To a new Babylon

IN THE WESTERN tradition, faith and reason stand at opposing poles. My social-scientific training was deeply framed by this polarity. A recent experience, however, caused me to question both it and my own scientific outlook. This was a public engagement with a theologian, about which I’ll say more shortly. Through this I’ve come to a more nuanced view on the faith-reason binary, and am increasingly aware that it is shared by many of the firmly committed modernists who influence my work. The critic Terry Eagleton, for example, draws freely from both worlds to address fundamental human concerns, such as power, language, ideology, hope – and the Irish. Eagleton’s recent book, Hope Without Optimism (Yale University Press, 2015), consults religious and secular oracles – Marx, Freud, Benjamin, Aquinas and Augustine, to name a few – as well as many contemporary thinkers from both traditions. Eagleton (as ever) plays a clever game – the book never quite reveals his own position on faith, but it demonstrates with great force the power of theology to illuminate if not resolve human dilemmas. His status as a notable (and for some, notorious) Marxist analyst makes this all the more intriguing and, for me, striking.

There’s also perhaps a pragmatic reason for Eagleton’s approach. Given the potentially catastrophic mess our species has gotten itself into, it seems foolish to discount any potential source of human wisdom. Yes, from ISIS to abusive clergy, religious causes and institutions too often seem at the core of what has gone wrong and what now gravely threaten us – a fractious, despoiled planet. But I now see more clearly how this recognition sometimes obscures the power of religious reasoning to contribute light in darkening times. Reductive secularism also neglects the long and complex history of encounter between faith and reason. In the early stages of the European Enlightenment, the two were deeply connected, indeed mutually constitutive. Much of what we hold to be secular truths emerged from this long philosophical conversation. None of this is news to anyone steeped in the history and philosophy of science, but it didn’t figure highly in my professional formation.

I remain a committed social scientist, but now believe that aggressive secularism is a form of intellectual chauvinism that demeans and discards resources that we cannot afford to waste in a time of enormous human depletion and vexation. In dispirited times, it seems reckless to cast out spiritual yearning and reason. The cruel legacy of centuries of technocratic rationality applied at ever-greater scales is a wounded global biota that struggles to sustain an increasingly melancholic human species. Mental health failure appears to be the new human malaise, at least in the West where it is dethroning the ‘emperor of all maladies’, cancer. The World Health Organisation has predicted that depression will be the second most devastating disease in the world by 2020. The psychoanalytic critic Julia Kristeva observes: ‘The periods that witness the downfall of political and religious idols, periods of crisis, are particularly favourable to black moods.’ She hears in the keening of human lament ‘the blank rhetoric of the Apocalypse’. Our minds are relentlessly harried by messages of war, hunger, displacement and natural destruction. For Slavoj Žižek these ‘Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ are the unheeded town criers of an endangered modernity. The seers are clearly worried.

We need to think creatively about ways to break this awful spell of melancholia if we are to go about fashioning a safer new world. Indeed, if we are really living through what Žižek calls ‘the end times’ (he means the end of capitalism), a good dose of fire-and-brimstone thinking might be just what we need to get us off our collective backsides. In this light, Dawkins’ ‘God delusion’ seems to have a fundamentalist edge to it that forecloses on thought just when we need the bigger picture. Militant atheism has many secular critics feeling uneasy because it seems to police, not liberate, our social imagination. In an age that many of my academic colleagues bemoan as ‘post-political’, bereft of species purpose and animus, we surely must conserve and draw upon every form of human inspiration, including that concerned with the divine and even the supernatural. The next and dangerous stage of our species’ future will require reappraisal, not dismissal, of what we might loosely call ‘spiritual thinking’. I cannot yet comprehensively prove this proposition (and probably never will), yet am hardly alone in considering it. It is for me one of those guiding hunches that I think we all adopt to reorient our lives at certain points.

