Finding God in the City

Last month, my mom was in Chicago, visiting us. On the last day of her visit, we took her on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Historic Treasure of Culture and Commerce tour. Over the course of about ten blocks and two hours, we learned about and saw a number of amazing buildings in downtown Chicago. I’d seen all of them at least in passing, of course, but I now know the history, the reasons, and the thought that went into them.

Chicago Cultural Center Tiffany Dome

Chicago Cultural Center Tiffany Dome

For me, the highlight was probably the Chicago Cultural Center’s giant Tiffany dome. But you could make a plausible argument for the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tiffany dome in the Marshall Fields (now Macy’s) store, the metalwork of the Sullivan Center, or basically anything else we saw that day. 

I’ve lived most of my adult life in big cities. I moved to New York City in August of 2001 for law school, and, other than a year in the DC metro area, stayed in Manhattan until 2009, when my family and I moved to Chicago. It’s less common here, but in New York, invariably we’d get a vistor get up during sacrament meeting and lead off with some variant of, “I’m so glad for the refuge church provides in this wicked city.”[fn1]

And I get it; as a people, we privilege nature. We go out to nature to commune with God; we consider mountains the next best thing to temples; we hear (or, at least, when I was growing up, always heard) stories in Conference about farms and farming.

And it’s not just us. Gerard Manley Hopkins found God’s grandeur in nature:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
IMG_1570

Door County sunset.

And I get it. This summer we went back to New York for a couple weeks. But the week before, we went camping at Penninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin. It’s hard to beat that sunset, the fresh air and dirt paths and the lake beaches and the peace of it all. So I get why we look for God in nature.

But God isn’t a god solely of nature; He’s the God of humanity at large. Yes, He created trees, plants, and flowers. But he also created the people who rebuilt my city after the Great Fire, who continue to rebuild it, who work and live and create here. And God’s grandeur is reflected in those people, and in what they create, too.

In fact, God demands that we be one, that we collectively make up Jesus’s body. And to be one, to collectively be a body, we need other people.

In “No Exit,” Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote that Hell is other people. The thing is, he’s wrong. And he’s radically wrong. Other people are reflections of God, and by loving them—by being with them—we are loving God.

Michigan Avenue

Michigan Avenue

And there’s nowhere like a crowded city to interact with people, people who demand and challenge our love. Whether it’s a summer’s day on Michigan Avenue or the first warm Saturday of Spring in Central Park, or just living in an apartment complex with a diverse group of neighbors you don’t have anything in common with, cities test our charity and force us to get better at it. And in those crowds, we interact with and engage God, through His children.

I wanted to say something about the art and culture of cities (maybe boast about my amazing experience at the Chicago Jazz Festival), but maybe that starts to obscure my point.

And my point is this: we can find and engage with God in nature. But He’s not absent elsewhere: His presence is here in Chicago. It is in downtown Manhattan. Maybe it’s not manifest in the way we expect it, or the way we were trained to look for it, but He’s here to be found, and the ambulance sirens and street musicians and trains and cars and cabs and people can’t take that away.

[fn1] Or else some joke about great and spacious buildings, which, as several people have pointed out, buildings in New York are great. But spacious?

Comments

  1. Sam, I agree. I was reminded by a conversation here on the blog a long time ago about Mormonism’s early urbanism. JS designed cities for everyone to live in and then commute to the farm, and currently internationally we are almost completely urban.

    The image of JS’s visit to Manhattan and bring inspired is really extraordinary.

  2. Thanks. Regarding the two great commandments, Pope Francis said this (Vatican City, October 26, 2014):
    “In the midst of the dense forest of rules and regulations – the legalisms of yesterday and today – Jesus makes an opening that allows us to see two faces . . . Actually, it is one face: that of God that is reflected in the faces of so many, because in the face of every brother and sister, especially the smallest, the fragile, the helpless and the needy, the very image of God is present.”

  3. Just this morning, while taking a walk and letting my mind roam, I was musing over the question, “When people make a pilgrimage out to the north end of the Great Salt Lake to see the Spiral Jetty, are they hoping to be amazed by man’s cleverness, or by something truly divine at its root, or possibly a combination of the two. I must confess that I tend to see the vast majority of our modern society as far more impressed with human cleverness than much else, bracketing off God’s grandeur in order to focus on our own supposed greatness. I enjoyed reading this post, but see it as not only a minority position but also an exceedingly rare one to find. Reading the city and architecture and all our human craftsmanship in this way is probably a holy practice, confessing God’s hand even in flawed human enterprises. But I do not think human cleverness is particularly conducive to our humbling. I suspect nature might generally do a better job of that–at least in this day and age. Keep swimming upstream, though. I like that.

  4. your food allergy is fake says:

    the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls

  5. Thank you! Good to know I’m not alone, surrounded as I am by nature-worshipping friends in Utah. I have had some of my most spiritual moments while surrounded by the diversity of my city brothers and sisters. While visiting Brooklyn last year I went for an early morning walk. As I sat in front of the magnificent public library, watching vendors setting up for a vast farmer’s market, I was overwhelmed with love for all humans who toil to create beauty from “matter organized.” To design a building, paint a fresco, implement a cure, or cultivate a garden is surely to follow the Savior’s example as Creator. I heartily disagree with those who view man (and thereby the work of man’s hands) as the most flawed of His creations, worthy of contempt when compared to the Grand Canyon or a rainforest. The words that came to my mind that morning in Brooklyn were, “He must be so proud of us.”

  6. the other Marie says:

    Hopkins was famously a nature lover and found God there as you say, but he also saw Christ in those around him:

    “…Christ plays in ten thousand places,
    Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
    To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

    In men’s faces, and I would imagine also in the best workings of their minds and the best works of their hands.

    I remember my devout LDS cousin, who lives in NYC, showing me around the city and mentioning to me as we stood on the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset Pres. Hinckley’s quote about her city being a “Babylon on the Hudson.” She didn’t seem to be sure she was allowed to love living in the city. But Zion is a city, as you mentioned–whatever of divinity we may find alone in nature, the highest existence is one full of all willing people living close together and combining their best gifts to make a kingdom. It won’t look like Manhattan when it happens, but it won’t look like a wilderness or farm scene, either.

  7. Other people are reflections of God, and by loving them—by being with them—we are loving God.

    And there’s nowhere like a crowded city to interact with people, people who demand and challenge our love.

    Truth.

  8. Last Friday I enjoyed the solitude of an overnight stay on the shore of a remote alpine lake in a secluded corner of the Olympic Mountains of Washington state – miles away from the closest trailhead in a hard-to-access spot. Today I sit steps away from the Empire State Building in the heart of the Big Apple. In all of it, I feel as Alma, that “all things denote there is a God.” This truth is as apparent to me here as it was there. Thank you for this post.

  9. As a fellow lover of cities (and Hopkins!), thank you, Sam.

  10. You should probably read Sartre before you misappropriate Sartre.