In classical times, the city was a sacred place, bounded by a wall, in which civilization occurred, and to live outside the city was to be uncivilized.  To be the founder of a city was to be god-like, so that there are at least six Alexandrias, the work of Alexander the Great; several Antiochs, named for the Seleucid kings; and Constantinople, the city founded on the Bosporus by the first Christian emperor.  Throughout the three millennia that separate us from Knossos and Mycenae, cities have been built for many reasons or for none.  Dallas, my hometown, was founded by John Neely Bryan at a crossing of the Trinity River where there were several Indians with whom he could trade.  One of the city’s boasts is that there is no reason at all for Dallas to be where it is, on no great harbor or navigable inland river, not (in 1841) at the intersection of great highways.  Dallas exists not of the will of God but of man, a fact in which the city fathers rejoice.  American cities grow up where they do because promoters establish them, because commercial opportunity exists, or because there must be a seat of justice and a repository of records.

There is an older, primordial pattern, however, that dictated that the city be built where the god of the city is worshiped, surrounding and providing context for the house of the god, even as the city’s god provides meaning, order, and protection.  In pre-Christian culture, the spatial motion was always one of ascent.  The pagans whom the prophets denounce built high places.  Babel was built around a tower by men who would not accept the lordship of Yahweh but would make a name for themselves, climbing up to heaven to address the gods.  Jerusalem is the city of God’s peace, and its temple was the place where God dwelt.  The God who had journeyed across Sinai with Israel at last had a house on the holy mount.

“It shall come to pass in the latter days,” Isaiah wrote, “that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains.”  To see the Parthenon shine in the morning sun, lifted high over the city named for parthenos Athena—the virgin goddess Athena, whose house the Parthenon is—is to understand the power of the goddess.  The cause of the city is its god, and the house of the god is lifted high above the agora, the ordinary life of the place.  Most Greek cities boasted an acropolis, a high city in which the gods dwell in a lemenos, a walled enclosure cut out of ordinary time and place.

Spatially, the importance of the house of the god is emphasized by its centrality and by its location closer to the heavenly realm of the gods.  Rome was built around Tarquin’s temple of 509 B.C., dedicated to Jupiter, which stood on the Capitoline Hill; Athens, around the acropolis; Jerusalem, around the Temple Mount.  Since the house of the god was the center of the city and the source of its power, to defeat the city, the house of its god must be sacked and destroyed.  Thus, in 589 B.C., it was the work of the Babylonians to destroy the temple of Solomon, and, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman general Titus in A.D. 70, the temple of Herod the Great was razed and its furniture carried in triumphal procession through the streets of Rome.  The Parthenon that now crowns Athens was built to replace the building destroyed by the Persians in 490 B.C.  The last in the succession of temples of Jupiter crowning Rome’s Mons Capitolinus was finally destroyed in A.D. 455 by Gasiseric the Vandal.  Thus, with unerring insight, the Muslim terrorists attacked not St. Patrick’s Cathedral or Riverside Church but the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the house of our gods, insofar as there exists a common worship in America.

Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome were cities struggling toward heaven and heaven’s favor.  From the beginning, however, there had been a countervailing movement in the story of Israel.  For, while the temple was built on a mount, at its center was the tabernacle in which dwelt between the cherubim the presence of the God Who had chosen to be with His people in the tabernacle, leading them across Sinai to a land of milk and honey.  Israel lived in the knowledge that they had not chosen Yahweh but that He had chosen them, beginning in the great act of condescension described in Genesis that made God come down into His garden to know us, though we fled.  His promise, however, is sure; in Bethlehem, He became one of us in order to bind us to Himself indissolubly.  At the end of the age, this world will not ascend, but Christ will come down to claim His throne, and with Him the New Jerusalem will come down out of Heaven from God.  Then the great comedy, the story of the happy ending, will be consummated at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb; God’s dwelling place will be with men.

With unerring insight, the Muslim terrorists attacked not St. Patrick’s Cathedral or Riverside Church but the twin towers of the World Trade
Center, the house of our gods, insofar as there exists a common
worship in America.

With the Incarnation, the shape of the city was forever changed.  Now God dwelt with man, in ways half-forgotten by moderns.  His was a threefold presence: He was present in the bodies of the saints, in the places where His mighty acts had taken place, and finally in the Eucharist, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood—that is, the Sacrament of His personal presence.  It would perhaps be right to say that, after Constantine, the medieval city had no center; it had a beating heart.  St. Peter’s grew out of a holy body, taken from the Circus of Nero and buried in a pauper’s grave by the red wall.  Generation after generation, that body remained the center of Roman Christendom, encased successively and ever more richly by Constantine, Gregory the Great, and Bernini.  And this act of building at the body was repeated throughout the West.  Churches were built where the holy bodies were, and, if there were no such relics, relics were taken to altars in the place where the church would be built.  In the Holy Land, Helena built churches where the Lord’s mighty acts had been performed or on any spot where God had appeared—at the place of the Resurrection, at Mamre where the Lord spoke to Abraham.  And, most fundamentally, the church was ever the place of God’s presence, the place where the God Who had made Himself present in the desert tabernacle made Himself personally present in the golden tabernacles of a thousand churches.  As the place wherein Jesus dwelt, the church had an importance that no other building could touch.  If you would see the expression of the fulfillment of the heart of medieval Europe, look at Chartres, Amien, Westminster, and at the great monasteries whose ruins still dot the British countryside, at Jedburgh, Fountains, Tintern.  After sustenance and armor, these were the product of a great civilization, the houses in which the presence of the Lord dwelt on earth.

