Adventurous Theology #9: Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Bruce Epperly)

When Paul was on his missionary journeys through Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece, one of the stops along the way was Athens.  Athens was at that time one of the great centers of learning.  It was a cosmopolitan place.  It no longer had the political and military power that it had many centuries earlier, but it still was an educational and religious center.  Athens might be an equivalent to San Francisco.  The people there were open minded and eager to learn, but also quite willing to challenge people.  For Paul this was a place of overwhelming pluralism, but he found a point of contact wherein he was able to share his faith.  As Bruce Epperly nears the end of his journey with us through Acts, he takes us to Athens.  I invite you to consider his reflections.


Adventurous Theology #9:
Christ in a Pluralistic Age
Acts 17:16-20:16
Bruce Epperly

Acts of the Apostles is an adventure that encompasses geography and spirituality. You can take a spiritual journey without leaving home, or you can be utterly bored on a holiday. In the case of Peter and Paul, adventure waited around every turn as God’s spirit propelled them forward to adventures of ideas, healing, and spiritual growth. Paul’s missionary adventure takes him to Athens, the hub of intellectual and cultural life in the Mediterranean world. As he strolls through the Areopagus, the marketplace of ideas, Paul experiences the pluralism of his time in all its glory. Statues abound and conversation is heard on every possible theme. Novelty is the name of the name of the game as new ideas emerge on a day to day basis. Everyone, the author notes, seeks to hear or tell something new.

In many ways, the scene at the Areopagus mirrors our time in which spiritual journeys and eclectic world views and practices abound. While many decry this as “cafeteria Catholicism,” “the spiritual smorgasbord,” or “designer religion,” the truth is that our cultural pluralism is challenging all of us to “make it [our spirituality] up as we go along.” Healthy spirituality involves dialogue and the embrace of pluralism, and not its denial, or a regression to the old time religion. Still, Paul’s distress is appropriate: as people run to and fro in search of the latest spiritual teaching or teacher, or guru who will promise enlightenment and prosperity in a handful of easy lessons, Paul – and many of us today – recognize that healthy spirituality involves depth as well as breadth. It awakens us to infinite possibility while rooting us in the concreteness of daily life. Christ opens us to pluralism, but also enables us to integrate new ideas and practices around a creative and growing spiritual center.

In his speech to the Athenians, Paul’s gives us a glimpse of his universalist theology – for Paul, Christ is not merely a parochial Galilean figure, located in space and time; he is the incarnation of God’s creative love, from which the world emerges and through which all things are reconciled. Paul would feel comfortable with the Prologue of John’s gospel and its ecstatic proclamation of God’s Creative Wisdom/Word that brings forth and enlightens all things. Paul’s vision of the universality of Christ is reflected in his much quoted affirmation of the Hellenistic philosophy of his time: God in the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” No Deist, who consigns God to the fringes of life, Paul sees God moving through every breath and every encounter. In the Spirit of Romans 8, God moves through the non-human and human creation, interceding within us in sighs too deep for words.

Paul rightly critiques the many representations of God he observes: though he affirms God’s incarnation in the world – “the word made flesh” – he is equally cognizant of God’s grandeur. God is always more than we can imagine. God cannot be contained in any shrine or statue made by human hand. Here the kataphatic, God is present in all things, is joined with the apophatic, God is more than anything we can imagine. This is the yin and yang of theology and spirituality – we have a treasure (indeed, it has transformed our lives and awakened us to holy places) but this treasure is revealed in earthen vessels. The glory goes to God not to our concepts or representations of God.

Still, God is here – as near as our breath – inspiring people of every culture to seek God’s creative wisdom. While Paul proclaims the fullness of revelation in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, he is – in contrast to Karl Barth – affirming that there is a “point of contact” everywhere between God and the world. Even our idols, that is, our localizing of God in space and time through nationalistic loyalties and religious rituals, is inspired by God’s presence in our lives.

These idols both reflect and conceal God’s presence, and need to be cleansed of their particularity so loyalty to one path opens us to a diversity of divine paths.

Pluralism inspires mission, though the not the mission of “us versus them” or “I have it and you don’t.” It is the mission of sharing good news that we already know deep down, but haven’t yet experienced consciously. It is the mission of inviting us to be part of God’s holy adventure in the unfolding history of people in all times and places. Christ within us lures us forward toward what we can become through divine inspiration and grace.

Christ’s good news partners must take culture seriously; they must affirm other faiths in light of what they have experienced in Christ. They must share good news that meets the longings of persons in our pluralistic, post-modern age, rather than denying or demeaning the spiritual quests of our time.

