Fighting words?

As I’ve suggested in recent posts, Americans live in a “spiritual marketplace.” People are quick to condemn received religion and its traditions as stuffy and outdated at best, and restrictive and oppressive at worst. In its place, we prefer “spirituality”: worship on our own terms, in our own way, with our own conception of the divine.

It’s not either-or, of course. While some people want to craft their own personal boutique brand of spirituality (I think here of sociologist Robert Bellah’s discussions with a young woman named Sheila who professed to follow “Sheilaism”), many still consider themselves adherents of a particular religion — at least up to a point. Push me too far, and I’ll leave or defect. And for those in the market for new ways to worship, trust me, there are options galore.

I think it likely that in some ways, the agora (public market) of ancient Athens was its own kind of spiritual marketplace, with its idols, shrines, and altars dedicated to a variety of gods. Paul came to the city with a passion to preach the gospel; but how should he have proceeded in such an environment?

Some see his speech to the Areopagus (the Athenian council) as making an accommodation to Greek culture in order to open a door for the gospel. He referred opportunistically to one of their altars, dedicated to an unknown god; he quoted their respected poets instead of sacred writ. He did this to leverage things his audience already knew, to make a connection. Preachers do this routinely; I confess, for example, to using a clip from Return of the Jedi to introduce one of my sermons.

Not my finest moment, perhaps. But there you go.

We needn’t worry, however, that Paul compromised the gospel in any way. Indeed, one could say that he didn’t quite get to the gospel message itself in his speech. It’s as if he needed to clear a little ground first — and he did so with a rhetorical bulldozer rather than a hoe.

In the previous post, I quoted a portion of his speech, from Acts 17:24-31. Here is my loose (very loose!) paraphrase of his sermon:

Your city is full of your idols; you’re obviously a rather superstitious people! But what is ‘God’ to you, really? Something made by human hands from gold, or silver, or stone? Some being that needs your service, your sacrifices, your offerings? What kind of god would that be? Even your own poets know better. They tell us that we don’t make God, God makes us; we don’t give life to God, God gives life to us. No God worth worshiping would dwell in a paltry little handmade shrine. His existence isn’t bound up in things we’ve made; rather, our existence is in him.

Here’s the story of who God really is and what God wants. God is the Creator of everything and the Lord of all. He created all the peoples of the earth, from one origin; that means that no one is intrinsically better than anyone else, not even you.

And you Epicureans? Listen to me. You think that God is distant and uninterested in human beings. No! Quite the contrary: he wants everyone to search for him, because he wants to be found.

Up until now, the human race has been groping blindly in the dark, and God in his mercy has overlooked our superstitious ignorance. But things have changed. A new day has dawned. How do we know this? Because God has raised a man from the dead. And with that new day comes a specific expectation from God. Make no mistake: history is moving steadily toward a day of judgment, and the Righteous One he raised from the dead will be the Judge.

So what does God want from you, right now? He wants you to repent!

In the spiritual marketplace, those could be heard as fighting words. Paul, of course, wasn’t spoiling for a fight. But he wasn’t shying away from the truth either.

I don’t think it’s necessary to read Paul as arguing that the Athenians actually believed that their handmade idols were gods, or that the gods they worshiped were somehow cooped up in little shrines. Rather, he’s poking at something they already know, something that gets obscured by the taken-for-granted ideas and routines of the marketplace: whoever or whatever the divine actually is, it must be bigger than our religion.

And the divine may require something more, something different of us.

It’s hard, sometimes, to speak what we know to be true without feeling like we’re being rude. We are, after all, citizens of the same culture, hanging out in the same marketplaces. And if we’re honest, we should admit that the church has much to answer for: we have sometimes spoken the truth, but have failed to listen; we have done verbal and even physical violence to the ones we supposedly wanted to save.

Paul could be unsparing in his characterization of Gentiles as living “in the futility of their minds [and] darkened in their understanding” (Eph 4:17-18). And yet, at the same time, he taught that learning to speak the truth in love was an intrinsic part of Christian maturity (Eph 4:15).

Paul’s rhetoric could be fiery. But I have no doubt that he spoke with compassion for the spiritual plight of his Athenian audience, a plight of which they were unaware.

May our own words be motivated by love and compassion, and not fighting words.