Monday, August 09, 2010

the option of atheism (acts 17)

In college I majored in biology, thinking that I might be a teacher, or do something in the fields of science or medicine. All of that changed when 1) I took organic chemistry and 2) I sensed a call to be a minister. Which was not the path I was planning, but that’s another story. I knew that I would eventually attend seminary, and I began looking around for a major that had more to do with people than chemical equations. This landed me in the psychology department. “This will be great,” I thought. “This will help me later on, when I am working with people.”

Once I had made the decision I experienced the truth of the Willie Nelson song: “Funny how wrong I could be.” My two favorite professors in the psychology department, men I thought and think very highly of, were grateful that I had come into their area of study and teaching. They liked my background in the sciences. But there was one small thing: they were both, and they were very public about this, intellectuals who had little use for religion or faith.

One was a Jewish man who trained in the writings of Sigmund Freud. I had classes with him in Abnormal Psychology, the History of Psychology and Depression. He was Jewish, but not a practicing Jew, in a religious sense. He felt, with Freud, that religion was wish fulfillment, something we hoped to be true, but something that was not actually true. Yet he was a funny man, and full of life, and he was supportive of me, even if he thought I was misguided.

The other professor was more interested in research, and he had come under the influence of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. He believed that reality was the sum total of what you could test and measure, see and touch. I had classes with him in Tests and Measurements and Experimental Psychology. I distinctly remember the day he called the denomination I belonged to a cult. He said it with a smile, but the message was clear.

Now my story is not all that interesting, really, or unique. It was the encounter, on a small scale, between faith and reason, or, as Tertullian would have said in the 2nd century, Jerusalem and Athens. It was an encounter, I would learn, that was reported in the Bible itself, in the Book of Acts, in the experience of the great missionary, the Apostle Paul. We are moving, as Acts 1.8 had predicted, from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and now to the ends of the earth. We are in Gentile, pagan territory. We find Paul in the middle of the second of three missionary journeys. He is in Athens, the ultimate college town in the Roman Empire. I should say Athens, Greece, not Athens, Georgia!

The speech in Athens is at Mars Hill, and Luke tells us that Paul, as he looks around Athens, is “deeply distressed”. In Bible Study last week David Mosser translated the word as “annoyed”. Athens is a very impressive place but it is filled with idols, and thus, for a good Jew, a violation of the second commandment.

Idols are substitutes for God. We can make idols of celebrities and politicians. We can make idols of wealth and possessions. We can make idols of our careers (and yes ministers can be very good at this) and even our hobbies. We can make idols of our children and our physical appearance. The most impressive structures in any city will tell us what our idols are: athletic complexes, health care facilities, centers of commerce. Pleasure, longevity, wealth.

Paul looks around, and the city is filled with idols. He begins to speak in the synagogue and in the marketplace. And so we talk about the faith in holy places, where we are, but also in public life. God calls us to engage with the world. Luke tells us that there happened to be Epicurean and Stoic philosophers among the curious. Epicureans were all about personal pleasure and sensual delight, which fits right in with a consumer culture (think of product placement on the Food Network, or HGTV, or ESPN, or MTV). Interestingly, Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, has referred to himself at times as an Epicurean. It is the lifestyle Paul refers to in I Corinthians 15: if there is no resurrection of the body, then eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

The Stoics were all about self-control and overcoming destructive emotions. They were all about clear judgments and inner peace. And there is a very strong connection between the Stoic philosophy and the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the thing I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Now there is a little of the Epicurean and the Stoic in each of us. As you are listening to me describe them, you are probably thinking, “what’s the problem…my husband is a stoic, my wife is epicurean.” Most of us like the taste of a good meal, or the vision of a beautiful sunset at the beach. Most of us develop a way to cope with the adversities that come our way, and we try to avoid destructive excess. So we have something in common with them. And they, often, with us, and so they are curious to know what this famous missionary and rabbi is talking about. “What does this babbler want to say?” they wonder. “Maybe he is talking about some foreign god?”

We get a glimpse of how odd the Christian gospel was in the first century, and how strange it is today, in a culture where we know so little about the Bible. It is, Paul would write later, “foolishness to the Greeks”. From the other side it is, as my professor labeled it, a cult.

“Tell us about it,” they ask him. They are curious. And then a comment from Luke: they spent all of their time in nothing but telling or hearing about something that was new (21). The fad of the moment. The trend of the week. The fashion of the month. Who is on the way up and who is on the way down? What have you done for me lately? “Tell us about it”.

And so Paul begins. I see how religious you are (22). In looking around, I can see all of the objects of your worship. It is not that people are not religious. It is that we are religious about the wrong thing. We are religious about politics or body image or our sports hero or our 401k. These can all be good things; they were just never meant to be our ultimate concerns! I looked carefully at the objects of your worship, and I came across an altar with the inscription, “To an Unknown God” (23).

