Nature and Cities

December 19, 2008 | 30 comments
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I often find walking in nature a spiritual experience, for want of a better term. Growing up, I think that I found my testimony in part by tramping through the Wasatch Mountains and watching thunder storms roll across the Great Salt Lake. Today, I am likely to have real moments of reverence and gratitude to the divine while watching mist play across the still waters of the James River in the early morning or enjoying the power of a big Atlantic storm slamming into my bit of the world. I realize that there are some real dangers with identifying God too closely with anything as randomly and — at times — wantonly destructive as weather and nature, but as an aesthetic matter such experiences are an important part of my religious life. Oddly, I have never had a similar reaction to a city.

There is a part of me, of course, that really enjoys cities. I recently visited Chicago for work, and I loved it: the massive landscape of buildings, bridges, and rivers of traffic. The bustle and thrum. I find that I have a certain spiritual reaction to cities, but my reaction is less a reference to the divine than a hymn to human energy and ingenuity. There is something wonderful and awe-inspiring for me in particular with big commercial cities like Chicago, New York, or London. Their beauty for me is the beauty of commerce, contracts, and human cooperation. I don’t have Ayn Rand communions with the human will to power, but my inner Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith finds something to reverence. Again, I realize the intellectual problems of making too much of such reactions, but as an aesthetic matter they do much to shape my thinking at a deep, pre-cognitive, emotional level.

My contrasting aesthetic reactions to nature and cities, however, create something of a paradox for me. Mormonism teaches that ultimately heaven and salvation consists of a city, Zion. Yet while I can find cities beautiful and even moving, I find that they beauty and meaning that they evoke within my soul is in many ways distant from my concerns for God and his Kingdom. At the same time, while I am often drawn to God in the solitary experience of nature, my theology suggests that salvation does not consist in such subjective submersion in the beauty of creation but rather in the building up of a New Jerusalem. In short, there is an odd sense in which my spiritual aesthetics is at war with my religious beliefs.

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30 Responses to Nature and Cities

  1. Julie M. Smith on December 19, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    This is a great post, beautifully written.

    I wonder, though, if you have considered a less literal interpretation of the “cities” of scripture.

  2. Nate Oman on December 19, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Julie: I am not sure that a less literal interpretation of cities helps much with the aesthetic conundrum. If we take references to cities as metaphorical, poetic if you will, then aren’t they there PRECISELY because they call forth a particular aesthetic reaction. Whatever that reaction is supposed to be, however, it doesn’t seem like it is the one that I get either from watching my dog chase geese into Powatan Creek or the thrill I get seeing the Chicago Board of Trade.

  3. Mark Ashurst-McGee on December 19, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Joseph Smith was astounded when he visited New York city in 1832. His letter home to Emma is clearly the reflection of a man who is overwhelmed. He wrote of the city’s “great inventions,” but stated that “the anger of the Lord Kindled because they Give him on the Glory” (PWJS, 2d ed., 277-83). The City of Zion, with its temple, would be different.

  4. Rusty on December 19, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    This is nice, Nate. As one who lives in a big city I often long for the aesthetic of nature (just this morning me and a co-worker were looking at snow conditions on ski mountains in Utah and Washington). Of course, I know that if I lived in a more natural location then I’d long for the energy and bustle of the city.

    I don’t know if this ties into anything you were saying, but I’ve always been fascinated with the ways in which people commune with God or claim their spirituality (if they don’t believe in any deity or religious organization). I’ve often heard that people feel closest to God when they are in nature which is the literal opposite of my experience. The times when I feel closest to God are when I’m either participating in or witnessing love and service between two of God’s children. My view of heaven is that it is people (contrary to Sartre), not mountains. Sometimes I wish my connection to nature was more spiritual. Maybe I just need to move out of Brooklyn.

  5. Julie M. Smith on December 19, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    Nate, I don’t think that what we are to take from “city” is necessarily aesthetic, but rather something along the lines of “large group of the righteous living in a community.” For us that requires sewers and subways and street signs with all of their aesthetic shortcomings, but I’d imagine the eternal reality could be different.

  6. J. Stapley on December 19, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    I once wrote something up on this topic. Basically the idea that despite the pragmatic decentralization (and ruralization) of the Great Basin’s settlement, Mormonism is essentially an Urban movement. It really functions quite poorly otherwise.

