The new book The Soul of the City: Mapping the Spiritual Geography of Eleven Canadian Cities (Urban Loft, 2018) is edited by Len Hjalmarson and features chapters from contributors all across Canada. Keep an eye on the New Leaf blog for upcoming reflections from several of the chapter authors.

It’s survival in the city
When you live from day to day
City streets don’t have much pity
When you’re down, that’s where you’ll stay.

“In the City,” The Eagles

The classic Eagles song tells one side of the story. Urban life is the reality for most Westerners now. In Canada 82% of our citizens live in cities. William Cronon notes that for many of us cities have “represented all that [is] most unnatural about human life… a cancer on an otherwise beautiful landscape”1 This dualistic view has the negative effect of limiting creative and redemptive engagement in our urban places. A more nuanced engagement is needed.  Soul of the City is a move in this direction.

Roughly two years ago I was musing on these issues with a friend, and we were wondering why there was so little sustained dialogue around urban realities in faith circles in Canada. It turned out there were many people reflecting on urban issues, but they were largely siloed and not networked. I realized that my network of connections, established through the years by my active blogging life, could be leveraged to add a few more voices to the conversation.

So I began beating the bushes. The challenge was to locate thoughtful writers in major Canadian cities who had the heart and the will to contribute a chapter. We gathered twelve theological practitioners to reflect on the spiritual topography of their city. This is spiritual geography and topographical exegesis, phenomenology and urban ethnography. It is exegesis relative to spirituality, hope, change and transition, globalization, justice and civic design. How do these components together contribute to a social and spiritual imaginary? What impact on spiritual life does gentrification, immigration, and religious pluralism generate for urban Canadians? How have our relationships to our original peoples impacted the hope of shalom in urban life? How do these attitudes, ideologies, histories, and present forces impact the spiritual climate of a place?

The cities in focus are: Victoria, Vancouver, Kelowna, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax. These cities were selected for their representative (wide) dispersion as well as by the location of appropriate contributors. Some cities were eliminated because we lacked capable connections. We did what was possible.

Show me your city and I will show you what it is you long for.
– Graham Ward2

Show me your city and I will show you what it is you long for. Click To Tweet

Long before Jamie Smith gave us his secular liturgies series, and asked us, “What do we love?”, Ward was speaking to our collective soul. We want to love our cities; we want them to address our deep longings. Maybe that’s where our work begins. How do we build cities that lift up the human heart? The question is critical because the city, not the country, is the place where most people will exercise their “skilled mastery”3 in this century. This moves our skilled-mastery beyond farming and craftsmanship to shaping the urban landscape.  This new emphasis in skilled mastery translates into place-making4 in the city. Jacques Ellul writes,

The city dweller becomes someone else because of the city. And the city can become something else because of God’s presence and the results in the life of a man [sic] who has met God. And so a complex cacophony raises its blaring voice, and only God can see and make harmony of it.5

Not only do we shape the city, but the city will shape us.  Will our environment make us more human, or less? Will our urban places help us to thrive, and offer us a context for shalom, encouraging practices that make space for the Kingdom? Even in the city, place-making is determined by a master-story.6

The narratives which shape our cities are complex. The forces of global mapping privilege the universal in the name of profit. Graham Ward writes that, “the major issues affecting a global city are increasingly less local, or even national – they are international. This is mainly because it is an international profile that the major cities of the world are competing for in order to attract investment.”7 Thus the ability to make choices is often suspended, and transferred to multinational corporations where unelected leaders wield enormous power. Ramachandra identifies the “global village,” in the sense of a mutually enriching exchange, as a myth.8  9

Ward argues that global cities are characterized by fear and anxiety. He writes that, “The global, post-secular city [London] is the home of the migrant soul. Citizens are caught between two public narratives: the potential violence of coexisting cultural differences, and the fear of the erasure of difference.”10 He notes that both these narratives are totalitarian and depoliticizing (i.e. they do not lead to engagement). Ward argues that the alternative is a “practice of living that . . . negotiates difference without assimilation.”11 Christians can offer the possibility of such an alternative.

Some identify tolerance as a Canadian virtue, and it is certainly an ideal to which liberal Western elites aspire. But tolerance is not a Christian ideal. Rather, our engagement is a politics of resistance rooted in a paradox. David Bentley Hart frames the paradox like this: “He is not the high who stands over against the low, but is the infinite act of existence that gives high and low a place.”12 The essential practice is the Eucharist, which “creates space for the diversity of human voices to participate.”13 The Church is an anticipation of the eschatological humanity, with the Eucharist a counter-narrative of globalization that builds the global Body of Christ in every place, with all its beautiful diversity.

I find that perspective immensely hopeful in these days when the need for love and kindness and mercy is greater than ever; when people are more divided by political ideology than ever; when we desperately need counter-narratives that help us to bridge the differences between people. So I give the final words in this post to Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing worth doing is completed within our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope; Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in the immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith; Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.14


  1. William Cronon. 1992. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Chicago: WW Norton & Co., 17.
  2. (Graham Ward. 2003. Why is the City So Important for Christian Theology? CrossCurrents467.
  3. A translation of the Hebrew word radah in Genesis 1.
  4. Place-making is a sub-set of vocation is part of God’s redemptive mission, and something we all do, often transparently. When we build, or paint a building, or plant trees, or decorate a coffee-shop, we are place-making. Caring for the environment is also an expression of place-making, and working for justice can be another.
  5. Jacques Ellul. 1970. The Meaning of the City. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 44.
  6. An over-arching narrative of the kind post-moderns are not fond of.
  7. Graham Ward. 2005. Christian Political Practice and the Global City. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 123, p. 30.
  8. Graham Ward argues that one answer to the depoliticization of politics is the practice of cultural hermeneutics: the analysis, examination and interpretation of cultural practices.
  9. Vinoth Ramachandra. (2006, May 10). Christian Witness in an Age of Globalization. Leonard Buck Memorial Lecture, BCV, Melbourne.
  10. Graham Ward. 2005. Christian Political Practice and the Global City. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 123, p. 39.
  11. Graham Ward. 2005. Christian Political Practice and the Global City. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 123, p. 39.
  12. David Bentley Hart. 2003. The Beauty of the Infinite. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 320.
  13. Philip Sheldrake. 2007. A Brief History of Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 168.
  14. Ursula Niebuhr, ed. 1974. Justice and Mercy. NY: Harper & Row. v.