Friday, July 20, 2007

Civitate Dei

As I shuttle back and forth between the farmland of western Minnesota and the concrete island of Minneapolis, I've been thinking about the difference between the city and the country. Specifically, what role does the city/country dichotomy play in the gospel?

Christianity has always seemed to hold some kind of pastoral aesthetic as an ideal. David's cry that "The Lord is my shepherd" resonates with Christians still. This pastoral theme begins almost immediately after the fall. Abel, the first martyr, was a keeper of flocks. Abraham and the patriarchs were also keepers of flocks. The Law of Moses, with its myriad of animal sacrifice requirements was a law for shepherds. Moses himself receives his prophetic call after forsaking Egypt and taking on the life of a herdsman with Jethro.

Then there's also this intertwined idea of the wilderness (and mountains in particular) as sacred space. Think of Eden, Ararat, Sinai, Canaan and even Israel's travels. The prophets are always calling the faithful out of the civilization of Egypt to the ascetic purification of the wilderness. It continues in the New Testament, where Jesus' birth is first announced to Shephards. John the Baptist is descried "as one crying in the wilderness." Jesus preaches his greatest sermon on a mountain. Even Calvary is outside the city. Eden was a garden, and Gethsemane, even though it was inside the city, was a garden, a sacred green space.

This idea is even stronger in Mormonism where the Book of Mormon explicitly says that the Lord "leadeth the righteous away into precious lands." Think of the Jaredites, the Mulekites, Lehi and family, and even Nephi doing it again to get away from Laman and Lemuel. Both Nephi and Jared's brother have spiritual experience on mountains, separated from civilization. Both take their followers out of the city and into the wilderness. The same exodus motif is re-enacted in LDS history as well, with the saints leaving one place after another. Not just the trek to Salt Lake, but the departures from New York, from Harmony, from Kirtland, from Missouri, and from Nauvoo all replay the same pattern.

Then, in addition to the pastoral ideal and the sacred wilderness/exodus motif, there is the recurring image of evil represented by a city or a building. Babel is the earliest example, then you have Sodom and Gomorrah and Babylon. In the New Testament Babylon is resurrected as a type and applied to hedonistic and oppressive Rome. Jerusalem, though it is the Holy City, is depicted a the nest of Herod's corrupt regime and the Pharisees' religious oppression. Again, the Book of Mormon follows the same pattern, where in Lehi's vision goodness is represented as a tree and evil, "the pride of the world" is a building, not just a humble dwelling, but a "great and spacious" building full of "all manner" of people whose "manner of dress [is] very fine." It is a cosmopolitan place. Then you have the voice of Christ in the darkness declaiming the destruction of wicked cities. The Doctrine and Covenants reinforces the Babylon motif by using Babylon as a type, but also by issuing warnings to specific American cities.

So there are three interweaving themes going on: the pastoral ideal, the wilderness motif, and the Babylon motif. These together create a kind of preference for rural life and a distrust toward the city. Even Augustine's city of god was not a physical place, but a transcendant community of believers.

But even though the anti-urban mood does seem to predominate, there is another side to the story. Jerusalem is kind of ambivalent. On the one hand, it is the holy city; on the other, it is still corrupt. But there is Enoch's city, even older than Jerusalem. Zion stands out as a foil to the Babylon motif. In the advance of metropolitan Babylon, the righteous always seem to flee. The exodus motif does this. John's apocalypse gives us the image of the church, symbolised as a woman, fleeing into the wilderness. But Zion is different.

In the case of Zion, the righteous did flee, but not into the wilderness. Instead, the saying "Zion has fled" meant that the city itself was taken up into heaven as a city proper, not as a nomadic group of strangers and pilgrims. Zion seems to be the only example of an uncorrupted holy metropolis. The righteous didn't leave the city, they took it with them.

