Vol. 25, Spring 2015

Bridges and Doors

by Dale T. Irvin

Georg Simmel is often listed among the founding figures of the modern discipline of sociology. While not as well known as other early figures such as Max Weber or Émile Durkheim, Simmel was an important and influential thinker in his own right. He was especially adept at developing in-depth analyses of everyday urban experiences and looking with fresh sociological eyes at common human realities. One of his most engaging essays along these lines was a brief article “Bridge and Door”1 first published in 1909.

Human beings, argues Simmel, conceptualize the world at a fundamental level by the twin acts of separating and connecting. The world that we encounter all around us is always both one and many. On the one hand, the world does not present itself to us as a fractured reality. Instead, we separate what is given to us as a connected whole in order to understand it and make meaning out of it. On the other hand, we encounter discrete objects in the world that are separated by time and space. These we connect for precisely the same reason, to understand them and make meaningful sense out of them. Separating and connecting, argued Simmel, are in fact “two sides of precisely the same act” (172). They are two sides of the process by which we create or uncover meaning, and construct our identity. He writes:

Only to humanity, in contrast to nature, has the right to connect and separate been granted, and in the distinctive manner that one of these activities is always the presupposition of the other. ... In the immediate as well as the symbolic sense, in the physical as well as the intellectual sense, we are at any moment those who separate the connected or connect the separate. (171)

The first human being who built a hut, Simmel says, “cut a portion out of the continuity and infinity of space and arranged this into a particular unity in accordance with a single meaning” (172). The hut divided the universe into an inner and outer world. The door marked the passageway between these two, simultaneously separating and connecting. The door’s main purpose is to maintain separation and dividedness, thereby constructing an inner and an outer world. The difference between these two is clearly demarcated in the functioning of a doorway. One knows when one is going in and when one is going out through a door. In this manner the door marks a space of identity of one’s self or one’s own people, even as it opens up to what is infinitely beyond. Doors mark the boundary between “self” and “other,” or between “us” and “them.”

Windows perform a similar function, Simmel noted, but do so without allowing one to cross over. One can see out a window, but normally one does not pass through it physically or psychically to enter the wider world of outside. Walls are even more of a boundary. They are silent when it comes to forming identity, for they do not allow one to see what is outside, and thus do not allow one to experience the otherness of an outside world that transcends the self, that is a necessary part of the construction of an identity or a sense of selfhood. Doors on the other hand are the active point where inner and outer, self and other meet and mutually engage. “By virtue of the fact that the door forms, as it were, a linkage between the space of human beings and everything that remains outside it, it transcends the separation between the inner and the outer” (172). Doors are boundaries, but constructed in such a way that they can be changed. “It is absolutely essential for humanity that it set itself a boundary, but with freedom, that is, in such a way that it can also remove this boundary again, that it can place itself outside it” (172). By putting a door on that hut, in other words, that first human being allowed for a means by which the boundary between inner and outer, self and other, and finitude and infinitude can be crossed, transcended, and even transgressed, without being erased. Simmel concludes: “The finitude into which we have entered somehow always borders somewhere on the infinitude of physical or metaphysical being. Thus the door becomes the image of the boundary point at which human beings actually always stand or can stand” (172).

The construction of that first hut was an originating work of separation, creating an inner and outer world that was crossed through the door. The door is thus both a symbol of separation (part of the boundary) and at the same time connection (passage through it). In a sense the door separates in order to connect. Furthermore the connection that the door opens up upon is not simply that of finitude with infinitude. Doors open up to pathways, sidewalks, and streets, and these lead eventually to other doors. Connecting might be transcendent, but it takes concrete shape in the form of the path that those first human hut-makers created between and among their huts, connecting them to one another in the outside world. Having separated, human beings then immediately connected.

