Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Global transformation begins with the urban experience

by Dale Irvin

We live in a period of enormous global transformation. Most of the earth's population now lives in cities or megacities. These cities throughout the world have undergone a change closely connected to the transformation in economy, politics, and culture associated with globalization.

The city is no longer located spatially at the center. It is becoming decentered and transcentered and immanent and transcendent at the same time.

Cities by their very nature seek to connect with other cities, form networks and facilitate contacts beyond the immediate terrain.

Globalization transforms basic understandings of existence upon which notions of church and mission have historically been constructed in the modem era.

The idea of national and even geographic boundaries of identity, for instance, that gave us the "here" and "there" of missionary thinking that was famously criticized by Keith Bridston as offering a "salt-water" definition of mission wherein someone becomes a missionary only when she or he crosses salt water. This is anachronistic in a day of global cities.

Cities around the globe are places of diaspora, places of passage more than places of settlement, more like thoroughfares than they are residences. City and world are converging formations. The implications for mission and ministry are enormous.

Christianity has a long and complex relationship with the city. During its first centuries Christianity was primarily an urban phenomenon. It spread from Palestine along urban commercial trade routes to other regions of the world, going east into Asia and south into Africa, as well as north and west into what later became Europe. In each place Christianity went, it rapidly adapted to new urban contexts, attracting artisans and educated (literate) classes who quickly assumed leadership of the movement. Cities were not of the size that we know them today, but were centers of religious, social, political, and economic power.

The city was never just a particular physical configuration; it was and still is a way of being. "A city isn't just a place to live, to shop, to go out and have kids play," says Richard Sennett. "It's a place that implicates how one derives one's ethics, how one develops a sense of justice, how one learns to talk with and learn from people who are unlike oneself, which is how a human being becomes human."

Perhaps the Christian movement has always shown a particular affinity for the city precisely because the city is in a certain sense part of what ultimately makes us human.

But the city is a complex, multifaceted reality, capable of extremes and of forming, as much as deforming, humanity. It is a process that both reveals and conceals, notes Henri Lefebvre: "Everything is legible. Urban space is transparent. Everything signifies, even if signifiers float freely, since everything is related to 'pure' form, is contained in that form." He goes on, "The city, the urban, is also mysterious, occult. Alongside the strident signs of visible power such as wealth and the police, plots are engineered and hidden powers conspire, behind appearances and beneath transparency." Theologically, we might say that the city, not unlike the church, is a place for sinners and saints alike, and a place where one can find signs and countersigns alike of the coming reign of God.

Dr. Dale Irvin is the President of New York Theological Seminary.

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