specialism is cities, I’m first and foremost a social scientist fascinated, if daunted, by human complexity. As an urbanist I find the core of that complexity in the vast project of urbanisation that has consumed and defined modernity. Sometime in the past decade our species became mostly urban, leading some to rebrand us homo urbanis. The arrival of this somewhat unlovely term was a joy to us urbanists who felt our heretofore specialist field had taken centre stage in human discussion. The United Nations and most global institutions now talk of an ‘urban age’ and recognise that cities are now central to human prospect. While there is some rather empty-headed applause for the urban age in popular commentary, there is growing recognition that unmanaged consumptive urbanisation is at the core of our planetary woes. My scholarship takes this view and asserts that cities are where the project of human and ecological renewal must begin. The science and practice of city-making needs urgent reconstitution. For decades my work has been firmly rooted in modernist, scientific thought, occasionally exhibiting deep (okay, sometimes scornful) impatience with ‘noisy theologies’, such as postmodernism, New Ageism, green utopianism and anti-humanist ecologies.

I’m less certain now about the theologies bit – at least, religious theologies. As part of the shift of thinking mentioned above, I recognise more clearly that ‘faith traditions’ have had a lot to say about city life, some of which has deeply influenced the modern journey of urbanisation, especially the search for what we long termed the ‘good city’. The urban imagination of early industrialism was anchored by scriptural icons. The two opposing biblical motifs, Jerusalem and Babylon, held sway and counter sway over Victorian thought. From the sacred texts came two different city prospects: a New Jerusalem where social and personal virtues were perfected, contrasting with a New Babylon that bowed to the idol of material gratification. Sometimes Babel was enlisted as symbolic critique, for example to describe the institutional chaos of Victorian London. (Disraeli was even more scathing, describing it as a ‘modern Babylon’.) The concept of evil also left its sooty footprint on Victorian thought. In raising eyes to a New Jerusalem of urban perfection, Blake famously intoned against the ‘dark satanic mills’ bequeathed by laissez-faire industrialism. Tristram Hunt’s relatively recent history of Victorian urbanisation, Building Jerusalem (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004), reminds us just how seriously these biblical constructs were to the technocrats, entrepreneurs and reformers who conceived, built and remade industrial cities. In spite of all my historical training about cities, it’s only recently that I’ve comprehended the spiritual imprint on modern urban thought.

With this new lens over my thought retina, I see more clearly now the contributions of religiously inclined or engaged thinkers to the canons of modern social science. Lately, I’m surprised to acknowledge their priority in my intellectual interests and even affections. The theologically mindful works of Hannah Arendt and Julia Kristeva, which deeply influenced my recent book The Urban Condition (Routlege, 2014), now make more sense than they previously did. Arendt’s The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958) was, as its name suggests, a defining influence on my own book. Arendt, a secular European Jew who lived through the Holocaust and contributed mightily to postwar humanist enquiry, met my expectations of the critical theorist. But this foundational thinker was to shake my own intellectual foundations a little. I can still recall the moment of surprise when, deep into the book, Arendt enlists the New Testament and its announcement of glad tidings (‘Unto Us a Child is Born’) to frame her key concept of ‘natality’. There followed a moment of dissonance – why the Christian Gospel in this secular philosophical text? After finishing the book and thinking it through, the scriptural turn made sense as a metaphorical device empowered by ancient portent. (It also pleased the poet in me.)

Another key influence on The Urban Condition were the 1970s writings of Ivan Illich, a priest-philosopher considered a maverick in both academic and religious worlds. His fire-breathing critiques of Western society were driven by a radical eschatology that helped me to undertake that most difficult work of imagination – of imagining a world without capitalism and the excessive trappings of industrial modernity. Illich was prepared to invoke bad gods as well as good to illustrate his critique of modern capitalism. He saw us enslaved to Prometheus, the ancient Greek deity who symbolised the hubris and destructive excess of humanity. From Illich’s time, as the field of social ecology emerged, ‘Promethean’ became pejorative shorthand for material waste and scientific overreach. It was freighted with the idea of looming catastrophe, of modern humans crashing disastrously back to the earth they sought to scorn and transcend through technologically driven progress. Illich didn’t reject modernity or even technological progress, but warned us to scale back, to recommit to the ancient principle of ‘self-limitation’ that can still be observed within indigenous cultures. His alternative future was not postmodern but a ‘convivial modernity’ where technologies (‘tools’) were limited by the principles of human and natural sufficiency. The bicycle was his ideal convivial tool. Illich (who died in 1992) would be delighted to see its new centrality in Western cities.

