I’m reading Harvey Cox’s 1965 classic, The Secular City, and I really enjoyed his chapter, “The Shape of the Secular City.” Cox talks about two aspects of cities: people are relatively anonymous in them, and they encourage a lot of mobility. Cox tries to show that these two things are positive and coincide with biblical themes.
On anonymity, Cox says that we don’t have to develop a close, “I-thou” relationship with everyone. The Good Samaritan did not attempt this with the person he had helped, after all, for he just saw to the guy’s needs and went on his way. For Cox, the anonymity of the city brings about a new sense of freedom and responsibility. People in cities can form deeper relationships with those who share their values, without the compulsion to become friends with everyone in their proximity. In addition, unlike in small towns, people are also free from certain traditions and norms. Cox defines the restrictions of small town life as “law,” while he labels the anonymity of the big city as “Gospel.”
On mobility, Cox says it’s positive because it exposes people to more of the world. When Southern blacks moved up North, for example, they saw that things could be different from the status quo of the South. That motivated them to go back to the South to improve the condition of African-Americans. Cox sees a lot of mobility in the Bible. Abraham moved from Ur to Canaan, Israel departed from Egypt, the Jews left their land to go into exile, and God was not particularly bound to a place. Israel fulfilled a mission through her mobility, both when she moved to Palestine to form a nation, and also when she went into exile and spread the knowledge of God in other lands.
So why did I like this chapter? Wherever I have gone, people have tried to shove community down my throat. And I have problems with this because of my difficulty in making friends. I also fear the compulsion that community brings: group-think, pressure to conform, being stuck with certain people, lack of solitude, competition, one-upsmanship, fear of being the group “dunce,” etc., etc. It’s refreshing to read someone who actually values individuality, solitude, anonymity, and choice. On the other hand, I have problems with the anonymity of the big city, for it can get really lonely. My connections with others in cities can be rather tenuous, if they’re even existent at all. And it’s easy to become forgotten.
Regarding mobility, I often identified with biblical characters because of my movement from place to place. I’ve had to move a few times in my life. I went from Indiana to Boston, and from Boston to New York, and from New York to Cincinnati. Each move entailed a lot of the same emotions: fear of the unknown along with a hopeful sense of expectancy. It was also an opportunity to depend on God and see how he would use me.
When I was at Harvard, I went to the Reform Hillel, and the rabbi was talking about Abraham in Genesis 12. She discussed how Abraham left behind his family and nation to go into the unknown. He lost his support system and sense of identity, but that was an opportunity for him to lean on God. I could identify with what she was saying, since I myself was away from my family and the people who knew me.
As I look back, I’m not sure how to evaluate my experiences. There wasn’t that much adventure, to be honest with you. I was expecting to go to Harvard and win souls to Christ, but that didn’t exactly happen. I got to share my faith, and I think that people admired my humble sincerity. Sometimes, even the liberals were happy to hear a different perspective, for once. So maybe I planted some seeds in my times away from home.
I can also look back and see God’s provision. I attended a friendly church in Massachusetts, as I did in New York. Here in Cincinnati, I don’t really know anyone at my church, but God has blessed me in other ways–through AA, a helpful therapist, friends, good programs on television, inspiring books, etc. And I praise God for this blog, which allows me to share my faith with others (even though my faith often involves a lot of struggle, as my readers know).
I’m not sure if mobility has allowed me to “enlighten” the people of Brazil, Indiana. I can share with them what I have learned, the same way that they can teach me. Life in the city is not necessarily better than life in small towns or rural areas. It’s just different.