Adventurous Theology #9:
Christ in a Pluralistic Age
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.