Urban theology: Is it different? Should it be?

Not far from the pedestrian entrance to Fordham University's campus in the Bronx is one of the boldest signs in all of New York. In a city not known for subtlety, even this one stands out as uncannily direct: Butt Boosting Jeans.

In the accompanying photo I have spared you the window-shopping, where you could see the means by which your pompis might be exalted, but I've made sure to capture the Spanish (and actual) name of the store for those of you interested in, ahem, learning more.

An uplifting message

Fordham Road is a boisterous place, especially in summer. There are many days where it wouldn't be exaggerating to call it a cacophonous, sweaty mass of humanity. On this clamorous commercial strip it's often difficult to take note of anything except what's directly at hand. Nonetheless I've noticed the sign many times, and today, strangely, it got me thinking about theology. Specifically, how is it that one does theology in this environment? How does the urban-ness of one's surroundings affect one's emphases, methods, and conclusions?

There's an old Latin saying about some of the charismatic founders of Christian orders which ends: Ignatius loved the great cities. Here in the Bronx the Jesuit scholastics in formation maintain their residence, Ciszek Hall, just a few paces off Fordham Road, adjacent to a huge tattoo parlor (though not the one featured in the photo) and on the same block as a mosque. Ignatius Loyola would have loved Fordham Road for all its urbanity -- perhaps even the Butt Boosting Jeans store. They certainly don't have that one in the suburbs or the country.

I confess, however, to having idealized notions of theological thinking that takes place in placid or even wilderness environments. Immanuel Kant barely ever left his hometown. Great thinkers from Jesus to Thomas Merton to Kathleen Norris have fled to the wilderness in search of solitude for prayer and insight. And yet others, such as Paul, Ignatius Loyola, and Dorothy Day have flourished in the cities. I always identified more with the Jesus-Merton-Norris crowd. I sometimes find it hard even to breathe in New York.

After a few years of doing theology here in the Bronx, I've noticed a few changes in myself. First, I have found natural theology to be less a part of my thinking and spirituality than before. The sacramental worldview of grace mediated through nature or finding God in all things usually presented itself to me through experiences of mountains, rivers, big skies by day, and shooting stars by night. As a high school teacher in Colorado (at the other Regis), I used to have a west-facing classroom with expansive views of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. We would turn our desks westward to read the poetry of Hopkins -- who wouldn't have? The world was charged with the grandeur of God. Nature was never spent. The last lights did really off the black West went, and from the other side of the school we could really see morning, at the brown brink, eastward springing. God, it was easy to teach sacramental theology in Colorado.

But when everything here is made by human hands, even the natural spaces like the nearby Botanical Garden and Bronx Zoo, it is easy for the human person to become the measure of things. Urban life, for better and worse, is about people. Grace mediated through nature comes to mean grace mediated through other people. That's still Christian natural theology, but it sure feels different.

I've also noticed that the emphases of my christological thinking have changed. As primarily a teacher of New Testament, it's not that my textual resources have changed. But where I used to focus on Jesus in the rural countryside -- the Galilean wonder-worker, the wisdom teacher of the inner life, revealing God through mustard seeds and spinning lilies -- I'm now drawn more to his teachings about social ethics. I read the same old texts, but now I see the moneychangers in the Temple, I see the socio-economic statuses of the Pharisees, tax collectors, widows, and politicians. I used to meditate on the agriculture parables of Mark 4. Now I can't get the economic teachings of Luke 16 out of my head. How can I, when they're before my eyes every day? The only mustard I see comes from a hot dog cart. The only fields I see are used for sports. But the Rich Man passing by Lazarus -- I see both men every day, and I am one of them. Every day.

Others have written more eloquently about what I've just said, about how all theology, like all politics, is local and contextual. We can't help being shaped by our quotidian contexts. I don't know that I'll have a grand theory about this to add to the discussion of contextual theologies, but I can say that urbanity has fundamentally shifted my theological engagement. I'm wondering if it has for any of you.

St. Paul, St. Ignatius Loyola, and Servant of God Dorothy Day, pray for us.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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