Paul Bailie

Book Review

Gorringe, T.J. A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

In A Theology of the Built Environment, British theologian T.J. Gorringe reflects in an interdisciplinary manner on constructed space, how humans use land, and issues related to the environmental crisis. Gorringe argues for “a Trinitarian theological ethic, reflecting on God in all reality, and thus refusing the pre Christian distinction between sacred and secular” (17). The book begins with Gorringe recognizing that the essence of being human is being associated with a place: “to be born in this house, hospital, stable (according to Luke), or even, as in the floods in Mozambique in 2000, in a tree” (1). Where we live and how we use land are the start of theological reflection in this book. Gorringe brings biblical scholarship, town planning, urban theory, and architecture into dialogue about constructed space, land ownership, cities, and aesthetics.

Whereas Chapter 1 lifts up Gorringe’s emphasis on starting his reflection with discussion on physical space and constructed things, the second chapter shifts to discuss ideologies of space, attempts at dividing sacred and secular space, and a Trinitarian mapping of spatiality. Use of space involves use of power. Gorringe uses as an example William of Normanday, who “covered the land with churches, abbeys and cathedrals, claims in stone to ideological legitimacy” (30). Regarding sacred space, he builds upon the thought of Mircea Elide, who categorizes space into sacred and profane space. Gorringe argues that all space is potentially sacred. “What we conventionally understand as sacred spaces have a sacramental significance with regard to all other space: they are a reminder of the potential for epiphany of all other spaces” (40). Although Gorringe uses thoughts from geographers and other social scientists, he proposes not simply a sociological reading of space, but a theological. “Imagination, order, and justice” (49) are key words in his Trinitarian theology of space where God the Redeemer is “author of all hopeful visions and of all human creativity” and God the Creator “brings order out of chaos” (48). God the Reconciler “takes flesh in order to teach peace to the nations” (49).

Chapter 3 is about land and land ownership. Gorringe demonstrates examples of land inequalities around the world, and acknowledges the theological importance of land by pointing to the Hebrew scriptures, specifically the scholarship of Gerhard von Rad and Norman Habel. For von Rad, there is a twofold theology of land. The first views land as God’s property and the second, or historical, views that land is Israel’s heritage, promised by God to the patriarchs. A common theme in land ideologies is that of nahalah, usually translated from the Hebrew as inheritance. This theme of inheritance helps shape Gorringe’s Trinitarian ethics and the stewardship of the land, which has three parts. First, land possession can never be absolute. Secondly, accepting land as a gift inheritance has implications for access to land and land use. Thirdly, those excluded from their nahalah need to be addressed. “These people, the homeless and refugee, those who live in wretched apartments and flats in sink estates, are owed their own stake in the land as of right, in virtue of their solidarity they share with the rest of us” (78).

In Chapter 4, Gorringe addresses the difficulty of housing for six to eight billion people. Gorringe discusses the meanings behind houses. One ideology of the house is house as sacred site. In nineteenth century Britain, a symbol of the family and a focus on the sacred was the hearth. Gorringe argues that there is no longer that sacred center. “Has the semi circle around the television replaced—or destroyed—the sacred?” (86). He describes two traditions in architecture: monumental and vernacular, and argues for a new vernacular, shaped by local climate and local landscape. Ordinary dwellings for six billion people need to be environmentally sustainable. “The growing appreciation of the need to recycle must also apply to buildings, as it did for earlier generations, so that materials are reused, and usable buildings renovated rather than destroyed” (109). Gorringe’s Trinitarian ethics has a focus on the individual dwelling affecting the community. “All the Lord’s people need to be prophets in the shaping of their dwellings from the ground up” (113).

From housing, Gorringe turns to the town and country relationships in Chapter 5. Towns are important because they are not quite urban and not quite rural. Gorringe contrasts Ancient Greek understanding with modern Western thought about towns. For Greeks, living in more urban area was superior to rural. The Greek words asteios (urban) and agroikos (rural) can also be translated as ‘witty’ and ‘boorish’ (121). On the other hand, Western thought has viewed the town corrupt and countryside virtuous, as exemplified by poet William Cowper, “God made the country, and man made the town” (117). Gorringe draws on Irenaeus of Lyons in discussing redemption. The town and the country play a part in the process of redemption. While hoping for Jerusalem, “it is theologically wrong to do nothing but dream of Eden” (136).

