THE TOWN WITH GEORG SIMMEL:
A SOCIO-RELIGIOUS UNDERSTANDING OF URBAN INTERACTION
by Victoria Lee Erickson
VICTORIA LEE ERICKSON
is Associate Professor of the Sociology of Religion (Graduate and Theological
Schools), Associate Professor of Religion (College of Liberal Arts), and University
Chaplain at Drew University.
connecting possibilities in the city -- bridges and angels, for example -- make
it a liberating place.
Georg Simmel (1858-1918) was a founder
of the German Sociological Association and lived the majority of his life in the
city of Berlin. One area of research to which Simmel frequently returned was the
documenting of how our social, geographical and physical lives shaped our spiritual
lives, and how our spirituality shaped our social and physical environments. He
searched the urban landscape for the material and spiritual evidence of this interactive
construction of everyday life. When he did not confine himself to a reporting
of physical and sociological realities (data), and ventured into what he called
"the soul" or the "inner life," his critics
declared that he had no evidence for his claims. This sociological attitude still
characterizes much of western sociology and prevents many religious practitioners
from accessing the discipline. Fortunately, Simmel expanded his ability to reach
under the documented facts of society and culture into the hidden realities that
undergirded it; this skill eventually propelled him to the top of intellectual
circles and preserved him forever as a lion-sized sociological treasure.
students went on to found the first department of sociology at the University
of Chicago, a department well known for its theoretical contributions to the understanding
of social interaction. The early days of the Chicago school of sociology were
characterized by their concern for what is commonly referred to as the "everyday."
Three of Simmel's internationally well known deliberations on the everyday were
on "the bridge and the door" and "the stranger." A central
concept in all three was "unity" and the process by which humans produce
unity or let it escape from their grasp. In the following, I will suggest a way
that religionists might allow social theorists to assist them in understanding
urban experiences by inviting Simmel to walk with them around New York City. What
would the voice of the urban practitioner sound like if we allowed Simmel to speak
through it; and what would happen if we asked him, from the grave, to address
a material reality such as urban angels? It may just be that urban ministry is
the right American venue to reclaim the work of a man who believed that playfulness
was required of serious inquiry so that we might all be saved from what he called
the coming formlessness, a kind of chaos that sends angels back to heaven
and humans to nowhere at all.(1)
Kaern's new translation of Simmel's The Bridge and the Door (1994) provides
fresh insight into his epistemology. For Simmel, truth is relational.
He argued that people build society on everyday relational truths (Karen points
out that this is a deeper insight than "all truths are relative.") Our
social and physical environments reflect each other. Simmel argued this point
through reflections on the "bridge." Our "will to relate,"
he said, pushes us into an empathetic mode that bridges our separateness and allows
us to establish processes through which we create one society.(2)
This process, Simmel argued, was like the bridge that overcomes obstacles
by spreading its will through space. The human bridge that creates society
must be firmly anchored and enduring. It must also, the bridge that transverses
a natural divide, "submit to nature and transcend nature."(3)
The perfected physics of the bridge comes through taking "measurements"
so that distance becomes the unification of separateness.
Bridges are ancient
constructions. Early bridges were simple affairs, like logs, that were strategically
placed over obstacles, like rivers. Humans eventually learned to build more enduring
structures. The early Roman Alcontara Bridge that spans the Tagus River in Spain
is still standing after nearly two thousand years. Many of the ancient bridges
that are still standing were built on solid rock, but the history of bridge building
tells us that the Romans made a lasting contribution to the method by finding
a way to pour cement footings below the water. In time, Roman methods were impacted
by Persian and Muslim influences which made bridges more artistic and beautiful
to look at. Strength and durability alone are hardly enough for the human eye.
we are talking about the first century or the twenty-first century, stone bridges
or steel, asthetically pleasing or not, bridges take years to construct. The human
cost is often great. One of the most notable contributions of the United States
to the world history of bridges was the Brooklyn Bridge, the first great suspension
bridge, that was half again as long as any previous structure. It was built over
fourteen years and used such new engineering techniques that little was known
about the hazards that lurked beneath the water. Over a hundred workers died constructing
what has become one of the world's most recognized landmarks.
fail, they fail mainly during construction. Even though we mourn the loss of workers
in these failures, there is always attached to our words a sense of relief that
"innocent" lives were not lost. There is something about the bridge
builders that makes them not innocent of the suffering bridge building entails.
