Felix Wilfred – « Trasforming our Cities »

Felix Wilfred

« Transforming Our Cities. Public Role of Faith and Theology »

Markus Bücker, Alina Krause, Linda Hogan

Concilium 2019-1. Entwicklung findet Stadt
Concilium 2019-1. The City and global Development
Concilium 2019-1. Ciudad y desarrollo global
Concilium 2019-1. Città e sviluppo globale

Concilium 2019-1. Ville et développement global
Concilium 2019-1. Cidade e desenvolvimento global

1. City and Its Opportunities 

Many are the reasons and motives for people to move into the cities. For some, city is a place of wealth, comfort and high quality of living; for others, it offers facilities and opportunities for their skills and talents to flourish. No wonder, Aristotle characterized city as an indispensable  place for “living well” by which he meant a place for leading a life of happiness and for pursuing  “virtues” or talents.[1] In fact, unlike the hinterlands, cities with dense human proximity and concentration of talents create an ambience for the maximization of human capacities, for innovation, and create opportunities to practice justice and serve common good. Moreover, city is a place of freedom providing an atmosphere to cultivate individual self, free from social pressures, oppressive traditions and conventions. 

Besides such ideals, in many developing countries, and increasingly also in the developed countries, city is the shelter to many victims of our world today – the impoverished, the landless, the abandoned, the displaced, the refugees, asylum-seekers, victims of ecological disasters, floating population from the countryside in search of labour and so on. City is some hope of survival in the midst of many deprivations the poor suffer. Chinese cities offer labour opportunities and draw people from hinterland, and Indian cities offer for many Dalits (the “Untouchables” a sense of anonymity sparing them the humiliation of their oppressive caste-identity.

2. The City Context of Theological Interventions 

The social, economic and cultural opportunities cities offer is in stark contrast with the many darker sides they represent.  Describing the cities in our global world, Zygmunt Bauman has this to say:

Today, in a curious reversal of their historical role and in defiance of the original intentions of city builders and the expectations of city dwellers, our cities are turning swiftly from shelters against dangers into dangers’ principal source. Dicken and Laustsen go as for as to suggest that the millennia-old link between civilization and barbarism is reversed. City life turns into a state of nature characterized by the rule of terror, accompanied by omnipresent fear.[2]

Moreover, modern technocratic city-planning seems to exacerbate especially  the life of the poor, and, paradoxically, makes their life  more insecure as never before, with constant danger of displacement of their dwellings, loss of occupations for their livelihood, and worst of all, negation of their human dignity – all in the name of city-development. 

While the city as material space calls for the expertise of planners, architects, demographers, economists, and others,  as a humanly constituted space it requires the support of humanistic and social sciences. Theology could join these disciplines to make its own contribution to this common project of a humane and eco-friendly cities of the future. [3]

But, modern theology has been preoccupied all along with temporal categories – the issues of time and history – in the study of scriptures, tradition and in hermeneutics. Since the Sein und Zeit of Heidegger, time and history have become important philosophical categories too. However, thanks to cultural and ecological studies, the category of space and geography have  just begun to draw global attention. They have been long neglected. Faith-reflection needs to focus today on city as the space, the milieu of human coexistence in optimal environmental conditions. Increasingly the spaces of our cities are culturally, religiously, and ethnically plural and diversified. The arrangement of material space and planning of city may be a technical activity, but faith could contribute to create social spaces and ambience of mutuality and understanding among different ethnicities, religious and cultural groups. To be able to make its contribution, faith and theology need to take into account anthropological and social factors making up the city. 

Negation of survival needs such as nutrition, housing, health care, clean environment, along with the experience of oppression, unemployment, and absence of educational opportunities are sources of insecurity and violence in cities across the world. Cities are where one experiences poverty in its old and new forms. The list is not complete if we do not include ethnic and racial and religious factors. One conveniently sidesteps these latter factors in analysis of the situation of cities. Further, in many cities of the world, religion far from being a solution is part of the problem. Religion and its symbols are used in conflict of power. For example, the Indian Muslims are increasingly marginalized and vulnerable minorities in Indian cities, and targets of violent attacks.[4] In many cities in the West there is, unfortunately, institutionalized racism and religious prejudices leading to expressions of violence. I think theologians and faith-communities in the West have the responsibility to challenge prophetically overt and covert expressions of racism and discrimination against minorities, ethnicities, migrants, and refugees at a time when these issues are threatening to break the European Union.  

