work within a city in which a single religion – a comprehensive form that gives meaning to all of life – is no longer present. It is a city in which religion has become a matter of private preference, and has been deprived by aggressive secularization of its historic role as a provider of public norms, symbols and rites.

These facts, however, are not valid reasons for giving up our work of proclamation. On the contrary: they raise the stakes, while at the same time issuing new demands to the community of believers. In 1944, the German Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned for his opposition to Nazi madness, wrote the following words to a friend: 'We are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all. . . . How do we speak of God without religion. . . . How do we speak in a secular fashion of God?"Bonhoeffer's questions are as urgent today as they were 60 years ago, and they invite the kind of Christian intervention in the secular city that I find oddly lacking at the present time.

This lecture has only one goal: to re-ignite the discussion of how the Gospel is to be proclaimed in the secular city. I have no clever answers to the questions that must be at the core of this discussion: I am a writer about urban art and architecture, not a theologian. But I can present what I believe to be the essential shape of this conversation, as it developed during the last time the city was much on the minds of theologians and other Christian thinkers – the 1960s – and as it is represented today by one of the few Christians who is engaging secular Toronto as a field for declaring the Good News of God.

The dark vision of Jacques Ellul

Jacques Ellul

Jacques Ellul, who died in 1994, was for many years a professor at the University of Bordeaux in France. In the 40 books and hundreds of articles he wrote during his long career, Ellul demonstrated a constant concern for the technological civilization we have created in the global West, and for the city, humankind's most conspicuous manifestation of the will to control and power embodied by technology. He approached his work in a Christian spirit inherited from his religious background in French Calvinism, which sensitized him, especially, to the role of sin in human affairs, and to the permanent rebellion of humankind against grace.

In all he did, Ellul sounded the alarm about the threat posed to human liberty and Christian faith by advanced technology. His most famous treatment of these topics is his 1964 work The Technological Society. But nowhere does he more forcefully appraise the urban culture brought into being by the will to technique than in his book The Meaning of the City, first published in English in 1970 but written much earlier.

{amazon id='0394703901' align='right'}As we might expect from a son of John Calvin and the Reformation, Ellul grounds his criticisms of the city in the symbols and narratives provided by Holy Scripture. The Meaning of the City is to be found, supremely, in the story of Cain that opens the book of Genesis.

In an ominous prelude to all subsequent urban history, Ellul reminds us, the first child of Adam and Eve, and the first builder of a city, was a murderer. After the killing of his brother Abel, Cain was cursed by God: 'When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength,"the Lord tells him. 'You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on earth."Cain is frightened that he will himself be put to death in revenge for the death of Abel. 'My punishment is greater than I can bear,"he says to God. 'Behold thou hast driven me this day from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me."To which God replies by putting a mark on Cain, as Scripture says, 'lest any who came upon him should kill him."

And then, the book of Genesis continues, 'Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden."There, 'he knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and (Cain) built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son Enoch."

The land of Nod, to which Cain goes and builds, is, in literal translation from the Hebrew, 'the land of wandering"– of alienation from the earth, of displacement and diaspora. Now come into this dispiriting place, Ellul comments, 'Cain does two things to make his curse bearable: he knows his wife sexually, who then gives him a son; and he builds a city. . . . For God's Eden he substitutes his own, for the goal given to his life by God, he substitutes a goal chosen by himself – just as he substituted his own security for God's."The city, Ellul concludes, 'is the direct consequence of Cain's murderous act and of his refusal to accept God's protection."  

Viewed through the lens Ellul provides, the city is gravely flawed at its very inception. The issue is not whether Cain's city of Enoch is a good or bad city, a 'creative"city or a boring one, a city with a high crime rate or a low one. Because of the very reasons the city comes into being, Ellul believes, the project of urbanism itself is a sign of human rebellion against God, the expression of our predisposition not to be wanderers in the land of wandering, not to accept the alienation imposed upon us in Cain. In Christ, of course, the very terms of God's curse on Cain become blessings. Such is the irony of God, that the wandering imposed on us children of Cain has been turned into freedom. But in the Genesis narrative, not yet. We still must pass through Babylon.

