Review and Reflection on “Cities of Tomorrow and the City to Come” by Noah J. Toly

This is a short, quick read at only 64 pages of content. Having said that, there’s a lot packed into the book. The subtitle is “A Theology of Urban Life” and that’s what caught my attention. Cities have been a mainstay in human civilization for a very long time. Humans coming together into a society and living in close quarters, sharing culture, and more are key features of what civilization is all about. So what is our urban theology? This whole subject comes in contrast with a more evangelical American outlook on faith and society, where the focus is on the individual and their personal faith. But faith isn’t just a personal thing. It is also social. And no more social than in our urban centers where people aren’t just dealing with faith, but also social challenges that can’t be solved individually. Or, as Gene Green puts it in the Forward to the book, “We believe that the gospel is relevant not only to our inner life, but to life in the world.” (Pg. 11).

Cities carry with them large challenges, just by the nature of what they are. Cram large crowds of people together and with that comes basic questions of how you house them, feed them, move them, make sure they stay healthy or get well once sick, deal with crime and safety, work, and so much more. Again, these aren’t just individual challenges – they are challenges that also affect the whole. The author puts a keen focus on all of this, “There are no detached observers of what the author of the letter to the Hebrews describes as ‘the city to come’ (Hebrews 13:14).” (Pg. 27). Indeed, we are connected, and we are all impacted when we live in urban settings. What affects one, affects the many. You can’t escape it.

One of the key areas of focus for Toly is creation care in the city. He asks some important questions about how this can happen and offers key points to direct policy:

  • “Guidance – Scripture teaches us that we ought to act in ways that demonstrate we are for creation, that our calling is to keep and to serve it…We ought to develop neighborhoods that signify and symbolize the reconciliation of God, humanity, and nature, and not only the estrangement between them.”
  • “Power – The Holy Spirit illuminates God’s Word and empower us to act consistently with our calling…The Spirit renews us, makes us part of the new creation, and helps us to fulfill our calling to be for creation, for God, and for others.”
  • Hope – …we have hope in a God who will one day restore all things to their rightful order.” (Pg. 33-4)

All of this theology is summed up with the following statement – “To give creation a taste of this liberation [described in Romans 8:18-22], a test of freedom, is to give it a brief glimpse of us as the children of God, as his images, as representations of what he is like.” (Pg. 34).

Toly then turns his attention to the shape of community in cities. As he says, “…the city is full of what we might bluntly call ‘other people.’…This is why the cities exist.” (Pg. 40). You live in a city because at some level you are attracted to the idea of being near other people. That of course doesn’t minimize the challenges that being around others causes too. But the core of why people go to a city is to be in community with others – to be in relationship with others. “…we are made like the Trinity. When God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26), this meant, let us make a creature that exists in relationships that mirror those of the triune God.” (Pg. 42). Setting aside the male language in the quote, the point is, since we are made in the image of God, all humanity has been made to be in relationship, just as God is in relationship. Toly goes on to explain that this very idea is summed up in the two great commandments – Love God and love your neighbor.

And in a city, you have the opportunity to not just love those like you, but those who are different from you too. “While our calling to love others is not limited to our brothers and sisters in Christ, the church is one place we should witness this loving community in diversity and learn how to live it out. In fact, the apostle Paul indicates that the church is God’s new creation for this reason: It is the place where differences don’t keep us apart…but rather, it is the place where differences are celebrated.” (Pg. 46).

Toly then turns his attention to poverty. He uses the book of Daniel for this. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon turns to Daniel to interpret a dream he has had. And Daniel’s interpretation spells out a consistent theme through all of Scripture – that God cares about the poor deeply and that injustice towards the poor has consequences. Daniel tells the king, “You want to be like God in all the wrong, or at least inconsequential, ways. You want your kingdom to last forever and to be everywhere, but you should want to be like the God who loves and showers mercy on the poor. Anything less than that is subhuman, so if you can’t do that, then you will face a fitting judgement…you will live like an animal for seven years.” (Pg. 57). For me, this short paragraph says so very much. Care for the poor isn’t about doing things for others, or some kind of partisan label, or about some kind of hidden agenda. Rather it is about live our faith, seeing the image of God in others, and in ourselves.

“If we truly want to be like God, we should care for the least of these, providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, and security to the vulnerable. We should empower the powerless and give voice to the voiceless. To do so is to be more like Jesus Christ, the true king who was not subhuman but perfectly human.” (Pg. 57). Amen, amen, amen!

Toly has a short chapter there the focus is on humane urbanism. This is really about communities that care in practical ways. “…social systems that displace costs onto others can be described as ‘subjugating’ systems. Social systems that absorb costs for others can be described as ‘redemptive’ systems. The question is what kind of community we want to become and live in…we might just become communities that are for other communities.” (Pg. 61). In order to live into this, there first has to be a recognition that there is more than just the individual. That is not something that is universally understood in our culture or in American Christianity, much to our own detriment. We hinder ourselves because we are so focused on the individual, rather than seeing how people are impacted and connected by larger things.

All of this requires some imagination and vision to take the theology and implement it in practical ways that impact communities. “At its best, this approach seems to authorize and empower participation in efforts toward real transformation, including planning, activism, and policy that bring about new and better cities of tomorrow. By measuring cities of tomorrow against the city of come, by saying that a city doesn’t live up to its calling unless there is a sort of justice that resembles the justice of God, and by saying meaningful resemblance is possible, this imagination undermines complacency with a powerful prophetic potential.” (Pg. 66). That gets me truly excited about possibilities and that what is possible can actually happen.

And that is the point of the book – to image the possible, grounded in faith, connected to God, living out what God has called for us, together.

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