The Christian, Cities & Difference

Aristotle once said that "the city is composed of different kinds of men" and that "similar people cannot bring the city into existence". If he is correct, then it is quite possible that we may be witnessing in post/modernity a kind of erosion in contemporary urban living.

One observation made by the sociologist Richard Sennett in his new book Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, is that modern life has seriously eroded the ability of people to communicate generally, with many using their goods as substitutes for proper interpersonal contact. A more specific after effect, Sennett argues is the inability of people to deal with those who are unlike themselves. The project of modernity, which finds its prime manifestation in the state and market, seek unity through sameness, and tries to expunge any appreciation of those that are different. The cultural context of postmodernity has further intensified the inability to live with difference, by shifting the standard of what is "normal" from the level of the group, to the level of the atomised individual. In post/modernity, in other words, unity is found only when everyone becomes like "me". In an increasingly securitised environment, the pressure to conform is even further applied, since difference has now regarded as an existential threat. 

If Aristotle is correct, the continued survival of our cities must be predicated on a new basis on which to deal with difference and Christians, living in the City of Man, are not exempt from this task. But the necessity of this task does not necessarily mean the cheap grace of "tolerance" often called for by advocates of particular lifestyles and cultures, which more often than not plaster over differences rather than further the craft of engaging those differences. At the same time, the Christian must resist two temptations. The first is the notion that faithful discipleship or the extension of the Body of Christ can only be predicated on making everyone the same or by eliminating once and for all any trace of difference (indeed, if faithful Christian discipleship really does involve the rejection of Modernity, it must involve also the rejection of unity via sameness). The second temptation is the notion that the Christian can only come to an appreciation of difference when he renounces his citizenship of  the City of God.

Rather, Christians can make a unique contribution to the City of Man on the matter of engagement with difference because of their simultaneous (and albeit incomplete) belonging to the City of God, not in spite of it. For the City of God is made up by the Body of Christ, and as St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12, the Body of Christ "is made up of many parts", with different functions that together work towards the building of the whole Body. 

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