The Common Good and the Global Emergency: God and the Built Environment by Timothy J. Gorringe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) xi + 309pp.
Article first published online: 17 DEC 2012
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Volume 29, Issue 1, pages 189–191, January 2013
How to Cite
Hathaway, J. A. (2013), The Common Good and the Global Emergency: God and the Built Environment by Timothy J. Gorringe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) xi + 309pp. Modern Theology, 29: 189–191. doi: 10.1111/moth.12012
- Issue published online: 17 DEC 2012
- Article first published online: 17 DEC 2012
Can theological reflection have anything to say about the built environment and the common good? Timothy Gorringe answers with a resounding yes. Extending, strengthening, and correcting reflections made in his earlier book on this same topic, A Theology of the Built Environment, Gorringe continues in his latest book, The Common Good and the Global Emergency, to explore the relationship between theology and the built environment, this time through the themes of grace and the common good. He opens by contrasting the building of Siena in the late thirteenth century with the rebuilding of Exeter, UK for the new millennium. The building of Siena was strongly influenced by a commitment to the common good, realized through the virtues, particularly justice and wisdom. On the other hand, the rebuilding of Exeter replaced the public space with a more aesthetically pleasing but socially bereft one that was no longer “common” but policed and centered on consumption. The contrast with Siena allows Gorringe to show how much of modern building has replaced the idea of common good with consumerism and individualism. Modernity has lost a common project, and society—at least Western society and those that seek to emulate its ways—is no longer concerned to form cities to support and enhance the common good. In response to this, he outlines “a trinitarian theology of the built environment” which coordinates three of God's “roles”—creator, reconciler, redeemer—with how God is known in the built environment and in Christian theological-ethical reflection.
Though acknowledging that in our highly multicultural world agreeing on a single set of values would be near impossible, Gorringe does maintain that in order to recover a sense of the common good, we need to start with a identification of “the common bad.” Common bads are those ills of society that affect everyone—sanitation, roads, air quality, etc. The solutions to these ills would then be common goods. The global emergency—here defined as world population increase, climate change and resource depletion—is thus the paramount common bad. Everyone loses when the environment is destroyed.
Gorringe next turns to the theme that will occupy the remainder of the book: grace. Chapters three through seven pose the question: what does it mean to plan, build and dwell graciously? Grace has the quality of excess, fullness, superabundance of life through Christ. It is the free self-giving of God that transforms the creature, and thus the creature's creations. It is centrally composed of beauty, justice, and order. Beauty is not merely aesthetic taste, but (following Aquinas) includes the elements of integritas (integrity or perfection), consonantia (harmony or proportion) and claritas (clarity or radiance). Justice is linked with righteousness, proportion or appropriateness and entails the flourishing of all community members. His discussion of order draws heavily on architect Christopher Alexander and his understanding of the “quality without a name,” the quality that results from patterns in physical life that are alive, free, egoless, appropriate and grow from wholeness.
All of reality—even the built environment—is marked by grace, the echoes of which are physically visible. Grace builds up the common good, while sin destroys it. The meaning and significance of place has been lost, resulting from factors such as migration, nostalgia, the international style and the McDonaldization of culture. Gorringe identifies five marks of gracious planning: beauty, justice, human scale, sustainability and community through an overview and analysis of the history of city planning, including case studies of Plymouth and Milton Keynes. Community grows only through interactions in public space and much of public space—religious buildings, squares, streets, parks, museums, cemeteries, pubs and cafes, and markets—have been abandoned or privatized, witnessing to a public life founded on consumerism and individualism. After evaluating various sizes of human settlements, Gorringe concludes that for a settlement to be in grace it must have a purpose or identity, work towards the common good and embody justice and sustainability.
Three chapters are devoted to issues that will influence how settlements live in grace: food, transportation and housing. How are we to feed, house and move an extra 80 million people each year while being ecologically, aesthetically, and ethically responsible? Among other things, Gorringe explicitly rejects the idea that technology will save us and instead argues for new patterns of living: life on a smaller scale. He urges that each city, region and country be as self-reliant and ecologically sustaining as possible, creating regionally based food systems. The ways in which we travel need to change, such as using less fossil fuels and more public transit to avoid urban sprawl. People need to begin to desire small, beautifully designed and flexible houses. He calls for a new vernacular architecture that would respect the local context, empower people to design their own spaces and beautify public space.
Gorringe returns to the idea of beauty and the common good by discussing the virtues of architecture through the history of pedigreed architecture. Architectural virtues are realized when buildings, quoting John Ruskin, “act well, speak well, and look well.” He expresses hope for a renewed commitment to architectural form that enhances the common good through its commitment to grace and grows from a new spirituality that respects the natural world. New, sustainable patterns of living are the lowest common denominator for creating a common good. A theology of grace seeks to encourage new patterns of life together in light of the global emergency; not a drab, restricted life, or utilitarian life, but “joyful, grace-filled living” that grounds its hope in faith, repentance and action.
Among the book's strengths, two are worth highlighting. First, Gorringe's wide-ranging scholarship brings together many diverse disciplines, questions and examples; it is an interesting and informative read, making rich connections and suggesting many avenues for further research. Gorringe gives space to contrasting viewpoints, allowing them to mutually critique one another in the interest of a more accurate and balanced position. Second, Gorringe's focus on grace offers a constructive and fairly ideologically-neutral category—in contrast to the current political polarization of terms surrounding the “environmental crisis”—from which to engage students, churches and other academics in the conversation about what it means for humans, and specifically Christians, to live in this world responsibly.
These strengths also bring their weaknesses. First, while the argument is strengthened by including so many disciplines, this could be off-putting to those unfamiliar with, for example, architectural theory, or a country's history, such as that of his native Britain. There are times when the book begins to read a little like a literature review. Second, though Gorringe focuses on the theme of grace throughout the second and third sections, this term lacks explicit and sustained theological connection to the life and work of the triune God and the Church. The “trinitarian theology of the built environment” that he sets forth in the first chapter is only mentioned occasionally in the rest of the book.
The Common Good and the Global Emergency is in many ways a distillation, synthesis and evaluation of many of the major architectural, philosophical, ecological, social scientific, and theological thinkers concerned with architecture and the built environment. As such it is a wonderful summary of the conversation, though not the place to look if you are seeking a “program” or concrete “models.” Gorringe resists providing a single answer to any given issue, which may frustrate some readers and inspire others to dig deeper into the overabundance of sources cited in the footnotes and bibliography. Overall, I recommend this book for anyone seeking to reflect critically on his or her physical, social and economic responsibility in this world.