  7. Eric Nielson on December 19, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    This is a nice post, and I think Julie makes a great point. An eternal city would be very different from what we are used to.

  8. pgk on December 19, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Darn it, I can’t resist this.

    My own thinking on this subject is restless and will never settle. But I don’t perceive the clear break between city and nature that you mark out, Nate. Plenty of creatures in “nature” build cities, or at least communities. Plenty of man-made cities rise as extensions of wilderness in the sense that they engage in an organic, creative energy that strives toward sustaining life while at the same time toward new form. There are many ways in which, to my thinking anyway, cities are very much natural constructs.

    The problem you outline seems to arise in thinking of city and nature as being clearly cut out from each other: “James River,” “Atlantic storms” = Nature; “London,” “New York,” “Chicago”= cities. Try to draw firm lines between storm and city or especially river and city. You’ll end up snapping your highlighter in frustration. Or you ought to.

    I can certainly imagine cities being better than they are and having a deeper and broader interface with the divine and frontiers of being and unfolding that God opens. I can imagine cities looking completely differently from how they do, sounding differently, smelling differently, with less of the us-cities, that-nature dichotomy.

    Likewise, I believe that God knew that the Garden would never be enough and that wilderness depends on us to reach higher expression. In other words, we’re still on the frontier, individually and all together.

  9. Adam Greenwood on December 19, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Perhaps Zion will be different. Do you find the fallen parts of nature aesthetic–the withered body of a bird, the rotting flesh of a savaged faun? Maybe you do, dunno, but I usually don’t unless I’m intellectualizing it.

    Cities are made by fallen mankind.

    And, since they’re manmade, you’re unlikely to find spiritual aesthetic unless the makers deliberately put one there–or unless the people are righteous and their city has been shaped over time by righteous goals.

    Related posts:

    A Plat for the City of Zion

    Vertical Farms for the City of Zion

    A Gentile Plat for the City of Zion

  10. John Mansfield on December 19, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    A couple things come to mind. One is an observation of my experience with the Los Angeles temple. One enters the Los Angeles temple in degrees, first pulling off a major road into the temple grounds, then walking through the courtyard formed by the main structure and the west and east wings. Entering at dusk or leaving at night gives a beautiful view of West LA which always made me mindful of separating from the ordinary world for a few hours of worship and then coming back into it to live; in no place were my feelings more routinely drawn out in love toward the world (meaning the people I shared the city with). The elevated, slightly isolated position, something like God’s, was part of that feeling.

    The second, and rather connected in my mind now, is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song “Goodnight America.” It’s an unusual oupouring of love for life among throngs in a fallen world.

    I’m looking with a pilgrim’s eyes upon some promised land
    And dreaming with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand
    And I’ll hit the cross Bronx just in time to beat the rush hour lock
    I’ve got no clue what time it is from this world’s busted clock

  11. BruceC on December 19, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    I’ve always felt he aspects of the city that will make up Zion are the very things we aspire to. The community, cooperation, and commerce that when done with an eye single to the glory of God can be quite beuatiful. As Adam said, it is the fallen aspects of the city that we could do without, and will do without in the New Jerusalem.

  12. BruceC on December 19, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    btw, Nate, I didn’t know you lived in Richmond.

  13. Nate Oman on December 19, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    I don’t. I live outside of Williamsburg, about a mile from Jamestown. The James, however, is a long river, at least by Virginia standards.

  14. Rameumptom on December 19, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    I’m convinced that Zion will be very different than LA or NYC. Joseph set it up into towns of 20,000 people, with fields and forests separating each town. And houses would not be crammed next to each other, but would exist on 1/2-1 acre plots, ensuring enough room for nature to mix into it all.

    One of my favorite locations is Nauvoo, where standing in the old town, you can look up and see the majestic and inspiring beauty of the Nauvoo temple. Then, as you stand near the temple and look downward, you get the wonderful vista of the Mississippi River.

    I grew up in western Montana, where a “large city” was anything over 40,000 people. I often walked from my house up into the mountains and hills nearby. It was clearly a wonderful place to grow up for a young boy who loved nature. I, too, have often found God in nature:

    Standing on a mountain top in Montana. In the jungles of South America. In the Andes heights. In a thunder storm, where the booms were so loud it shook the ground and deafened everyone. Watching a hawk or vulture soar overhead.