They are supposed to know the dangers and sign up for the task fully prepared
to risk their lives. This may be why humans have found it necessary to have bridges
attended by angels who bear the light: the building of pure relationality is often
done in the dark and suspended over a void.
Bridges are seen by people
as structures requiring the holy. It turns out that bridges are more than objects.
They take on the characteristics of the divine-human relationship. Human
beings are bridge builders. Bridges themselves take on a quality of the transcendent.
We build bridges to transcend our separations. When we decide to take on this
role, we know what we are doing -- we are risking our lives for the sake of interconnection.
Simmel reminds us that we are the only one of God's creatures who make paths and
when the paths are interrupted we are the only ones who build bridges so that
the paths continue.(4) What then are we
doing when we build bridges? Simmel would tell us that when we are uniting what
is separated, we are creating relationships.
Most histories of modern urban
infrastructure explain the primary reason for building bridges in economic terms.
As we will see regarding urban life and the stranger, material concerns for wealth
are a significant factor in determining when and where bridges should be built.
But, to reduce our analysis of bridges to the pursuit of material wealth impoverishes
our overall understanding of urban life.
Our ability to create pathways
to relationships comes from within our mind and from within our hearts. Our minds
take the empathy we have for others and construct a willful ability to feel the
other's inner life, to identify, to empathize. Pastoral agents know that the mental
bridge of empathy we construct between people is an element essential to urban
life. The Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the George Washington Bridge,
and the Verrazano Bridge connect all New Yorkers with each other and with the
outside world. They also make us responsible to each other in ways we would not
otherwise be obligated. We cannot construct a world without empathy. Not to empathize
is to decide against oneness, society, wholeness. Just as a canyon without a bridge
felt "unforgiving" to Simmel, the lack of empathy keeps humans separate
and is a sign of an unforgiving heart, a self-centered denial of God, a lack of
will for the survival of another. To put it succinctly, a lack of empathy is a
sign of moral failure. Empathy changes one's inner life. Bridging happens in everyday
life according to the Akan of Ghana, ". . . because one antelope
will blow the dust from the other's eye so that two antelopes walk together."(5)
Or, as Jesus said it, by loving your neighbor. The mind is capable of bridging
the widest gaps for the sake of survival.
We construct wholeness by interrelating
parts even though human beings do not see or understand the whole of anything,
argued Simmel.(6) Wholeness then is a construction
of the mind. To get wholeness the mind transcends the separateness of the parts.
Bridging as a mental activity is the most common way we use the word "bridge"
in human relations. Society is only possible through our will to relate. The will
to relate creates a path that others can travel on. . . a path to connectedness,
a path to healing. As Simmel theorized, the purpose of the bridge "exhausts
itself when inter-relation happens." The bridge has served its purpose when
we cross over it. In making inter-relation visible, the bridge creates enduring
concrete reality. We know that we can cross the bridge again. The bridge refers
to the ultimate -- to something beyond our senses. The bridge submits to nature
but it transcends nature. Simmel argued that when we step on the bridge we waft
between heaven and earth and eventually through habitual use, we loose
our fear of "hovering." The "strange becomes familiar" to us.
bridge is a visible sign of direction; it brings us from one finite point to another.
Whether one is going or coming across the bridge does not really matter. What
matters is the unity that is created as "we spread our will through space."(7)
The bridge submits to nature (it pours its footings on each side of the divide)
and it transcends nature (it creates a path where none existed before). When we
walk across a bridge we feel the nervous reality of it, we know we are someplace
where instinct tells us we should not be, but equally instinctive is our desire
to cross over to the other side.
Historically, the minister who celebrates
the Eucharist lifts up the host for all to see and when breaking the bread/
the body of Christ, says, "The Fragment." There is an acknowledgment
that what is holy is also broken. Bridges, like people, crumble. Even the children
sing: "London bridge is falling down." There is an awareness that the
unity we seek, the path to each other, the path to God, is visibly fragile. That
is why children and bridges need angels to protect against the possibility of
"slipping through the cracks."
