The Eternal City
Good morning. This is working theology.
The more I think about economics, business, and work, and how these relate to theology, the more important it is for me to develop a holistic vision for how all these pieces work together.
Christianity offers the best version of this vision, a vision I’m summarizing in the analogy called “the eternal city.” This vision helps bridge the divide between the spiritual and the practical, helping to answer questions like “What is faith for?” and “What is God up to?” and “Where is my part in it?”
My favorite series of paintings—The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole—guide the structure of the analogy.
In the beginning, God created a garden and placed humans to work and cultivate it. Cultivate and culture, by the way, have the same Latin root, meaning to care for and prepare land. That was our mandate, the purpose for which we were created: To use the resources of the garden to build a culture, a great city.
And then sin entered the world, bringing with it destruction and decay. But nevertheless, our mandate remains.
The story of the Bible is a story of innovation and progress, how God’s people worked toward the city of the future, organizing around kings and armies, judges and priests, prophets and politicians. They built temples, taxes, and teachings. They beheld the vision through faith, but brought it about through the work of their hands.
As the population grew and villages coagulated across the landscape, trades became more specialized. Productivity increased as labor became more efficient. Blacksmiths shaped metals, cattlemen and farmers raised food, and accountants kept records.
Fast forward several thousand years, and you begin to see the modern concept of a city.
In Rome, for example, what Augustine called the City of God, engineers created innovative technology in the form of indoor plumbing and warm baths. Musicians and painters made art, financiers lent and taxed with sophisticated policies, and politicians campaigned in the forum and across the empire.
A thousand years later we built modern universities, engineered large ships that traveled across the oceans, and plotted the course of the stars. We made the Pietà, the printing press, and Peter’s basilica.
From here we forged democracy and what we know now as human rights: Religious freedom, individual expression, the right to property and owning the means of production, and all the other Enlightenment ideals. We made capitalism to help us build the capital.
Today, we have large metropolises with millions and millions of inhabitants. We work on our computers to communicate in real time with colleagues on the other side of the world. Managers use data analytics and dashboards to measure productivity, engagement, hiring, and firing. Machines work alongside us to build our cars, conduct high-frequency trades, and send us packages around the country. Mechanics fix those machines, farmers feed the mechanics, scientists develop seeds and fertilizers for the farmers, and professors teach the scientists.
All of us together are fulfilling our mandate. That’s what we’re all doing at work, right now, today, in 2020. Though we began in the garden, we are building the eternal city.
In the end of the Bible, God gives the apostle John a vision for the new heaven and the new earth. Heaven, it turns out, isn’t some floaty place with harps and clouds, where we eat grapes, fanned by our adoring servants. It’s a city.
The eternal city is lit up like a crystal, surrounded by high walls with twelve gates. The walls create a square 345 miles long on each side. Inside the city there are no lights—the light shines from the throne of God. There are no locks because no one steals, no laws against greed because greed doesn’t exist.
Yet there is still work to do. It simply looks different.
We have mechanics, but they don’t fix what’s broken because nothing breaks. Accountants don’t calculate depreciation, only amortization. Human resources departments don’t resolve conflict or facilitate bereavement—they simply deploy human capital as efficiently and effectively as possible. We still cut our grass and feed our dogs. We make food and art and chairs and cameras.
Our energy and water is clean since there is no waste. There is, in fact, no waste in our productivity at all. Our heavenly emails are never reply-all, and they communicate our messages with perfect brevity. Meetings never run over, no one accidentally mutes themselves, and we always leave the office at 5:00 when the work is finished.
There is no negative impact on the environment—we work in perfect harmony with it. There is no racism in hiring processes or street protests. Income is perfectly equal, wealth is proportional, and there are no shell corporations to evade taxes. The city’s leaders are not corrupt, and the judges execute justice fairly.
In short, it is the consummation of all our work. This is what work is for: To build the eternal city.
Over time I want to continue to create this vision of the city because it helps us connect intangible theology with tangible work. You can get a sense for economics, education, the environment, employment, and equality. It helps to see where you’re going and why you do what you do.
So, where is your place in the story?
Thanks for reading.