Those who know me in real life probably know two things: I have a lot of very curly hair… and I am a city person. So I read with interest Michael Peppard’s Commonweal blog post on “urban theology,” and would encourage you to do so.

I was born and raised in Philadelphia (the city, not the suburbs, thankyouverymuch!), I lived in Cambridge, MA for my master’s, and as I’ve said far too often, when I get back to a great city, I feel like I’ve grown a third lung. I can breathe again—even if the smog and the toxins and the rotting garbage and exhaust fumes render questionable the wisdom of doing so… But the point is, tension I wasn’t even aware I was holding is released. I feel alive in cities.  To quote my favorite play, Angels in America (set very conspicuously in New York),

—What’s it like, on the other side?
—Heaven or hell?

—Like San Francisco.
—A city. Good. I was worried it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.

Now, those familiar with Angels in America may recognize that as a quote from the fictionalized Roy Cohn, whom another character calls “the polestar of human evil…the worst human being who ever lived,” so it doesn’t actually warm the cockles of my heart to be sharing Roy’s sentiment so very closely. And I’m keenly aware that I am in the minority of theologians in my estimation of the benefits of urban life: it’s not only Dante who makes hell a city. Indeed, Peppard’s post—while a consideration of the question of what distinguishes urban theology—is largely about the challenge of being separated from nature in an urban environment. After quoting the end of the old Latin saying, “Bernard loved the valleys; Benedict loved the mountains; Francis the towns; Ignatius loved great cities,” Peppard goes on to express his instinctive distance from Ignatius:

I confess, however, to having idealized notions of theological thinking that takes place in placid or even wilderness environments. Immanuel Kant barely ever left his hometown. Great thinkers from Jesus to Thomas Merton to Kathleen Norris have fled to the wilderness in search of solitude for prayer and insight. And yet others, such as Paul, Ignatius Loyola, and Dorothy Day have flourished in the cities. I always identified more with the Jesus-Merton-Norris crowd. I sometimes find it hard even to breathe in New York.

Not exactly my “third lung” experience.

But there’s a particular form of pleasure in reading someone come to an appreciation of something you’ve always loved—that delicious, expansive pride that accompanies the knowledge that your love does have something to offer. Peppard’s account isn’t wholly positive—there’s a tinge of grief in the loss of the Rockies (“God, it was easy to teach sacramental theology in Colorado.”), but he does highlight—if somewhat ambivalently—what I’ve always loved about cities: “Urban life, for better and worse, is about people.” And so Peppard reflects on his turn away from the gospels’ agricultural parables and to their economic teachings: “the Rich Man passing by Lazarus—I see both men every day, and I am one of them. Every day.”

Photograph of Philadelphia City Street
Photograph by Bridget

And I would say that’s part of what electrifies me about city life. Yes, there is a constant managing of one’s own objective guilt, a constant confrontation with poverty and racism. I am very conscious of how often I claim not to have spare change. And that is deeply troubling—in a way that we Christians must be troubled, of course, though not in an immediately life-giving way. Mountains or stars or the ocean would seem to fill a person with peace, or joy, or energy—the constant confrontation with one’s complicity in structural sin with no clear way out of that sinfulness would seem to exhaust a person. Here I’ll reveal a bit of my instinctive suspicion of aesthetics as a site for encounter with the divine: interacting with the smelly, dirty homeless woman who yelled rather horrible insults at me on the El a few months ago should be a closer encounter with God than a trip to Olympic National Park (unspeakable beauty!), I always think… but it rarely is. A person needs some sort of rejuvenation, or she burns out pretty quickly.

But I don’t think that cities are only about a constant call to an examination of conscience. Of course, most of the time on the subway I’m annoyed and frazzled and trying to use my earbuds and book to communicate a firm message of LEAVE ME ALONE (particularly as a woman), but every once in a while, I’ll be on a train, or in a cafe, or at a city park, and it will occur to me: all of these people are made in the image of God. All of these overwhelmingly different people: not just the ones to whom I’m attracted, or who would lend me that section of the Times when they’re done reading it, but the people whom I seemingly have nothing to do with on a daily basis, aside from our common enfolding into the great rhythmic hum of the city, and the people whom I want nothing to do with now. And how stunningly Bigger-Than is God, if all of these people reflect her image.

Even Merton, whom Peppard counts among his number in fleeing the city to seek spiritual insight in the country, had one of his most profound spiritual realizations in an urban environment:

Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream — the dream of separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me is a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race — and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are — as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth.

Urban life is all about people.

And so while it’s sometimes a practice among Catholic professors and instructors of theology to ding public school graduates—to assume that the ideal undergraduate is the product of 13 years of Catholic education, that only then can we assign texts that might complicate the view of Catholicism painted by the Catechism—I also want to note how much I learned as a student in an urban school district. I learned more that serves me as a theologian from spending my Philadelphia School District (RIP) days with demographically disparate peers, from knowing teachers and students of diverse religious backgrounds, from asking them questions about what they valued and from trying (and sometimes failing) to talk about what I valued than from years of religious ed and sacramental prep.

As an undergraduate, my teacher of beloved memory, Rabbi Michael Signer, remarked that interreligious dialogue was a necessity because no one is ever just going to leave anyone else alone, ever again. That’s what living in cities has taught me: no one is ever going to just leave anyone else alone. When that’s not utterly enervating, it’s actually quite exhilarating.

Peppard notes that when he taught in Colorado, his students could turn their desks to the Rocky Mountains to read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry—”the world was ‘charged with the gradeur of God.’ Nature was ‘never spent,'” and so on. But I don’t think it’s impossible to read Hopkins in the 21st-century city:

…for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

And where can we find ten thousand places if we can’t find them in our great cities?

4 thoughts

  1. Have you ever come across G K Chesterton’s book, ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’? He talks there about how it’s strange that so little poetry is written about cities, how we tend to take our poetic imagery from nature, and tries to imagine, sort of, in a rather weird way, what it would like to *really* love the city. And Chesterton himself loved London more than you’d guess from the way he’s appropriated by people who romanticise a parochial sort of English village life. I always like the way that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city, Jerusalem: I think you’re right that there’s something profoundly important about the city, and life in the city, that is often not talked about.

    Have you come across Anthony Paul Smith’s work on grey ecology? He writes about the ecological importance of the city (, which I think is an interesting place to start in terms of thinking about the city.

  2. What a gorgeous post – this was my “lunch” today, consumed at my desk and most satisfying indeed. I am suburb-woman now, but I think I can only do it because my first 50 years of life were spent in urban places. Thank you.

  3. Thank-you. This gives voice to much of my own experience (though I came straight off the farm thankyouverymuch. I also attribute this to why I have very little of the travel bug. If I live and work more or less downtown everyday can feel like an adventure of sorts (as lame as that might sound).

  4. Well I still hate cities, Bridget. I think I also like animals a lot more than I do people. But this sentence did make me stop short:

    “I learned more that serves me as a theologian from spending my Philadelphia School District (RIP) days with demographically disparate peers, from knowing teachers and students of diverse religious backgrounds, from asking them questions about what they valued and from trying (and sometimes failing) to talk about what I valued than from years of religious ed and sacramental prep.”

    I have to agree. That is definitely the case for me as well (substitute Stockton for Philadelphia). I still remember the day in kindergarten when my friend showed me the image on her necklace and said, “This is the Cambodian God.” And I really haven’t stopped being fascinated by religion ever since.

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