Why Is the City So Important for Christian Theology?

By Ward, Graham | Cross Currents, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Why Is the City So Important for Christian Theology?


Ward, Graham, Cross Currents


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. …

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