Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Word about Religion - A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6A (Acts)

St. Paul Preaching - Sebastiano Ricci
Toledo Museum of Aart


22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’ 
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

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            We live in a post-religious age, when growing numbers of people claim to be spiritual but not religious. By religious then mean, engagement with traditional institutional forms of faith. Where once religion and spirituality were essentially one and the same thing, today we tend to separate them. As Diana Butler Bass notes, “spirituality is understood as somehow more authentic, religion as having ‘a somewhat cynical orientation’” [Christianity after Religion, p. 67].  Many of those who read this reflection will, like me, be in the religion business. I am a religious professional, and so I have a vested interest in the survival of religion. At the same time, I would like that which I participate in to be authentic.

            When Paul went to Athens, he toured the place. He found many expressions of religion present in the city. In fact, he was overwhelmed by what he saw. In fact, according to Luke, Paul was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts. 17:16). He was distressed, by what he saw, but also saw an opportunity to offer a different vision of the spiritual. Having noticed that the Athenians loved to debate, he decided to enter the fray and speak of Jesus. He found his entry point through a shrine dedicated to the “unknown god.” What Paul discovered is that the Athenians were so religious they wanted to cover all the bases, and so they erected a shrine to the “Unknown God,” just in case they missed something. 

So, Paul stood up in the Areopagus, and began to speak. He would do two things.  Since this was Athens, he figured had to defend the intellectual validity of his message. In other words, since some of his debate partners had accused him of being a babbler or “seed picker,” and thus peddling old tales, he must define himself as being worthy of a hearing (Acts 17:18).  He starts his address with an acknowledgment of the religiosity of the Athenians. He takes note of their many shrines and temples, using the word deisideaimonisterous to describe their religious life. That word can be taken in two ways.  He could be interpreted as calling them a superstitious lot, who worshipped lots of gods—indeed, they seemed to worship every conceivable deity.  Or, we could read this in a more positive way, understanding Paul to be commending them for their piety and devotion. Considering that Paul is seeking common ground and trying to gain a hearing, it’s likely that Luke is using it in the more positive sense.  But, there is a degree of ambiguity, so what the hearer may have heard and what Luke intends us to hear could be different.  Paul may simply be flattering them, without offering them a real compliment [Luke Timothy Johnson, Acts, 314].   The key here, is that in offering a defense of scholastic credentials, Luke makes it clear that Paul had been observing and taking note of their beliefs and practices—as a good scholar might.

            Paul had also been accused of peddling foreign deities (Acts 17:18). They were concerned that Paul, like Socrates before him, was disrupting the calm of the city. Thus, they wanted to hear his defense (remember that Socrates was executed, so this is high stakes). If the Athenians were uncomfortable with his representation of a foreign deity, Paul was distressed by their religiosity (read idolatry). That shouldn’t surprise us, since Paul was a good Jew. Paul, recognizing the challenges of the moment, remembers the shrine to the unknown god, and he decides to use it as a way into the Gentile world. Perhaps, without knowing it, they had worshipped this unknown God, whom he represents.
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, . . . (Acts 17:23b-24).
He would use this moment to define for them the one they worshipped in ignorance. Since preaching about foreign deities was a problem, then Paul would speak to them as the divinely sent representative of this God, proclaiming (katangellō) the God who created all things and who was Lord of all.      

            As he begins to speak, he introduces them to the one he believes to be the true God. While they worship many deities, in Paul’s view there is but one God. Though he will use philosophical terms in his defense of God, his theology is clearly rooted in the Hebrew Bible.  This God he proclaims is the creator of the heavens and the earth, and this God had created all things without help from other deities.  Indeed, this God, for whom they had crafted a shrine, didn’t live in human built temples or shrines.  He makes clear the Jewish-Christian idea that God cannot be circumscribed or put in a box. 

            Paul seeks to contrast this unknown God with the gods that the people worshiped.  Still, he continued to teach them about this self-sufficient and all-powerful God who didn’t dwell in temples or need human servants to care for his needs.  This God is the life-giver, who took from one ancestor all the peoples of the earth, assigning to each a place to live, hoping that they might "grope for him and find him" (vs. 27a). Such a God might actually appeal to the Stoics, because they did have a more universal sense of reality—but their view was monistic and pantheistic, while Paul’s understanding envisioned a transcendent God. And the Epicureans might have been attracted to the idea of a God who didn’t require or need humanly created shrines. So, there were points of contact but not complete agreement.

            The first part of the defense relies on ideas deeply rooted in his own faith tradition—that God is the Creator and that God is beyond needing any humanly created home.  But then he moves onto their own home turn.  He points out that God has not been without a witness among them.  Their own philosophers gave hints as to the way of this God he was unveiling in their midst. Consider the words of one philosopher who spoke of the one "in whom we live and move and have our being." This phrase, attributed to a poem by Epimenides the Cretan, speaks to the closeness of God to our lives.  The second phrase—"For we too are his offspring"—came from the Cilician poet Aratus in his poem dedicated to Zeus. Though these passages in their proper contexts might not speak about Paul's God, they have a hint of truth, a hint that Paul can apply to the God of Jesus Christ [F.F. Bruce, Acts, 359-60].

            Paul allows for the idea that we are the offspring of God, and as such, we should not think of God in terms of humanly-crafted idols of gold, silver or stone, images "formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”  If we are the offspring of God, then we are the true image of God, not these idols.  God must, therefore, be worshiped in a way consistent with God’s identity.   

            Having laid out the identity of this God, Paul turns to his altar call. He says to them, whereas in past times God was content to overlook "the times of human ignorance," now God was calling on God’s creation to repent in the face of the impending day of judgment. As Luke portrays Paul’s message, Paul assumes that at the end of days, there would be a time of judgment and all would be held accountable.  On that appointed day, God will turn the world over to the judgment of the one whom God had raised from the dead.  Having heard the word proclaimed, with judgment being held out before them, they must decide which way to go.

            It should be noted, that while Paul gave a most eloquent defense, which led to his acquittal, it doesn’t appear that he was successful in converting the Athenians to his vision of God. Sometimes we look to this encounter to support the work of apologetics, that is the intellectual defense of the faith, but it didn’t to work. Paul may have planted seeds, but there was no revival that day. On the other hand, despite the lack of response, that doesn’t mean we should give up engaging in intellectual conversations about the faith. We just should expect it to be the key to revival. There has to be something more relational going on, than mere intellectual argument. Perhaps, that’s why Paul found more success in Corinth (Acts 18). Perhaps, the story of the Athenian encounter is a good word to us, living as we do in a post-religious age. While intellectual rigor should not be shunned, relationships are the key.


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