the spirituality of the city – part one

April 19, 2009

Nowadays, there is a spirituality for everything.  There is a spirituality of gardening and a spirituality of sex, a spirituality of work and a spirituality of play.  And some of this is intriguing and even helpful because “this is our Father’s world,” as the old hymn puts it, and every square inch of creation bares at least a speck of God’s original good imprint.  I could go one with the usual disclaimers about how this sort of thing could lead to become New Age or lead you to start listening to Yanni or Enya (or, God forbid, Yanni and Enya in concert together from Amsterdam or Paris…), but you’d probably tune me out…so let’s not go there.  Suffice it to say, I think spirituality of any sort is always rooted in one’s “larger story” (and we all have one), mine is obvious from the title of my blog.  Yes, I’m a Christian, and quite convinced (with Augustine and Calvin and C.S. Lewis and many others) that this ocean of spiritual sensation always leads to the Fount from which all goodness originates.  

So then, the spirituality of the city is just one more way of noticing, within this ocean teeming with life (and sometimes dark places and bad creatures, too), the signposts which point to Home.  The city, after all, may not have been our original domain, but it is the final destination in the Christian story.  St. John describes it in Revelation (not Revelations, please!) 20-22 with all of his apocalyptic color – it is, as some have called it, a “gardened city” – the original vision of the great Architect who apparently loves coffee shops as much as He loves irises.

My city, of course, is San Francisco.  I grew up outside of New York City, and was first captured by the view of the skyline from Central Park.  Though young, I suspect something of that ‘original inkling’ from the Garden awoke in me, and I knew that this was it – a beauty that drew both from the garden and the city.  In Orlando (where I spent 13 years), I saw it at Lake Eola, where an urban walking path leads you around a lovely lake with paddle-boats, a pagoda, the outdoor Shakespeare Theater, and more.  But San Francisco – well, it outdoes them all, which is quite ironic given the fact that many evangelical Christians see it as one of the most dark and dirty places on earth.

That’s a sad fact, and perhaps others can address why that is.  I’ve not experienced San Francisco in that way.  Walking through the manicured paths of Golden Gate Park, into the wonderfully serene Japanese Tea Garden, over past the waterfall at Stow Lake, and on to enjoy the satisfying urban cuisine at the energetic Park Chow on 9th, I begin to see why God said, “And it was good.”  

img_0168In the city, people love good food, by the way.  I’d do well to devote a whole blog to it.  And you won’t find the drive-thru on every corner that you see in the suburbs.  On a cool day, you’d probably prefer to watch whales while eating breakfast at the Cliff House or Loui’s, while on a warmer day you might do your week’s shopping for fruit and vegetables at the Embarcadero Farmer’s Market.  People like to eat and drink, and do it with others here.  They work hard, but play hard after it’s all said and done.  And while I suspect the preachers and politicians are decrying the evils of the Left Coast and San Francisco, the suburban family is chomping down the fattened calf of processed Big Macs while a San Francisco family is likely dining together, perhaps with friends, on food that isn’t processed, that is locally grown, and probably lacks the chemicals that just accelerated the suburban daughter’s journey into puberty by a year.

But, the spirituality of the city, and this city in particular, is seen in its ability to anticipate the future Gardened City.  

Now, there are other naysayers.  Some, of course, are in the business of pitting rural vs. urban, with lots of love for Wendell Berry and the nostalgic simple life of rural America.  I lived in rural America, went to college in rural America, and learned to sin in ways I never learned on Long Island in rural America.  I’ve also read Wendell Berry, and he’s not shy about the ravages of sin in fly-over country.

There is also John Eldredge, whose books convinced one family I knew to move to Montana because cubicles are evil and buffalo are not, or something like that.  That family moved back shortly thereafter.  They didn’t find God in Montana.  It seems that wild hearts can be bred in the urban jungle, as well as in raging Colorado rivers.

 Which is all to say that the spirituality of the city is a subject worth exploring, and will be one explored in coming installments.  For now, it’s worth considering a small thing – that God may not be as cynical as your inflatable-ego talk-show host who has written off the left coast, that He may be so fiercely passionate for His original goodness to flourish that in the places where you least expect it – among the poor, the wounded, the not-so-sexy, the marginalized, and the powerless – (even when these things are bound up in a place, a city) – that He’ll show up and make sure His garden flourishes, not just with blossoming flowers, but with the scents of cuisine representing all nations and tongues, and from the backyard gardens and kitchens of people who in very ordinary ways (sometimes beautiful, sometimes broken) embody God’s vision of the Gardened City.