In college I had a good friend, who seemed to follow a new religion each month or so. When I first met him, he was a Hari Krishna wearing a robe and chanting and dancing “Hari Krishna, Hari Rama” throughout the day, often annoying his friends. A few months later, he found Jesus and was witnessing to all his friends, telling them to “turn or burn,” asserting that without Jesus you’re bound for hell. As the new school year began, he invited me to a yoga meeting grounded in the teachings of Swami Satchitananda. The last I saw of him, he had found peace of mind, going door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness. I wonder where he is today!
We live in a pluralistic age in which traditional religions are being challenged by online faiths, new religious movements, and the popularity of Asian religious teachers like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Han. Twenty first century America is a spiritual smorgasbord in which people join elements of many faiths in their religious adventures. This bricolage, as Diana Butler Bass calls it, is both exciting and challenging and makes the quest for spiritual truth an adventure.
Today’s scripture is one of my favorites. It’s a perfect scripture for a theologically inclined pastor like myself. But, of course, all of you are theologians – the minute you think about suffering, death, right and wrong, and eternal life, or the meaning of creation, you become a theologian. Even children are theologians: a young child I know recently asked me, “Why doesn’t God just stop the virus so I can play with my friends again?” I suspect that we have similar questions when we see the rising death toll, the uncertainty of the spread of COVID 19, and the inability of the most powerful country in the world to contain this virus.
Today, we journey to Athens – the home of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the venue for the plays of Sophocles and Aristophanes – the birthplace of stories of Zeus, Jupiter, Hera, Mercury, and their Olympian companions. Like today’s Cambridge, Berkeley, or Ann Arbor, Athens was an intellectual center and a mecca for religious seekers. Images and statues of deities abounded and religious groups spread their messages everywhere, a god for each trade, day of the week, season, and personality.
As Paul wanders through the Areopagus, the marketplace of ideas, he is astounded by the many paths to God. He does not denounce the many religious ways but sees the One True Path running through all of them. He sees a statue dedicated to an Unknown God – you have to hedge your bets after all, you want to be on the good side of the gods you don’t know about! – and says “that’s the one you’ve been looking for.”
Then Paul does something remarkable. Something that scandalizes those of us who want a pure religion, while all others are false – he quotes a hymn to Zeus – “God is the reality in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Paul acknowledges the truths of a variety of paths. Firmly rooted in Jesus’ message, he doesn’t deny the wisdom of other faiths to illuminate the human adventure, or that we have the truth and all others are false. The world reveals God’s wisdom and Christ’s truth shines through every authentic spiritual path.
I’ve shared the pattern of preaching found at a megachurch in the Washington DC area – after the preacher lays out his interpretation, the congregation says en masse, “So What?” And so we ask, what’s the point of Paul’s message? Does it have any meaning for us today?
I believe Paul’s message is an important one. First, Paul recognizes that God is present everywhere, that wherever we are God is with us – the reality in whom we live, move, and have our being. Second, while we can confidently claim the saving power of Jesus, we don’t need to denigrate other peoples’ faiths. God is at work among Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, First Americans, Jews, and those who are seekers or claim none of the above. God touches us even if we are unaware of it, and God touches those who cannot believe in God or have deep questions and doubts.
God’s revelations are generous and not just in the religious world. One of the great tragedies of Christian history is the failure to embrace the insights of science and medicine when they appeared to conflict with tradition and scripture. We can think of the persecution of Galileo when he asserted that the sun was the center of the solar system, the schism between evolutionary theory and biblical literalism over creation and the age of the earth, the denial by certain Christians of climate change because they believe God, and not humans, will destroy the planet to save a favored minority, and of course the greatest opponents of healthy practices during a time of pandemic or the reality of the Coronavirus itself are pastors who believe that Christians are immunized from the Coronavirus and so they worship as they please, regardless of its impact on others.
If God inspires every quest for truth, then we can trust science and medicine, even when we know that it only tells part of the story of the universe. We can be faithful to truth wherever it is found, whether in a lab or a sanctuary.
Today, let us look around, like Paul in this time of pandemic, awakening to God’s presence in the universe, the stars above and the human heart, in the laboratory and our times of prayer, and in persons of other faiths. Let us be willing to learn and grow in dialogue with science and other faiths for God is with us, God loves us and the whole world, and is the One in whom we live and move and have our being.