of these radical scholars shows, resort to religious thought and scriptural exegesis may or may not require faith, but it certainly opens the social scientist’s mind to new realms of metaphor, reason and imagination. Perhaps, as with Illich, it helps us to think the unthinkable, to journey in thought beyond the confines of formal reason to other worldly possibilities. In these perilous times, when the future seems more terribly foreseeable than reassuringly imaginable, there seems compelling need to subject science (albeit with care) to the speculative world of faith. As Eagleton offers, ‘Faith and hope are most needed where knowledge is hard to come by.’ What I have in mind here is not (of course) the anti-scientific antipathies of fundamentalisms, but the richly conceived, open-hearted speculations about the ‘good life’ (and the good city) that are found in faith traditions, Christian and otherwise.

Hannah Arendt reminded us that doubt was a fundamental Enlightenment value, the restraining twin of reason. Without it, reason is unchecked – excessive, deadly rationalisation too often follows (think Nazism). The late Ulrich Beck urged us moderns to recultivate ‘the art of doubt’ so that science and reason could once again be tied to the cause of human improvement, not venal power or planetary consumption. Faith too, as Eagleton explains, can be strengthened not undermined by doubt, most especially the sceptical interrogations of science. Pope Francis confirms: ‘In this quest to seek and find God in all things, there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good.’ In a new mutually restraining play, faith and reason might help to clarify a human imagination clouded by the whirling disenchantments and fears of a failing modernity.

THE ‘NUDGE’ THAT unsettled my long held social-scientific outlook was my first formal summons to theology. In 2015, I was invited to engage a US-based British theologian, Luke Bretherton, in a public forum on the human-urban future. We were the sole protagonists, one from each tradition. ‘Okay so I’m Enlightenment and he’s enchantment,’ I thought. I assumed we’d deliver two contradictory, incommensurable accounts, and the audience would enjoy an interesting, if not necessarily rational, discussion. We were both asked to ponder the question,
What makes a good life for a city? Luke contributed a succinct paper, ‘Seeking the good enough city’, whilst I drew from The Urban Condition, which examines human prospect and endangerment in an age of cities.

Luke’s contribution to the forum was drawn from the perspective of Christian theology – and presumably from a position of faith (I didn’t ask). My own emerged from social science, particularly those parts that have lately pondered what we might term ‘political ecology’ – the field of knowledge concerned with the often dire relationship between our species and nature. Two very different perspectives, historically often at odds but, as I came to see more clearly, mutually constitutive – at least in the Western cultural tradition. Luke’s paper was itself evidence of this possibility. I found much in it that I couldn’t argue with – not because our perspectives were incommensurable but because I agreed with many of his points. His argument enlisted secular theory as well as theology and scripture to arrive at a surprisingly pragmatic casting of the good enough city.

Our first point of agreement was a shared disavowal of earthly urban utopia. From the start I was intrigued by the ‘good enough’ in his paper title. It confounded expectation; weren’t theological types always bound to quixotic notions of spiritual realisation and moral perfectibility? The first lesson in not taking faith-thought for granted. I’ve always had impatience with utopian thought, regarding it as part of the whole enterprise of idealism that stalls progressive change. As Eagleton puts it, ‘Images of utopia are always in danger of confiscating the energies that might otherwise be invested in its construction.’ As further proof of his point, utopian thinking about cities has rarely produced anything other than misty eyed pieties that haven’t particularly helped anyone. I’d always assumed that religious-urban thought, if it existed, would be at the worst end of the scale of impracticability. Through this encounter I learnt that not all faith reasoning is utopian, at least in its prescriptions for earthly human conduct. And some of it sounds eerily like my own sceptical materialism.

