An examination of photographs of downtown Toronto up until the mid-1960s reveals the tallest buildings were church spires and classic buildings such as the Royal York Hotel. The church spires represented the heritage of faith, and buildings such as the Royal York represented the cultural heritage of Britain. Then, beginning in the mid-1960s, the photos begin to show a remarkable transformation of the architectural landscape which could almost be described as a scene from a science-fiction movie. In particular, the photos of downtown Toronto in this period are reminiscent of the “Dawn of Man” scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the uncomprehending primates wake up one morning to discover a troubling and mysterious black obelisk has appeared in front of their cave.
In Toronto around 1965 a black obelisk rose straight up into the sky in the form of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s modernist masterpiece, the TD Centre. This was a stark, angular presence that was the first of many towers to begin blotting out the church spires and the meaningful buildings of the British Empire from Toronto’s skyline. This tower as a symbol of the modern world was meant to inspire a sense of reverence and awe at the power of the builders, as well as the building’s occupants, and to communicate a sense of mystery about what types of activities actually happened inside that dark tower. Toronto’s modernist commitment to capitalism, banking and finance had moved into the neighbourhood in the mid-1960s and proclaimed itself. The old symbols of faith, and empire which had provided so much meaning were being replaced with a disruptive new metaphor – the capitalist tower that was clearly and unmistakably not related to what came before in terms of architecture or culture.
It has been said that we worship what the tallest buildings in our cities represent. In Genesis 11, in the story of the tower of Babel, all the people had one language and they set out to make a name for themselves, to build a city, and to build a tower that reached to heaven. Seeing this, God was not pleased and decided to confuse their language and scatter the people. This was a miracle that God performed as a curse and a rebuke to the pride of humanity.
The images of modernist towers blotting out the Toronto skyline, combined with the story of God’s displeasure with the tower of Babel make for some potentially troubling questions for Christians in Toronto. Should we view the modern downtown as a misguided effort to construct a Babel-like city and interpret that as a sign of arrogance against God? Should Christians feel uneasy about these obviously secular attempts to project human power? Before we answer these, let’s find some other models from the bible.
In Acts 2, we have the day of Pentecost, which is also called the birth of the church. At this pivotal moment the followers of Christ are gathered in the upper room to pray and they have a dramatic and amazing miracle of the Holy Spirit. These people were gathered from many regions, yet each of them heard the other speaking as if it were their own native language. In Acts 2 we are witnessing the reverse miracle to Genesis 11. In Genesis 11, God confuses the languages and in Acts 2 God unifies the languages. The result of this miracle in Acts 2 was that the Christians went out in the power of the Holy Spirit and spread the message of Christ throughout the Roman Empire in an amazing way.
The issue we return to is the relationship of Christians with the city. If we take the view that the city is a concentration of human pride as evidenced by mighty towers, then we will have a hard time discovering symbols of redemption in the urban environment. We will continue to hear stories of how people need to be saved from the oppressive forces and concentration of darkness in the city. This is unfortunate because Christians will continue to view the city with suspicion and seek to nurture their spiritual growth with retreats to nature, or solitude. With a negative view of the city Christians will deny the spiritual meaning of the urban built environment and will ignore the vibrant possibilities for connection, community, creativity, and human thriving that are present in the urban context.
Indeed, one thing that is often overlooked in the Genesis 11 narrative, but which is clearly there in the text, is God’s affirmation of the amazing power of humanity, when it works together with a united purpose and language. The story of Genesis 11 is not an unmitigated condemnation of humanity’s power, but includes an acknowledgement of the goodness that is part of the created order. God says: “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” While God is certainly displeased with peoples’ attempt to build their own monument to themselves, he does acknowledge that when people co-operate, they liberate an enormous amount of power that can make the impossible possible. In Acts 2, the liberation of created human potential through the gift of the Holy Spirit led to the explosive growth of the Church throughout the Roman Empire. The growth of the church in Acts is an example of what the Christians were able to accomplish when God gave them the gift of a unified language enabling them to work together for his purpose. For these first Christians, the miracle of Pentecost reversed the curse of Babel and the impossible became possible.
The miracle of Acts 2 occurred in a multicultural and multilingual setting. I would argue that this has direct bearing on Christians in Toronto. If the pentecost experience is to be a model for our church today, then it is possible for us to co-operate and to unlock the power from God that comes when we work together. In addition to the miraculous work of God, there is also the creational affirmation from Genesis 11 from God that simply in our natural created state, when we co-operate, we can make the impossible possible. Are not then all things possible when we are liberated into a task by the Holy Spirit?
However, the story does not end here. In the New Testament book of Revelations we are presented with images of the heavenly city and images of the nations and tribes gathering in the holy city at the foot of the lamb. Is the heavenly City purely a work of God while we site idly by and watch as God brings it about? Do we just wait for the heavenly city to show up at the end of time for a gathering of the nations? Clearly the answer to this is no. In Genesis 11 God affirms that he has already created us to be able to work together with our dear neighbour to make the impossible possible. And in Acts 2 he has given us the spirit to enable us to work in unity of purpose in order to make the love of God credible. We have already been given what we need. Perhaps that black monolith is not quite so intimidating and powerful after all.