The picture on the following page
is typically printed with a lovely verse taught to Roman Catholic children. Notice
the shaky bridge over which the angel is guarding them. Rules and guides are meant
to be bridges that save us.
Even though we know it is risky business,
we would never cross a bridge that we know would collapse under us. However, like
children, we often disregard the rules and the guides or venture out into uncharted
terrain and find ourselves on rickety bridges. I suspect the reason why there
is a dense population of angels under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges is so
that one or more of them are free to catch us if we fall through!
is also marked by doors with locks. Unlike the bridge, doors discuss our limitations,
Simmel observed that doors shut out endless possibility.(8)
People might come and go continuously but what happens behind a door is hard to
document. Simmel argued that when we step out of a door, we step out of our limitedness
into limitless possibility. The joy of this feeling disappears when limitless
possibility finds its way in through the door and across the threshold. That's
why we have locks. Locks keep trespassers out. Locks are not paranoia, they are
a practicality. When locks are not enough, people call the angels in to protect
the doors; they install them prominently to remind others that the protective
capacity of the Holy is near. Urban architecture over the past several decades
has been devastated as the previous generation's heavenly encounters have all
but disappeared. New urban constructions rarely include any angelic figures --
be they in the form of the lion, the ox, the eagle, the human face.
question, the most powerful angelic image that graces urban neighborhoods is the
face. Such images are reflected in the countless lives of urban practitioners
who help build bridges and guard the doorways of urban living. For several years
I have been researching urban programs for people-at-risk in the highest crime
neighborhoods of New York, Harrisburg, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Detroit, Boston,
and other U.S. cities. I have met a host of amazing people who risk their lives
every day to claim kids off the streets in America, to feed the homeless mentally
ill, and a host of other social ministries. I have been told across this country
that the bridge to moral living is a religious one constructed early in childhood.
There is often little permanence, little available rock, on which to build in
inner cities. Poverty, the lack of nutrition, dysfunctional schools, parents under
stress, and the lack of opportunity cause a spiritual bridge failure
to happen early in children's lives. When we do the work of God we transcend human
self-centeredness and provide pathways that open others up into a wide world of
love. The doorways become safe to cross through once again, and eternity reappears
in material life. People who create bridges for others do so at their own risk.
That is why we call it a vocation. It is our truth under the sociological
data. If one is willing to walk the narrow ridge with children, urban violence
will come to an end as they anchor themselves of the real rock of life: divine
relationships that they can see and they can feel shape their lives.
window, Simmel observed, is only "a one directional path for the eye."(9)
We arrest people who look in the wrong direction into windows or climb in through
them. If people obeyed the limitations of the window, we would not see bars on
them. In that doors signal movement, windows for Simmel referred to relationships
between the inside and the outside. Bars on windows spell out relationships gone
awry. Angels, in their many forms, are imported as intervention agents into everyday life.
inner-city pastor told me of his baptismal sermon for his own daughter. He knew
someday his sweet child would ask to walk home by herself from school. Some young
man would certainly be ritualistically waiting on the street corner listening
for the school bell and an opportunity to shoot her offers of drugs and attention.
In his sermon he prayed that the memory power of her baptism would protect her
when there was no lion to roar.
Walking the streets of New York shooting
angel pictures taught us much about urban religiosity. Angels holding baptismal
shells were strikingly free of bars and grates. Wrapped around a building where
the waters of baptism flowed, was a sense of divine protection of those living
inside, evidenced by an open invitation to see life in the windows.