Luke began his paper by summarising the contemporary urban preponderance. We were on the same earthly page. My opening claim was that the human condition, which Arendt described so well as a project of endless recurrence, must now be rethought of as the urban condition. Yes, our lot is natural recurrence, through death and birth, but in a context of constant epochal change in species circumstances and prospects. Homo urbanis is a species that has largely freed itself from the grub and toil of rural life – only of course, as Arendt pointed out, to burden itself with new perils and depredations.

Arendt’s book enormously influenced Western social science, especially political philosophy. Its most striking conceptual offering was that of natality, the boundless possibility of human renewal that arises from our urge to interpret and re-create the world we find ourselves in. This is no Whiggish idea of human history driven by bright men with big ideas, but one that binds us back to nature, which locates at the core of our re-creations the great wheel of procreation to which we are fixed as natural beings. It rejects the various doctrines of predestination: in science, the naturalisms that see human affairs as law bound; and in some religious outlooks, the teleologies that reduce the future to a final day of Judgement.

As I discovered, Arendt finds the primordial story of natality in the scriptures. The US critic Frederick Dolan explains:

She characterises this ineradicable possibility as nothing less than ‘the miracle that saves the world’ from the ruin to which it is otherwise subject. The greatest symbol of this possibility – ‘its most glorious and succinct expression’, Arendt says – is the Christian Gospels’ announcement of glad tidings… It is this Christian figuration of the miraculous through the image of the newborn that gives Arendt the term ‘natality’[1].

Here scripture and humanist philosophy play powerfully together.

IN LUKE’S PAPER I found an account of human purpose that also draws from the Scriptures and which can be interpreted, even to some extent supported, by critical social science, including my own work. In particular, there were two obvious points of agreement between our separate expositions of the human urban condition. The first is the sanction of exile that is simultaneously the story of the Christian people and – in my opinion – the historical motif of modernity.

The Christian story first. Luke finds the story of exile in Augustine’s fifth-century treatise De Civitate Dei (The City of God), which itself draws upon the writings of Jeremiah, a prophet recognised by all three major monotheistic religions. Jeremiah 29 states that it is the will of the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, that the chosen people will accept banishment to Babylon, the secular city: but as a place of flourishing, not deprivation; as a place to be good in, including accepting of authority. For the chosen, the secular city is not to be a place of disconsolation and refusal but a place where (enough) goodness can be found. Jeremiah 29:7:

…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Augustine’s De Civitate Dei relieves the metaphor of exile a little by describing the people of God as pilgrims residing in Babylon, enjoying its peace and abundance whilst quietly refusing its worldly failings through the witness of faith. Augustine enjoins both the faithful and the unbelievers to share and maintain ‘the temporal peace’ of Babylon. This resonates with the long journey of urbanisation in modernity, where the city came to symbolise (if not always provide) the virtues of justice, peace and freedom. The early influxes to Europe’s nascent cities were from ‘feudal pilgrims’ seeking relief from bond and toil in the countryside. Stadtluft macht frei (‘urban air makes you free’) was the promise of the times. The project of modernisation is a great species pilgrimage that seeks improvement not utopia. Each of us is, to quote the Australian poet Christopher Brennan, ‘The Wanderer’, ‘who knows no ending of the way, no home, no goal…’

This brings us to the urban question. If nothing else, modernity has been a great recamping of our species, a journey from rural to urban, from enchantment to reason, from servility to freedom. On the face of it, a great liberation from ‘the idiocy of rural life’, as Marx and Engels unkindly put it. But digging deeper – as Marx did – this liberation was at the same time a monstrous work of separation, from natural caprice yes, but also from nature itself.

In the left tradition, this story was put into verse by Bertolt Brecht:

I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.

My mother moved me into the cities as I lay

Inside her body. And the coldness of the forests

Will be inside me till my dying day[2].