3. Inter-Culturalism and Social Capital

On the one hand there is growing skepticism about the viability of multiculturalism. On the other hand, one would not like to go back to a policy of forced assimilation to the culture and tradition identified with the majority. It is at this juncture we realize the importance of inter-culturalism. Whereas multiculturalism advocates the right for diversity, interculturalism calls for openness to the other and communication with the other. This may not be achieved through psychological strategies or moral persuasion; these need to be accompanied by a different vision and  appropriate policies and practices. A simple patronizing multiculturalism with acknowledgment of the legitimacy of plurality could lead to – as often feared – to ghettoization. This could be avoided through policies and practices of social, economic, and political equality and participation. To employ a classical distinction in sociology by Ferdinand Tönnies (later taken up by Max Weber), one of the important contributions faith and theology could make is to turn cities from Gesellschaft (societyinto Gemeinschaft (community). 

In modern times a   model of future inter-cultural  city was inspired by Sri Aurobindo of India and a French mystic Mirra Alfassa. Such a city called Auroville exists at the outskirts of Pondicherry, India. As an experiment, here  people across nations, religions, races, languages live together and make up the city, foreshadowing the unity of humanity. It is set in the harmony of nature. Auroville embodies concretely the vision of alternative cities of the future. As the charter of this city states  “Auroville will be a place of unending education, of constant progress and a youth that never ages”.[5]

Robert Putnam made current the concept of social capital.[6] He makes a distinction between two aspects of social capital. One aspect of social capital is bonding, by which similar people bind themselves together in terms of common identity, shared values, history, tradition, religion etc. This has its own set of problems. It needs to be balanced by the other aspect of social capital,  namely bridging, reaching out to the other. For the regeneration of urban life with the poor and disadvantaged as the focus, engaged faith-communities could help strengthen their social capital (both in bonding and bridging) and improve their quality of life in all respects. Social capital – especially with a balancing of bonding and bridging – can create the resilience necessary to overcome poverty in the city, which financial resources alone cannot do, and make  up to some extent  the appalling absence of  sense of community.  

4. Cry of the Poor in Cities 

In the city of Pharaoh the cry of the poor was not heard. Our cities have their social and economic peripheries in innumerable slums with abysmal living conditions of many negations, where the voice of the poor and the victims are silenced.  In Asia, Africa and Latin America, the poor live on the crumbs of the city created by forces of late  global capitalism and neoliberal market. On the beautiful hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro are perched the favelas where more than a million live on the waste of the city.  India has an urban population of 377 million – larger than the entire population of the USA!  Of these, several millions live in slums like Dharavi in Mumbai, the largest slum in Asia. They sleep, cook, copulate and defecate  in crammed spaces and pavements,  with no security, no adequate nutrition, and  healthcare. Slums are “unintended cities”.[7] In Manila as many as 50% of the city population lives in slums. Till some years ago in the “smoky mountain” of Tondo, Manila,  thousands of families  survived  scavenging two million metric tons of city-waste. The  poor in the slum also become victims of human trafficking, sexual abuse, dangerous medical experimentations, drug peddling and so on. One speaks of quality of life today. Where is the quality of life  in our cities if  we exclude people and deny a modicum of space for a dignified human life? With lack of open spaces and social isolation and no common spaces to meet and socialize – as the case in  the villages – the poor opting to live in the city suffer immensely. There is an inextricable connection between poverty and environmental degradation. Poverty is the greatest pollutant, something one could experience palpably in the cities of the developing world. 

