Acts 17:16-34 (CEB)
16 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17 He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18 Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20 You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (21 They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)
22 Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23 As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. 25 Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26 From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. 28 In God we live, move, and exist [have our being.] As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30 God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31 This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, “We’ll hear from you about this again.” 33 At that, Paul left the council. 34 Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others.
In 1976 I made my journey to the east. With a friend and a backpack I traveled by train from one city in India and Nepal to another. I was searching. My sister had died a year before, so I was pondering the questions of life and death. I had completed one semester of seminary, beginning the exploration of Christian theology at it’s deepest level. And, there was a girl in Mumbai (Bombay then) whom I had met a year earlier in a training program in Chicago.
I will never forget the searing heat as I stepped off the plan in Bombay, then the smells of curry, garbage, salt air and human sweat as we taxied to her parent’s home. India is another world. Another culture. Less than 5% of Indians are Christian. Most are Hindu, but that means thousands of different things. Hinduism is the oldest faith on the planet, the amalgamation of thousands of years of cultural tradition, story, and faith experience. Hinduism as a religious worldview has had this amazing ability to adapt and absorb every other teaching and wisdom, including Christianity. I will never forget the experience of being in the crowd on a minor regional holy day, as throngs of Hindus carried colorful food and floral displays to the local temple, removed their shoes and entered, to place the sacrifices before the many statues inside. For most it did not appear to be superficial devotion. It was real, fervent religious expression.
Then there is Islam, the faith of the second largest segment of the Indian population. Between 1500 and 1800 the Mughuls took over and dominated India. They built surviving institutions, political, economic and cultural. Islam, like Christianity and unlike Hinduism, is an evangelistic faith, seeking to win converts. They did make converts in India, many by the sword, though not all. Islam also has its genuine and life-giving qualities.
But how would we know that? By what would we judge? We judge by comparison to our own faith tradition. We look at the best in Christianity, the best in Judaism, before it, then we compare. That which is like us, we consider good. That which is not, we might consider evil. But we Christians have not all been so faithful to the best in our own tradition through history, have we? Crusaders. The Spanish Inquisition. That history is clearly not what we want to use to judge what is best in Christian tradition, though many judge us. By what do we judge?
We judge by Jesus the Christ. We look at Him. We look at what the early church tradition told us he did and said. Especially, we lift high the cross of suffering and the resurrection as a promise of hope even beyond the grave, to show us that the God Who created the universe is good and just and loving.
At the bottom of the hill in Bridgeton upon which I live is a Hindu Temple. This picture is not it! The building used to be a Schnuck’s store, sat empty for many years, so the City was thrilled that this Hindu community wanted to move in with us. Last Sunday a large new Islamic Mosque was dedicated on Lackland Road near Page. Why did they locate here? Because these Moslems are our neighbors. We live in a global culture. The vast majority of our Moslem neighbors are faithful, peace-loving and grateful people, serving the One True God Whom they call Allah instead of Yahweh. Most are more familiar with Christianity than we Christians are with Islam, because Christianity has been the dominant faith. But less than 20% of Americans are now what we call ‘practicing Christians.’ There are many places in the world which used to be dominated by Christians, but are now predominantly Moslem. Like Christians, Moslems believe they have truth and meaning others need, so they share it. Does this mean we are in competition with them? I want to address this important question by turning to today’s scripture.
Saint Paul was an evangelist. He believed strongly that Jesus was the Savior of the world, so everyone needed to hear the good news. In spite of persecution Paul preached the gospel to his dying day. He was that passionate. The style with which he did it should be instructive for us. Her he preached on Mars Hill. We need to understand the setting to get the text.
How many of you have visited Athens? A day of it was enough for Mary and me. It was mostly old rocks, and there’s just so much of that you need to see. We climbed the hill to the Acropolis, toured the museum there, then walked down the other side into the Lyceum, the large courtyard and surrounding buildings which made up the first university campus of the western world. One of the buildings still stands. Most are in ruins. But as you walk the paths, you can read the plaques and look at the pictures depicting Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and Pliny and Plotinus and their students, fervently discussing philosophy. Jesus taught this way in the temple in Jerusalem, remember? It started in Athens.