    One of my favorite newer hobbies (2 years now) is bird watching/photography. I find things even more fascinating in nature, now that I can hear or see a bird, and often recognize it. Then I can observe its flight or behaviors and how these are different than other birds in the area. I enjoy seeing the changing of the birds in my area near Indianapolis as the seasons change. Right now, murders of crows are gathered in the area, and will entertain us through February with their less-than sonorous caws.

  15. MattG on December 19, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    My thoughts are similar to Julie’s, with the idea that cities *can* be uplifting if they’re organized in such a way to do so. A community of people living close to each other, depending on each other’s skills and talents, and relishing in each other’s personalities and company. I don’t think the Lord intended for us all to live as hermits in the rugged wilderness. Two opposing models come to my mind, and I apologize in advance to native LA folk, for I am about to diss (just a little). But when you compare LA to cities like New York, or to larger European cities (Munich comes to mind), there are some stark contrasts. LA (to me) is the American suburban ideal gone awry. As you descend into LAX, you see concrete sprawling for miles in all directions. It is breathtaking in its immensity. Strip malls, mini-marts, “big box” stores and shopping malls all literally spread communities apart. This also necessitates having a car to get anywhere or visit friends in your community. I’m not saying that Manhattan is not a concrete jungle either, but I think the communities there are organized much better. You can get to know quite a number of people in your community and get the necessities of life without even needing to leave a 1 or 2 mile radius. My idea of a “city of Zion” would follow that pattern.

  16. John Mansfield on December 19, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    LA has that reputation, but my experience with it was quite different. We put fewer miles on our car there and left them parked most days. All this business about being able to love Zion but not cities we have experience with is too close to 1 John 4:20.

  17. Jeremiah J. on December 19, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Julie: I think we need to get literal about the city before we can get figurative about it. Augustine’s City of God is not a city in the normal geographical, political sense. Neither is Zion for us. But in the Bible the city is a center of the community, a place of refuge, and a gathering place, not just a population and the scattered places where they happen to live. A Hebrew living during Isaiah’s time would have understood better the *spiritual* meaning of Zion very well, I think, precisely because he would have understood that a wandering pastoral camp or a group of believers scattered throughout the world are not a city.

    As for Nate point, I echoed Adam before reading his more to-the-point comment: Cities are used at least as often as a metonymy for the kingdom of the world as they are for the kingdom of God. So it would be odd for a Jew in exile to wonder why he’s not more pleased with Babylon, since the prophets had praised Jerusalem (though I hope Boston’s not Babylon–I love it). But it is remarkable that the scriptures teach us that there will in the future be a godly version of this most central human achievement, a kind of life that has been the cause of the great material wealth, intellectual achievement, political development and religious innovation of civilization as well as forms of moral corruption, tyranny, and injustice that wouldn’t have existed without it. In this sense New Jerusalem sounds in my ear like New Airplane or New Combustion Engine–very curious! The Old Testament teaches us that Cain was the first to build a city. But perhaps he was only doing what had been done before, but in a bad way, and perhaps the New Jerusalem is the True City.

    Conversely we could wonder why we’re so pleased (I have almost the exacty same experience you do, with cities and with nature) with a fallen natural world but displeased with imperfect human interactions and institutions, the latter of which are more sublime and spiritual, and point to something much higher, than the former.

  18. Adam Greenwood on December 19, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    But it is remarkable that the scriptures teach us that there will in the future be a godly version of this most central human achievement, a kind of life that has been the cause of the great material wealth, intellectual achievement, political development and religious innovation of civilization as well as forms of moral corruption, tyranny, and injustice that wouldn’t have existed without it.

    Great point. Cities–civilization–are apparently something to be redeemed and perfected and made eternal.

  19. Adam Greenwood on December 19, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    I should have said this earlier–great post, Nate O. Thanks.

  20. Geoff B on December 19, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    Nate, some of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had have taken place walking from my hotel in Park Avenue to the temple at Columbus Circle, through Central Park and passing by literally hundreds of people. There is something about the energy of so many of God’s creations in one place that literally overwhelms me with the Spirit sometimes.

    Having said that, I could never live permanently in New York. I need more living space. On an ongoing basis, I think I would lose that spiritual feeling if it were not so special.

    Personally, I think Zion will not be a huge, unmanageable city like New York but something more like Joseph Smith envisioned with everybody having some living space and agriculture interspersed with suburban areas. But my imagination could easily be wrong.

