How Do Cities Declare the Glory of God?

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Edward Feser wrote a reflective post on how human artifice, including city life in general, can obscure “nature”, and I want to riff off of that in a more spiritual direction. To set the context of my reflections, consider his comments:

By contrast, the objects that surround us in everyday life in the modern city are almost always things whose underlying “natural” substrates — those things which are the true substances and which underlie the accidental forms — have been highly processed. They do not wear their “natural” origins on their sleeve. This is true even of the most “natural” (in the sense of non-man-made) materials. The wood and metal that make up the pieces of furniture now right in front of me, for example, are so highly processed and have been so slickly painted or varnished or otherwise made so sleek that what strikes you most clearly is not this is metal or this is wood, but rather this is a filing cabinet and this is a desk….

Moreover, even when objects that are clearly natural (again, in the relevant sense of “natural”) are present in the modern city — trees, grass, etc. — they are present in a way that is often so much the result of human planning that the accidental forms — the shape of the lawn and the uniformity of the length of the blades of grass, the shape of the hedges, etc. — strike you as much as the natural object itself does.

So, you might say that the world around us modern city dwellers is so covered over with accidental forms that the substantial forms that underlie them are visible only with effort.

The Bible speaks in many places of how what we might call the natural order “declares the glory of God”, one such place being Psalm 19, from which I just quoted:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

And it seems true that most people seem to find it easier to reflect on God’s power and greatness when in “nature”, since it is there that one most directly sees the world apart from human intervention.

Nevertheless, I think the Bible also teaches that all things glorify God in some way, and I think that must include objects of human creation, including complex objects such as entire cities full of things. So what I’d like to do is to reflect on the ways in which objects commonly present in cities display God’s glory.

The first thing to consider is what most objects in cities have in common: that is, they are shaped by human reason in some way. And this points us to what is perhaps the greatest of “natural” objects, the rational capacities of human beings. The philosophers could speak of the human intellect as infinite, for it can in a sense (by means of abstraction) “become all things”; and certainly the endless ingenuity on display in the arts and the sciences seems to confirm that ancient judgment. Insofar as all human-created objects reflect the power of human reason, they reflect the greatness of that natural object. And yet human reason is not self-existent. It too is created. Indeed, an ancient and venerable exegetical tradition identifies the image of God with this exact faculty, the one thing that separates us from brute beasts. And this ought to lead us to recognize the one in whose image it is made: of God, Reason and Wisdom and Intellect Himself, the source of all capacities to understand and reflect and to imagine new ways of organizing and manipulating things. Whenever we see humanly created objects, we can see in them the source of all wisdom, God himself.

We can take this reflection in endless directions following the paths of the various particular objects we commonly find in cities. A few examples should suffice: buildings, cars, and the electrical and communication grids.

Buildings are remarkable not least because of their general tendency to stay established. They don’t fall down regularly. Rather, day after day, people live, work, eat, and sleep in these structures. This is a result of at least two factors. Firstly, once again, we return to human ingenuity. The intelligence that goes into constructing these buildings in such a way that they continue to function goes beyond my knowledge, but clearly it is a function of knowledge, for in general it achieves its purpose. Secondly, these buildings continue to stand because the earth underneath them continues to function according to its natural properties. And this is something that happens independently of human control. But neither of these things happen independently of divine control; rather, the effectiveness of human intelligence, and the general stability of the earth, both declare a God who ultimately is infinitely wise, powerful, and faithful in his providence over the world.

Cars are also an amazing man-made device. Two centuries ago people walked everywhere or used horses to travel through cities. Now a great deal of human travel involves these massive machines. And like the buildings discussed above, these also tend to behave in predictably useful ways. Once again, this is the result of two factors: human ingenuity and the regularity of nature. Engines are meticulously designed to propel the automobile; but the engine will not function without the input of oil and gas, both of which have properties not given to them by human beings, but which they consistently act in accord with. And once again, both of these factors point back to God’s power, intelligence, and faithful providence.

Finally, electrical and communication systems. As with the previous example, a few centuries ago humankind had not mastered electricity in the way that it has today. Because of this application of intelligence, we can now have regularly operating machines in our homes and places of work, machines that keep us and our perishable items warm (or cool), keep us entertained, and keep us clean. All of these machines, of course, were also devised by human intelligence. Yet, electricity itself is not a human creation, and yet it continues to function in predictable ways, allowing us to make human living that much more pleasant. And this brings us one final time to the underlying cause of all these factors: God, the one who gives man wisdom, and gives him a natural realm behaving in predictable ways to apply his wisdom to.

What Feser says above is clearly correct. And there is something about cities which can lead to forgetfulness about God, as many poets and observers have noted. But what I hope I have begun to show here is that this is not a necessary feature of cities. While seeing God’s glory in cities may be more challenging in some ways, still, it is a challenge that can be met, and for the sake of the city-dweller’s soul, it is a challenge worth the attempt.