Part of the genius of the restoration is that it tapped into this almost-forgotten Zion myth (myth in the positive sense). Early Mormonism was a metropolitan, even cosmopolitan endeavor. Today, we lionize the pioneers as pilgrims and idealize their peregrinations. But no matter how much we see the exodus parallels in the wesward trek, the Pioneers were different from the nomads of the Old Testament because they didn't go to the wilderness to get away from the city, they went there to build a city. Joseph Smith was a city planner and builder. Kirtland and most especially Nauvoo demonstrate his metropolitan tendencies and abilities. The Mormons' Missouri and Illinois antagonists were not the cosmopolitan sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah, they were the unwashed "border ruffians" of the American frontier. Nauvoo was bigger than Chicago, it was not a quanit town, it was a city. Mostly easterners and immigrants from the great cities of Europe, the Mormons were the cosmopolitans.

And Mormonism, because of the missionary program, has a tradition of holy and sacred events taking place in cities. In the larger Christian tradition, missionary work is most often taken to far-off, benighted lands, the far east and Asia. Though this is starting to change as Europe gets less religious, the idea was that the "Christian" nations didn't need missionaries. Mormonism (along with the Witnesses and a few other small sects) is unique in that it sends its missionaries to America's great cities. So when Joseph Smith sends Brigham Young and Heber Kimball to England, they go straight to the heart of the industrial center of England, Manchester. Here they wrestle with Satan and baptize hundreds. Sacred history is created, in the city.

So is the city a place to celebrate, or a place to flee out of? Are all cities evil if they are not Zion?

I'm reminded of Ninevah. That great city took three days to walk across. Jonah is interesting because he is in many ways the anti-prophet. The Book of Jonah flips things around. He runs away from his prophetic call, he preaches only grudgingly, and then he's upset when the people repent. The Ninevites don't play their role in the expected way because they actually repent. The whole prophet narrative is backwards. The topsy-turvy world of the Book of Jonah also flips around the traditional city/wilderness dichotomy as well. Near the end of the book we find the prophet outside of the city, in the wilderness, being childish, petty, ethnocentric and melodramatic, while the city-zens are inside the city, repenting in sackloth and ashes. The sacred space is inside the city. The wilderness is not the sacred space.

So is Ninevah just anomoly? What attitude do our traditions and sacred texts take toward the city? Is the city only capable of Zion when it's also a theocracy, or will our secular cities be redeemed like Ninevah?


Cabeza said...

I really like this post--it made me think a lot and I think it's a theme worth visiting.

However, before I can respond with my two cents (probably more than that), I have to say that you're kind of setting up a false dichotomy here (if you get to say "peregrinations," I get to say "false dichotomy"). The ideas of the Holy City and the sacred wilderness are not mutually exclusive. Nor are cities, in my opinion, meant to be static archetypes of one way of living or another. As you say, there are cities that represent corruption and the violation of nature's laws (Babylon, Sodom and Gomorrah), there are cities that represent an exception from that (post-Jonah Nineveh), and there are cities that represent the apotheosis of righteousness (Zion).

I think that for a complete analysis, you must look at the cities individually and the archetypes they represent. Babylon is the world and its corruption. Sodom and Gomorrah are hedonism and enmity toward God and his servants. Nineveh becomes a city representative of mercy and redemption, and Zion is the pure in heart.

The cities are also representative of greater nations. Jerusalem becomes the standard raised by the House of Israel. Zion, or the New Jerusalem, is the capital of God’s reestablished kingdom, restored on the American continent. Harold B. Lee demonstrated this point well:

"In the wisdom of the Almighty, this ensign of liberty was raised to the nations to fulfill an ancient prophecy that 'out of Zion [should] go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem' (Isa 2:3). How could this be? The answer is clear: through the Constitution, kings and rulers and the peoples of all nations under heaven may be informed of the blessings enjoyed by the people of this land of Zion by reason of their freedom under Divine guidance, and be constrained to adopt similar governmental systems and thus fulfill the ancient law to which I have already referred." -Harold B. Lee, Ye Are the Light of the World 232-33; from a memorial service for President John F. Kennedy, Salt Lake City, UT, 25 Nov 1963

The wilderness is also not necessarily static. One could say that the wilderness was a punishment for the Children of Israel because they weren’t worthy to enter Canaan. They needed to enter Canaan to establish themselves and build permanent homes, a place for the temple rather than the tabernacle (in other words, cities). For them, the wilderness was a banishment. But overall, I would agree with you that the wilderness is generally a holy place.