Paths connect two or more places in a material way. They connect by being separate from what is around them. If everything is path, then nothing is a path. Furthermore they connect things that were previously separated, and would remain so without them, be they homes, cities, regions, or peoples. The path or roadway freezes the movement of connecting. It does not move, but it is the occasion for movement. It is dynamic precisely because it is static.

Simmel argues in his essay that “This achievement [of the path] reaches its zenith in the construction of a bridge.” Bridges are paths that connect in both the most elegant and ultimate social manner. The bridge is an especially important form of connection for it embodies a level of intentionality and volitional that is not so explicitly revealed in the making of a path or a road. Paths and roads can be built from one direction, but for a bridge to be built there must be intentionality and commitment from two directions, on both sides of the river bank as it were. Bridges are public realities. They do not demarcate a world of “us” and “them” in the manner of the door. Instead they connect, joining “us” and “us.” As Simmel noted, while the door displays a clear distinction between entering and exiting, “it makes no difference in meaning in which direction one crosses a bridge.” For Simmel, the bridge is a moment in which the metaphysical or spiritual overcomes what appears to be a natural divide. He writes, “But natural form here approaches this concept as if with a positive intention; here the separation seems imposed between the elements in and of themselves, over which the spirit now prevails, reconciling and uniting.” The separation that appears to be given in reality is overcome by the reconciling and uniting work of the spirit. He writes, “... in the correlation of separateness and unity, the bridge always allows the accent to fall on the latter, and at the same time overcomes the separation of its anchor points that make them visible and measurable ....”

Bridges, even more so than pathways and roads, are meant to be seen in their fullness and entirety. In this way they are especially unlike the hut or house, whose inner world is intentionally hidden for the most part from the outside community. One can see the foundation of the bridge in the form of the two shores, in contrast to the foundation of the house, which is usually hidden under ground. Simmel writes:

The bridge becomes an aesthetic value insofar as it accomplishes the connection between what is separated not only in reality and in order to fulfill practical goals, but in making it directly visible. The bridge gives to the eye the same support for connecting the sides of the landscape as it does to the body for practical reality. The mere dynamics of motion, in whose particular reality the ‘purpose’ of the bridge is exhausted, has become something visible and lasting....”

Simmel is right to see doors and bridges not just as functional material realities, but as symbolic forms, opening up to philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, and even religious dimensions of meaning in human experience. Doors are perhaps easier to spot when it comes to religion. This is in part because religion has from ancient times tended to emphasize separateness, distance, and the “otherness” of transcendence in its various expressions. One sees it in the pages of the Christian Bible quite easily. There are those gates to the city of Jerusalem that need to be built and maintained, for instance, or the doorway into the Temple in I Kings 6:33 that was made of olive wood. In John 10:7 Jesus compares himself to being the door or the gate (thura) as well as the gatekeeper when it came to his sheepfold. In Revelation 3:20 Jesus is said to be standing at the door knocking, waiting to be invited in to dinner. In one instance he is the one who regulates who comes in and who goes out, while in the other he is the outsider (“transcendent one”) seeking to come in and become part of the inner world of his followers.

The figuring of bridges is far less common in the pages of the Christian Bible, in part because bridges were not as common a physical reality in Israel in ancient times. The connecting image that Simmel recognized as preliminary to the bridge—the path—is quite common in biblical thinking. Psalm 23:3 for instance says that God leads us in right paths for the divine name’s sake. Isaiah 19:19 foresees a day coming when there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria that they will each cross so that the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians, and both with Israel. If in John 10:7 Jesus compared himself to being the gate, in John 14:6 he shifted the metaphor to compare himself to being the way (hodos) to God. Acts 9:2 uses the same term to describe the Jesus Movement, while Acts 16:7 modifies it further to name it “the way of salvation” (hodon sōtērias).

