On the Town with Georg Simmel: A Socio-Religious Understanding of Urban Interaction

Article excerpt

Georg Simmel (1858-1918) was a founder of the German Sociological Association and lived the majority of his life in the city of Berlin. One area of research to which Simmel frequently returned was the documenting of how our social, geographical and physical lives shaped our spiritual lives, and how our spirituality shaped our social and physical environments. He searched the urban landscape for the material and spiritual evidence of this interactive construction of everyday life. When he did not confine himself to a reporting of physical and sociological realities (data), and ventured into what he called "the soul" or the "inner life," his critics declared that he had no evidence for his claims. This sociological attitude still characterizes much of western sociology and prevents many religious practitioners from accessing the discipline. Fortunately, Simmel expanded his ability to reach under the documented facts of society and culture into the hidden realities that undergirded it; this skill eventually propelled him to the top of intellectual circles and preserved him forever as a lion-sized sociological treasure.

Simmel's students went on to found the first department of sociology at the University of Chicago, a department well known for its theoretical contributions to the understanding of social interaction. The early days of the Chicago school of sociology were characterized by their concern for what is commonly referred to as the "everyday." Three of Simmel's internationally well known deliberations on the everyday were on "the bridge and the door" and "the stranger." A central concept in all three was "unity" and the process by which humans produce unity or let it escape from their grasp. In the following, I will suggest a way that religionists might allow social theorists to assist them in understanding urban experiences by inviting Simmel to walk with them around New York City. What would the voice of the urban practitioner sound like if we allowed Simmel to speak through it; and what would happen if we asked him, from the grave, to address a material reality such as urban angels? It may just be that urban ministry is the right American venue to reclaim the work of a man who believed that playfulness was required of serious inquiry so that we might all be saved from what he called the coming formlessness, a kind of chaos that sends angels back to heaven and humans to nowhere at all. [1]

The Bridge and the Door

Michael Kaern's new translation of Simmel's The Bridge and the Door (1994) provides fresh insight into his epistemology. For Simmel, truth is relational. He argued that people build society on everyday relational truths (Karen points out that this is a deeper insight than "all truths are relative.") Our social and physical environments reflect each other. Simmel argued this point through reflections on the "bridge." Our "will to relate," he said, pushes us into an empathetic mode that bridges our separateness and allows us to establish processes through which we create one society. [2] This process, Simmel argued, was like the bridge that overcomes obstacles by spreading its will through space. The human bridge that creates society must be firmly anchored and enduring. It must also, the bridge that transverses a natural divide, "submit to nature and transcend nature." [3] The perfected physics of the bridge comes through taking "measurements" so that distance becomes the unification of separateness.

Bridges are ancient constructions. Early bridges were simple affairs, like logs, that were strategically placed over obstacles, like rivers. Humans eventually learned to build more enduring structures. The early Roman Alcontara Bridge that spans the Tagus River in Spain is still standing after nearly two thousand years. Many of the ancient bridges that are still standing were built on solid rock, but the history of bridge building tells us that the Romans made a lasting contribution to the method by finding a way to pour cement footings below the water. …