Book | A Theology of the Built Environment

1553491Gorringe, Timothy. A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

The Author

gorringeTim Gorringe worked in parishes for six years before going to South India to teach theology at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, where he worked for seven years. On return to Britain he was for nine years Chaplain, Fellow and Tutor in Theology at St John’s College, Oxford. In 1995 he became Reader in Contextual Theology at St Andrew’s and in 1998 took up his present post as St Luke’s Professor of Theological Studies.

His academic interests focus on the interrelation between theology, social science, art and politics. His most recent books are The Common Good and the Global Emergency(CUP 2011) and Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art(Yale 2011).

He is at present working on a two year AHRC funded research project on the values which underpin constructive social change, focussing on the Transition Town Movement.[1]

My Thoughts

I found this review by Paul Bailie to be very helpful. He summarizes well:

In A Theology of the Built Environment, British theologian T.J. Gorringe reflects in an interdisciplinary manner on constructed space, how humans use land, and issues related to the environmental crisis. Gorringe argues for “a Trinitarian theological ethic, reflecting on God in all reality, and thus refusing the pre Christian distinction between sacred and secular” (17). The book begins with Gorringe recognizing that the essence of being human is being associated with a place: “to be born in this house, hospital, stable (according to Luke), or even, as in the floods in Mozambique in 2000, in a tree” (1). Where we live and how we use land are the start of theological reflection in this book. Gorringe brings biblical scholarship, town planning, urban theory, and architecture into dialogue about constructed space, land ownership, cities, and aesthetics.[2]

I found this book to be helpful for my research in a few ways:

First, Gorringe bases his theology on a robust Trinitarian framework. Gorringe’s concept of the Trinity draws heavily from both Moltmann and Jenson. He has a Hegelian—and thus, Jensonian—view of God as event in history. However, as Moltmann articulates, God is not fused with space and time, but God, within Godself, has opened up space and time for the wholy other to exist in space and time in relationality to God. God the Creator, God the Reconciler, and God the Redeemer (traditionally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are working within, with, and against our constructed human environments to bring about the New Jerusalem. This is not an other-worldly utopian dream, but a concrete, this-wordly hope of shalom in a unified world of human diversity. The relationality of the Trinity, engaged in the embodied, historicity, and specificity of human situatedness creates potential for God’s redeeming process to become a reality.

Second, Gorringe addresses the specific issue of the suburb in a fair manner. He names the ubiquitous critique of the flattening, homogenizing tendencies of the Levittown caricature of the suburbs. However, he also draws attention to the specific realities of the constructed spaces. The following paragraph is a helpful discussion of the suburb:

Herbert Gans’ field work challenged many of these assumptions. Viewed sociologically suburbs are not simply an aggregation of nuclear families, but a dense network of community groups and organisations which embrace a very high percentage of their occupants. Gans found more than a hundred associations flourishing after only three years. This is perhaps the kind of tribal community of which Bauman speaks, grouped around interests—Gans conceded he found little interest in national affairs there. But even in the village and the city something of the same applies. Gans challenged the existence of the community the critics missed in suburbia. Nostalgic social critics want to ‘revive’ a sense of community ‘that never was save in their imagination, instead of planning for the effective functioning of and improved living conditions in those aggregates to which we give the name ‘community.’ Two questions in particular pertain to the suburb. First, the ideology which originally led to their formation has broken down, as reflected in the rise to parity of the female workforce. This is a return to the norm of all human societies under the condition of wage labour. Are the suburbs equally suited to this new situation, and in particular the rise in so called one parent families? Secondly, if the kind of social disintegration which Langdon finds in the suburbs is in fact what they produce then they urgently need surgery. He proposes the introduction of pubs, cafes, neighbourhood stores. Gans, on the other hand, finds suburban community in good order, within a roughly lower middle class frame of reference. Suburbanites, he says, ‘enjoy the house and outdoor living and take pleasure from the large supply of compatible people, without experiencing the boredom or malaise ascribed to suburban homogeneity. His findings were an accelerated social life, not a diminished one. Colin Ward would agree. Looking at Runcorn New Town, and the network of community associations which Gans found in the United States, he believes that ‘there is an automatic community potential, always waiting to trigger its release’. [3]

Third, a major tenet of Gorringe’s argument is that an ethics of the built environment must continually resist the birfurcation of fact/value, sacred/secular, public/private. These dualities must exist in dialectic tension as they are socially constructed in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Selected Quotes

“All space is potentially sacred, waiting for the moment of encounter in which it mediates God. We can understand it through the same analogy by which Barth understand Scripture. Scripture is not per se the Word of God, he said, but it becomes it, as the water of the pool of Bethesda healed when the angel stirred it. If that is the case, then sacred space is bound up with event, with community and with memory. What we conventionally understand as sacred spaces have a sacramental significance with regard to all other space: they are a reminder of the potential for epiphany of all other spaces.”[4]

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“In the power of the Spirit, which breathes through all cultures and all generous and humane imaginaries, the human dream of freedom may, and indeed must , find expression in the cities of tomorrow, imaging what Blake calls ‘the human form divine’ in city streets and the houses of ordinary people. Such a hope implies no false Christian messianism, but a belief in the contribution of faith in the Triune God to the whole human story, faith in the God who identifies with the lowly, who calls slaves out of every Egypt, and who raises the dead from the death of despair to the promise of new life. “Mortal, can these bones live?’ (Ezek. 37.3) A question to the condition of postmodernity, with its social atomism, infinite dispersal, and nihilism. If Spirit truly speaks to spirit, the answer then may be the answer now, finding sinews and flesh in a new common project, a world of beauty and equality which respects the earth. Why not?”[5]

Notes


[1] http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/theology/staff/gorringe/ (accessed August 7, 2013)

[3] Timothy Gorringe, A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 182-183.

[4] Ibid., 40.

[5] Ibid., 261.

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