Simmel said that the zenith of the path or highway is found in the form of the bridge. In religious terms, we would say it is the hierarchical form. A priest of the highest rank in ancient Rome who handled matters relating to the official state gods was called pontifex, a term that has long been regarded as being etymologically derived from the word for the bridge, or pons. The priest was literally a bridge-builder (pons + facere, “to make”). Christians in the Latin-speaking world eventually began calling their highest ranking bishop pontifex, which eventually became “pontiff” in English. To this day the term “pontiff” it is one of the titles for the Bishop of Rome, alongside “pope,” while the adjective “pontifical” is used for anything relating to a bishop. A similar etymology appears in Sanskrit. The word for a priest in the Vedic texts is pathikrit. It literally means “path maker,” for the priest is one who through the offering of sacrifices opens paths back and forth between humanity and the gods.2

Simmel is right: human life is always about connecting and separating. Religion, which as Tillich often said is about our “ultimate concern,” is all about being connected (being in communion) and being separated (the word for “sanctified” in Hebrew means “set apart”) in the most ultimate ways. Simmel wrote, “Viewed in terms of the opposing emphases that prevail in their impression, the bridge indicates how humankind unifies the separateness of merely natural being, and the door how it separates the uniform, continuous unity of natural being.” It was a matter of spirit at work in the midst of “natural being.”

Ministry of any kind always entails a combination of doorways and bridges. There are times when it is appropriate to construct doors and appoint someone to watch them. For a community of faith to have an identity, there must be an inside and an outside, some kind of “we” and “they.” But too often our religious acts end with building just the door. In traditional Baptist churches there is often a moment after the sermon when the presiding minister announces, “The doors of the church are now open.” The statement is intended to be an invitation to discipleship and membership in that particular body. What is often ignored, however, is the path outside the doors of the church by which someone might find their way to being connected to this particular house or body of worship. In Simmel’s terms, we need pathways and bridges built between religious communities and the wider world if people are ever going to find their way to the doorway to pass through it.

We need pathways and bridges among our religious communities themselves. Simmel noted that unlike a door, it makes no difference in which direction one crosses a bridge. There is no inside and outside, no “us” and “them” when a bridge is working effectively. Bridge-building is much more difficult in many instances that gate-keeping. Unlike the pathway, a bridge cannot effectively be built from one direction only. Bridges require cooperation on the part of both sides, both parties, involved in the construction. They can only be built if the labor is taking place on both sides. If one side refuses to allow the foundation to be set on its side of the bank, or refuses to allow the bridge to be strung across the divide, there is no bridge.

Ultimately, as Simmel noted, our bridge building is a transcendent activity. The bridges we are building in ministry are not just between and among human communities. They are between the human and the divine, or creation and creator. Such work is collaborative. The Spirit is always at work seeking our cooperation and our collaboration in building new bridges of transcendence. Ministry in all of its forms, including the very important form called “preaching,” needs to be about building bridges and crossing them effectively.



1. “Brücke und Tür,” Der Tag: Moderne illustrierte Zeitung 683( September 15, 1909), 1-3. The English version used here is Mark Ritter, trans., “Bridge and Door,” in Simmel on Culture, David Frisby and Mike Featherstone, eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997), 170-174. See also Victoria Lee Erickson, “On the Town with Georg Simmel: A Socio-Religious Understanding of Urban Interaction,” Cross Currents 51:1 (Spring 2001), 21-44.

2. Françoise Van Haeperen, Le collège pontifical (3e s. a.C.-4e s. p.C). Contribution à l'étude de la religion publique romaine (Brussels and Rome: Institut historique belge de Rome, 2002), 9-12.


Dale T. Irvin

Dale T. Irvin is President and Professor of World Christianity at New York Theological Seminary, in New York City. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (MDiv, 1981) and Union Theological Seminary in New York (PhD, 1989), he is the author of several books, including History of the World Christian Movement, a three-volume project he has written with Scott W. Sunquist. Dr. Irvin has held visiting or adjunct appointments at a number of theological schools and universities, including the University of Uppsala in Uppsala, Sweden, and has lectured and preached throughout the world. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA, he is a member of The Riverside Church in New York City.



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