Review : The Spiritual City by Philip Sheldrake

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Compared to the broad inclusive treatment of spirituality in his ‘Spirituality, a very short introduction’, Philip Sheldrake develops a narrow restrictive hermeneutic in ‘The Spiritual City’. The book is almost exclusively, and intensively, about orthodox Christian theology and spirituality, and almost nothing about city. We are told what the Bible says, what Augustine says, and what monasticism, Benedict, and Ignatius might offer for urban spirituality. Bewildered secular atheists may well think that the Bible and St Augustine know as much about the modern city as they do about the motor car or virtual life on the Internet. Orthodox doctrines of sin (p32), of the incarnation (p123) and the trinity (p146) are wrung hard for relevance to the theme. Examples are brief and historic – God save us from Calvin’s Geneva, which Sheldrake reports uncritically (p85).

Sheldrake loses himself in this Christian theology and spirituality for its own sake, and fails to incarnate it meaningfully for city life. Apart from a welcome critique of Le Corbusier, (any brief visit to Le Havre compared to the nearby beauty of Honfleur, will confirm the desolate soulless city landscape he championed), there is little else about the city itself.

The city is driven by economies of scale in housing, sanitation, production, retailing etc. It is initially functional and needs the emotional and spiritual. Anonymity, unmanageable scale, overbearing infrastructure, loss of identity, the city as reified independent artefact, all confront, constrain, and perplex the citizen. Cities provide and impose their pattern of living; they do not facilitate expression of living. Sheldrake treats none of this adequately.

Sheldrake includes no study of or reflection on contemporary city data. Some comparative profile and life experience of New York, Manila, Mumbai, Birmingham would help. Are US cities, European cities and Asian cities quintessentially different (eg maybe continental European cities have more substantial civic life)? If so, then why, and what to do etc…

If Sheldrake is looking for ‘any form of shared belief’ (p2) to inform urban spirituality, then he will have to be far wider in his coverage of spirituality, and apply it to real city situations.

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