In his fascinating book, Triumph of the City the world-renown economist Edward Glaeser describes the significance of cities in the history of human civilisation with great eloquence and inimitable passion. ‘Cities’, he writes, ‘the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been the engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace’.
Presently about 54 percent of the world’s population live in cities, which Glaeser memorably describes as humanity’s ‘greatest invention’. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, the proportion of people living in urban areas is expected to increase to 66 percent.
In recent years, a number of Christian theologians have been reflecting on the significance and meaning of the city, and constructing what may be described as a theology of the city. A notable contribution to these reflections is surely Timothy Gorringe’s A Theology of the Built Environment, published more than ten years ago.
The perceptive reader of the Bible, however, will notice that the city is not regarded very highly in its pages.
We do not have to venture too far into the Bible to find a city that symbolises the colossalism and rebelliousness of the human spirit. The building of the first skyscraper described in Genesis 11 was a clear expression of human defiance against God, making Babel the quintessential city of rebellion.
In just a few short chapters later, we arrive at two cities that together signify the epitome of human depravity. There can be no doubt that the great sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is sexual perversion, those degrading habits and practices that are detestable in the eyes of the holy God (Genesis 19; Jude 7).
In the final chapters of the Bible we find a city – personified as a woman – that embodies every kind of idolatry and abomination, and the persecutor of Christians. In describing this city, John does not mince his words: “And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations’. And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Revelation 17:5).
It is therefore not at all surprising that some Christian thinkers see the city as the very antithesis of the will of God for humankind.
The most forceful and eloquent among them is surely the French Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul, for whom the city signifies the rejection of Eden and the quintessential symbol of sin, the ‘world’ and the powers of hell.
To see the city in such a negative light, however, is to fail to appreciate the complexity of the Biblical portrayal. Most crucially, it is to fail to see the significance of the fact that although the Bible began with a garden, it ended with a city.
In the midst of the Bible’s negative use of the city as a symbol of human evil, we find the powerfully redemptive imagery of the cities of refuge in Joshua 20 that serve as safe havens for persons guilty of manslaughter. These cities, built on the basis of the divine imperative, serve as the striking symbol of justice and mercy.
In Israel’s great wisdom literature and in the testimony of her prophets, we find an even more remarkable imagery of the city as a place of security and prosperity. ‘Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble’, writes the Psalmist, ‘and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in’ (Psalm 107:6-7).
The city is depicted as a home, a refuge from the dangers and terrors of the wilderness, where the human community could flourish. The meaning of the city therefore transcends the buildings and the shared spaces, important though they are. As Gorringe puts it, ‘It was early recognised that it was the community, and not the built environment, which makes a city’.
‘Cities’, argues Gorringe succinctly, ‘instantiate social relations of difference without exclusion’. The city manifests this more powerfully than the town or the village simply because of the density and diversity of its population.
The Christian theologian or thinker must therefore avoid two extremes when reflecting on the meaning and significance of the city.
The first extreme is to follow Ellul uncritically and regard the city as the evil invention of the fallen man. And the second is to idealise the city and to see it as the guarantor of human happiness and peace.
Cities are in reality a mixed blessing, caught in the tension that characterise our time, between the first advent of Christ and his return.
And in this ‘time between the times’, human cities enigmatically are at once the locus of sin and evil and the environment where everything that is associated with what it means to be human – relationships, community, art, science, technology, music, commerce – may flourish.
In the midst of tensions and contradictions, however, cities can also be the locus of the presence of God.
In Ezekiel 48, we have a powerful description of the restoration of the city. In looking for best way to characterise the restored city, Ezekiel writes: ‘And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The LORD is there’ (Ezekiel 48:35).
The city that upholds justice and mercy can be a place that welcomes and honours the holy God. It can be a faint but real reflection of that heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, where glory of the Lord is resplendent and where nothing unclean, detestable and false can be found (Revelation 21: 27).
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.