Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

An Introduction

How can we do theology in the city? What is “good news” in the urban context?

I'm a deacon of the Diocese of London, and it’s my great privilege to be serving my Title as assistant curate at St Michael’s, Camden Town, London, in the Old St Pancras Team Ministry, a tremendously exciting and challenging place.

St Michael’s is the church where the Faithful Cities report was launched in 2006 (link in sidebar). The report describes faithful cities as “places of celebration, vision and justice”, and addresses such issues as cultural diversity, globalisation, poverty, inequality, status, deprivation, regeneration and renewal. As the report observes, these issues, much to the forefront of modern urban planning and politics, also naturally invite theological reflection.

The Faithful Cities report identified three key theological convictions which underlie the idea of the city as a place of human flourishing:

First, we understand God to be source of all life from whom all creation draws its purpose and character. Secondly, we understand that to be human means that we are made ‘in the image and likeness of God’, and that therefore each person possesses an innate and irreducible dignity. Thirdly, our traditions speak of humanity being called into relationship with God and that human purpose and destiny is fulfilled in relationships of mutuality, love and justice. (Faithful Cities, p.2.)

How do our cities and their structures and institutions serve those ends, or fail to serve them? The Bible sets out two contrasting visions of the city. The city founded by humans pretty much has a bad press. The first city in the Bible was founded by the first murderer, Cain, a fugitive bearer of a divine curse (Genesis 4:17). The psalms and the prophets tend to give cities a bad press, “full of darkness and the haunts of violence” (Psalm 74), “[they] store up violence and robbery in their strongholds” (Amos). Yet at the same time the scriptures also speak longingly of the city of God, of Zion, of Jerusalem which means “vision of peace”. Here is the irony at the heart of human civilisation: the City of God is the place of human flourishing; the city founded by humans
fails to be this, and instead becomes the haunt of violence and murder.

This contrast appears perhaps most fully in the Book of Revelation, where the city of “Babylon” represents the worst that human beings can achieve, the city of violence carried to apocalyptic extremes. But Revelation also has the last city in the Bible, which descends from heaven when, finally, all the human mechanisms of rivalry and violence are exposed and overthrown. This is the city of God, filled with the life that God lives and therefore the place where human beings can be fully alive. Healing flows from that city, and all the nations will enter it. In that city there is no temple, no religion, no sacrifice. It is the city where God is shown to be, as God has been all along, entirely free of the sacred violence which human beings, alone, construct.

Between those two visions of the city something is happening to transform human society. The inexorable mechanism by which human beings fail to be human is exposed. The founding murder which lies buried at the roots of human civilisation is uncovered. We are visited by a revelation of what we have really been and of what God is really like. This revelation exposes our human structures of rivalry, imitation and violence, and the great webs of religion and myth in which these have hitherto been veiled are blown away.

This revelation, which is called the Gospel, offers liberation: it is possible to live without violence. It is possible, in fact, to be deified, to live the life that God lives, the life we have been strenuously resisting for all these ages in which we have served instead the cult of death.

The Gospel revelation is also, paradoxically, terribly dangerous. In exposing the true heart of human darkness to offer us the way out, it presents us also with the opposite choice: to embrace our own violence and be carried away in an exponential spiral of destruction which nothing can now stop because the old moderating mechanisms of myth and religion have been stripped away.

So the city is the place of the greatest hope, and the greatest conflict. There is a cosmic drama going on, if we have but eyes to see. It’s my hope that in some small way this blog can contribute to exploring and discussing issues of contextual theology in our twenty-first century city, issues which touch on the heart of what it is to be human.

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