The transformation that overtook European religion—and, hence, the European sense of place—in the 16th century can be described in many ways, but one thing is certain.  In Northern Europe, the claim that God dwelt with mankind was rejected as idolatry; the presence of Christ was ejected from His throne in the tabernacle; God might be remembered, but He was not present.  Churches thus became places not of presence but of preaching.  In Protestant Europe, Christ was at last defeated by the prince; shrines were demolished for their value; and palaces were built for the destroyers.  In northern Europe, the city had no center save that inherited from the medieval past.

What happened confusedly in Protestant Europe became obvious when the New World (at least North America) broke with the great, half-conscious tradition that made the temple of Christ’s presence central.  We can see the change in Williamsburg.  A long axis connects the college to the capital, passing by the governor’s palace and the parish church.  In New England, the temples of the various gods lined the village green, offering with a fine egalitarian flair a choice among Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians.  One would be bold to assay the religion of the place: gods many and lords many.

Perhaps the greatest change of all occurred when the population began to cross the Allegheny Mountains, for then the center of the city became the courthouse, that repository of land records and justice.  The house of God is relegated to the periphery, often to the woods.  Men come together not to worship Athena or Yahweh but to prosper.  The city makes no common, traditionary offerings to any god, although it poses no objection to those who wish to make such sacrifices.  But the city has as its heart economic success, the expansion of choice, and power.

Cities—places built in the shadow of divine protection—become places in which man can hide, safe from the pursuing voice of God.  In the entire Old Testament, there is only one city that wins God’s approval: Jerusalem, the city of God’s presence and peace.  The saints of the Old Testament are Rechabites who build no walls and plant no vineyards.  Indeed, in the biblical story, the time of God’s greatest favor was when His people dwelt in the desert, led by Him day and night, dependent on Him.

With unerring insight, Harvey Cox, the now almost forgotten author of The Secular City, praised the city for offering anonymity.  The city is now a place in which not only God but man may not know us.  There is, in fact, no city, no community like Rome or Athens or Jerusalem, bound together by a common worship.  In America, the city is not a city but a polity, a set of rational, often praiseworthy rules designed to contain diversity and to make living tolerable when there is no common faith in Athena or Christ.  Within the polity, there is a palimpsest, beliefs overlaid upon the city, declaring the worship of some god, but none is the god of the city, for the city is godless; its god is itself.

Yet architecture—the transformations of place rooted in imagination—does not lie.  The houses of new gods are omnipresent, those great spires rising to the heavens, on top of which are restaurants, clubs, and bars, commercial success crowned by amusement.  And what of that older God?  His houses are fallen, becoming places in which seeker-sensitive ministers engage an audience whose paradigmatic activity is entertainment.  This is not yet universally true among traditional folk, Catholics and evangelicals, among whom sentiment rooted in popular culture still struggles against tradition.  The pressure is toward amusement, however.  Why might it be that liturgists have as a pressing priority the removal of the tabernacle, that presence of Christ, from the sanctuary to the side chapel?  Of course, we know: So that the place may no longer be the house of God but the place of joyful experiences, so that the presence of God will, at last, no longer haunt us.  In the Garden, we fled from the Lord, ashamed to see His face in our state of rebellion.  Now we would drive Him out, bar the gates against Him, so that we may feel no shame.

The consequence is evident.  The absence of common worship means the dissolution of the city, which is now a collection of malls connected by superhighways.  Of course, there is an arts mall and a legal-banking mall, but these are species of the genus.  Commerce is the natural root of every city, but when the root becomes the crown, the city cannot endure.  The prophet had foreseen the day when an omnipotent system of commerce, exclusion from which means death, will define the city.  In the end, that city will fall, and, when it falls, bankers, merchants, and shipowners will wail and cast ashes on their heads while the saints rejoice.

Can those who live in the ruins of what was once the shadow of the City of God—a civilization organized, however imperfectly, around the presence of Christ—make it their work once again to make the city an obvious place of God’s presence?  To ask the question is to know that this is now impossible.  Those for whom God is the center of the human enterprise are a chastened minority.  The Western world has been a great glory, the home (in Newman’s words) of the one great civilization the world has known.  But that is over.  God may be in our hearts and even in our mouths, but perhaps He will never invest the city as an organizing principle again until He comes in glory.

About A.D. 150, Diognetus the apologist wrote: 

Christians have no obvious peculiarities that mark them off as a separate race, and that devotion to Christ, the Son of God, is the vivifying principle of their association.  Christians differ not from other men in country, speech, or customs. . . . They inhabit their native countries but as sojourners . . . they take their part in all burdens as if they were citizens and all suffers as if they were strangers.

As it was in the beginning, so is it now.  And be not ashamed of memory.  When in Canterbury, amidst the droning crowds, hear the words spoken by Becket as he chose to die for honor of God and the Church.  When surrounded by the perfection of King’s College Chapel, as the guide points out, always demurely, that this is one of the few places in which the intertwined monograms of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn may be seen, think of the founder, King Henry VI, who, if he was not a saint in this life, almost was.  When you see the country church on a hill discovered in the Midwestern flatland, a place of presence like St. Paul’s lifted up like the temple of Athena, think of the inexpungeable desire for God that besets the human heart, that formed the city when the world was young.