Friday, 13 February 2009

Green and Pleasant

The overnight snow has cleared, and I am sitting in the study, looking out on the rather scruffy greenery of the garden. As with many clergy houses, the surrounding garden is unusually large for the locality. It’s much admired by visitors, especially congregation members, not because it is in any sense a model of horticultural achievement but just because it is a green space. And a green space is defined as good, to be enjoyed, a source of spiritual solace.

Talking recently with someone who has moved from working in the inner city to a parish in the depths of rural Essex, we fell to wondering about the default position which gives a spiritual value to the ‘natural’ world, but not to that which is evidently made by human hands, or indeed, by machines designed by human brains. Go into a religious bookshop, and look at the shelves of popular devotional material: most will have covers which show flowers, sky, mountains, woods, sea, even deserts. Any human beings shown will be almost certainly be in rural settings, whether the domesticity of the English countryside or something wilder and apparently more challenging. A very few might be consciously grittier in their approach: urban spirituality, talking of God in the city, is rough, tough stuff, edgy, about stories of poverty and survival.

Intentionally or not, the visual code being used implies that the natural world is of God, and good, offering us an unmediated access to the divine, and that what is the product of human activity is and does none of these things. This of course ignores the fact that so much of the landscape in which we operate is shaped by human intervention: very little certainly of the English countryside is ‘natural’, a wilderness unspoiled by people’s demands upon it. More importantly for my purposes, working in an urban environment, is the implicit message that houses, roads, factories, shops, bridges, railways are always to be seen as second-rate in the spirituality stakes. And, by extension, the people of the city need to get into the green world of big skies and empty spaces, because there they can pray, reflect, contemplate, in ways which are otherwise closed to them.

Perhaps this is part of a peculiarly English cultural obsession with the countryside: just as, if you make sufficient money (or so it was in the past, when people did make money), you move to the country, whether to a stately home or a comfortable bungalow, so if you are spiritually successful, you seek out the fields, the forests, the mountains. But the Christian story famously begins in a garden and ends in a city, and yet we constantly hark back to Eden rather than look forward to Jerusalem. Why are we so unwilling to explore a sense of God amongst the cars, the bricks, the concrete, the bus stops, and the busyness? Why do we not honour as God-given the human creativity which gives us the North London Outfall Sewer, the exuberant decoration of late 19th century terraced housing, the entertainment of one of our local covered markets? And why, when we do try to do it, is the attempt so often disastrous? I recall with pain, many years ago, singing ‘God of concrete, God of steel…’

I can’t answer the questions, but I’m off to look for signs of the Kingdom on the London Underground.

Posted by Jane Freeman on Friday, 13 February 2009 at 7:23pm GMT | TrackBack
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In the camera club to which my spouse and I belong, when submitting a photo to be juried, in the "nature" category there must be no sign of the "hand of man" anywhere in the photo. So, the stunning photo of a coopers hawk on the utility wire outside our city home did not count in the competition. This bias against that made with our brains extends beyond the spiritual.

Posted by: Lois Keen on Friday, 13 February 2009 at 7:52pm GMT

The obsession with "natural" over man-made is not merely English...or, if it is, we on the left side of the pond have inherited it. It pervades all of American thought...the cowboy is a greater hero than the urban worker; small town life is "real", big city life is not. I could go on and on.

As for spirituality in an urban setting, all I can say is this: If God did not intend us to do big things in a collective manner, why did he make us so much a social being?

Posted by: Pat O'Neill on Friday, 13 February 2009 at 10:08pm GMT

We have just welcomed a beautiful new creation - our very first gran-child - the work of God and God's human agents, Zoe Emma's parent's. But, Without the city hospital and all the technical paraphernalia of the medical world - made by human hands and the brain-child of centuries of man/woman's ingenuity, we would not have been able to feel such joy on St. Valentine's Day.
Thank God for the whole of creation - Natural - in God's Image, and made - by bearers of God's Image in the human sphere. This child will have the best of both world's. She is so beautiful!

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Friday, 13 February 2009 at 11:39pm GMT

Congratulations, Fr Ron!

Posted by: Erika Baker on Saturday, 14 February 2009 at 8:43am GMT

I have seen the Kingdom on the Underground! Now, I had a hard time finding it in the Netherlands....

Posted by: Ms Cornelius on Saturday, 14 February 2009 at 5:43pm GMT

This piece seems to make a lot of assumptions about what 'we' all think.

But I think it safe to assume that few of 'us' a
have large gardens or studies.