In Scripture, Babylon is called the Great, not merely because she is the largest city of the all. 'All the cities of the world are brought together in her,"Ellul says, citing both Daniel and the Revelation; 'she is the synthesis of them all."Ellul continues: 'Babylon, Venice, Paris, New York – they are all the same city, only one Babel always reappearing, a city from the beginning mortally wounded. . . . The city is cursed. She is condemned to death because of everything she represents. And she pulls her inhabitants down with her. . . . Her angel is the angel of the abyss or rather the perverted angel of light."

I should say here that Ellul's reading of urban history is subtle, and a great deal more nuanced than I am perhaps suggesting in these remarks. But I don't think I am misrepresenting the basic thrust of his argument in this book. The situation of city-dwellers is dire, because the city is the site of humankind's revolt against God. Yet even here, there is hope – at least as long as the People of God live in the city.

For their sake, Ellul points out, the execution of the full wrath of God's curse on Cain –the finality of technological alienation, completely heartless regimentation, the completely joyless oppression of the daily grind – is stayed. 'The city can go on because it contains men who are bearers of God's word. . . . And by them it in turn temporarily becomes a bearer of the Gospel."

The burden of life in such a city, however, is to suffer on the cross of the city: 'As servants of the Word, we must for its sake accept working with what revolts us, hurts us, and breaks our human hearts, for blind refusal is a disservice to the Word of God, and this Word declares forgiveness with judgment, not a judgment without pardon. And the life of the city is dependent on such an attitude."

The People of God in the city, in Ellul's paradigm, are guardians of such truth as they possess, sufferers whose only hope is the coming of God, at the end of history, to finally solve the problem of the city by giving humankind the New Jerusalem. Other than waiting patiently for the final revelation, God's people are called to remember the curse under which they labour and which they cannot erase. 'Poor little man,"Ellul exclaims to the would-be improver of the city. 'You failed to notice that you are not dealing with flesh and blood, but with thrones, and powers, and dominations which are attacking you, grinding you under, dominating you from every side, and that the devil's last trick is to make you think that you can put order back into this chaos, that you are going to get spiritually big enough to control the world!"

Of course, Ellul's warning is on point: The People of God must never imagine they can fix, once and for all, the ailments of the city, or finally eradicate the poverty, social inequity and other afflictions that characterize urban life. But his analysis fails to delineate certain obvious distinctions between the cities of the ancient eastern Mediterranean, or even those of premodern European feudalism, and the cities created by technological modernity.

Dwellers in the modern city, including God's people, have agency we did not have in the premodern city, and are required by the terms of citizenship to exercise it. Our actions can and do affect very practical matters, such as the architectural integrity of neighbourhoods and public health, the peace and security of ethnic minorities and the aesthetics of the streetscape and the built fabric of the metropolis. In addition to proclaiming the Day of the Lord in traditional preaching and sacraments, the People of God in the modern city are also obliged to speak of God in a secular way – to take part in the city's public life on the side of justice, to intervene, when intervention is called for, against the social forces opposed to beauty, creativity and freedom. And, when all other measures fail, we are obliged to disobey the law. In the end, Ellul leaves the People of God very little to do.

Harvey Cox's brave, new secular city

Harvey Cox

For the American Baptist theologian Harvey Cox, whose urban thought stands in stark contrast to Ellul's but who belongs to same era of discourse about the city, there is a very great deal for God's people to do. But more about all that in a moment. I should first introduce him, because he may not be the household name he was to young Christians in my generation.

Cox was, and is, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School. He became widely known in 1965, when his first book on theology, The Secular City, became a runaway best-seller, with more than a million copies sold. This book, written as a resource for a small gathering of young Christians, struck a responsive chord in American youth culture at large, especially among those Christians dissatisfied with the mainline Protestant churches, inspired by the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam, and, above all, eager to be where the political and cultural action was.

