Photo by Mike Wilson | Unsplash
The internet is full of beautiful mountains, sunsets, plants, scenes and other wondrous natural productions in photographic glory. Many times they have written across them some scripture or other words that appeal to our sense of awe and wonder. Our spirituality is so often bound up with the natural world in its appreciable grandeur or exquisiteness.
But ... i wonder ... leaving aside the concerns about the uglinesses in nature (in reality our inability to appreciate, in many cases) or the triteness that this ends up generating... Why is it that we seem to shy away from seeing the urban environment as a potential source of inspiration? Whether we're thinking about visual or other dimensions of experience.
One answer is probably that we somehow see hills and fields as more directly made by God or at least not human-made. The obverse of that is seeing urban environments as more to do with human effort than something that 'tells God's glory'. That phrase points us to scriptural ideas such as in Romans 1 where the majesty of creation discloses something of God. On this basis, so much of the urban reveals its creator: humankind.
One of the effects of this almost unquestioned way of looking at things is that we seem to have many retreat centres in the countryside but very few in urban areas -I can only think of three urban retreat centres in Britain: one in Bradford, West Yorkshire, one in Edinburgh and one in Durham. Perhaps there are more but I would be surprised if there were a great many more.
So, my question is whether we can have an urban spirituality which would undergird the development of city retreat centres without damning them with faint praise compared with those set in beautiful countryside contexts. I do wonder how far the retreat to the country might be rooted in the impetus which drove pioneer monastics to the desert: to get away from the currupt urban civilisation and its vanities. But even that observation reminds us that the early Christian faith is very much and urban faith and in many parts of the world today, that is still the case. However, much western Christian imagination is still drawing deeply from the wells of our rural past and perhaps the way that the renaissance of the urban is tied to the 'dark satanic mills' of industrialisation has played a big part in maintaining that. Yet we should recognise that the urban population of the world is now bigger than the rural and that the economies of scale probably make being human as urbanites will tend to be better for the planet than otherwise.
First of all, in response to the question of developing an urban spirituality which could support city retreat centres, I'd actually like to note that seeing the landscape as natural and somehow more directly from God's hand is actually a bit of a stretch, in reality. Geologists are beginning to say that we live in the anthropocene period. What that means for us now is that we need to recognise just how much of our landscape (in Britain definitely) is actually human-formed or human-made. Britain was once pretty much one big forest but centuries of farming and land management by animal husbandry have altered our landscape. Trees are replaced by fields or moorland and prevented from regrowing by sheep or by burning. We know this to our cost in the last decade or two as we have really missed the water absorbancy that more woodland and forest would have given to protect some areas from flooding. The upshot of this observation is that when we look at a British landscape, we are looking at an artificial landscape altered, sometimes drastically by human economic and subsistance interests. Admittedly, many of us like the view and appreciate that it still consists in many green and growing things, but it is not 'direct from God's hand'; it is a co-operation between humans and the rest of nature.
What i think this means is that the difference between rural and urban is not absolute but rather scalar. And that allows us to acknowledge that we should expect non-human life in the city as well as to expect the artificial in the rural context.
So much of the natural is actually human-touched and altered. And even to describe it in that way is to talk about things as if humans are outside of nature. But the truth is that we humans are created beings and take our life from the rest of nature and return it there. All our making only ever re-uses or repurposes nature created and sustained by God. Our tower blocks and pavements, lorries and ships, our computers and mines exist by permission of God fashioned from the stuff that God has brought into being. And we could also do with recognising that human ingenuity and capacity for thought and engineering are God-given talents.
So when we see the Shard, for example, some of what it would be legitimate to do would be to admire the size and the materials and to appreciate the gifts of imagination and engineering as well as the God-inspired concerns for safety involved in the building of it. The urban landscape is a meditation in the grandeur of creation and simultaneously the impact and stewardship of human beings. And so it is also a meditation on the good use and the abuse of what God has made by humans. We can recognise a call to manage and develop the world and with that recognise that we do that badly and sometimes well. So and urban retreat reminds us both of the goodness and the fallenness of the human cosmos. But then, if we know how to look, so does a rural retreat: it's just that we are better at fooling ourselves about the latter; it's easier somehow for us to pretend that the human-elements are absent when in reality they are not.
What this means is that an urban spirituality has to be one which has a prophetic edge. In fact that has been the case for rural spiritualities at their best, though at their worst they have been 'Rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gates, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estates' (a now normally-omited verse from All Things Bright and Beautiful). The prophetic edge is to recognise the inhumanities implied by various elements in our awareness of the urban scene and it does so sometimes by recognising where in some sense we have got it right and what it could be. The vision of the New Jerusalem at the End-Fulfilment of all things is one in which all the wealth of the nations is brought: this is an urban vision of a harvest of civilisation -and let's not forget the etymology implict in 'civilisation'.
And yet, for all of what I've been saying, I am not proposing to junk a spirituality that enjoys and learns from nature. Partly that is because what I'm proposing is actually about recognising that the urban is still part of nature, merely with the direct, appreciable, human influence more obvious and scaled up. Perhaps it is worth recalling that one of the earliest biblical images of the good life involve gardens -the word 'paradise' is connected here. A garden is, obviously, not a wilderness, a wildness. It is a co-operation of 'found'* nature with human mindful obseration and learning with human aesthetics, planning and effort. And again, on the other hand of course, a paradise garden, can also speak of accumulation through an imperial wealth extraction system and having been built and maintained by slave labour. It does not need to be that way, of course, such beauty can emerge from free co-operative effort and exchnage or in more just and democratic system
We might also want to take into account the reserch, increasingly emerging about the beneficial health effects of exposure to green and growing nature. So a continuing challenge in urban areas is to make sure trees, and other plants are a big part of the environment. An urban spirituality will recognise that it is not about being a celebration of a brutalist concrete jungle but having a vision of greened urban civilisation with paradises for health and aesthetic enjoyment. An urban spirituality will protest against concrete monocultures while also celebrating human constructions of grace, elegance and which help build the common good.
So we could envisage a city retreat centre doing a variety of things: celebrating green spaces and helping people to appreciate them and to pray with them; celebrating the sights and sounds of the city; engaging with the implicit calls for justice and to share the fruits of prosperity widely; appreciating the opportunities to scale up human creativity and cultural development; discerning the brooding of God's Spirit over this ongoing [co-]creation which is City. I would imagine a curriculum of cultural appreciation, community enjoyment, celebration of 'paradises' and learning to discern and support moves towards justice, peace and wellbeing.
It used to be that in a number of British urban areas, there were urban theology projects. I think that we might want to revisit that but with urban spirituality as the central idea.
*In using the word 'found' here, I'm referencing the word as it is used in art to mean objects that are found in the wider world and picked up by the artist and incorporated into the artwork.