Besides sound economy, infrastructure creation, environmental safety, recycling of waste,  and governance, city requires a human face or as Emmanuel Levinas would put it, “humanist urbanism”. [8] Here faith and theology could contribute to create a human face to the city by addressing those issues and concerns of the people which economic, political, and cultural actors leave out of their purview. Faith perspectives and theology will take us beyond service delivering to the urban victims to their dignity as human beings. The Gospel option for the poor will translate into a city-planning that will start from bottom up, listening to the cry of the poor, attending to their conditions, responding to their needs and aspirations. For many, city pastoral work means how best we could bring faith to the people who are being secularized and save  them from becoming materialists and consumerists. Today, we need to interpret faith and pastoral involvement in the light of Gaudium et Spes. Pastoral here refers to the nature of presence of the Church in the world. It means how Church, faith, and theology could address the larger issues of the city affecting the people across religion, geography, race, and culture.

As a theoretical premise to this faith-inspired enterprise we need to be aware that identity of city space, like other identities, are constructed relationally, and not in terms of an a priori essentialist conception. Spaces are ascribed meanings, and they become places, through interhuman encounters and relationality. What technocratic approach does is to take city space in its materiality leaving out the constructive aspect that makes space a humanly endowed reality which  is an important presupposition for understanding the poor in the city spaces. That leads us to the next point. 

5. From Smart City to Compassionate City 

Since 2008, smart city has become the stated objective of many states and business enterprises across the world.[9]  This project proposes to transform cities and govern them through digital and other technological means of communication and automation by using  available resources smartly. What dominates is the managerial approach to life in the city. It looks to me that the  dominant city-projects  of today are but contemporary application of the  European Enlightenment paradigm of  linear or dialectical human progress, development, and evolution. This paradigm has exercised such a great influence that even the Christian Scriptures were so interpreted as if  God, like a city-planner and manager, had God’s  own map and  plan of salvation

All human problems cannot be solved by money; nor by technology and management. Enticing as it may sound, the project of smart city hides behind a multitude of human social, economic,  and political issues. A humane city cannot be created and sustained without putting people above technology, which has only a service role to play. Policies and practices need to evolve after interaction and dialogue with the people and ascertaining their needs and aspirations. We succumb to the dangerous Enlightenment idea of progress and development when we place plans  above dialogue. A process of dialogue will create cities from below. In short, the project of a city is a continuous process of dialogue and human interactions. 

 In situations of massive poverty and negation of basic needs of life and absence of adequate  spaces in the city – as is the case especially  in the  so-called developing world – the project of smart city is likely to go to the advantage of the elite and the middle class, and may respond to the demands of the capital and market. What is forgotten is that there is a whole political process involved in the construction of the city where one has to come to terms with  opposing classes and castes, different ethnicities, migrants, refugees, displaced people, and divergent economic interests.  The problem with smart city is that it is  a totally de-politicized  project  acting on presumed neutrality and impartiality  vis-à-vis the inequality among the citizens, their contrasting socio-economic  positions,  and their conflicting interests. 

As it is, city-planning is heavily influenced by the capital and the demands of the market with lip-service paid to the poor and those pushed to the margins of city-life.  The city of the future, on the other hand,  requires badly  the spirit of human solidarity,  radical care and infinite compassion which are really in shorty-supply today. We cannot expect these where human relationships are mediated by money and market. In fact, Friedrich Hayek  was  candid when he said  love has no place in economics.[10] One of the most important contribution faith and theology could make for the future of our cities is to instill a new and alternative vision and orientation inspired by the spirit of  love, care, and compassion. We are on a very weak foundation if we were to ground our contemporary social life and political institutions on the theory of  an imaginary social contract (Jacques Rousseau) or to rely on justice to happen on  a hypothetical “original position” (John Rawls).  We are seeing the serious limits and weakness of such a basis which is at the bottom of the crisis of liberalism, capitalism, and market.[11] If we go by social contract and the logic of the market, there is no convincing answer for solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. The poor are  to blame themselves for their lot, so goes the argument. Such being the situation,  we are in need of alternative vision and perspectives that  will illumine our common humanity, define our social life and interhuman relationships beyond the frame of self-interest and competition. This needs to get reflected in the way we construct and reconstruct cities with different  priorities and values, other than the ones dictated by the market and consumerism.  