{amazon id='0020311559' align='right'}Cox called for Christians to make a bold rapprochement with secular political and social culture, and he attacked the "intrinsic conservatism (that) prevents the denominational churches from leaving their palaces behind and stepping into God's permanent revolution in history." It was intoxicating stuff at the time, and its immense popularity is proof of an audience for serious theological discussion that authors nowadays can only dream of.

For this American Baptist, the evidence for what he calls 'God permanent revolution in history"is virtually everything the French Calvinist Ellul finds repugnant about the modern city and its technological civilization. The list of realities celebrated in The Secular City mobility and anonymity, the massive urbanization typical of contemporary society, and especially secularization. 'Secularization,"Cox tells us, 'is the liberation of man from religious and metaphysical tutelage, the turning of his attention away from other worlds and toward this one."Like Ellul, Cox develops his argument by frequent reference to the Bible. There, he finds a steady progress toward the secularization of the world in each of God's decisive covenants with his Chosen People.

Like Ellul, Cox develops his argument by frequent reference to the Bible. There, he finds a steady progress toward the secularization of the world in each of God's decisive covenants with his chosen people. 'Thus,"he writes, 'the disenchantment of nature with the Creation, the desacralization of politics the Exodus, and the deconsecration of values the Sinai covenant, especially with its prohibition of idols. Far from being something Christians should be against, secularization represents an authentic consequence of biblical faith. Rather than oppose it, the task of Christians should be to support and nourish it."

While his conclusion is striking, and very much at odds with the sceptical attitude of many Christians of the 1960s toward urban culture, Cox's observations about the progress of revelation are hardly so controversial. The Creation narratives in the book of Genesis give us a vision of nature radically different from the cosmic theologies of other near-eastern religions, decisively free of the divine mystery and magic these religions attributed to the universe. The Exodus of the People of God from Egypt was, indeed, an act of civil disobedience toward a political and civil order that presumed itself to be divine. The Exodus was therefore a liberation from every political arrangement, then and since, that assumes divine authority for its laws and cultural norms. And the prohibition of graven images at Sinai, so important to the churches of the Reformation, did in fact reveal God's determination to free his chosen people from superstitious worship of all that is not God.

What's remarkable in Cox's interpretations of Holy Scripture, of course, is the complete absence of what Ellul emphasizes so strongly: the fall of humankind in the Garden of Eden, and the consequences of the curse on Cain in the origins of the city. The Gospel, in Cox's understanding, does not liberate us from the leprosy of original sin. Its importance lies elsewhere. 'The Gospel does not call man to return to a previous stage of development,"Cox writes. 'It does not summon man back to dependency, awe and religiousness. Rather it is a call to imaginative urbanity and mature secularity. It is not a call to man to abandon his interest in the problems of this world, but an invitation to accept the full weight of this world's problems as the gift of its Maker. It is a call to be a man of this technical age, with all that means, seeking to make it a human habitation for all who live within it."

Salvation, then, is a new state of grace, which is roughly synonymous with something Cox calls, again and again, 'maturity."'The coming of the secular city is a historical process which removes adolescent illusions. Freed from these fantasies man is expected to assume the status of sonship, maturity and responsible stewardship. His response to the call must include a willingness to participate in the constant improvisation of social and cultural arrangements which will be changed again and again in the future. (The liberated person's) maturity lies in his sensing the vast ambience of his assignment, in his willingness to let go of obsolescent patterns, and in his readiness to evolve ways of dealing with the emerging realities of history."

I said earlier that this was exhilarating stuff, and so it was, especially for a post-war generation of young Americans – my generation – that was coming of age in the mid-1960s. Emerging from the privations of wartime and the conformism of the 1950s, we were very ready to 'sever all past ties, however intimate,"to the world as it was before the sexual revolution, prosperity and urban sophistication of the 1960s. We were keen to 'set aside all past values, however sacred,"that we had received from our parents' era of racial segregation, the sit-com suburbs, and the vulgar anti-communism of the Cold War.