The Athenians loved to talk philosophy. Saint Paul was a pea in the pod. Though born and raised in Tarsus, part of what is now modern Turkey, his parents were apparently Roman citizens, so likely ‘well-to-do.’ He was educated by learned Pharisaic Jews. His education would have included not only the ancient scriptures and the Talmud, but Greek and Roman philosophy as well. Indeed, Paul’s understanding of Christian faith, which greatly shaped the early church, consisted as much of Greek philosophy as of Hebrew scripture, maybe more.
There were several ‘schools’ of Greek Philosophy. The Epicureans taught the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by peace and freedom from fear, and the absence of pain. Epicurus also taught that death is the end of both body and soul and should therefore not be feared; and that the gods do not reward or punish humans.
The Stoics focused on happiness obtained through virtue, defining it and practicing it- and applying reason. They influenced the Pharisees a great deal.
The Cynics challenged hypocrisy. Jesus was obviously influenced by the Cynics. We think now of ‘cynics’ as people who always see the glass half empty. That was not so true then. They were into ‘diatribe-‘ the practice of long discussion, looking at all the angles. In truth, they birthed the modern court system of hearing both defense and prosecution. I consider myself a Cynic, in the best sense of the word!
Stoicism was most dominant. Stoics sought to rise above pain, suffering, passion and emotion. They sought a-pathy, the state of being above pathos, or sympathy. Jesus reacted to Stoicism. He demonstrated compassion, even allowed a state of compassion tempered by commitment to self-denial, to become his dominant example of faithfulness. But of course, we cannot nail Jesus down so easily, can we?
Greek pantheistic religion had been around a long time. Local gods arise out of the minds of peoples by locale. A village, a city, a region, has it’s god. By nature we human beings project our deepest concerns upon these gods. Still do. Stories, myths develop about each. Over time the gods are consolidated for political and economic power. As cultures interact, business people cut trade deals and politicians make treaties, the gods of one are seen as the same as the gods of another. For example, the Greek Zeus and the Roman Jupiter and the Egyptian Serapis and Ammon and the Syrian Baal came to be seen as one. The Greek names naturally rose to dominate because Greek was already the universal language.
The Stoics affirmed Greek pantheism. They attributed god-qualities to human emotions, endeavors and experiences. They did not ‘worship’ these as deities. They sought to rise above them! Some Epicureans were prone to ‘worship’ some of these deities. If pleasure is what we primarily seek, then the Temple of Dionysius becomes a place of ‘worship’, which consists of orgies and gluttonous feasts. Or, if winning a war becomes a priority, you go pray on Mars Hill for victory. But the Stoics sought to ‘rise above’ all this through reasoned discussion. So, they were openly curious when Paul of Tarsus came to dialogue with them about this ‘new religion’ of a resurrected Hebrew Messiah.
Now, here is perhaps the most important piece of this for today’s discussion. Paul was a Platonist. Plato was the quintessential idealist. His student Aristotle was the realist. Scientific inquiry was born from Aristotelian thought. Modern religion and philosophy continue to be grounded more in Plato than any other philosopher. That’s largely due to Saint Paul’s influence on the growth of Christianity. Plato also gave birth to the idea that we look at reality in increasing degrees, or stages, of depth. Our symbols point to Reality, but are not Reality Itself. This idea was developed more fully by Plotinus several hundred years later. Let me use a modern illustration from a modern Neo-Platonist Christian theologian to illustrate.
