This was the thesis of Jacques Ellul's The Meaning of the City (1970).
It's a couple of years since I read the book so I'm not going to tackle the detail now. But I have repeatedly come back to the idea as a (or the) starting point for contextual theological reflection.
The city, it seems to me, is the continuous embodiment of hubris - the realisation of the assertion that humanity is wholly self-sufficient and has no need of God.
Cities themselves are spinning tops. They stay upright solely by the energy of their own momentum. They are always about to collapse and the fear or anticipation of collapse keeps them spinning. Water, food, power, waste disposal, social order, communications, transportation - indeed every aspect of urban life - are always about to decay and collapse (we are all just three meals from anarchy). Yet, mostly, they don't.
Or, more accurately, cities are continuously collapsing and dying. And it is the real, immediate possibility that they will fall over, combined with the personal and organisational interests of those who continuously risk being impoverished, which keeps everyone running round and round to keep the top spinning.
And everywhere is city. The countryside is shaped by the needs of the city. Remaining wildernesses are defined as 'remote' by relation to the city. It may be possible to retreat from the city but it's not possible to leave it.
2) How do I pursue a liberal theology from this starting point?
|The Dome of the Rock overlooking Jerusalem|
But if I take seriously the thesis that the city is antithetic to God, then neither am I going to endorse providence or Leibniz' 'all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds', though I might debate the matter over a pint with Pangloss.
Ellul struggled with what, for him, was the paradox of Jerusalem. God made this city his own. God adopted the city knowing it to have been born in defiance of God. I don't remember whether Ellul extrapolated this relationship to all cities but I'm inclined to do so.
For me, paradox is a key term. Holding incompatible opposites together is a methodological nightmare but it seems to me necessary. As Christians, as churches, we are in-and-against the world around us.
God is, I assert, cause, continuation and conclusion, word and audience, transcendent and imminent, judge and broken, the resolution of all paradoxes. However, until the resolution when none of it will matter any more, paradoxes remain normal.
Therefore paradoxes will have to be a presupposition of contextual theology. But that doesn't tell me anything about their content nor how to deploy paradox in a manner which isn't simply self-serving.
Comments, observations very welcome. I'm just beginning on this road.