Geography is simply a visible form of theology. (Levenson, 1985. 116)

How do we get to know our cities? How do we identify the spirit of a place? What theological and social frameworks will contribute to our understanding? We have begun to sketch these above, but our theological frames are likely to be diverse, shaped by the contexts and traditions which shape us, and so the complexity of our analysis becomes uniquely dialogical and contextual.

We can reflect on a particular place in terms of what we may call the spiritual geography, extending the theological task into an exploration of how context impacts faith. We use the word “context” to describe a particular environment, including but not limited to the physical dimensions. We include the historical, economic, social and cultural factors. Not only does context impact belief but also it provides a window (perhaps, an “imaginary”) through which one may relate to God. Moreover, the rise of virtual and networked space complicates context. The authors of Networked Theology remind us that “geography becomes irrelevant as time-space barriers dissolve.” (Campbell and Garner, 2016. 58)

When we extend the theological task to discern the spiritual geography of a place, we add another factor to the story: the interweave of attitudes and environment, postures and politics, and the ways this interweave calls to the spirit or denigrates it. These things are commonly felt as intangibles, and are difficult to identify and articulate. Theology is a reflective task because it asks questions and makes statements it cannot understand. It’s the nature of the craft. But our work helps us evaluate the human environment at levels that are more than merely phenomenological. It contributes to the richness of a spiritual vocabulary rooted in the rough and tumble of life, “sails and ships and ceiling wax.” It is not just holy places which inspire us, but places which inspire us become holy: they transform our human journey into a pilgrimage.

Linda Mercadante warns that discerning the spirit of a place could be reduced to a vague delineation of how a place is or is not conducive to human flourishing. She offers two safeguards to this tendency. First, the awareness that God is continually trying to reach us, to break through our defenses, and to offer divine grace. Second, as Calvin stressed, that God accommodates to our condition. “Our particularity creates the need for God to come to us in ways we can understand, and … God has the consummate ability to do this.” (Mercadante, 2004. 62)

The most fundamental way God has met us is in the Incarnation. The Incarnation combined the human and divine, matter and spirit, and was preeminently a phenomenon of spatiality. Jesus was placed, a first century Jew meeting us in place and time. This may cue us to some important questions relative to our urban contexts. The physical space of our humanity is not just flesh and blood, but also steel and glass. Our bodies do not interact socially apart from physical places. And in the nature of culture itself, our bodies participate in both a natural environment and cultural artifacts, so that the city is more than mere container, as place is more than space. The city is us.

And this means that the city remains both graced and fallen. We avoid reducing our discussion of the city to polarities, and are assisted by the social critiques of writers like Zizek, Bauman, and Chomsky. So when Rob Crosby-Shearer notes of Victoria that there are “shadows in paradise,” we know similar realities in our own cities. When Cory Seibel describes the darker “frontier” realities of Edmonton he notes that these are “acute manifestations of phenomena that occur across the life of the city.” That cues us to the way that Zizek addresses social symptoms. He uses the word “irruption,” which moves beyond the external psychological sign of an inner disturbance. (Zizek, 1989)

For Zizek, a Symptom can work within a culture to expose an unfulfilled drive, the unspoken void around which that culture has been formed. “An image, an explosion of media activity surrounding an event, a popular movie, a flurry of publishing can expose something hidden and unspoken that drives a culture’s meaning system.” (Hesiak, 2007) What we see and hear on the surface may be compensations for what the culture itself lacks at its core. Exposing these kinds of Zizekian Symptoms in our cities opens them up for change and transformation.

For Zizek, cultural symbolic orders exist to legitimize something; as such they are ideologies. These meaning systems mask an absence which no one wants to face. So every cultural system is prone to “irruptions of the Real” which reflect back to its participants what is hidden within the ongoing system of meaning. Thus the homeless populations amidst capitalist societies reveal the immanent logic of the politic of capitalism. Capitalist ideology may say that its goal is to rid humanity of all poverty, but Zizek would suggest that the homeless person reveals the true drive behind capitalism, the way it plays upon the fear of poverty and the fear that we all might become homeless if we don’t work harder. Global capitalism is a force that impacts the soul of every large Western city, and its Symptoms are available to any observer.

From the Introduction. Urban Loft Publishing, 2017.