Civic Community in a Garden

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The motto on the seal of the city of Chicago is Urbs in Horto (“City in a garden”). However, Civitas in Horto is the motto the city fathers should have chosen. It is of no small significance that they chose ‘‘urbs’’ over ‘‘civitas’’ for their ideal of the city in 1837, four years after they forced the Pottawatomie to concede their land around Lake Michigan. Urbs is Latin for the built environment of a city, its assemblage of walls, traffic arteries, and physical infrastructure. Urbs is a good choice if one intends to build a great industrial and commercial civilization. Civitas, on the other hand, was the word the Romans used to refer to the rights and duties of the Roman ‘‘civis,’’ or citizen. But more than this, it also communicated what Peter Hawkins calls ‘‘the spiritual matrix of citizenship,’’ the vision of goodness that sustains and animates worthy action in the body politic, the mythos that is borne by ‘‘the deepest network of associations, memories, symbols, myths, narratives and ideals’’ in the civic culture.[1] I maintain that we need to lay claim to the spiritual matrix of our citizenship, and work to expand and deepen our understanding of it, if we are to find the commitment and wisdom necessary to practice the kind of citizenship our cities need today.


The spiritual matrix of citizenship is closely associated with democracy, the ideal of a community whose members are co-equal in their moral freedom, in their responsibility for the common good, and in their active engagement in the deliberative process that is at the heart of political self- government. But the ideal of ‘‘civitas in horto,’’ citizenship in the garden, is more than democratic citizenship in even this comprehensive sense, and certainly more than citizenship as we customarily understand it: the exercise of our constitutional rights and duties as members of a liberal state. It points to the fact that citizenship today involves responsibility not only for the social commons, but for the natural commons as well. Because ‘‘ecology’’ has come to stand for the diverse values and interdependencies at stake in human activities impacting the biosphere, a number of persons such as myself have begun using the rather clumsy term ‘‘democratic ecological citizenship’’ to point to the kind of citizenship we need today. I doubt that when the city fathers chose ‘‘horto’’ for the city motto they had this kind of responsibility in mind, although they did have the foresight to set aside a tract of lake front as a ‘‘Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear, and Free.’’ And they had the imagination to choose an evocative word, hortus, garden, to symbolize the region within which the new city was to be built.

Like civitas, hortus suggests a vision of goodness that we also need to retrieve if we are to find the wisdom necessary to practice the full meaning of citizenship today. The garden is one of the richest poetic metaphors in the total matrix by which human cultures have historically understood their relationships to the natural world. Next to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ground we stand on, there is no more elementary tie to nature than the food we gather from the cultivation of the Earth. The garden is intrinsic to the reality of the city. The capacity for agriculture provided the surplus food necessary for the building of the first cities. In the 1830s the American Midwest, with its fertile prairie soils, was widely believed to be the garden of the continent, a refound Eden, whose plenteous produce could feed the millions of immigrants pouring into Chicago.

Although the processes of commodification and market exchange that dominate the contemporary city tempt us to forget the source of our daily bread, most urban dwellers still want a garden. The garden—indeed, nature in its entirety—was always fundamental to those whose names have been passed down as the exemplars of the tradition of Chicago citizenship we are tracing, from Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, Jens Jensen, Harriet Monroe, Carl Sandburg, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright to Paul Douglas, Stan Hallett, and Al Pitcher.[2]

The problem is that the imagery of the garden, and what it tells us about our dependence upon the rest of nature, is seldom recognized or explicitly attended to as an essential part of secular urban life, even by those for whom it is a source of great personal meaning. The fact that we live as ‘‘urbs in horto,’’ and have obligations as ‘‘civitas in horto,’’ is largely neglected in our public consciousness. The human/nature, city/countryside split in modern secular and urban culture goes deep, and is often confirmed by the segregations of our personal lives. The question is how might the wholeness of our reality—the interdependence between our cities and the gardens and ecosystems of the world—be revealed to contemporary urban citizens and become foundational to democratic politics and public culture? How might the associations responsible for creatively transmitting the spiritual matrix of our cities celebrate this reality and nurture us in its moral responsibilities?

One way this might be done is by reclaiming as central to our life of democratic citizenship in the city the fullness of the imagery of the banquet of life that is deeply buried in our cultural memory and in the texts and liturgies of our religious associations—imagery that holds together in one vision our dependence upon one another and the rest of nature and the promise of their mutual fulfillment through free human communication and sharing for the common good. The act of eating together is the most basic of sacraments—binding us in friendship and mutual obligation to one another, to those whose labor provides the food, and to the ultimate sources of life.

In pursuing this path of recovery and reflection, there are no better guides than the work of two outstanding Chicago theologians, my own mentors and friends, James Luther Adams and Lowell Weldon Livezey. I believe that the experience of such ‘‘republican banquets’’—in both their creative and redemptive aspects—was among the primary well-springs of Jim Adams’s and Lowell Livezey’s dedication to citizenship and their search for a democratic theology adequate to its promise.