The Spirit that moves through all things inspires Paul’s journey throughout the Mediterranean world. Mysticism continues to lead to mission in Corinth, Ephesus, Macadonia, and Galatia. Paul speaks but also acts, mediating healing power to persons in need.

The Areopagus is our world today. We are people at the margins, but the margins can become the frontiers; the mission field is here; many gods abound and vie for our attention. Our task is to affirm wisdom where we find it – to honor the diversity – yet share the grace we have experienced, the Creative Wisdom of Christ, embodied in all things and inspiring all things.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of 17 books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.


John said…
There seems to be a glaring dichotomy between the Gospels and the letters of Paul on what it means to be a follower of Christ. For Paul it is all about how to live in community, how to live as a Christian among Christians. In the Gospels Jesus appears to devote most of his focus of his ministry on how his followers should treat those who are not followers and especially those who exist on the margins of the the larger community.

The Book of Acts continues in the manner of Paul and focuses not so much on how followers of Jesus treat the marginalized but on how Christians as an international community are progressing vis-a-vis the Jewish community and as regards divergent strands within the movement itself. Acts pretty much ignores how Christians respond to the spiritual and physical needs of the marginalized. The story of Paul in Athens is not so different, in that Paul is teaching, not Christians, not Jews, but prosperous pagans who frequent the marketplace. Paul is evangelizing, not ministering to the needs of the needy. Not unimportant work, but work which reflects a departure from the apparent more missional focus of Jesus.

Am I missing something? If we look at Paul and Acts we could easily reach the conclusion that our contemporary "missional" approach to being church and being Christian is secondary, if not an aberration altogether - that the Church should instead focus on growth, pious living and inter-communal ethics, leaving the care of the marginalized to God.

We want to say that the various books of the New Testament have different purposes, but that is not a very satisfying answer. When the books were collected into the canon they were chosen not for their purpose but for their authenticity.

But then again, perhaps the writers of the Synoptic Gospels perceived this preoccupation with growth and internal order as problematic and drafted the Gospels as an antidote.


Do these have to be either/or options? Can we not engage in compassionate care for the marginalized while at the same time engaging in the work of sharing the good news. Or to put it a different way, since you've contrasted Jesus and Paul, do we have to choose between them? I'm not sure that we have to do that. In fact, I think that's one of the problems that the Mainline churches have had over the years. They embraced the Social Gospel, which wasn't a bad thing, but forgot to share their faith. In the end the commitment to social justice has gotten buried in despairing survival mode. Perhaps it's the evangelical in me, but I seek to keep these two together -- and I believe that this is true to the missional call.
John said…

I was just commenting on my dawning awareness that the letters of Paul and the Synoptic Gospels communicate distinctly different impressions of what Christianity is all about. I was seeking confirmation that my perceptions were correct.

I was also acknowledging that if my perceptions were correct, such could fuel opposition (or disinterest) in the picture of Christianity portrayed by one or the other. Following this dichotomy, it is easy to see why some Christians are focused on evangelism and saving souls, while others are focused on ministry to the marginalized.

I agree that they are not in conflict and so a both/and approach is for me desirable. I was just never aware before of how distinct the portrayals of the Christian way of life are between the two.


The interests between Gospels and Pauline letters do differ. Paul shows little interest in the life and teachings of Jesus, but is instead focused on the transformative effect of the death and resurrection for the church.

It is always important, though, to keep in mind that Paul writes prior to the gospel writers, and so it might be interesting to ask why the later writers wanted to focus on Jesus' ministry. I think too that maybe they're not as different as we might think.

I don't think Jesus was interested in just healing for healings sake -- that is he wasn't acting as a healing professional. Instead, his actions are to be seen as enactments of God's reign on earth.

So, in a sense both Paul and the gospel writers are wanting us to see Jesus as the focus of the establishment of the kingdom/realm of God.
John said…
As I said earlier:

"But then again, perhaps the writers of the Synoptic Gospels perceived this [Paul's] preoccupation with growth and internal order as problematic [having overlooked the teachings of Jesus] and drafted the Gospels as an antidote."

Sorry -- missed that part, I suppose!!

Are the gospels an antidote or a fuller telling? I'd go with the latter.
David said…
ewe, I like this discussion. We could use that antidote today. Information is at nearly everyone's fingertips. We don't need to push our "brand". We just need to act out our lives in loving and inspiring ways. That's welcoming to those who might be wanting more in life. If they want to join a group- 2ndary.

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