None of us, of course, not even Harvey Cox, could have foreseen the consequences that unfolded as my generation, which now constitutes the ruling class of the world, moved into the 1970s and beyond. Having rejected the old religiosity, we created a spate of new, more trivial ones– New Age pseudo-spiritualities, cults of therapy and self-improvement, a devotion to pleasure that is far more enslaving than the old religions ever were. Having repented of our traditional religious beliefs and embraced secularization, we drifted easily into the consumerism and greed that, we know now, is devastating the planet and marring the spiritual character of humankind. The secular city has become more divided than ever, with an affluent, avid population dominating its inner areas, while the near suburbs have been increasingly surrendered to the poor, the marginal and dispossessed, and the farther suburbs to monotonous, monoform ethnic enclaves.

Yet Cox's message refuses to be dismissed as merely one more folly of the 1960s. Viewing urban culture in the perspective offered by Christian orthodoxy, we see the basic truth in Cox's claim that the Gospel does not 'summon man back to dependency, awe and religiousness."We are not called to superstition, but to freedom; not back to sentimental religiosity, but to lives of sacrifice. Repentance and conversion, as understood in orthodox terms, open the way to a new life that is fearless in its embrace of what Cox calls 'imaginative urbanity and mature secularity."

This new life, as the biographies of the saints insist over and over again, is 'not a call to man to abandon his interest in the problems of this world,"but a challenge 'to accept the full weight of this world's problems as the gift of its Maker."We answer that call, not by ignoring the brilliant history of the Holy Spirit in the church, but by engaging it anew, repenting and converting, and making new what the Spirit has been teaching the People of God from the beginning down to the present moment.

Whatever criticisms we may have of Ellul and Cox, both men recall significant truths about speaking of God, pronouncing the name of God, in the contemporary world. We must remember the curse of Cain on the city, as Ellul insists, and never underestimate the powerful forces of sin and rebellion arrayed against the evangelical work of justice, love and truth in the city. And we must remember, as Cox reminds us, that the Gospel life involves a constructive, sacrificial encounter with the city. But, at the present time, what examples do we have of such constructive engagement of orthodox imagination with the structures of urban life? There are not many, as I have pointed out. But in Toronto, we have at least one.

The urban poet

Pier Giorgio di Cicco

Pier Giorgio di Cicco, the man I have in mind, has enjoyed an interesting career. He is a Catholic priest and former Augustinian who was long known best as a poet, well known in the community of writers, but not much outside it. Then, in 2004, he became poet laureate of Toronto. Since that time, he has catapulted from his narrow official platform onto the national and international stage, speaking and writing, to wide acclaim, about the tribulation and hope at work in the contemporary city. More recently, he has been a regular contributor of poetry to The Catholic Register.

So far, he has not produced a systematic exposition of his ideas on the order of  Ellul's Meaning of the City Cox's Secular City. during the years of his work as poet laureate, he has produced a remarkable body of short, pointed considerations of the city, which have been gathered into a little book published earlier this year. This book is called Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City, and is an eloquent distillation of Fr. di Cicco's Christian urbanism, as it has developed over three years of vigourous public life. Urgent, practical, spare yet deeply passionate, these writings should be pondered by everyone who cares about the contemporary city and its future.

{amazon id='1894469267' align='right'}Fr. Di Cicco's analysis of both the modern city and its conventional boosters – tourism people, economic development officers and so on – is stark: 'The situation is drastic, and the truth startlingly rude,"he writes. 'Cities are built by the market, and we stand around with notepads or sullen faces remarking on what could have been done better or might have been done worse. But the damage has already been done. Cities are travesties of construction, and all we can hope to do is to acquire a civic esthetic that will resurrect us among the tombstones of construction and make the landscape liveable by the light of citizenship."

Fr. Di Cicco does not forget, as Harvey Cox forgets or ignores, that the contemporary city labours, like all cities, under the curse of Cain. 'Contemporary skylines are in disarray, so many voices, crying for attention, all boasting a privileged statement of ego or greed. . . . They speak the union of vanity and market obsessions. . . ."But this insight does not propel him into the kind of fatalism that characterizes the writings of Jacques Ellul. There is in the city – even the city of vanities and extravagant injustice – a profound yearning for something better, more life-giving. 'Dispirited by bickering and blatant architectures, the citizen rummages through the city looking for those sights and spaces that reflect a human scale. The citizen finds consolation in the neighbourhoods and unpretentious way stations, the abandoned, the undeveloped, the modest, looking for the town that seeks to be adopted before it capitulates to realty."

