Some of us remember when Christian faith was the only choice we had. Where I grew up you assumed your neighbors were Protestant. Roman Catholics were the novelty. In the summer between fourth and fifth grade my mother and my brother and I went to the neighborhood pool every day with the Origlios who lived in the apartment building next to ours. We were fascinated with the meatless sandwiches they would bring for lunch on Friday in those pre-Vatican II days. I’d never heard of anyone eating a cream cheese and jelly sandwich. Sometimes they would invite me to have pasta with them for Tuesday dinner. Mr. Origilio would ask me to say grace – it was his way of reminding us kids that we all worshiped the same Lord. They would bow their heads just like my family did, except after I said Amen they would all cross themselves. That was my exposure to religious diversity as a kid.
Leaving home was a religious shock. By the time I got to high school I had a few Jewish friends, but they fit quite well into my worldview. After all, Jesus was a Jew. But once at college it was a whole new world. I’d read in Time magazine about the growing interest in eastern religions, but I’d never actually met someone who practiced Buddhism. Hare Krishnas tried to engage me in conversation in the student union. One day my roommate, a nice Methodist boy, made it clear to me he was an atheist.
Kids today don’t have to wait until they leave home to be exposed to a world of beliefs. Our shrinking globe has brought many of the world’s religions into our neighborhoods and our schools. It’s socially acceptable nowadays to practice no religion. In fact, it’s a common step in a young person’s spiritual journey to abandon religious practice once he or she leaves home. Faced with so many claims of spiritual truth many people put their own faith on the shelf until some life-changing event like having a child wakes them up and brings them back.
One of the great challenges for Christians today is holding fast to what we believe in the great marketplace of ideas that is the world in the 21st century. It’s like living in a superstore of beliefs. You can’t just walk into the Giant and buy ice cream. You have a whole aisle of frozen confections to choose from. Which of the 50 flavors do you want? Do you want premium or store brand? The kind you scoop or bars? Low fat or extra creamy? The choices are overwhelming.
Athens was an ancient marketplace of ideas. Just about any philosophy or religion known to the western mind could be found there. Acts tells us “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” So when Paul arrived from Israel with a religion they’d never heard of, they were delighted. Here was something new to add to their inventory.
Paul had been sent to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in Europe. There were communities of Jews around the Mediterranean. His practice was to speak in the synagogues of the cities he visited. Paul and the Jews spoke the same language, literally and figuratively. Paul could show his fellow Jews how Jesus was the fulfillment of their own Hebrew prophecy, the culmination of God’s promises to their forefather Abraham. They had a common starting point, and they worked from the same scriptures.
In Athens Paul was struck with how religious the non-Jews were. They were what we might call seekers. They were looking for something to fill that empty place in the spirit of every person, and they gave every option a hearing. So Paul began to speak in the agora or marketplace about Jesus. Now, if we see someone standing on the street corner in downtown York preaching to passersby, we think he or she is a little off. But such a practice was common in ancient Athens. There was no Internet where you could go to keep up with the world. People got their exposure to new ideas in the marketplace.
Some of the leading philosophers of Athens were so intrigued by what Paul said that they invited him to go with them to the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill. You can still go there today. It’s a small rocky outcrop at the foot of the Acropolis, removed from the bustle in the heart of the city. There they could have a more serious discussion.
But now Paul wasn’t talking to the Jews. The Ten Commandments didn’t mean a thing to the Greeks. They didn’t have a clue what the Old Testament prophets had said. Paul couldn’t appeal to a tradition they had grown up with, one that their grandparents taught them. Paul had brought Jesus to the ancient marketplace of ideas. He has a lot to teach us who follow Christ in an increasingly diverse world.
First, Paul saw the connection between the questions the Athenians were asking and the answers Jesus gave. Athens was full of statues of gods the Greeks worshiped: Zeus, Athena, Ares, Artemis. Among those statues, Paul had noticed one labeled, “to an unknown god.” They wanted to be sure they hadn’t offended some god by overlooking him, so this statue covered their bases.
Every religion and every philosophy, every human endeavor seeks to satisfy the longings of the heart. Everyone who has ever seen a picture from the Hubble telescope has been struck with the realization of how small we really are compared to the vast reaches of the universe. Whether we try to fill our needs through eastern religion or philosophy, through consumerism or drugs, the human need for God is the same no matter how we try to meet it. So that’s where Paul started, with what every human being has in common, that need for forgiveness, for acceptance, for love, for purpose, for meaning.
Paul then explained to them that what we hunger and thirst for is God. But we don’t have to wander through the marketplace of religions, gathering a little here and a little there to fill that need. God sent Jesus to bring us home to God, to that one in whom we live and move and have our being. The proof of that love is that Jesus died for us and that God raised him from the dead so we can share that eternal life. This is what struck the Athenians as so novel. They had never heard of anything like the resurrection from the dead.
There is a lot Christian faith shares with other religions: belief in a supreme creator, the value of human love, respect for the earth, a recognition that we need something from outside us to live good and righteous lives. The thing that sets Christian faith apart from all other beliefs is the resurrection and our commitment to the risen Christ. That’s not something you can prove intellectually. It’s not something that fits in with other beliefs. The only way you can really know the power of the resurrected Christ is to commit your life to him, to let him work in you and through and bring you to God. He judges all the options that the marketplace of life sets before us. He helps us know what leads us to God and what leads us away.
Paul identified the need the Athenians shared with people of every time and every place. He proclaimed the good news that Jesus Christ fills that need. Then he left the results to God. We can take heart knowing that the reaction our proclamation of the gospel receives is not going to be that different from the reaction of the Athenians to Paul. Some scoffed at this idea of a resurrection. It didn’t fit into their well-constructed understanding of how things are, so they dismissed it out of hand. Others found it interesting, intellectually stimulating, and said they’d be back to hear more. They were fascinated by the varieties of religious experience and studied religion the way you might study different species of fish. These were the ones for whom religion is a fascinating pastime that’s done at a safe distance, but not something that changes their life. A few, however, people like Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, became believers. What they heard changed their lives.
These different reactions shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus spoke of the different ways people would react to him in the parable of the soils. Different people are like different soils, some hard and unfertile, some choked with weeds, some fertile and productive. God’s word falls on different people with different results. Whether it flourishes or withers doesn’t depend on the truth of the seed but on the receptivity of the soil.
It’s easy for us to lament we can’t take it for granted that we live in a world where everyone shares our faith. Some people react by trying to force what we believe on others. They try to post the Ten Commandments in public places and legislate prayers in schools. But that’s not the approach Paul took in Athens. He started with what everyone has in common – our need for spiritual fulfillment. He wasn’t timid about proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ. And he knew that the results of his efforts didn’t depend on him but on the Holy Spirit working in those who heard him.
Our world today is in some ways more like ancient Athens than the neighborhood of my childhood where religious diversity meant different kinds of Christianity. But that doesn’t have to threaten us. God is the same, and God’s Spirit works in the hearts of people no matter what the religious context is. Our work is to do like Paul, speak the truth that we know in Christ, through the words we share and the love we show, trusting that God will do the rest. Jesus is present in the marketplace, in the school, in the world, whether the people around us know it or not. Our job is to let the world know what we know. God will do the rest.