Christianity and the Urban Future

There has been a great deal of speculation over what Christianity will look like in the coming years, much of it focusing on the likely movement of the church’s center of gravity to the Southern hemisphere. But we can also say that the Christianity of the future will most likely be much more urban. In the current Pastoral Review, Philip Sheldrake tells us that a majority of the world’s inhabitants (for the very first time) presently dwell in urban environments; by 2025, 66% of the earth’s population will live in cities. Cities, he says, are inevitably “public” places, “characterized by the interaction of strangers.” Christianity might actually flourish in such settings because Christian morality is about the common life and task of humankind. After all, in the classic Augustinian view – which Professor Sheldrake repeats – sin is actually “self-enclosure or privacy.”

Thus, it is not uncommon to hear Christian leaders bemoan the lessening of commitment to the common good and the disturbing rise in individualism. But we can also note some wariness towards cities in Christian thought. Professor Sheldrake reminds us, “Historically, some Christian approaches to spirituality are marked by a retreat from raucous cityscapes to a peaceful, contemplative ‘elsewhere’ – symbolised by countryside, retreat house or monastery.” Cities might not just be noisy and distracting places of smokestacks and subways: Augustine saw the major city of his time, Rome, as marked by a “lust for domination.” And “Cain also became the founder of a city, which he named after his son Enoch” (Gen 4:17).

But Augustine did not counsel a withdrawal into privacy. Cities might be dangerous places, but if they are “characterized by the interaction of strangers,” they might be sites of unexpected grace. The Gospels emphasize the value of encountering strangers and learning to be hospitable to them. The Samaritan, of all people, might become your neighbor. The good city should be person-centered, characterized by mutuality rather than individualism. Citing Charles Leadbeater, Professor Sheldrake confirms our suspicion that, yes, this will mean giving up individual choice for the greater good of social cohesion. But social cohesion cannot be defined vaguely, or merely in terms of effectiveness.

Professor Sheldrake turns to Christian spirituality to give a fuller picture of this good city. In particular, he turns to the late Jesuit social theorist Michel de Certeau, on whom he has often written. Against the totalitarianism of urban planners such as Le Corbusier and their secular salvations of highly regulated environments, de Certeau focused on how the “weak” who actually live in these cities resist the “systems” and live their lives in a very human way that may prefigure the heavenly city.

De Certeau also contemplated the credibility of Christianity in modern cities, which are often distinctly secular. Christians must here try to live out the “story of Jesus,” which Sheldrake says will mean “being differently in the world” as they are continually changed – converted, really – by their pilgrimages. Professor Sheldrake continues, “Christians must cultivate a contemplative attentiveness to the city so that transformative encounters with God occur in and through our immersion in everyday life and then feed back into transformed responses to persons and situations.” Life in the city cannot mean avoiding interaction with strangers – a sort of defensive “settling down” behind the safety of carefully drawn boundary lines. It must be instead a “risky journey”: we risk “finding God in all things,” even among the marginalized and Gentiles, while wandering in a “way of proceeding.” De Certeau was, after all, a Jesuit.

In our urban future, then, we must not retreat to gated communities. We must instead recall the theme of hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict: Omnes supervenientes hospites tamquam Christus suscipiantur (All are to be received as Christ). Jesus himself told us that when we welcome the strangers that we happen to encounter, we welcome him (Matthew 25:35). As Professor Sheldrake concludes, “If we are, in the words of de Certeau, ‘to live the story of Jesus’ in the city in a prophetic way, we must learn how to be a community of hospitality that bonds together essentially for mission – that is, in order to build bridges and make links with people whom we see as different from ourselves, but also to fulfil a broader vocation as a catalyst of the good city.” If we are willing to journey outwards, we might find ourselves living in person-centered cities.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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