What is required is a new urbanism, radically different from the optimistic, liberal urban-design solutions that are continually being proposed, and quickly defeated by the city of greed and power. Fr. Di Cicco's new urbanism would be grounded in 'an esthetic intuited in the heart of the citizen, the desire of the citizen for elements one no longer dares to ask for – conviviality, joy, delight in wonder, the shared forum of imagining and play, of unreserved laughter and serenity – all the fluff things we have decided we have no levers for, but yearn for, all the playful and ecstatic registers that justify city life, without which the city becomes a place of business, or indentured servitude."

The measure of things the city cannot do without is what ordinary humans need, and which are absent in the calculations of bureaucrats and boosters: love above all. 'A citizenry is incited to action by the eros of mutual care,"Fr. Di Cicco writes, 'by having a common object of love – their city. A town that is not in love will cut corners; lose sight of the common good."It loses sight of the beauty that is the root of the common good. This beauty is not merely that of architecture or the streetscape, he argues, but 'what people have built in the spaces between each other – a reciprocity, an exchange of ideals and a shared vision."

Significantly, the occasional texts here – all written for audiences of urbanists and others interested in the city – never name God or the Gospel directly. Fr. Di Cicco's arguments, instead, speak of God in a secular fashion, conveying the message of the Good News in the language which has been generated in the secular city itself. 'Creativity is our only language for the spirituality of the times,"he says. 'Shared wonder is as close as we get to communal worship. The shared humanity that art represents is the disarmament of ideology and special interest."

But if they are decidedly secular, Fr. di Cicco's definitions and distinctions are deeply rooted in the imperatives of Christian existence. Creativity, he tells us, 'is not the rare gift of the artist, or the poet. It is what calls a human being to author his or her life by the creation of cities, families, communities. It is that identifier in each person that cries out for authentication. It is that dormant genius, which, if suppressed, finds release in bombings, mental unhealth and crime. This is the reality that global strategy must understand, independent of creativity as a lever to economy, or the vanity of the sovereign."The creative city 'lives in an ethos of responsiveness. The appetite for life has to be there, freed of the wastage of cynicism, freed of the constraints and caveats that a hyper-regulated metropolis offers. . . . The extent to which the city conditions the civic body to inhibition, is the measure to which a city extinguishes its passion. Such a city cannot hope to excite by an idea or civic design."

The fulfilment of the city in which God is at work – as he has been vividly at work in all human affairs since the creation of the world – lies for Fr. di Cicco in what he calls 'drama,"'the secret to a creative city or town."

'It embraces failure, fear: connects its forays of altruism to the design of the generous, in a public confession of delight. For it knows all aspects of the mature life to be grist for common struggle and civic revelation. The human drama, the embarrassments, the satire of competition, the commanding weather of mortality, the pettiness that frames the striving heart. These are accepted, lived, shared, in a code that spites the solitary. . . . For all our schemes of connectedness and network, for all our hopes for revitalization, it is the human drama alone that will restore our cities,"he writes.

In his forthright celebration of love, beauty and passion, Fr. Di Cicco lays out the essential outline of an urban spirituality rich in Christian wisdom and understanding. Here, then, is the proclamation of God's Good News in the secular city, a speaking of God in a secular way that is authentic insofar as it springs from the biblical faith and speaks to the deepest existential emergences that afflict the children of Cain in their cities. There will be no end to this project of creative city-building until the appearing of Jesus at the end of history. Meanwhile, the People of God remain at work in the city, opening spaces for justice, peace and fulfilment in the name of God and in resistance to the spiritual forces committed to closing them. To speak of God in the secular city is to do the acts God has given us to do: repentance and the offering of thanksgiving and prayer, surely, the preaching of the Good News, and also the encouragement of love. In this way we join God's actions in expectation of that day when all our work is finished in the city whose sun is Jesus Christ.

More in this category: « Greening our sacred spaces

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