In Brecht, the prospect of complete severance is rejected. We pilgrims from the forests will carry nature ‘inside us’ to our dying days. The dual weights of modern life are this species freight, our nature, and what Erich Fromm called ‘the terrible burden of self-strength’. The record shows that we have struggled to recognise, let alone sustain, the yokes of modern existence. Freud attempted to identify and elucidate the cost of civilisation. He asserted that we cannot construct a future when caught by the undertow of the past. (He also dismissed religion as an illusion, but wrote much about it.)

MODERN PSYCHOLOGY EXHIBITS little interest in Freud’s thesis. The now preponderant cognitive-behaviour therapy is transfixed with the integrity of the present, perhaps evoking a civilisation that cannot mobilise the imaginative energy that is needed to face an imperilled future.

Surely the greatest threat to any pilgrimage is that of alienation – to be trapped in exile from human meaning and possibility. This was the second convergence of faith and reason that occurred to me as I read Luke’s essay. Alienation is the corruption of modern possibility that was central to Marx’s critique of capitalism. It stands like a dark wall in the way of human realisation. Arendt warned of the consequences of modernist alienation, which might be summarised as an outbreak of human stupidity. The ‘almost infallible signs of alienation from the world’ would be ‘a noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility’. The waning of human common sense is perhaps powerfully registered in climate scepticisms and the misty eyed enthusiasms for pre-modernity that have declared a ‘New Age’. Both, in very different ways, are ‘denialist’ movements, retreating into mysticism in the face of awful human endangerment.

Luke addressed modern urban alienation and a growing impulse for secession among the socially disenchanted. He sees this starkly represented in the contemporary gated community. His thesis decries the alienation imposed by urban segregation, asserting that all citizens must accept that they are ‘participants in a shared community of fate’. For him, the duty of social belonging is scripturally sanctioned. It surely follows from Jeremiah and later Augustine, where the pilgrims must join themselves to the common Babylonian purpose, and by consequence, the inevitability of shared fate. Civic refusal is not licensed by faith. This is, of course, at odds with many current and historical faith outlooks that have ignored Jeremiah’s injunction through various forms of bunkering and self-imposed exile. The separatists take Paul’s injunction in Romans 12:2 (‘Do not be conformed to this world’) to an extremity that seems to deny any faith in common human virtue.

The notion of shared fate is also confirmed in secular reason, where denial of species being, of sociality, conflicts with any rational understanding of the human condition. This assumption has been central to most accounts in Western social thought. Luke draws from one of its contemporary streams, communitarian theory, that argues a path towards goodness – never to be realised, but always to be aspired to – in democratic politics, avowing a pluralistic model that privileges community organising.

By finding points of agreement with Luke’s ‘good city’ prescription, I experienced a meaningful connection between our narratives. From engagement, not mere encounter, emerged divergences and questions. I don’t doubt that a wholesale regeneration of local democracy will be necessary to achieve a ‘good enough city’. But it won’t be enough in the first instance to generate the new human dispensation that must replace neoliberal capitalism, perhaps in the smoking ruins of what it leaves behind. Luke’s account needs filling out to better engage the asymmetries of power – which he recognises as a problem – that plague all striving for better purpose in a failing world order. To state the point bluntly, what hope has localised city activism in the face of globalised capital that sees urban development as a treasury of super-profit?

My book, The Urban Condition, explained contemporary planetary urbanisation as monolithic and ecocidal, devoid of any self-limiting reflex and destined to bring us to the precipice of natural default. I cast the situation as especially dangerous, because in a ‘post-ideological age’ we are manifestly bereft of alternative urban imaginaries that might light our way, not to utopia, but simply to a liveable, viable world. The closing part of the book provides my own sketch of this safer urban world, which I think must first emerge from the fires of crisis. I extolled the ‘good city’ with only the faintest glimmer of recognition in my consciousness of the religious pedigree of this noble concept.

