I just completed my first trimester of seminary (round 2). I took a class class on Urban Christianity that, while it may not sound like a difficult and comprehensive graduate course, really was demanding at every level. So much so, in fact, it has really changed a lot of the ways I’ve thought about the city and how humans relate to it (especially Christians).
The class really caught me at just the right time. To a certain extent, even before coming to this class, I “got” it. I had imbibed enough Tim Keller and Church Planting material to understand the centrality of the city in the story of the Bible. Further, my church is now my fourth urban church plant, I go to church and live, literally, in “Center City” Philadelphia, and I work in the midst of the brokenness of the city, seeing the extremes of its beauty and brokenness in ways that few people do in their everyday lives.
And yet, especially due to the rural roots of “certain people” extremely close to me (haha), I felt I needed to engage in this class to develop a far more nuanced view of the city. And I think I got that. Over a few posts over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned through this time. I think some of these things are lessons that all of us cool urban twentysomethings could do well to internalize.
Lesson: Cities are Not the End-All-Be-All. In fact, they can destroy our souls.
Over the past few months, I had to really spend significant time thinking through the inherent culture and ethos of cities, And in the end, I’ve had to take them off the pedestal I had them on previously. This is for two broad reasons.
The first is personal. I’ve seen that the DNA of cities necessarily makes them the kinds of places that, in fact, play to and justify some of my biggest weaknesses. My social anxiety that leads to a desire to be in front of people rather than among them is, in this context, easily seen as a “gift” to be encouraged rather than a danger to my soul.
Further, my easily distractible, compulsive behaviors integrate all-too beautifully into the non-stop rigorous pace of urban living, and rarely attract rebuke. And lastly, my own insecurity that leads to a need for human affirmation is easily “fulfilled” in cities, as there’s a greater concentration of people that can build me up and make me feel “worthy” of love and relationship. Yes, yes, I know this not okay. I’m working on it.
My second disillusionment with the city is universal. As I stared into the depths of the soul of the city, I saw that, no matter how beautiful and wonderful it is, no matter how key it is to the story of Redemption, there are parts of the human soul that are simply unable to flourish there.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Every livable space has benefits and drawbacks, each of which speaks to and against certain aspects of the human self. And this is no less true for cities. The soul needs rest, it needs nature; it needs to see beauty that is not simply from human hands–this humbles us and brings out a more universal sense of awe.The flourishing human soul needs space and solitude (but not loneliness, of course).
These are human needs that simply cannot be achieved in cities. Parks conceived in the minds of humans and designed for human use don’t quite fully do it. Even urban-dwellers need to escape the urban world now and then. Cities simply cannot–by design–speak to every stirring and longing and need of the human heart. The consumeristic nature of urban environments is designed to create a lack of contentment and a consistent desire for more.
Every once and a while, we need to clear our heads of all this. Before this class, I had, without even thinking, simply bought in to the belief that cities are inherently somehow “better” than other type of livable environments. Worse, I bought into the subtle assumption that cities are closer to the heart of God than rural and suburban environments.
This is so harmful to our souls and is a wrong picture of God’s priorities. For those that care about injustice, governmental and societal neglect, poverty and hurting families–all those things we know are God’s priorities and are present in cities–we often forget that they are present in rural areas just as much as in cities. Further, as more urban areas become wealthier and whiter again, it’s pushing out lower income minorities out to the suburbs.
Cities are not the only place to pursue and work for justice. They are not the only places where stunning beauty and excitement exist. They are not the only places where Christians need to be and people need to love.
And yet, cities are absolutely essential to the life and flourishing of the entire world. And there are ways in which to live in them that don’t play into these dynamics. I love them, and you should too. And that will be the subject of my text posts.