Adams and Livezey shared the belief that the theory and practice of democratic citizenship through voluntary association must be grounded in empirical discernment of the ‘‘spiritual matrix’’ of citizenship. This was the ‘‘missing link’’ between democracy and religion that had so vexed earlier generations of liberals who tried to relate Christian beliefs and institutions to democratic ways of life. Livezey, in particular, recognized the importance of the transformations underway in the structure of the city for maintaining and enhancing a vital spiritual matrix, and to see that an adequate theology of democratic citizenship must be one that empowers citizens to not only attend to the issues of justice in the social order but also to building more sustainable relationships with the natural environment.

The most fundamental conviction that Adams and Livezey shared was the faith in democratic citizenship itself, the faith that ordinary human beings are capable of government by reflection and choice. They were each passionately dedicated, as were many of their predecessors in Chicago progressivism, such as Jane Addams and John Dewey, to the ideal of a democratically self-governing community. There are other important meanings of democracy on which they also agreed—freedom of dissent, transparency, rule of law, human rights, separation of powers—but it was this vision of free and equal responsibility by citizens for the public good of the interdependent community in which they all belong which was most fundamental.

Adams and Livezey were also united in the belief that citizens working together in ‘‘public-regarding’’ voluntary associations were the primary agents of democratic social transformation. Adams is reputed to be the chief American religious ethicist of the twentieth century to argue the thesis that voluntary associations are the ‘‘key to history.’’ As he famously said, the biblical admonition ‘‘by their fruits you shall know them,’’ means in social ethics ‘‘by their groups you shall know them.’’ Livezey similarly advocated both the study of voluntary associations and the need for citizens to participate in them, and like Adams, modeled both. But it was not only their instrumental value in effecting more just social policy, but also their intrinsic value as a space for human fulfillment that attracted Adams and Livezey. They each experienced in public-regarding voluntary associations what Adams described as the ‘‘freedom of talk,’’ the ‘‘spirit of humanity that counts above life itself,’’ the place in which ‘‘the Spirit may blow where it listeth and where it may create community.’’[3]

Livezey and Adams also agreed that religious organizations of all faiths, understood in democratic society as voluntary associations, had a foundational role to play in the nurture of the spiritual culture of democratic citizenship. Each was raised in a church whose polity involved strong lay participation (Plymouth Brethren for Adams, Methodist for Livezey) and each was active in similar congregations (Disciples of Christ, Quaker, Presbyterian, Unitarian) the rest of their lives. It was in such congregations, in practice and by tradition, that the full spiritual weight of the democratic ideal might be found.

But they also shared a quarrel with the churches. The churches were more concerned for nurturing the church community than the public community, and more concerned for the salvation of their members than the formation of democratic citizens. Adams and Livezey searched for ways to nurture prophetic social engagements of the laity, and one way they did so was by forming public-regarding ecumenical associations such as Protestants for the Common Good.

It was in the great issues of justice and peace, what Adams referred to as ‘‘reading the signs of the times,’’ that the struggle for democracy was being lost or won. For Adams in the years he was in Chicago, the overarching issue was Fascism vs. Democracy which included the issues of Authoritarianism vs. Civil and Political Rights and Religious Freedom, War vs. Peace, Laissez-faire Capitalism vs. Social Democracy, Racism vs. Racial Justice. Livezy shared with Adams strong convictions regarding the importance of the issues of race, and war and peace, and through his work at Princeton expanded the issue of human rights to embrace the full range of rights claims being pursued by voluntary associations. Indeed, in 1990, as his contribution to a symposium at Meadville/Lombard Theological School devoted to ‘‘James Luther Adams and the Democratic Prospect,’’ he proposed a paper that would make human rights a test of the adequacy of Adams’s thought.

But Livezey, following through on his long-standing concern for urban ministry, took a further step in reading the signs of the times which set a new agenda for responsible democratic citizenship. This was to identify the shape of the urban social order itself as an issue for critical ethical assessment and response by public-regarding voluntary association, and this in two respects: the ‘‘restructuring of the metropolis’’ that was in full swing in the 1990s due to the replacement of the industrial urban economy by new forms of global market relationships and which was posing problems of community fragmentation, the basis for his ‘‘Religion in Urban America’’ project; and the growing awareness of the ecological dysfunctions of urban sprawl and poorly managed land use. This was an issue that was clearly fraying the fragile cords that sustained the democratic life of Chicago.