Any amount of technology and managerial techniques cannot supplant human solidarity, care and compassion which will be the heart-beat of the cities of the future. Compassionate eyes see more and far than the most advanced technological means and projects. Like in the Gospel narrative, while the eyes of the elites are turned on the grandeur of the temple and its beauty, the compassionate eyes are turned to the poor widow. The quite offer of her mite in the temple invites praise from Jesus (Mk 12:41-44, Lk 21:1-4). The very people who contribute the  lion’s share in the creation of city through their hard labour – the poor, the migrants, the refugees, the discriminated – are ignored and sidelined, with no voice in shaping their habitat. Slums have become for planners an embarrassment. Instead of encountering them as human realities, one plans in order to eliminate them. This is diametrically opposed to the vision of a new Jerusalem Isaiah projected.  “ I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress…They shall build houses and inhabit them. They shall not build and another inhabit ” (Is 65:19, 21-22). 

The city is not simply a place, but a milieu. It is a milieu of community where peoples and groups can flourish by interconnecting and living in solidarity. Loving one’s neighbour was relatively easy as long as the neighbor was of one’s own colour, race, religion, culture and language. It has become a serious issue when we do not share any of these, and yet called to love and forge relationships. Neighbour is not simply a matter of physical proximity but a matter of negotiation and communication. The strangeness of the neighbour creates xenophobia.  Now how does one move from the situation of xenophobia  to xenophilia – that is the love for the stranger? How can we transform the growing mistrust that cuts off the vital human communication, by creating greater sense of confidence and solidarity among city-dwellers?  Could faith and theology help people to make this transition? 

It is significant that almost all the letters of Paul were written to city-dwellers, and addressing the problem of the communities there.[12] Using a rare expression, Paul enjoins the Philippians  “to  live as good citizens (politeuesthe)” (Phil. 1:27). For Paul, city is a place of community, mutuality, relationships, completely different from today’s image of city as a concentrated space of traders and consumers. He exhorts the citizens of Colossae to clothe themselves with compassion” (Col. 3:12) which should characterize their relationship in the community and in the larger society. 

City as a community is a creation by all. Unsustainable city is the one where there is no community participation. Refusing to accept the participation of the poor, the migrants,  and refugees will only add further to their vulnerability. In large cities, especially in developing countries, we note how the rich insulate themselves in the so called “gated-communities” by erecting walls and fences and  barring access to the poor. The wealthy also ensure for themselves the best lands and greeneries, privatizing public spaces. If  the Church wants to be a witnessing Church in such situations, one of the best ways is to make available Church buildings, premises, infrastructure and facilities for the common purposes of the citizens, especially the vulnerable ones. This means to be a Church without walls. In this way, the Church will be entering into genuine communication with the local community, and the people will begin to feel that the Church is there for them. These are the ways to create solidarity and community. All this will help also to allay the fears and suspicion by “secularists” and by peoples of other religious traditions  about the motive of the Church in its city-involvement. 

6. City and Ecology 

The present model of development takes place at the cost of nature. Unbridled global consumerism continues to create mountains of waste (two bllion tonnes in 2016) in our cities, posing serious threat also for the health and survival of the humans. Pope Francis, tells us that the planning of the city should be such that it chimes not only with canons of aesthetics, but most importantly that it contributes to the quality of life and facilitates human interconnectedness, solidarity and sense of belonging. The pope dreams of another model of city. To quote his words, 

How beautiful those cities which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favor the recognition of others![13]

Pope Francis in his Laudato Si invites planners to consider the environmental impact of city projects and integrate the human and the social with the natural environment.  

