Urban Life and the End of the World

Other — By on September 21, 2009 at 7:26 pm

It is a jarring fact for most Christians that our end is in a city, not a garden.  We understand the allure of Eden, our lost home, a beautiful, bountiful haven. A simple life in harmony with nature and God has intuitive appeal. It is harder (for many of us, at least) to anticipate eagerly the fact that we are destined to be urbanites.  We are promised inhabitance in the New Jerusalem, a massive city of the glorified that is ruled by Christ himself. 

In counterbalance to Chesterton’s championing of small community on which I last blogged, Wilfred McClay argues in the most recent edition of The City the particular value of the metropolis. Most Christian thought about stewardship over the earth is likely to evoke environmental concerns before it does urban planning. McClay emphasizes the importance of considering our habitation, however, especially that habitation which is most undeniably a human construct – the city.   

McClay argues that, within American culture, we have careened between over-adulation of the cultural advancement our cities represent, and undervaluing them as irredeemable hotbeds of crime and corruption. As Christians, we ought not fall prey to this false dilemma. We adhere to a faith that views the world as both undeniably God’s and as pervasively at odds with him. In light of this, McClay challenges contemporary Christians: our environments shape us, and we of all people have the greatest reason to be aware of and active in a city’s influence, while seeing it for what it truly is. 

McClay’s call to a more balanced perspective on our cities in light of our Christian story is reminiscent of Lutheran theologian Ted Peters’ espousal of “proleptic ethics” in his book God–the world’s future. Peters argues that the Biblical vision of the end times should inform our lives in the present.  The main gist of Peters’ argument is that we ought to imitate though we cannot imminatize the eschaton. That is, our lives in the present should be informed by the values of the New Jerusalem as they have been revealed to us, though we cannot fully bring them about. If every tear will be wiped away in the New Heaven and the New Earth, we should see this as a charge to address and comfort sorrows now, as Christ’s body and his imitators. Peters’ point is eloquently affirmed by McClay’s sense of how Christians ought to live in an urban setting. Ted Peters describes a life lived by proleptic ethics as “the life of beatitude” – according to McClay, it may be that this life can best occur in the city.

Both Peters and McClay are quick to note that this positive view of earthly justice must always be held in tension with our critical stance toward the inevitable “failures of the present” by the standard of God’s Kingdom Come (377). It is worth recalling that God’s prophets rail against Jerusalem far more often than they foretell its renewal. It is in light of the City which we know we will indwell that we can truly criticize the ones we now indwell. Peters also argues that eschatological ethics are valuable because they give us an aim; they remind us of where this story is headed — and if the story is headed to a city, McClay offers, why not learn to live in one well now? Cities perhaps best exemplify the continuity of culture, and uniquely entrench us in our history, our limitations, and our aims. They serve as both “vehicles of preservation and as vehicles of anticipation,” according to McClay (17). He reminds that the “party of memory is also the party of hope,” for Christians who lean on past promises for future good (18). There is much good in the political and social unity-in-diversity a city alone provides, and that good has special weight for Christians who anticipate heaven as an urban culture. The stench of sin may be most present in cities, but then so are the glimmers of the New Jerusalem. ‘


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