Paul Tillich preached a wonderful sermon about how we understand Jesus as the Christ through the following image. You are offshore in a boat. You see a bouy marker on the surface of the water. You pull on the buoy but it does not budge. You discern this means it is attached by a cable to the bottom of the ocean. You want to know more. So you jump into the water. You follow the cable down, down, until you can no longer breathe, until it is no longer safe for you to go deeper. So you return following the cable to the surface. Back on the boat you look in more detail at the bouy marker. It tells you certain things about whoever placed it there. You observe the material, the colors, the amount of weathering. You might even write down what you are seeing in order to remember. You will likely look at a map and do some calculations to save information about the location of the marker for this purpose or that. So, you have observed the marker and drawn conclusions. But you have not seen the anchor, or the location on the bottom of the ocean to which the buoy is attached. Does this mean there is no anchor, or no place of attachment? No! You can safely assume, by observation and reason, that there is! But you have not seen it.
This is like our experience of God. We see the marker. As Christians, we see Jesus Christ as described to us by the early church. By reason and faith we believe he points to God the Creator. He is a real, surface manifestation of God, and proof that God does exist. We believe that in Him we see ALL that matters about God, so we have no need for other markers, other manifestations, gods with a little g, idols, if you will, to know and experience the fullness of God.
Now, you and I know from reading scripture that the Christian faith took this an important step further, right? They declared that Jesus is indeed actually God, manifest as both bouy marker and anchor and origin at the deepest depth. We believe that he is the divine logos, the WORD, made flesh, one of us. That word Logos is a Platonist philosophical term. Saint John borrowed from Platonist philosophy, grounded in Stoicism, the dominant thinking of his day, to define Jesus as the divine logos. So, do you see why those philosophers in Athens were interested in hearing him out?
This declaration by Christians was also a problem within Greek thought. If Jesus is the ONLY way, then they were saying all other ways have no value. Christians did this more as a political statement than for any other reason. Greek gods had become associated with political establishment, even with the Roman Emperors. Christians refused to accommodate. But here, obviously, Saint Paul is indeed accommodating philosophically while no politically. His writings would not have had the impact they had on the Mediterranean world had that not been the case. See? The Hellenist/Jewish rift between Paul and Peter was also about this. Should we dialogue about Christ in Greek terms, or must we shun all Greek thought as not of God?
Here is the next step to which this progression takes us. Our time is not so very different from theirs. We have competing philosophies and ideologies. We have competing religions. Islam did not exist yet. But the Greeks knew of Judaism, and Persian Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism, Chinese Confucianism and Ancestor Worship, and Buddhism. Like so many now in our time, these philosophers sought to ‘rise above’ religion. They saw those Greek gods and goddesses as projections of human experience pointing like buoys on the surface to deeper reality. Thinking Hindus and Buddhists today are like the Stoics: reflective, thinking people. Buddhism is really not a religion for most so much as a philosophical movement which grew out of Hinduism. And, Hinduism has always had this amazing way of absorbing other religions. Jesus? Sure! He’s one of our gods, an expression of Atman, the central reality and consciousness which includes all the gods. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “We Hindus love your Jesus. It is your Christians who are so often the problem.” Gandhi often said Jesus was his primary model. He never confessed Christian faith. You will have to decide yourself whether Gandhi was a “Christian.” He was a follower of Jesus, but not a believer. Which matters most?
As our world shrinks now the question increasingly before us is, “If God is universal, does Christ “show up’ in other religions and cultures, even for those who do not hear of him?” Or, another way of putting the question using Tillich’s bouy marker image might be: “If Christ is the depth at the bottom of the ocean as well as the bouy marker on the surface, might God in Christ have provided other bouy markers, in other cultures and religions?