And here Paul makes the connection, he engages with the world. God does not call us to avoid the world, or to trash it, but to engage it. We are called to examine what is going on in the world and appeal to it. This Paul begins to do.

The God who is unknown to you, he says, I am about to make known. And now Paul can tell the story of the God of the scriptures. “The God who made the world and everything in it is Lord of all things. We are created in God’s image; we do not have to make a god in our image, a god to serve our own needs. God is more than we can imagine! God created the infinite resources that surround us, but amazingly, God wants us to seek him and find him; indeed, God is not remote. God is near.” He quotes one of their poets, “In him we live and move and have our being” (28).

Then Paul shifts the discussion to the heart of the gospel. He calls the people of Athens, the brilliant people of Athens, to repentance and change. He urges them to consider a God who is greater than their imaginations and whose purpose transcends their needs or desires. This God will set things right, this God will establish a kingdom of heaven on earth, and indeed the assurance that all of this will happen is in the resurrection of God’s Son from the dead.

This of course makes no sense to the Epicureans or the Stoics, and their descendents among us today. Reason can only go so far----there must be revelation. The natural world can take us only so far---there must be the supernatural. Paul is asking them, and us, to do something that is difficult: to trade a god we know for a God we do not know….and that takes faith, and faith is a gift. We live in a marketplace of ideas and idols. Even inside the church, some do not have much use for revelation or the supernatural or the resurrection.

For many the church is primarily a social network. I came across a wonderful comment from a very honest Jew, who said, “Garfinkle goes to the Temple to talk to God; I go to the temple to talk to Garfinkle”. Not everyone in a church is a believer, and not everyone in a church shows up for religious reasons. I am not making a judgment; if you listen long enough people will tell you this.

When they hear about the resurrection, Luke tells us, some mock (32). At one time agnosticism and atheism were underground, but now they are very public. One of the largest growing sections in any bookstore is works on atheism. In the culture, outside the church, there is a lively discussion going on about faith and atheism. A rabbi, David Wolpe often debates the atheist Christopher Hitchens, and thousands show up. The debate about religion is a sign to me that 21st century North America is going to look increasingly like 1st century Athens: some curiosity, some mocking. And so we had better get our story straight. The faith that we learned as children was a gift to us, as children, but it will not sustain us in an adult marketplace of ideas and idols. It happens all the time: people go to college, they are intellectually challenged, they lose their faith and they drift for a while. We think, like little Bo peep, that if we leave them alone they will come home. Maybe, maybe not.

Some mock, but others say, “We would like to hear more about this later (32).” For some, there is an opening. Christopher Hitchens has cancer, at an advanced stage. He was interviewed by Anderson Cooper the other evening, and they talked about prayer. Hitchens does not pray, but he acknowledged that many were praying for him. Some had prayed for his demise---this is the ugly side of Christianity, but he admitted that many, many more were praying for his recovery. And he is grateful.

Some mocked, some said we would like to hear more, and then, at the conclusion, some became believers. It is a mixed response, and that is always true when the gospel is preached: some cannot accept it, for one reason or another; some want to know more, some accept the good news. People do have intellectual struggles with the faith, and we should not judge or dismiss them. We can build bridges toward them, like Paul, engage them, we can give an account for the hope that is in us.

It is also true that we sometimes judge ourselves at our best and others at their worst. We can encourage people outside the faith not to focus exclusively on the most extreme cases of religious abuse and failure, but also on the ways Christians contribute to the world. This morning we think of the ten Christian Aid workers killed in Afghanistan this weekend.

We cannot control what others believe, nor should we. We should not reject those outside the church who do not believe; Paul certainly does not. We can engage the world of ideas and idols beyond us, and the curious who are among us, with the good news that the One who created us is near to us, in the word of God made flesh in a person Jesus Christ, who was raised from death, so that we might have life.


Blogger Jeff said...

Those of us who value your words and wisdom should be very grateful for organic chemistry!
(It about did in my science career too!)

7:41 AM  
Blogger Cammie Novara said...

"I knew that I would eventually attend seminary, and I began looking around for a major that had more to do with people than chemical equations." I can totally relate to that quote from my own experience. There's a really animated debate that I thought would be of interest on evolution vs. intelligent design going on at

10:17 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Hello from Australia! Thankyou for the interesting and encouraging words about Paul and how he observed and then related God's love to the people of Corinth. Through our observations of the world, we as Christians can "become like others, in order to win them and share God's love with the".

I have started a similar blog if you are interested it is:

Let us keep sharing God's love with the people he created.

2:56 PM  

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