But if this piece is even half right it may be onto the Churches' splitting of body and spirit, sex and love, male and female, good and evil ...

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Saturday, 14 February 2009 at 9:02pm GMT

Thanks, Jane. Hope your time looking 'for signs of the Kingdom on the London Underground' was fruitful.

Many years ago I did the same and came up with, 'Jesus Goes Underground'.

She listens to her Walkman
living in another world,
ignoring her neighbour as herself.

He reads the Sun
immersed in actors’ lives,
washing his mind with soap.

They do not touch,
insulated, isolated,
marriage withdrawal symptoms

She scrunches monster munches,
monosodium glutomate;
bags of tasty emptiness.

He’s stuck in sniffing glue,
addicted to cheap death;
nobody knows the trouble he’s in.

To bring them to their senses and together,
Jesus goes Underground.

He grabs the tube of glue
and breathes
the breath of God.

He throws the packet
away
and gives her bread.

He joins their hands
in his
and brings them warmth.

He folds the sun
in half
and beams a smile.

He slips the headphones from her ears
and shares his world.

Posted by: Graham Kings on Sunday, 15 February 2009 at 4:43pm GMT

I used to be something of a 'Deep Green' - and at the time came across some scientific suggestions that the characteristics of the natural world are hardwired into our brains. Whether wholly natural or not (for eg., farmed land) I am guessing we are in evolutionary terms still picking up signals more attentively from organic as opposed to non-organic things.

Culturally, the city oppositely has also been viewed as the place of sin, degeneration, and the home of the forces of death and repression and such views have existed across the political spectrum.

This basic distinction is what makes Winston Smith's brief countryside sojourn with Julia in 1984 so poignant: they find a brief freedom in the woods - where there are no telescreens.

Posted by: orfanum on Sunday, 15 February 2009 at 8:12pm GMT

There's this refrain from James Fenton's "Cutthroat Christ," a favorite of mine:

"There's a Christ for a whore and a Christ for a punk,
There's a Christ for a pickpocket and a drunk,
There's a Christ for every sinner, but there's one thing there ain't,
There ain't no Christ for any cut-price saint."

Posted by: counterlight on Monday, 16 February 2009 at 3:37am GMT

I'm not so sure this isn't just a typical mawkish sentimentalizing of the country. For a notable exception to this tendency, and from an English Anglican author, no less, look up almost anything by Charles Williams. "The City" is a favorite metaphor of his, and a positive one.

Posted by: Oriscus on Monday, 16 February 2009 at 4:55am GMT

I went by Underground to the first of the Countryside Rallies in Hyde Park. It was uncanny to see so many robust folk laughing and talking on the Tube, with the easy familiarity of people who had just got out of their Land Rovers to watch Hounds draw. When we got to Marble Arch, a couple of young men got tired of waiting for the escalator and ran up the emergency stairs; when they got to the top a great cheer went up from those standing on the escalator. But then this was the real countryside in the capital, not the saccharine, anti-hunting Patience-Strong-and-water version which you find on birthday cards.

Posted by: Oliver NIcholson on Monday, 16 February 2009 at 4:49pm GMT

I think the valuing of nature as God's creation is real, not just sentiment, but that doesn't mean the city isn't of value. The trouble with built environments is that they reflect both the gifts of God to humanity in the form of intelligence and creativity, and the way humanity manages to misuse those gifts and abuse each other. That said, when we're looking at people, rural or urban, we should see Christ. If we run away from the city to an environment where humans are considered an undesirable intrusion on the landscape, we are (at best) taking a pre-Christian view of our world.

Posted by: RobinD on Tuesday, 17 February 2009 at 12:41am GMT

"If God did not intend us to do big things in a collective manner, why did he make us so much a social being?"

Well, for the vast majority of human history, we "social beings" expressed our social nature in small groups. There is nothing inevitable or preordained in our current state of "uber" urban living. And cities aren't an expression of our nature as social beings. There are few places more lonely or antisocial than your average city. On a regular basis, the elderly die and decay alone and no-one knows till their bones are found. The process whereby our nomadic ancestors became city dwellers did have numerous effects, not least of which was a significant evolution in our relationship to infectious diseases, with the suffering and sorrow such evolution entails, for instance. Still, there's a case to be made, but I am not convinced enough to make it, that the modern city represents a corruption of our social nature, not a development from it, and as such is a manifestation of the Fall. So there:-)

Posted by: Ford Elms on Tuesday, 17 February 2009 at 4:05pm GMT
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