  21. mlu on December 20, 2008 at 12:03 am

    We live this side of a dramatic shift in connotations for “city” and “wilderness,” and the writers of scripture mostly live on the other side.

    People commonly imagined the wilderness as a godless and evil place, while the city was a place of order and safety.

    The garden as in Eden and other places is the more powerful imagery for me: nature and humanity in a harmony the brings out the best in both. We are near enough to having turned the earth into a garden to see what might be. Even wilderness now is a gardening style, since whether grizzlies survive or not is decided by our acts of will–we choose to have those places where, though we could, we do not impose much design.

    At the same time, we more and more design our cities as gardens–note the Church’s new Conference Center (or whatever they call it) with plants all over it. Buildings, bridges, and roadways can be designed to be more friendly to Peregrine Falcons and badgers, and as handicap accessibility became part and parcel of urban design I believe that our cities will become increasingly wild though in ways that don’t leave us uncomfortable or unsafe.

    I imagine Zion as a garden, with lovely buildings amid wild spaces.

  22. Tatiana on December 20, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    What a great post! I too find that communion with the divine in nature, and an earthly joy in cities. I especially love busy factories, and power plants. Sometimes I just sit in my plant and listen to the deep thrum of circulation, and take a maternal pleasure in everything working well. Well-loved and well-cared-for machinery that’s beautifully designed and fulfilling its purpose does bring tears to my eyes. I love the paradox you pointed out: that despite our feelings of pure divinity in nature, our celestial work is to build Zion, it’s in the cities and factories.

    I rather think what’s going on is something like this. Our work (the cities and factories) is the childish refrigerator art compared to his (nature) which is like Van Gogh or Da Vinci hanging in the Louvre. We’re due to grow up and hopefully make our own contributions on the level of his one day. In the meantime our works are cute and lovable, because they represent the sincere efforts of our still immature brains, hands, hearts, and spirits.

  23. Tatiana on December 20, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    I want to write an ode to a power plant, now. They’re truly beautiful and awe-inspiring things. The warmth and light and ease they bring to our lives in the form of electricity is the ultimate manifestation of their beauty. Paens to the power plants as they thrum and pulse with energy and life, serving us, doing our daily work, nearly unnoticed. =)

  24. John Mansfield on December 20, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Tatiana, I’ve done some work in power plants too, and yes, they truly are awe-inspiring. Peering through a port instantly brings to mind Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace seven times hotter than usual. It is an astonishing thing to see the fires of a hundred thousand homes and businesses all in one place.

  25. comet on December 21, 2008 at 3:30 am

    Great post.

    Relatively undomesticated nature is definitely different from urban experience. It brings into play a range of different senses and provokes different lines of thought and reflection. It’s a kind of solitary spirituality. As for domesticated nature found within the urban area, I don’t see much a distinction between nature and the city.

    There is one city that holds tenaciously in my memory. Getting to know this city was a libidinal experience, like discovering a woman’s body for the first time: I wanted to know everything about the city, the names of every street, the history of each neighborhood, the architectual styles, views of the city from surrounding hill peaks, the people, the municipal tax code, city statistics of every kind, restaurants, libraries, parks, gardens, museums, leaving nothing untouched. (It helped that for my spouse and I this was our first residence together). No doubt there was a measure of projection on my part.. But for me, it is not always easy to tell where the spiritual, the aesthetic, and the erotic leave off.

  26. Chris E on December 21, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    Great post!

    As an architect who moved to Portland, OR in part because of the balance that the city has been able to achieve between city and nature I find your observations extremely apropos. I love cities. I love the buildings, the diversity of people, the access to the great accomplishment of Art, Culture and Learning. But the feeling of walking alone through trees hundreds of feet tall and being humbled by their majesty is awe inspiring.

    Your speculation on the nature of the city of Zion has been an area of fascination for me. As I studied the history of Architecture and Urban Design, I’ve seen that from the early part of the twentieth century until recently, designers of our built environment have worked against (or with indifference to) both human nature and the natural laws of God’s creation. More recently we have rediscovered the importance of working with rather that against the natural systems that govern the earth. My speculative vision for the city of Zion is that, in addition to being a place of great cultural and societal energy, its physical, built, manifestation will compliment and synergize with the natural environment and will be a showcase for the sublime in nature.