Cities, likewise play a role in the economy of redemption. In Chapter 6, Gorringe points to a dialectic of cities. Some Christian thinkers view the city as helpful, and others view it with a sense of doom. “Like all human life cities make manifest the dialectic of sin and grace but it is in what they contribute to the furtherance of life that they play their role in the economy of redemption” (146). Cities promote creativity and are both nurseries of virtue and “nurseries of industrial innovation and experiment” (150). However, having sustainable cities requires focus. The author of Hebrews writes in Hebrews 13:14 that “here we have no lasting city, but look for the city that is to come.” Such a faith shapes how the city shapes our future.

Chapter 7 is about constructing community. From the Essenes to Benedict, Anabaptists to base communities, people have attempted to “find the way back to the Garden of harmonious community” (163). In villages, cities, and suburbs, people attempt to find community. For Gorringe, the Church is opportunity for community, but it is always local, though globally networked community. “True community begins in the face to face, but looks outward to the entire oikumene, the whole inhabited earth” (185). The Church lives by memory and tradition and is where sin is recognized and forgiveness asked for. “In its story telling and in its brokenness the Church remains a witness to both the possibility and the centrality of community to the human journey” (192).

Gorringe builds on the idea of community in Chapter 8, focusing on the creativity of designing built communities. Gorringe proposes five things that make a place beautiful, with a deep spirituality that nurtures the human soul. Beautiful places must respect nature, exude life, respect the past and corporate memory, have community buildings and common space, and respect its poor. Besides these five points, a beautiful city must “tame the car” (220).

The final two chapters deal more explicitly with environmental crises and the Church’s response. Gorringe identifies three major components to the environmental crisis: global warming, availability of water and food, and environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity (223). A theology of the built environment that can adequately address these issues must be a theology of global liberation. Gorringe’s theology of global liberation could be called a theology of home. Sin represents “our alienation from the world, our reduction of it to nothing but a set of resources for the rich” (239). On the other hand, grace recognizes the world as a gift of home. “A liberation theology of the built environment wants practical recognition for the homeliness of the world” (239). This theology is guided by criteria of sustainability, justice, empowerment, situatedness, diversity, and enchantment (250). Gorringe ends the book with a hope that the Triune God can bring new life. Answering the question from Ezekiel, whether these bones can live, Gorringe responds, “If Spirit truly speaks to spirit, the answer then may be the answer now, finding sinews and flesh in a new common project, a world of beauty and equality which respects the earth” (261).

I found this book to be helpful in that it integrated thoughts in three of my passions—theology, urban geography, and ecology. The issue of home and how we design and construct it is very important in for us in an era where luxury mansions compete for space with farm land, and where more and more people have difficulty finding affordable housing. Gorringe’s book does a helpful job of making connections with the doctrine of the Trinity and human activity. Gorringe’s writing can be a bit overwhelming at times, and assumes on the reader’s part moderate familiarity with technical terms in theology and urban theory. Also, Gorringe is British, and many (though not all) of his examples are from the United Kingdom. For a more general introduction to concepts of city, environment, and the Church’s role, written from an American perspective, I would recommend Sidewalks in the Kingdom, by Eric Jacobsen ( Brazos, 2003). Nevertheless, Gorringe’s A Theology of the Built Environment gives a thorough reflection on what it means to have a Trinitarian ethic of human construction. I found most helpful and intriguing his five attributes of a beautiful city in Chapter 8. If that chapter were expanded and infused with more examples from United States contexts, it would be a fruitful starting point for addressing needs of the neighborhood in an urban congregational context. As a whole, this book would be useful for theologians and church leaders concerned about ecological implications of what humanity builds, as well as for planners, architects, and social scientist seeking some Trinitarian theological perspective.