Alternative vision concerns also development of an environmentally sustainable landscapes and way of life in the cities. The environmental decline and climate change caused by city for its residents and for the world may not be responded only by technocratic solutions or change in urban planning. It calls for a new mindset and a way of life that is respectful of nature and responsible in the use of its resources, something to which faith and theology could richly contribute.  

7. Faith-Inspired and Humanistic Non-State Actors 

Voluntary groups and non-state actors  (NGOs) have their hands on the pulse of the people and their feet on the rough ground at the bottom. Civil society and social movements– which autocratic states tend to suppress – have a great role to play in shaping our cities echoing the hope and aspirations of the people, especially the marginalized and the discriminated ones. An encounter of faith and theology with civil society initiatives and social movements could become mutually beneficial and strengthen the common cause of  creating peoples’ cities.   

A significant document of the Anglican Church titled “Faithful Cities” reminds us what faith-sources could represent vis-à-vis the cities of today. It notes, 

Despite its ambivalent history, and its capacity to incite hatred and conflict, religious faith is still one of the richest, most enduring and most dynamic sources of energy and hope for cities. Faith is a vital— and often essential— resource in the building of relationships and communities. In the values they promote, in the service they inspire, and in the resources they command, faith-based organizations make a decisive contribution to their communities.” [14]

These grassroots organizations may not place much value on traditional religious establishments, but they represent, so to say, liquid religion. Their fluidity is a great advantage for effective, timely and relevant interventions in urban social and political processes. Dialogue and cooperation among faith-inspired organizations and humanistically-oriented non-state actors could reinforce the work of each other for transforming our cities. Faith and theological reflections could accompany the non-state actors. They can jointly play a prophetic role of protest and resistance to a model of the city that is structurally anti-poor and  inspirationally pro-greed. Such a city is diametrically opposed to the values and vision the Gospel and its Good News to the poor stands for. 

8. Challenge to Theology

The dominant theology has been grappling with the question of how to reconcile faith with modernity. But today theological question needs to shift and address the question of poverty and material deprivation, justice,  issues of human dignity, human rights, community and social cohesion, drawing from the rich sources of faith for action and active engagement. This has implications for theological method and orientation. To be able to respond to the life of the city, for example, theology needs to increasingly take on narrative form embedded in life-experience of the people. For lack of this kind of approach, the institutions pursuing theology today, unfortunately, have very little public influence. The challenges our cities offer is an opportunity for theology to break loose of its self-isolation and enter into conversation with wider issues and questions taken up by non-state actors (NGOs) today, so vital for coexistence and harmony. 

Further, theology could widen its scope and contribute to create public intellectuals who would advocate the cause of an equitable and environmentally sustainable cities. Public advocacy of the issues touching the life of the city – especially its poor – and formulation of economic and environmental policies to redress the persisting woes and enhance the quality of life for all – these are what engaged faith, Church,  and theology could do hand in hand with non-state actors. 

Out of these experiences we need to think of new areas of study and research on the part of theologians as public intellectuals with the future of the city as the focus. Though cities across the world share many things in common, yet, undeniably there are remarkable differences deriving from past history, the social, political condition in each case. Theologians could look into some of the most pressing issues and concerns and identify areas of reflection, study and research in context. This would support the formulation of urban public policies bearing upon the promotion of social justice and cohesion, and protection of the environment. This can be done meaningfully when theology and theological researches are shaped by other disciplines, and theology itself takes on the character of public theology. 

 9. Conclusion

In former times, walls with watch-towers erected around the city served to protect the  citizens. Far from havens of security, today our cities have become centres of terror and insecurity. Correctly understood human rights are the real new security of our future cities.[15] However, human rights are not the privilege of some; it is applicable to all. It is not that we lack human rights; the real problem is the hypocrisy in the selective application of human rights, to the advantage of the already rich and powerful. Hence, I think today  it is important to focus on the rights of the poor, which includes the right to city. 

Cities are also spaces filled with community obligations the fulfilling of which expresses a sense of solidarity and interdependence. Promoting the participation and cooperation of all in building the city could help overcome the opposition between residents and strangers.  Faith and theology are called upon to assist in the process of making everyone in the city feel at home, what  the German language expresses as Beheimatung. The language of “hospitality” often employed today appears to me as an ambiguous concept. It does not express the much needed sense of belonging. Here is the crux of the question. 