  27. California Roland on December 22, 2008 at 1:58 am

    Hi Nate – I agree.

    A key part of our sabbath day observance – is to take a leisurely walk through the nearby wilderness park.
    We count it a blessing that we have on practically in our backyard here.

  28. lamonte on December 22, 2008 at 9:12 am

    These are beautiful thoughts Nate and the comments that follow are all interesting and thought provoking. I am reminded of some less esoteric thoughts that came to mind a few years ago, before I was able to travel outside the United States. I noted then how fortunate I had been to have viewed the beauties of nature across our great country. Having grown up in a small Mormon community in Idaho I have seen the beautiful rolling wheatfields on the rolling hills of the Palouse Empire in northern Idaho and Eastern Washington and I have also seen the vast wheatfields of on the great plains in Kansas. I have seen the sun rise on the Atlantic Ocean and watched it set on the Pacific and I have witnessed the quiet solitude of a snowfall in the Rocky Mountains. After living the first half of my life in the west I moved eastward and experienced the beauty of an Appalachian spring and autumn but what I found most interesting then and now is that I was equally inspired standing on a rooftop in the city of Baltimore looking out at the urban fabric of rowhouses and church steeples that make up so much of that earthy city.

    Your description of your recent trip to Chicago reinforces my thoughts that Chicago is my favorite American city. As an architect, New York is often considered the mecca of american architecture but Chicago’s urban environment is more inviting and friendly with it’s more prevalent open spaces, sunlit streets and river traffic. And as far as architectural masterpieces, what city can boast more?

    I note that nature’s beauty, created by God, can be awe inspiring but man’s involvement in nature can be equally as stimulating. While the beauty of the mist on the James Rver or a sunset on the Oregon coastline are God’s creations, the gardens at Versailles or the fertile farmland of America are man’s creations, inspired by God. Likewise, our cities everywhere, whether planned or created by chance, can be breathtaking and are evidence of man’s inspiration from God.

    As we observe the world around us, I believe it is appropriate to acknowledge God’s hand in everything that is beautiful in our lives.

  29. kumquats in clover on December 22, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Nate:

    Thank you for this post.

    I had a similar reaction to the city of Chicago when I visited there immediately post-mission (lo, three decades ago.) There is an undisputed power to the sight of so much human energy and vibrancy focused in just a few square miles.

    Great architecture can be the catalyst (in my experience) for deep feelings that seem to combine the aesthetic and the spiritual. I remember first seeing the American architect Louis Kahn’s masterwork, the Salk Institute, while in La Jolla walking along the beach during my mission……[this was in the 70’s mind you, different missionary handbook, greater freedom of movement, etc.]…. and I was thunderstruck. Despite my complete ignorance of Kahn or his work, I knew there was something so indescribably RIGHT and TRUE about that building, I felt as if I was standing on something akin to sacred ground.

    The prophet Joseph certainly seemed to make building the CITY of Zion a central theme of his life’s work. This came to mind recently while reading the Priesthood lesson 23, where in separate letters to the Saints in 1840 the prophet writes “Unity is strength” in one letter and “Unity is power.” in the other.

    These quotes together with thinking about the Zion project in general brought my mental image of Chicago to mind, and the thought of a large populace working together in righteousness (rather than striving constantly in a competitive materialistic struggle) is wonderful to contemplate. Strength in numbers combined with nobleness of purpose combined with inspired and inspiring design combined with esteeming one’s (thousands of) brothers as oneself will create a formidable force for good, to say the least. No wonder Zion’s neighbors were terrified of the place.

    The power of nature and the power of a great city both can bring a sense of awe, an “I am nothing in the face of this” feeling. When the tendency of a modern city to grind the face of the poor is replaced by a no-holds-barred effort to exalt them, then the potential cities have to become a place of holiness can be realized.

    Despite all its flaws, the humble ward Sacrament meeting can stun us with unanticipated moments of grace. We are in a “crowd” of sorts, but our neighbors there do not prohibit our ability to hear the still small voice. What if that like-minded crowd expands to the size of a city? The Spirit’s voice will still be still and small, but the absence of our petty striving will make His whisperings all the more frequent and audible. At least that is the dream I choose to cling to.

  30. Adam Greenwood on December 22, 2008 at 8:03 pm

    I pity the man who doesn’t find living in Granada, Spain, to be a spiritual experience.