MY NEW OUTLOOK commits to better sensitivity to the complex and seemingly antithetical traditions from which we draw critical and creative insight. This includes religious thinking and Indigenous knowledge. It admits that we will need these resources joined as a counterforce to the dangerously entropic force of post-ideological capitalism. I rule out the dangerous fundamentalisms that Ulrich Beck described as the flowers of evil spawned by a dying modern order. Reason must look to the wide-eyed humanisms of all faith traditions as sources of new imaginative energy and insight. Their generally insistent interest in human ethics, values and conduct can enlarge and enrich conversations about alternatives to the present. We may well attain a good enough city as a new human heartland, but how will we live together in it? As Bruce Springsteen anguished, ‘It’s Hard to be Good in the City’ – which could be the anthem of the contemporary Australian urban-development industry. We need to subscribe all philosophies of the good to the task of creating a new urban world.

EAGLETON ARGUES THAT hope is the ideal that must bind any search for a new human dispensation. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t because hope must first be shorn of optimism – an
unreasoned faith in the future loaded with the deadening influences of utopianism and…well, simple-headedness. The times are much too serious for optimism. When did you last hear that? Eagleton’s appeal to religious as well as secular thinking is intentional as he sees both traditions offering conceptions of hope that in different ways look like ‘cautious pessimism’ – let’s call it realism.

In our hour of species peril, the hopeful seek a new world, but only from the ruin that seems sure to come, ordained by an order stubbornly clinging to its destructive prowess. Retrenchment of capitalism will not present a straight path back to ecological moderation or social peace. Apart from sparking heaven knows how many more gruesome wars and migrations, its death agonies will likely generate many desperate quests for salvation through resource exploitation. These misadventures are prefigured in the contemporary lust for Arctic exploitation, the fracking rush in the new worlds and the enthusiasm for newly unlocked carbon, such as Canada’s tar sands. Prometheus, it seems, will reign until dethroned by collapse – all cries for abdication will go unheard. The task seems no longer to impose a better future but to prepare for an imposed future.

Capitalism may well have entered its terminal phase, as the late Andre Gorz firmly believed, but this does not mean the end of humanity or even modernity. Our species will have to take to the road of history again. Looking ahead, Eagleton writes, ‘Hope…is what survives the general ruin.’ Further: ‘Though there will be no utopia, in the sense of a world purged of discord and dissatisfaction, it is sober realism to believe that our condition could be mightily improved. It is not that all will be well, but that all might be well enough.’ For the hopeful, the faithful and the reasonable, the ending of the current world order means a new journey not a termination of history. It represents – to join Luke’s narrative – another stage in the human pilgrimage, to a new Babylon, where the search for the ‘good enough’ city must be renewed.

The close of Ulrich Beck’s 1993 book The Reinvention of Politics (Polity) ponders the imponderable – a modernity that has run out of ideas, exhausted by hubris and depleted by failures. And yet he doesn’t lose faith in the project, seeing portent in ruin. The last sentence reads, ‘Only a final lack of options frees oneself, but you still hope and you’re dangerous.’ Perhaps the most dangerous and hopeful idea in the present is not to fear catastrophe, seeing it instead as means to transformation and renewal.

If we take Arendt seriously, we should not fear terminal social crisis, because, like death itself, it is part of the human condition, the necessary prelude to rebirth of prospect. Having closely observed that frightful twentieth--century trinity of depression, genocide and world war, she knew what she was talking about. The miracle of species recovery that awaits us is, as Arendt explained, our inborn ability to endlessly produce the new – against the odds. And in the ashes that are left, to hope. We must have faith that the child will be reborn. With this in mind, I close with the last stanza from Brecht’s paean – you may call it a prayer – to modern urban possibility in dark times:

In the earthquakes to come, I very much hope

I shall keep my cigar alight, embittered or no

I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities

From the black forests inside my mother long ago.


[1] Dolan, F.M. (2004) ‘An ambiguous citation in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition,’ Journal of Politics, 66(2), 606-10.

[2] Bertolt Brecht, ‘Of Poor B.B.’, Brecht Poems (Routledge, 1997)

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