The spiritual marketplace (part 1)

I was raised in a middle-class American suburb, in a city of over 300,000 people. I was never a stranger to crowded freeways or shopping malls. I always thought of myself as a city boy.

That is, until I visited New York. Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in the suburbs anymore.

Walking the streets of Manhattan, I felt an invisible pressure and intensity from the people who hurried by, avoiding eye contact. I felt isolated, as if invisible, a stranger to be automatically treated with suspicion.

I imagine, somehow, that this is not too far from the experience of the apostle Paul in Athens. As we’ve seen, his friends in Beroea had taken him there to escape persecution by his Thessalonian enemies, while Silas and Timothy stayed behind.

Being from Tarsus, a prominent city in its own right, Paul was no bumpkin; he knew the paganism of the Roman Empire. But Athens may still have given Paul a bit of culture shock. By that time, the city was well past its heyday, but still thriving, still regarded as the jewel of Greek civilization and all it had to offer.

As Paul waited for the arrival of Silas and Timothy, he visited the synagogue, and again sought to reason with the Jews and the Gentile seekers there. But the focus of Luke’s story is the time Paul spent in the Athenian agora or marketplace, something like a combination shopping mall and civic center in the heart of town. It was a place of both open courtyards and covered colonnades, where Athenians would go to stroll, do business, hang out, and argue philosophy.

Luke tells us that Paul was “deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16, NRSV). “Full of idols” is not a colorful exaggeration, especially if we imagine Paul standing in the agora. The Acropolis loomed nearby, with its numerous temples (most notably, the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, the city’s patron goddess), and the agora itself had its own temples, shrines, altars, and statues.

His “distress” was more than mere annoyance. Luke used a similar word earlier to describe the painfully sharp disagreement that separated him from Barnabas (15:39). Even more to the point, in the Greek version of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint), the word was sometimes used to describe how deeply his people’s idolatry provoked and angered God (e.g., Isa 65:3).

Paul’s debates in the marketplace, therefore, were not mere intellectual exercises or a way to pass the time, as some of his conversation partners might have seen them. Rather, he was driven by a piercing sense of the godlessness of the place and its need for the gospel. He spoke to anyone who would listen, and even took on both the Epicureans and the Stoics, devotees of rival philosophies which have loose parallels to how people still approach life today.

In English, the word “epicurean” might evoke images of a stuffy and self-indulgent gourmet who eats only the finest of food and would never drink wine from a box. By extension, the word has come to suggest a kind of hedonism, a life lived for bodily pleasures.

That idea, however, isn’t fair to the Epicureans of old. They didn’t advocate a coarse sensuality, but equated a happy life with a tranquil mind. People have natural and sometimes necessary desires, and their fulfillment can and should be enjoyed. But we bring ourselves pain by desiring things we don’t truly need or can’t have; the desire for popularity or wealth, for example, can be insatiable, leaving us forever anxious and unfulfilled. Better, then, to limit our desires to what it natural and necessary.

That’s not bad counsel for a market-driven, media-obsessed world. Think of people who obsess over how many “likes” they’ve received on their most recent social media post; the number may never seem high enough to dispel their anxiety or sense of invisibility. The solution isn’t to find ways to boost traffic, but to learn to let go of the need for likes in the first place.

The English word “stoic” suggests someone who calmly takes suffering in stride, and this is indeed the ideal of the ancient Stoics. They took their name from the fact that they met regularly in one of the stoa (colonnades) next to the agora — today, they might have been the “Starbuckians.” Stoics believed that there was a rational order to nature, and there was no point fighting against it. Happiness meant disciplining our mind and will to accept and live in harmony with that order; only then would we be able to overcome negative emotions like anger and jealousy. Some would argue that today’s cognitive therapy is, to some extent, the intellectual heir of Stoicism.

Neither group believed in a personal god. If there was a god, the Epicureans taught, that god had no interest in humanity, but existed in splendid isolation. For the Stoics, the rational order of nature was, in a sense, divinity itself — just as many spiritual systems still teach.

And neither group, apparently, thought highly of Paul. They called him a “babbler” (Acts 17:18) — a derogatory term that suggested an intellectual rookie who merely picked up bits and scraps of knowledge then tossed them about.

Others accused him, somewhat fairly, of proclaiming foreign gods. Our English translations typically say that Paul was preaching the gospel of “Jesus and the resurrection.” But scholars suggest that Paul’s hearers had no real concept of resurrection; thus, they probably heard Paul going on about some divinity named “Jesus,” and his female counterpart, “Anastasis” — the Greek (and feminine) word for resurrection.

How did they receive all this? As we’ll see in the next post, interpreters disagree as to how serious the situation became. But one thing is certain: then, as now, it was difficult to stand for universal truth in a marketplace of spiritual ideas.