The latest book to be read and discussed by the CONCRETE Theology and Youth Ministry reading group is The Spiritual City: Theology, Spirituality, and the Urban by Philip Sheldrake. The group is made up of James Fawcett from CONCRETE, Naomi Luff from XLP, Tim Broadbent from St Mary, Islington and Tim Carroll from St Andrew’s, Archway. What follows is a brief summary of the book and highlights of a conversation about the text.
Naomi Luff’s summary of Philip Sheldrake’s The Spiritual City:
If you were going to build a city from scratch, how would you begin? What would be important to you – design and architecture? Efficient road planning and safety? Or teleportation pods and 24 hour cinemas?
In ‘The Spiritual City’, Philip Sheldrake argues that what we do with space ultimately reveals what we value.
Sheldrake sets out to explore questions around the vision and purpose of cities as seen through the eyes of theologians, philosophers, sociologists and town planners through the ages. His purpose is to find ways these different approaches inform, challenge and shape fresh perspectives on the city and urban community life.
The first half of the book deals with a broad historical overview of different Christian approaches to cities. From Augustine and Aquinas, to the lesser known de Certeau and Le Corbusier, Sheldrake explores the idea of cities as a kind of utopian vision compared to a much more pragmatic, systematic and ‘now-focused’ approach.
He addresses such questions as: What are cities for? Can sacred spaces be found within the city? Furthermore, is the city a sacred space in itself? Are cities inherently good or inherently evil places?
The second half of the book reflects on values of community, hospitality and reconciliation, and their importance in the potential success (or failure) of cities to enhance the lives of their inhabitants.
Sheldrake says: “cities have a vital role in shaping the human spirit for good or for ill” and therefore we have a responsibility to give serious consideration to how we as Christians participate in the development of cities.
As youth workers in London we wanted to think through how ideas about the city might impact the young people we work with and our own youth work practice.
JF: Finding God in the city was one of the main ideas that I got from the book. I mean this in the same way the way that someone may find God in the mountains, a river or the sea but we should also seek God in the concrete, buses, and structures.
I like that Sheldrake also emphasises the most important place to look for God is amongst the city dwellers themselves.
NL: As someone who loves the city and has chosen to live in one for the past 18 years, Sheldrake’s ideas resonate very deeply and personally with me. I find the city an exciting place to be – energetic, non-judgemental, constantly evolving and surprising, never dull. However, I understand those who hate the crowds, dirt and expense and take the first opportunity they can to move to the tranquillity and predictability of the suburbs.
TC: I was initially struck by Sheldrake’s thoughts on the architecture of cities; how buildings and city planning can reflect something of God’s nature. Cathedrals have prominent positions in cities and their design attempts to express something of God’s beauty and glory. Piazza’s or squares are also key places in the city and are open to people from all walks of life to come together, socialise, and be entertained. Sheldrake also mentions that the initial architects of the London Underground were Christian and were motivated by their faith. Some of the first Underground stations were located near big churches.
TB: One of the most interesting thoughts from the book was how Sheldrake saw that: “social interaction and active citizenship may...be seen as forms of spiritual practice.” I never thought of seeing my daily interactions as an expression of my spirituality.
JF: I agree. I think that Sheldrake was right when he wrote that “cities reflect and affect the quality of human relationships.” I like the idea that we might see God in the way people interact and the relationships formed from those interactions. It’s particularly apparent in the urban where the density of human life magnifies and intensifies relationships. I was inspired to think that we see God in all the diversity, creativity and love that permeates city life.
Sheldrake really altered my perspective on youth work. Previously I expected to be the person to point the young people to God, but the conclusion I reached was that I needed to be searching more for the divine in the city for myself before I could enable others to search for God.
TB: One thing that Sheldrake seems to do is romanticise city living and I’m not sure how I feel about it. He writes about cities being places of wonder, where people don’t just survive “but encourage people to dream.” Part of me understands that there is clearly positives to city living, but another part of me feels that ‘dreaming’ in the city is somewhat removed from reality from all but the exceptionally wealthy. I love living and working in London, and there are moments when I dream, but it is a struggle for me and many of my friends and the young people I know. At times it reminds me of the verse in 2 Corinthians when Paul writes: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair.” Maybe it’s not city living that encourages people to dream, but God and our desire to notice signs of the kingdom at work in the city.
NL: Yes, when I think about young people I know it’s often seen that remaining in the city has come to represent poverty – a lack of means, aspiration or opportunity. I would love the city to become somewhere the young people I know WANT to stay. Not only if they can afford to live on the right side of the tracks but because it feels like home, like somewhere they belong.
Sheldrake suggest in order for that to be the case everyone’s stories need listening to, not just the elite few. I think he’s right that everyone who lives in the city should have a voice in shaping it.