doors with locks, and windows with bars beg Simmel's analysis of the stranger.(10)
Just as we cannot reduce bridges to their economic function, we cannot reduce
the role of the stranger in urban life to the character who burns bridges, crosses
doorways uninvited or who throws rocks at windows. The stranger is an important
actor in city life. Most people who choose to live there enjoy anonymity while
they complain about the alienation that sometimes comes with it. "The economic
importance of the stranger," argued Simmel, was "his appearance everywhere
as a trader." Traders enter and leave markets as they bring in goods and
ideas crafted by others, circulating material and spiritual culture. If we examine
our legal system we find courtrooms favoring urban locations where it is less
likely that judges will be swayed by local ties. Simmel's pursuit of the details
of the stranger's identity was concerned both with the negative relations of rejection
and distancing and the positive relations these produced: freedom to be a critic
of culture and at the same time its mirror. The stranger who appears to come from
nowhere is actually a product of the interaction between the insiders. Insiders
decide who is acceptable and who is not to be admitted into their society. In
an effort to understand the reality of this interaction between insiders and outsiders,
the stranger learns how to transcend otherness.
Angels are stranger figures
in human life. They appear from nowhere with messages about inclusion and embrace.
They are, however, divine agents of transcendence who advocate the end of alienation
and separateness. This is why cathedrals are the most common place we find them
materialized into forms that remind us of our moral obligations to one another.
quick glance at pictorial representations of any European or American city prior
to the nineteenth century is enough to suggest that churches once dominated the
skylines of urban architecture. Beginning in the twelfth century in western Europe
the urban environment came to be dominated by the great cathedrals. In North America,
where churches continued to stand above the rest of the city in depictions of
urban life up through the twentieth century when skyscrapers took over, the cathedral
was not a common sight until the nineteenth century. Now, most North American
cities host one if not more grand cathedral or cathedral-like edifices.
of the things Simmel noticed in Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals was the narrowing
of the openings as you move toward the door. The narrow doors guide you into the
world onto the right path.(11) Simmel
asked us to think about what we are doing, saying, and becoming as we walk into
constructed spaces. As we enter a cathedral from the outside, we come into a narrow
door opening. As we enter, the space opens us up to a wide spiritual world that
narrows again as we move to the altar. The end, it turns out, does not look very
different from the beginning. The movement from the outside to the inside, Simmel
argued, is always of a narrowing path that ends at the altar; for the faithful,
it is the only direction that counts.
The bridge shows us how we unify,
how "we create wholeness out of separation." The door shows us "how
we separate what is together in order to achieve unity." The cathedral offers
a place to give these their full religious experience. The way to understand such
separation in ritual life is through baptism. In baptism, we take the child or
the adult out of society and mark them with a sign that makes them forever different.
As a reminder that baptism comes first, many cathedrals still have the baptismal
font stationed at the door of the church. When you leave the church you are reminded
that you have been baptized. We expect from the baptized a holiness that prepares
us to live one-for-the-other in the Real City. This new day in the city seems
to require a fiercer set of angels.
One of the recurring images that has
greeted us around the bridges, doors, windows and cathedrals of the city has been
of angels. We also saw that strangers often have been classified and even identified
with angels. As I have meandered through the streets of New York City over the
past several decades, I have been struck by the number of angels that grace its
urban structures. Yet there has been little in the way of formal research, sociological
or otherwise, that treats this angelic urban presence. Following Simmel's lead
in investigating the common-place experiences of everyday urban life, I want to
suggest a socio-religious way of understanding these urban angels. Angels in religious
traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the dominant religious forces
of the last two millennia in the West) are spiritual beings who, like humanity,
are a part of God's creation. Unlike human beings, angels have no material bodies;
nevertheless they are not unrelated to the material world; rather, they are agents
by which the material creation is brought into relation with God.
are connecting agents of communicative practice. The Greek word (angelos)
from which we derive the English term literally means "messenger." Angels
are not phenomena open to investigation by physicists, like energy, gamma rays,
or quarks. Unlike these unseen realities, angels are agents of hope and faith,
as well as provocateurs of despair and evil. In other words, they are
unseen moral actors. Angels, these religious traditions tell us, inhabit creation
as members of creation who belong to it and at the same time relate it (for good
as well as for evil) to that which is beyond creation (or God). Good angels perfect
human ecology by teaching people how to develop a divine imagination; fallen angels
destroy human ecology by leading the imagination astray.
The great religious
traditions of the world have not left our cities to their own devices. Much as
strangers from other human cities have visited and lived among us, so angels --
heavenly visitors -- have been envisioned in our urban everyday life. In this
way material creation has been spiritualized and spiritual creation materialized.
