When I taught at Central Michigan University over 30 years ago, I regularly encountered a bearded young man, who always stood on a hill overlooking the Humanities Building. Whenever students or faculty passed by, he vehemently, almost angrily, shouted, “Repent of your sins and come to Jesus. You’re all going to hell, unless you accept Jesus as Savior!” One day, I stopped to chat with him. I asked how he was doing and what inspired him to evangelize on campus. He didn’t even look at me; he just continued haranguing the crowd, and now with particular attention to godless professors. He believed, I suspect, that if he yelled loud enough they’d believe his message and if they didn’t get his message, that was their choice – going to hell in a hand basket.
A few years later, during my tenure as a University Chaplain at Georgetown University, I engaged in a conversation with an ardent first year student. She told me that she had been witnessing to her Chinese-American parents, and noted, “I know they’re good people, but if they don’t accept Christ, they’re going to hell, and will be there eternally with all sorts of other good people – like Gandhi, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and Mohammed.”
Paul’s sermon to the Greek intellectuals takes a very different path. While on a preaching mission to Athens, Paul walks the city streets and finds himself in the philosophical and religious district; there are statues of gods and goddesses everywhere, and even one dedicated an unknown god. There are no doubt philosophical salons abounding, where intellectuals shared their visions of the universe and human life. Paul is impressed with their ardor and admires the intellectual insights of the Greeks. As a Jewish monotheist, he is also astounded and somewhat chagrined to see that the god of heaven and earth, who is beyond description, is being localized to a stone statue. Paul believes that God is revealed in all things, but not fully describable by any language, symbol, icon, or artistry.
Recently, my three year old grandson engaged me in a conversation, in which he fired a series of questions at me: “Is God in the rain? Is God in the ocean? Is God in the whales and sharks?” Paul would have appreciated such theological questioning, and would have answered “yes” to all of the above. In fact, it’s the basis of his speech at the Areopagus, the Marketplace of ideas of Athens – and it speaks to us today whether in Harvard Square, Berkeley, Oxford, Ann Arbor, or a coffee house in Barnstable.
But, what’s this ancient homily got to do with us here in pluralist, postmodern America? I would suggest everything: we are the Athenians of our time; we have the whole world of spirituality and culture on line and at our fingertips or by switching the dial on cable television. Our spiritual landscape presents us with millions of religious possibilities: people are interested in spirituality, healing, and near death experiences, and many of these questions are being asked outside of the church by spiritual seekers, persons who’ve left the church, and adherents of other faiths. Of course, we are part of this landscape: we have Hindu, Buddhist, new age, atheist, and agnostic friends and family members, and we may practice yoga, Tai Chi, Eastern meditation, or reiki healing touch, all of which are shaped by other cultural and religious contexts.
Paul’s words help us respond to the seekers who come to church and to the seeker in ourselves. He begins by making a point of contact: he doesn’t denounce their religious quest or even the multitude of statues; he recognizes that they are very religious. He even suggests that their quests are part of a deeper spiritual quest, guided by a reality they don’t yet know: that the statue dedicated to an unknown God reveals their hunger for something more. Paul doesn’t run down their religions, and we shouldn’t run down other peoples’ faiths. Instead, he points out that God is more than a human made statue; God is the universal reality, revealed in a person Jesus of Nazareth, who gives life to all and inspires the seeker’s quest. He even does something unique in scripture – the only time in scripture, as a matter of fact – he quotes a Greek philosopher, a person from another religious tradition as describing Christian truth, “God is the reality in whom we live and move and have our being.” You can’t miss God: he’s as near as your next breath, but if you really want to know God, look to the life, death, and resurrection of God’s chosen messenger, Jesus. He starts with inspiration and grace, not sin and condemnation; he even refers to all of us as God’s children and the object of God’s quest for salvation.
Today, as citizens of our own Athens and followers of Jesus, we can learn much from Paul. First, Paul’s message reminds us to take time to listen to the religious quests of others. Don’t assume you know what they need in advance, or what’s best for them. Get to know them. Open to their deepest questions and needs, before sharing your encounter with God. Second, remember that God has many faces, not all of them white, not all of them American, not all of them Christian. Even non-Christians can experience divine wisdom and teach us important things about life and spirituality. Third, remember that God’s truth is broadcast broadly and that our experience of Jesus illuminates all of life’s important questions. In Christ, we experience God’s great “yes” to all humanity, and God’s welcome to everyone seeking to live by love and walk the paths of truth. Finally, take time to deepen your own faith. In a pluralistic time in which many truths are offered, often as equal, without any sort of analysis or critique, we need to explore our own tradition and our own beliefs about God, Jesus, and God’s ways with humanity and the world.
We need to remember that study is a form of prayer, worship can transform your mind, and meditation can open you to divine inspiration. Like Paul, we need to be open to sharing our own faith without denouncing another person’s religious path. I believe that Athens changed Paul’s own perception of God: he came to realize that God was bigger than his ethnic Judaism or any particular stream of Christianity. In faithfully encountering others in Jesus’ name, we can be changed, too. We can grow in insight, grace, and mission. In the depth of our own encounters with God’s way, we can experience the One within whose love we live and move and have our being, and discover God’s presence in every pathway and encounter.