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.
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 oilCrushed. 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 soilIs 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 wentOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —Because the Holy Ghost over the bentWorld broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
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 “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.
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?