The resulting cosmological traffic has provided urban life with a sense of adventure
and surety. Religious traditions teach that angels appear singularly in various
forms. But if the need is great, they come in groups of courage and compassion.
They live nested in the cultural memories passed on from generation to generation
across the centuries, teaching us not to fear the hierarchy of memory that gives
a place of privilege to the truth and beauty expressed by many who are now dead.
are thus understood to be messengers sent to create community by connecting what
has been separated: people from the Creator, the present from the past, human
beings from one another in the city. As ministers sent by God, they are interventionists
who enter into interpersonal relations calling for accountability, repentance,
and truth. By materializing angels in stone, paintings, song, and poetry, human
beings in effect return the favor. Such human representations have an enduring
quality to them. Angels themselves, on the other hand, are often depicted as coming
and going. There is no certainty in their religious appearance. Moreover, it is
not even certain that they are going to be good. There is nothing certain about
the evil intentions of those who exercise urban violence and who often strike
at random like terrorists. Theologians through the ages have insisted that we
find such evil in the form of moral hatred, unholiness, unbelief, inordinate pride,
anger, envy, or revenge even in heavenly places because of fallen angels who once
belonged to heaven and are always seeking ways to return to it. Because "they
shook off goodness" (John Wesley), they cannot return. Their inability to
grasp goodness therefore creates "a rage that never ends." This rage
can only be controlled through a greater angelic embrace that is empowered by
praises directed beyond to God. For this reason, John Wesley, who was no stranger
to the vicissitudes of eighteenth-century daily urban life, instructed his followers
never to invoke angels. They were only to cry out to God, and God would in turn
send the right angel to speak to them in a language they would recognize, one
who have been divinely trained and was ready to deliver.
are not to forsake the Church and invocate angels. If any man therefore, be found
to give himself to this privy idolatry, let him be anathema; because he hath forsaken
our Lord Jesus, the Son of God, and betaken himself to idolatry.(12)
the urban architecture I have surveyed, angels represent moments of transcendence.
They are not, however, representations of transcendence that leave behind the
every-day realities of chaotic urban life. Angels, our religious traditions tell
us, are autonomous moral agents whose engagement takes place at the level of our
various moral, aesthetic, and intellectual spheres of urban life. Collectively
they form a heavenly host or choir, but individually they act in concert with
city councils, neighborhood associations, local business interests, major financial
centers, and apartment building dwellers. This is why they are the favored representations
of transcendence in the city, for they suggest a multiplicity of spiritual beings
acting on the basis of different intentionalities and purposes, weaving together
a great vision for urban public life out of trivial and commonplace events of
everyday living. They represent an enduring spiritual affirmation of the kinds
of urban practices that Chase, Crawford, and Kaliski call "quotidian bricolage."(13)
The presence of angels in the urban environment marks sites of transcendence in
the everyday life of connecting, passing, and entering. . . across a
bridge, through a door, into a cathedral.
Cities in Social History
connecting possibilities in the city make it a liberating place for many people.
The country, towns, and suburbs can be too confining for some personalities that
find comfort in being "lost in a sea of humanity." The sheer mass of
people allows for personal autonomy and creativity that is often chased out of
less dense environments. What is everybody's business in the country is nobody's
business in the city where people must see everything while averting their eyes.
The amount of stimuli that must be coped with paradoxically causes the urbanite
to limit "surprise" to small amounts while maintaining a capacity to
be surprised by everything. Simmel noticed that the urban eye must see fast and
understand at a glance while walking among the crowd. The urbanite is often criticized
for superficiality and a seeming inability to be moved by anything, when in fact,
he argued, the horizontal emotional landscape of endless spaces has been reshaped
and pushed vertically into deeper expressions of specialized passion.(14)
The critique of the urbanite from the point of view of the rural or suburban personality
is in fact an historically predictable criticism. It is the self-critique of humans
who have a vague memory of having left the country for the anonymity of the polis
so that they themselves could participate in something exciting and pleasurable
-- albeit painful and violent. When the urbanite is charged with having fabricated
an identity out of nothing, created masks, corralled time and intellectuality,
broken the balance of symmetry, and become ambivalent about belonging,(15)
rest assured that it is all true, and that the charges themselves bear a silent
and often unremembered truth.
