25 June 2006

civitas dei

civitas dei

In his extraordinary work, City of God, St. Augustine unfolds the history of humanity and redemption in terms of two cities - the city of man and the city of God - locked in ongoing struggle. The eschatological goal of human history is the building and final appearance of the great city of God, the new Jerusalem, victorious at last, resplendent as a Bride, embodying the harmonious and joyous life of the redeemed together in God through Christ.

Recently I've been reading Eric O. Jacobsen's Sidewalks of the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos 2003). The book is, in many respects, an extended meditation upon what this vision of the new Jerusalem means here and now for how Christ's kingdom might begin to manifest itself in our present earthly cities. Jacobsen eschews generalized talk of "claiming our cities for Christ," instead attempting to outline a Christian perspective on the life of cities and towns in all their geographical and architectural particularity and specifity.

At one point Jacobsen recounts an adult Sunday School class he was teaching in Missoula, Montana, where he is a Presbyterian pastor. He asked the question, "What would a redeemed city look like?" He set aside the question of what percentage of the population would have to be Christian, instead asking a set of questions ranging "from the individualistic and behavioral to the social and institutional and, finally, to the physical and cultural" (48).

The list of questions included the following:
· Would we notice a difference in how people treated one another when they passed on the street?

· Would people be more joyful in their demeanor?

· Would there be different traffic patterns on Sunday?

· Would there be less litter in the streets?

· Would there be more or fewer food banks?

· Would there be an increase or decrease in social services?

· If there were savings from reduced police and social services, would the savings go toward more parks or tax breaks?

· Would there be a flourishing or diminishing of the arts?

· Would people spend more or less time at work?

· Would houses tend to be closer together or farther apart?

· Would out public buildings (courthouse, library, and post office) be more grand or more plain?

· Would there be public celebrations of Christian holidays? (48-49)
Jacobsen notes that, while there was significant agreement on the answers to some of these questions, other questions led to division and some "left us in absolute confusion" (49).

The exercise was, of course, a matter of speculation and perhaps trying to envision answers in an a priori is wrong-headed from the get go. Nevertheless, as Jacobsen suggests, "how we answered these questions revealed some of our basic assumptions regarding salvation, redemption, and the nature of God" (49).

That is to say, whether or not we can come to definite answers to any or all of these questions, the process of thinking through how we might formulate answers uncovers a lot about how we understand what it is to bear God's image, the eschatological end of human life, the nature of God's mission in the world, the character of salvation, the value of material creation, the contours of redeemed community, and so on. Architecture and urban planning, interestingly, can open a window on the whole panaroma of God's deliverance and renewal of his world.

I guess the practical question arising from this is, given a particular understanding of redemption, what does that mean for how we live, where we live, what kind of community we try to foster, what choices we make as consumers, and how we make choices about the nitty-gritty details of everyday life: transportation, groceries, gardening, and the like?

In the midst of the already-not yet of a world still awaiting its ultimate redemption, there is always the danger of an over-realized eschatology that holds up one's own prudential choices or good advice as a legalistic requirement for a superior spirituality. But there is also the equal and opposite danger of so deferring redemption to the eschaton, that God's future doesn't impinge at all upon our here and now, or at least not beyond some narrow and arbitrarily defined arena of "private" spirituality.

In light of that tension, I would commend Jacobsen's book as a useful, practical, and at times provocative tool in the Christian practice of everyday life.