Paul’s conversation with the Athenians at the foot of the Areopagus is one of the most interesting and challenging scenes in all of Scripture. He has worked his way through the city, the philosophical and religious epicenter of Greco-Roman culture, and his teaching provokes an opportunity to engage proponents of a pantheon of deities.
Putting aside his usual citation of the Hebrew Bible, with his interpretation of how Jesus fulfills the prophetic teaching, Paul uses one of their own poets and religious longing to proclaim his message of resurrection. Luke Timothy Johnson describes this encounter portrayed in Acts 17: 16-31: “Here truly is a fundamental step, an affirmation of human culture not as sufficient in itself, but as a worthy vehicle for the truth of the Gospel toward which, unwittingly, it was striving.”
So . . . religious longing is good; however, what if it becomes a practice of hedging all bets, lacking specificity? It was the altar to an unknown god that pressed the Apostle’s attention, especially since “he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (v. 16). This was especially offensive to him because he did not believe that gold or silver or stone, “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (v. 29b) could depict the One he worshipped. Only humanity could reflect the living God, especially the one appointed to give “assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (v. 31).
Paul’s respectful approach granted him a hearing among the intelligentsia of the city, and some received his message. His meeting with adherents of other ways of faith provides a template for our contemporary interfaith work. It calls us to question how we respond to the structures and practices of other religions. Often we cannot see our own idolatries as we allege them in the traditions of others.
This week the United States President is visiting the major sites of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Only an approach of courtesy and consideration will prove constructive in a time of competing religious visions of the world.
Clearly, Paul believes that God honors human searching for the holy. Humans are built for worship; our sinful nature prompts us to worship the wrong things usually. Culture shapes faith, and some worship the cultural myths of American Christianity rather than the God who calls to repentance. Regularly, politicians conscript civil religion to support their particular view of the nation. In a religiously plural nation, this is both offensive and dangerous.
Paul concludes his teaching with his encompassing claim about the resurrection. God has reset the whole landscape by raising Jesus from the dead. It is this unprecedented new event that gives us insight into God’s intent for the whole of creation.
Being extremely religious is good when it is expressed with humility, acknowledging that the whole truth about God always eludes human perception. Yet, presumptuous religion remains idolatry. Barth warned that Christianity is vulnerable to that, also.
Molly T. Marshall