The Blood Lamb Is a Sufficient Sacrifice
with Simmel causes us to challenge too quick a dismissal of historic everyday
theologies that explained violence. Humans at one time lived in agriculturally
based societies that gathered periodically, usually following the planting and
harvesting seasons, to engage in ritual practices that sought fertility and survival.
Many of our folk dances originate in these festive times when we looked forward
to being together, bathed, wove flowers into our hair, and anticipated each other.
Into these happy moments that we looked forward to came a critical part of our
being together: ritual sacrifice. It is the naked truth that humans sacrificed
each other and their livestock in exchange for the favors of gods. We taught each
other how to manage our fears by sacrificing our own flesh and blood. Our fears
created the ritual victim.
We humans would come back year after year to
dance and to sing on the blood soaked ground of our victims. As the ritual obligations
and the human community grew, so too did the need to have a priest who stayed
behind and managed the ritual affairs. Markets grew up around the administration
of the sacred site. As the urban center grew it never lost traces of this history.
The city is built on the blood of our rituals and their victims. We remember,
fundamentally from deep down inside of us, that violence and the city go together.
A murder in the country or in the suburbs "shocks" us, but, we "expect"
violence in the city. Going into the city with a feeling of safety betrays the
nonurbanite's "common sense."
So too is pleasure associated with
the city. People like the thrill of lights, the pace, the ability to be a part
of the crowd. Inscribed in our sociological memory is the joy of being together.
The memory of violence and pleasure are intertwined. Urbanites not only think
differently about safety, urbanites know how to create safe places inside of each
other -- a way of life often unknown by nonurbanites.
The most difficult
aspect of urban ministry is violence and pleasure and how we help our people understand
both of them. Judaism remembers Isaac as the one who was saved from being the
victim, Christianity begins with the experience of Jesus as the victim who refused
to be a victim. Our sacred story tells us that He is the blood sacrifice to end
all blood sacrifices. The faithful teach each other that they are to never again
to pick up the knife or to build a cross. We are never to think that our ritualized
violence comes from God. God's hand sent an angel to free Isaac from the knife
and to announce the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Our rituals of violence
are the work of our own hands.
So, the faithful tell each other that
God wants our rituals to become like the worship of the angels. The ritual of
Christian Eucharist (Greek for good gifts) from its earliest memory is
a bloodless sacrifice taken from the agricultural offerings of the common people
(bread and wine). God sent Christians into the world to be good gifts,
to be bloodless sacrifices to end all blood sacrifice. The faithful do this by
surrendering themselves, by withdrawing the power to create a victim. Police chiefs
often are praised, and stolen away from other cities, precisely on this ability
to regulate, diffuse, and dismantle the power to kill. Good ministers are sought
after for the same reasons.
Christians are sent into the heart of violence
to labor unrewarded in this life.(16)
We are to celebrate the giving of life and work to end the taking of life. When
we see life threatened, we are to enter into violence as if we were angels sent
by God with messages of peace. We are to exchange our lives for that of the threatened
other. Believers call this substitution "suffering." Suffering is always
unjust labor. It is rather unjust that angels must leave heaven to bring justice
to the evil projects of humans. This is why tradition tells us that justice is
divine. Because they are especially rare, tradition reminds us, the names of those
who suffer in this exchange will be remembered forever before God as martyrs.
Angels and martyrs line the pathway to heaven.
All Angels Hold Our Souls
in Their Hands,
City Angels Just Work Harder at It
as a group of students rounded a corner in Chinatown with me, we all stopped:
standing stone-still in front of the Church of the Transfiguration, we were drawn
into a holy drama. In front of us and behind the church wall, there was a beautiful
Chinese woman with her arms stretched up and open. The harder she cried the higher
her hands reached up for the hands of Mary. The arms of this beautiful statue
of the Virgin Mary were open and reaching downward, ready to grasp the hands of
the one in front of her. There in that moment, we saw the Real City.
