Virtual Voices

Looking for Eden in all the wrong places

Culture

In The Culture of Cities, published in 1938, Lewis Mumford articulated a vision for the beauty of cities that many people have failed to appreciate. In contradistinction from the neo-agrarian romanticism of Wendell Berry and others, Mumford affirmed that "cities are a product of the earth." There is nothing in city life that keeps one from experiencing nature.

Wendell Berry, for example, seemed to believe that being connected to nature assumes agricultural manifestations. Berry said, "Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato." What's wrong with being a sophisticate who knows the good of what it means to be fruitful and multiply and incapable of working the land?

Mumford, however, offered a different vision of moving away from agriculture to urban life:

"[Cities] reflect the peasant's cunning in dominating the earth; technically they but carry his skill in turning the soil to productive uses, in enfolding his cattle for safety, in regulating the waters that moisten his fields, in providing storage bins and barns for his crops. Cities are emblems of that settled life which began with permanent agriculture: a life conducted with the aid of permanent shelters, permanent utilities like orchards, vineyards, and irrigation works, and permanent buildings for protection and storage."

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To be in a city is to be in nature. The city and the countryside represent the abundant handiwork of God. Cities represent concentrated activities of people living out their human vocation to be rulers and subduers of creation---a priestly function to manage creation well, create conditions for flourishing human life, and bring glory to God. Mumford reminded us that "cities arise out of man's social needs and multiply both their modes and their methods of expression." The management of social needs is the privilege and distinction of being human. We call this stewardship.

Instead of the nostalgia of withdrawing to agrarian lifestyles, Mumford explained that cities provide the refining advantage of cultural clashes: "In the city remote forces and influences intermingle with the local." He continued:

"[T]heir conflicts are no less significant than their harmonies. And here, the concentration of the means of intercourse in the market and the meeting place, alternative modes of living present themselves: the deeply rutted ways of the village cease to be coercive and the ancestral goal cease to be all-sufficient: strange men and women, strange interests, and stranger gods loosen the traditional ties of blood and neighborhood. . . .'

Cities provide an image of the type of scattering that God rebuked his people for resisting when they built the Tower of Babel. The clash of cultures provides opportunities to bring the best contributions to social life from various peoples: skills, art, food, techniques, music, religion, and so on. Christians in cities bring the Kingdom to the nations in ways that other contexts cannot. Cities also test our understanding of human solidarity on the basis of our common humanity and commands to love our neighbor. Additionally, economic markets promote multi-ethnic, multi-racial interaction.

Mumford went on to say that "the city is a fact in nature." Understanding cities as nature keeps us from mystically longing for a context that gets us back to some better, more communal, less sustainable, homogeneous shire. As a fact in nature, said Mumford, cities allow the flourishing of human social needs as "both a physical utility for collective living and a symbol of those collective purposes and unanimities that arise under such favoring circumstances."

There is nothing wrong with having a preference for smaller towns or more rural contexts, but to set rural life---"simple living," or the mythology of small town solidarity and the like---against urban living is to introduce a twisted distortion of nature and is foreign to the world of the Bible. Alternatively, those who argue that urban life is the best way to live miss the diversity represented in the providence of God using rural and urban contexts to fulfill his good intentions for the whole creation. So the next time you want to "get back to nature and see God's creation," skip the mountains and visit your nearest major city.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of theology and ethics at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of Liberating Black Theology. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.

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