The Spiritual City: Theology, spirituality, and the
Wiley Blackwell £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18
CITY-DWELLERS, the author of this book writes, "undertake the
vocation of living together in a way that reflects the love and
beauty of God's inner life. Every city is a potential embodiment of
God's presence in which the inhabitants confront the daily
challenge of promoting justice against injustice, beauty against
ugliness, and love versus social indifference."
That is Philip Sheldrake's glorious vision, articulated towards
the end of a wonderful book. He has reflected on the importance of
place in human experience as much as anyone, and he now, with great
wisdom, brings the fruit of that reflection to bear upon the
question what constitutes a "good city".
The history of Western civilisation is, as the etymology of the
word implies, a history of cities. Sheldrake gives us a wealth of
insights from Christian thinking on cities through the centuries,
demonstrating how, in medieval times, spirituality was at their
heart, as were their great cathedrals. He then reflects on the
contemporary city by examining recent scholarship from disciplines
other than theology, which regrets prevailing influences on the
development of the city in the past century, that have "all too
often undermined place identity in pursuit of values driven largely
by economic considerations".
He draws on the work of great thinkers such as the French Jesuit
Michel de Certeau, who is very critical of the influential approach
to European regeneration espoused by le Corbusier and others, with
its "tendency to erase the past and a tendency to subordinate the
reality of people's lives to abstract concepts of place". Sheldrake
asks us to consider how crucial to the welfare of the city are "the
art of community" and a commitment to reconciliation and
hospitality, before proposing "urban virtues" centred on human
solidarity. His proposal of what might constitute a "good city"
from a Christian perspective is summed up in the quotation with
which I began this review. It is convincing, I think, in seeking to
relate city-making to "a vision of the human spirit and what
This book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the future
of cities - and that ought to be pretty much everyone, given that
well over half the world's population now lives in cites, up from
29 per cent in 1950. In any event, Revelation makes it clear that
if we don't live in one now, we shall, God willing.
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.