I see women on their knees crying out to Mary, I see them seeking the tender presence
of another mother who can teach them how to give up their fears. She seems a rather
trustworthy teacher, being such a good example herself.(17)
If we look carefully around the city at the statues women frequent, we find in
Mary's open hands, and at her feet, flowers. When I stand listening to the sobs
of women, I often think that I hear the flutter of the angels who brought them
to the Virgin -- and who are waiting, quietly, to walk back home with them.
an urban priest and colleague, summarizes angels this way: "They protect
us, give us strength, and take our fears away so that we are able to see who we
really are." When we see who we really are, we see our faces, we see face
to face with God. Some traditions call such a "face to face" experience
when we see who we really are "salvation." In the urban setting, salvation
comes to us when we see face to face in the homeless shelters in the basements
of synagogues and churches, or the after school programs for youth. In soup kitchens,
employment centers, affordable day care programs or summer camping excursions,
everyday moments of transcendence can be found every day. Angels are under the
bridges and over the doorways that these programs represent in collective urban
life. They are behind our discovery of who we really are, nudging us to be brave
and to hold each other's souls in our hands. In the city, we have to work harder at it.
Angels Bring Flowers and Tough Assignments
I know my own students fairly
well. Most of them are second career adults and many of them pastors, returning
for advanced degrees. I have not yet met a city pastor who does not have a healthy
respect for the spirit world. The evangelical pastors who ask me to talk about
the city, at the end of a very heavy week of urban exposure, are, every one of
them, ready to take on the demons of the city. They have been to the South Bronx
on the subway, they have fed the homeless under bridges and they have sung praises
in Spanish Harlem. Their less evangelical counterparts spent most of their immersion
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Barnes and Nobles, Starbucks, and the cathedrals;
they even petted lions that the locals would never think to distract from their
guardianship duties in front of the New York Public Library. They tend to focus
on the more spectacular aspects of the city. Among visitors, long-distance partners
in ministry, and those who desire to become urban pastors, activists, and missionaries,
there is an almost "natural" inclination to specialize in the activities
of the fallen or the nonfallen.
There is another category of urban practitioners,
those who need no exposure or immersion as they already inhabit the whole story
of the city. For them, the demons and the angels are nestled into a densely crowed
life. Urbanites, the local people, tend to be concerned about analyzing structures
of power and finding new places to bury their dead. They tend to want to see the
whole picture, they are continually remapping the terrain of complicated hierarchies.
They seem to know that the Devil, the Archangel Michael and the Mayor all meet
regularly for coffee. An encounter with any one of them alone hardly seems worth
There are important things to do with one's time, like worrying
about other cities and finding people who can tell you plainly what fear terrorized
Lenin into taking the angel statues down from the roof tops of St. Petersburg.
What fear was it that convinced him to replace the angels with statues of his
soldiers -- and himself -- as the new angelic guardian of the city of Leningrad?
City Is a Strange Place: Angels Teach Math There
The cities we live
in are often thought of as profanely weird -- as in too strange to
be true. The faithful often speak of the city as if its redemption is something
yet to be accomplished, as if its redemption has not already come. When the faithful
speak of a "Holy City" they are most often referring to a future city,
a city in our imaginations. It turns out that our sociological attitude about
theological presuppositions makes all the difference in urban practice. How people
think sociologically will shape whether or not they see the Holy City
as the Real City.
Inside the Real City, inside of the soul
life of communities, there exists a natural discourse of complaint and reassurance.
It is totally unclear to most urban mothers and fathers why more angels don't
exist in their neighborhoods. In the city, where children's lives are all too
fragile, urbanites are a bit anxious to bring angels to earth. If people think
that the Holy City is yet to come, they will miss the angels who are
standing right next to them and they will miss the call of the angels on our lives.
If children are crying in the city it is not because the angels are not there,
it is because people are not there ready to connect our passion and our resources
with the child that needs us. They have not let the angels put the children's
hands in theirs. The Child + The Angel + You = Ministry. God + You + The Other
= Just Relationships. The faithful's interpretation of the Bible and the people's
complaint allow us no room at all to slide out of our responsibilities to the city.
is much teaching to be done. The people whose vocation it is to join the angels
in teaching math to inner-city children might benefit from the companionship of
theorists like Georg Simmel. Theory helps us "size things up at a glance."