The other thought I had, along the false dichotomy lines, was that the city and the wilderness aren’t necessarily at odds with each other. One is dependent on the other, I think. The city cannot exist without its external refuges and holy places. Enos went to hunt beasts in the forest, but he was from Zarahemla. Elijah and Moses went up to the mountains to commune with the Lord, but eventually both needed to return to where their people were gathered. The Lord builds temples in his cities (Jerusalem, Zarahemla). He holds feasts and conferences there (Jerusalem, Zarahemla). He gathers his people, organizes them, sets them as places for the fulfillment of prophecies. But after Jesus was born in the City of Bethlehem, he went into the wilderness and then Egypt to be raised. The Lord uses both for his purposes. I don’t think one necessarily trumps the other. For more on the codependent relationship between cities and wilderness, read William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. Cronon explores the interdependence of Chicago and its “hinterlands,” starting from the founding of the city. Very interesting read, if a little long. It’s definitely not a religious work, but I think there are parallels to what we’re discussing here.

And those are my two cents, plus tip.

Cabeza said...

Sorry, Enos was from Nephi, not Zarahemla. I wish you could edit comments on Blogger...

Amanda said...

As I read through this really interesting blog, I realized that I generally think of a city as something man-made and the wilderness as something created by God.

I wonder if this simple idea sheds an interesting light on what has already been said. Viewed in this light, it makes sense to me that the wilderness as God made it is most often seen as being sacred, that it can also be something used for divine purposes (such as punishment?) or even something that men can corrupt.

The city is something inherently flawed because it is built by flawed human beings. The city can become a sacred place, though, through divine assistance just as human beings have divine potential.

I think the idea certainly has its limitations, but it could explain some of the ambiguities already mentioned.

JKC said...

Good thoughts, all. No, Caebza, you're right; a Holy City and a holy wilderness do not have to be mutually exclusive. I don't think there's anything inherent in a city to make it good or bad just by virtue of being a city. I guess what I'm interested in here is not just the idea of the city itself, but the rhetoric of the scriptures and how that rhetoric engages the idea. Can we draw a conclusion from it, or are there too many exceptions to generalize?

The ineter/co-dependence really makes sense. It reminds me of Urusla Leguin's novel, the Dispossessed. It describes a planet much like our own, where a free-market capitalist society is the norm, where hedonism and selfishness are celebrated, where competition leads to excellence, where there is vast inequality, but where even the poor are materially better off by comparison. Orbiting around this planet is a moon, stark and barren, but barely capable of sustaining life. The moon is large enough that it pulls on the planet, so they are in some way, orbiting around each other. Almost twin worlds. The moon is populated by the third generation descendents of a group of utopian communitarian pilgrims who went there to escape the selfishness and enmity of a society based on competition. They have no concept of private ownership (they eliminated possessive nouns from their language) and they are unbelievably poor. The protagonist is a scientist born on the moon who travels to the planet. As a result he is shunned by his own and never really accepted by the sister world. In the end, the flaws of both worlds are explored in detail. But the fact that they co-exist and orbit each other creates the idea that utopia is to found between the two worlds.

Amanda, that simple insight may be the key. In contrast to the pure divine creation that is the wilderness, it is the humanity of the city that dooms it, unless it can claim divine assistance through repentance (Ninevah) and communion with God (Zion).

Maybe the cities in the scriptures represent steps in a process of becoming: sin (Babylon et al), repentance (Ninevah), then exaltation (Zion).