What they most sought was a way to empirically access and critically evaluate the mythos at the core of democratic citizenship, and publically verifiable knowledge regarding how it was being transmitted through the activities of voluntary associations, especially religious associations. Adams’s long-range theological aim was to turn the Chicago liberal tradition of empirical theology away from its longstanding association with the methods of the natural sciences and move it toward direct encounter with the phenomena of history and therefore into awareness of the ‘‘role of the body, history, and institutions in religion’’ in mediating the divine powers in history. He learned from Anglo-Catholic church theologies that cultures ‘‘live not only by means of universally valid ideas, but also through the warmer, more concrete, historical tradition which possesses its sense of community, its prophets and its ‘acts’ of the apostles, its liturgy and literature, its peculiar language and disciplines.’’[4] At the center of his mature theology was a concern for the ‘‘root metaphors’’ generated by religious traditions, and especially those metaphors such as covenant or kingdom of God, which had potential to shape the direction of history toward greater democracy.

Adams and Livezey also agreed that an outstanding and unresolved problem for democracy lay in humanity’s relationship with the rest of the natural world and that an ethically justified response to that problem must be part of any viable theology of democratic society. Adams, however, was aware from his first hand acquaintance with ‘‘blood and soil’’ propaganda in Germany in the 1930s, and from his study of the history of natural law, how easily appeals to alleged ‘‘natural norms’’ could be used to rationalize denials of universal human rights. Moreover, in spite of his indebtedness to the naturalistic metaphysics of Whitehead, which found the divine ‘‘community-forming and transforming’’ powers of existence in nature and society alike, so that both ‘‘nature and history vindicate decision and action for community,’’ he had early incorporated the history/nature, voluntary/involuntary dualisms of the reigning schools of Christian theology and biblical scholarship into his ontological perspective. In consequence, although he acknowledged the importance of the issue in principle, and felt a deep personal attachment to nature, he was never able to come to grips with it himself.

The Republican Banquet

Livezey once observed that most of the songs, stories and pictures in the churches communicated a rich agrarian symbolism, for example, parables about vines and mustard seeds, but the parishioner did not have any contact with the world that had generated them, just as the congregants in the Jewish temple still used a lunar calendar but could not see the moon! Here lies the great ambiguity of tradition and modernity. Then, anticipating his analysis in Public Religion and Urban Transformation, he said that in his view, the explicit environmental concerns of liberal churches, such as recycling, were not the most fundamental thing. The most fundamental thing was what the religions of the city were going to do with their treasure of agrarian symbols as they set about trying to reestablish the cultural glue of the metropolis. He proposed that food was likely the most promising way to bring home to the urban population the fundamental necessity of ecological responsibility, and asked: Given the need for a sustainable and affordable source of healthy food for the whole population under both local and global economic conditions, how do we think ethically about the competition between our inherited ideals of the agricultural landscape, the emerging images of sustainable urban agriculture, and the present agribusiness industry that dominates Chicago and the Midwest?

William James once asked: ‘‘Why may not the world be a sort of republican banquet . . . where all the qualities of being respect one another’s personal sacredness, yet sit at the common table of space and time?’’[5]

The dinner tables of the settlements in Chicago were famous as places where everyone was treated as equal and the most animated exchanges were held about the quality of civic life. Dorothea Moore described the dinner hour at Hull House with its combination of guests and residents as ‘‘the meeting ground of the day.’’ ‘‘The exchange is the vital thing,’’ she said, ‘‘this is the reason of the settlement; the rest is pure facade.’’[6] According to Jane Addams the only persons who lost their temper in such exchanges were college professors who were not accustomed to being talked back to! Likely the idea of the first urban playgrounds, attributed to Jane Addams, came up at such a republican banquet. We know that it was in the course of regular Sunday evening dinners at the home of architect Dwight Perkins that he and Jens Jensen and Jane Addams declared themselves a ‘‘Committee on the Universe’’ and came up with the idea of the Cook County Forest Preserves.

The faith that the reliable powers of life are those that thrive when we choose to engage in ‘‘free, cooperative effort for the common good’’—that is, when we choose to live an active life of committed democratic citizenship—does not appear out of nowhere. It arises out of our encounter with the transcending visions of goodness that are carried by our religious and secular cultures of citizenship and as we discover those visions realized, if only very partially, in our own most intimate experience. These are visions of a life worth living for its own sake, of an existence so good, so overwhelmingly, lovingly, lastingly good, that our wills are transformed, and we are stirred to be citizens.

[1]. Peter S. Hawkins, Civitas: Religious Interpretations of the City (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1986), p. vii.

[2]. J. Ronald Engel, Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983).

[3]. J. Ronald Engel, ‘‘The Religious Authority of Democracy: James Luther Adams’s Agenda for Empirical Theology,’’ American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 17:1 (January 1996), p. 18.

[4]. Ibid. p. 9.

[5]. William James, The Will to Believe (New York: Dover Publications 1956), p. 270.

[6]. Dorothea Moore, ‘‘A Day at Hull-House,’’ in 100 Years at Hull-House, ed. Mary Lynn McCrett Bryan and Allen F. Davis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), p. 49.

  • J. Ronald Engel

    Over the course of his life Ron Engel has been a high school biology teacher, park ranger, community organizer, Unitarian Universalist minister, professor, and author.

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