And then by implication, from a Christian evangelistic standpoint, might we do the most effective evangelism if we can identify those markers, then interpret them in the light Jesus Christ? See? That is exactly what Saint Paul was doing. He walked into Athens and observed all these statues. He asked himself, “What does this tell me will be the most effective way to communicate the gospel?” As he walked he noticed a statue marked “To an unknown god.” There are still a few of these markers carved on those old rocks in Athens! As the ancient story goes, the city was struck by a plague. Many died. The people went to pray before the erected god of each neighborhood, even sacrificed goats before them. But some neighborhoods had no statues. So goats were sacrificed anyway, and these markers were erected with the words carved on them, “To an unknown god.” So, from those days forward some worshipped at those markers a god they were willing to acknowledge they did not fully know, a god Who was more than a statue, even more than that human dimension to which the statue pointed. Judaic monotheism was not alone in suggesting we do not and cannot fully know the ways of a Creator God.
So, there in Athens Saint Paul put it this way: “30 God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives.” Jesus came to transform us. And Paul then said, “God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” This to say, Jesus came to make us new creations. The old life has passed away. A new life is come.
Jesus is a human being who lived and taught and died and was risen in a particular place and time in history. He IS all that, of course, and that makes all the difference. Because he was real, the word made flesh, one of us, we have a model for seeing him elsewhere. But I know this next part is sometimes very difficult for Christians to grasp. He is also the universal Christ. We can also lift him up where he shows up in the markers, the expressions in other religions and cultures. In order to do that we have to listen before we speak. We have to be willing to get inside the beliefs and traditions of others. We have to be open to the possibility that God will show us The Christ from within another tradition, in some different name or form. We know Jesus, so we will recognize Him when we see and hear Him there. Saint Paul said there in Acts 17, verse 27, “27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. God isn’t far away from any of us.” This applies to Paul’s hearers, but also to us. We are created as seekers. We can seek Him, and find Him, as others do, in other religions nearly as much as in our own.
One great example of this is the Buddhist tradition of the Bodhisattva. This is the idea that when one achieves Nirvana, the elevation to heaven, he or she decides unselfishly to return to assist others to live in peace and self-giving and reach Nirvana. It is very similar to Saint John’s presentation of the Logos, the Son of God, going to earth to show the way to God, then returning. Many scholars argue that Jesus was surely influenced by Buddhist thought. His parable of the mustard seed, for instance, is attributed to Buddha five hundred years earlier. Jesus would have known the tradition of the Bodhisattva, and may very well have drawn upon it in his teaching on the central tenet of our faith, “losing your life to find it.”
It is particularly important for us to have open ears to other faiths these days as we talk with Muslims, or more likely, as we talk about Muslims. We are prone to stereotype all Muslims as the radical Muslims who fly planes into the World Trade Center or construct pressure cooker bombs and plant them in Boston or Time Square. They are no more the norm than were marauding crusaders or Spanish Inquisitors. They surely do not represent the faith of Islam, which is rooted in our same Old Testament virtues, the same Ten Commandments, the same stories and teachings on confession, reconciliation, faith hope and love. Muslims recognize Jesus as a great prophet and study his teachings, certainly more than we Christians study the Koran and other writings of Mohammed. If we are following Jesus’ way of love, then we love Moslems.
Our denominational leaders are engaged in cross-religious dialogue formally on our behalf. They report that scholars of other faiths repeatedly say the greatest gift we bring to the dialogue is the person of Jesus. Jesus is our gift to other religions: a particular from which the dynamic can be discussed, seen and embraced, a bouy marker which can help define other markers. Is Jesus is the ‘only’ true revelation of God? My answer is ‘Yes and No.’ Yes: we believe He is definitive. No: we can believe God is big enough to make Him known in other ways. I know some of you will disagree with that, with scriptural justification. That’s fine. As in the Lyceum, Harmony Church is a place for open discussion.
So, are we competing with Moslems? Yes and No! Yes! We believe Jesus is the definitive marker of God. They believe Mohammed is. But also No! There is much we can learn from each other. There in Athens some came to believe. Others did not. God alone is the judge. We agree with Moslems on that. As Paul entered the right discussion in Athens, this is a good and right discussion for us as Christians now. For if we are to Love as Jesus Loved, and Praise God as Mohammed did, we must listen with open minds, and trust that God gives answers and works reconciliation. Amen.