I encourage urban practitioners to locate and become familiar with a school of
sociologists who have examined the social realities that shape their vocational
contexts. Schools are helpful, in that what one fish is blind to, the other sees.
And then, I encourage them to swim between the schools in order to "see things
differently." Social theory is an engine that powers the angelic swiftness
that urban crises require.(18)
[Back to text] See Bauman Zygmut, Postmodern Ethics
(London: Blackwell Publishers, 1993).
to text] Michael Kaern, "Georg Simmel's 'The Bridge and the Door,'
" Qualitative Sociology 17, no. 4 (1994): 407.
[Back to text] Ibid., 409.
[Back to text] Ibid., 408-9.
[Back to text] As told by Professor Akintude Akinade,
Highpoint University, N.C.
to text] Kaern, "Georg Simmel's 'The Bridge and the Door,' " 402.
[Back to text] Georg Simmel, "The Bridge and the
Door." Qualitative Sociology 17, no. 4 (1994): 412. Translated
with notes by Michael Kaern.
to text] Kaern, "Georg Simmel's 'The Bridge and the Door,' "
9. [Back to text] Ibid., 410.
[Back to text] See Donald N. Levine, ed. On
Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1971).
11. [Back to
text] Georg Simmel, Essays on Religion (New Haven: Yale University
12. [Back to text]
John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1958),
13. [Back to text]
John Chase, Margaret Crawford, and John Kaliski, Everyday Urbanism (New
York: Conacelli Press, 1999), 174.
to text] Kenneth M. Brody, "Simmel as a Critic of Metropolitan
Culture," Wisconsin Sociologist 19, no. 4 (1982): 75-83.
[Back to text] Ibid., 78.
[Back to text] Charles Williams, The Decent of
the Dove: A History of the Holy Spirit in the Church, introduction by W. H.
Auden (New York: Living Age Books/Meridian, 1956).
[Back to text] Martin Luther claimed that the spirit
that is unwilling to suffer for others, through the ultimate sacrifice of the
body, cannot sing The Magnificat. An unwillingness to suffer and to be
in the depths is an unwillingness to be with God and to do the work of God. The
spirit that points to her/ him/itself as exalted agent cannot sing either. Had
Mary exalted herself, Luther writes, ". . . she would have fallen
like Lucifer. . ." Luther goes on to observe that Mary had never
expected news like this -- much less from an angel. However, hers was the response
that the angels are sent to pull out of us. When the news came, Mary knew what
she had to do: she ennobled the angelic message as the Word of the Lord.
Someone had to have taught her how to believe the angelic message and how to act.
Luther never does tell the princes how to teach the raging beasts how to listen
to the "tender Mother of God." (Luther's own lack of compassion for
Jews does make one wonder how hard he had to work to ignore what must have been
a host of angels trying to get his attention.) Luther's Works (St. Louis:
Concordia Publishing House, 1955-86), 21:287-355.
[Back to text] Simmel, Essays on Religion,
1997. See also the following works by George Simmel: The Sociology of Georg
Simmel (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1950); Conflict and the Web of Group
Affiliations (New York: Free Press, 1955; Sociology of Religion
(New York: Philosophical Library, 1959); Georg Simmel: The Conflict in Modern
Culture and Other Essays (New York: Teachers College Press, 1968); On
Individuality and Social Forms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971);
Essays on Interpretation in Social Sciences (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and
Littlefield, 1980); Georg Simmel: On Women, Sexuality and Love (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1984).
Photo credits: DSIE Douglas Steven Irvin-Erickson,
photographer NYPL public domain photos from the Picture Collection of the Branch
Libraries of the New York Public Library.
A thank you to the NYPL librarians,
to Dale T. Irvin and Tony Carnes for early critique, to Joe Farias for pushing
me to define the difference between dead myths and living mythic realities, and
to Chris Troy and Boston's urban angels. Any lack of insight is truly my own.
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Cross Currents, Spring 2001, Vol. 51, No 1.