Care and compassion for the poor and the marginalized, upholding justice and rights of the victims, facilitation of their active participation in the life of the city, the quality of social relationships, harmony  and cohesion among the diverse groups of the people in the city – these  should become new parametres and criteria for evaluating the cities of the future. This humanistic criteria will override the assessment of cities on the basis of their physical structure and technocratic management. Further, it is important to remember that human societies are not perfect blueprints nor cute photo finish. There is a price to be paid for the richness and diversity our cities represent. I mean we need to be prepared for a certain amount of uncertainty, unpredictability, disruption and disorganization. Theology and faith will need to step in when one would like to give up the value of pluralism for the sake of an imagined perfect order of the society. Faith and theology could play a public role by focusing on interculturalism, communication, dialogue and negotiation reaching out to the culturally, religiously, ethnically,  and linguistically different other. 


[1] Aristotle, Politics  (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 1252b27

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Does Ethics Have a Chance  (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2008),  p. 65. 

[3] Space does not permit me to go into a discussion on the  legitimacy  and manner  of  faith-intervention and theological contribution in socio-political issues, especially in post-secular societies.  I have treated this elsewhere. See, Felix Wilfred, Theology for an Inclusive World, (Delhi: ISPCK, 2019); Theology to Go Public  (Delhi: ISPCK, 2013); see also Nigel Biggar – Linda Hogan (eds), Religious Voices in Public Places  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).   

[4] Cf. Laurent Gayer and Chrisophe Jaffrelot, eds.,  Muslims in Indian Cities (Noida: HarperCollins, 2012).

[5] [accessed on 30 September, 2018];  see also Anu Majumdar, Auroville. A City for the Future (Noida: HarperCollins, 2017). 

[6] See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone. The Collapse and Revival of American Community ( New York: Simon & Schuster Paperback, 2000).

[7] Cf. Jai Sen,  “The Unintended City”, in  The Oxford Anthology of the Modern Indian City. Making and Unmaking the City edited by  Vinay Lal (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013)pp. 145-154.  

[8] Cf. Michael L. Morgen, Levinas’s Ethical Politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016),  p. 179.

[9] In June 2015, the Government of India  launched “Smart Cities Mission” with the aim of developing one hundred cities, technologically oriented and sustainable.  

[10] Cf. Friedrich A. von  Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1960). 

[11] See The Economist September 15 – 21, 2018, dealing with the crisis of liberalism. 

[12] Cf. Steve Walton et al. eds, The Urban World and the First Christians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2017. 

[13] Evangelii Gaudium no. 210. 

[14] The quotation is from Faithful Cities –  a document of the Anglican Church,  as quoted in  International Journal of Public Theology 2008/1 p. 17. This document from the Anglican Church was preceded by Faith in the City (1985), different in tone, approach,  and orientation. 

[15] See the special issue “Human Security”, Concilium 2018/2. 


Felix Wilfred is founder-director of the Asian Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies, Chennai.  Earlier he was Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Chairman of the School of Philosophy and Religious Thought, State University of Madras. Until June 2018 he was President of the International Theological Review Concilium and has been a member of the International Theological Commission of the Vatican. He was on deputation by the government of India as ICCR Professor of Indian Studies, Trinity College Dublin and has also been a Visiting Professor at the universities of Nijmegen, Münster, Frankfurt am Main, Boston College and Ateneo de Manila.  Recent publications include the groundbreaking Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia. Other seminal publications include On the Banks of the Ganges (2002), Asian Dreams and Christian Hope (2003) The Sling of Utopia: Struggles for a Different Society (2005) and Margins: Site of Asian Theologies (2008)

Address: Asian Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies, 40/6A panayur Kuppam Road, Sholinganallur Post, Panayur, Chennai – 6000 119, Tamilnadu, India.