Thursday, 10 May 2018

Easter Week 6 Wednesday

Readings: Acts 17:15, 22-18:1; Psalm 148; John 16:12-15

Acts 17 shows us Paul preaching the resurrection of Christ to the Jews at Thessalonica and Beroea (17:1-15) and to the Gentiles at Athens (17:16-34). His arguments with the Jews are, not surprisingly, from the scriptures (17:2-3, 11) and his arguments with the Gentiles are more philosophical (17:17-18, 22-31). It is often said that his reception at the hands of the philosophers of Athens helps to explain Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians about arguments drawn from philosophy, as if he had received a bloody nose from the philosophers of Athens, but this speech is neither more nor less successful than others he gave (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; see Acts 18:1 and Romans 1:18-32). 

The sermon preached on the Areopagus is a rich and significant text. It shows us Paul engaging with the ‘intelligentsia’ of his day, the philosophers of Athens, and trying to present the gospel message to them in a way that would link with their way of approaching knowledge and truth.

The background to the speech is his experience of seeing the city full of idols, a fact which ‘provoked his spirit within him’ (17:16). He argued with anyone who happened to be there, including the philosophers and the cosmopolitan residents of Athens generally. They ‘spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new’ while at the same time, Paul says, being ‘exceptionally religious’ (17:19-22). For them Paul is a ‘babbler’ (literally a ‘seed picker’ or, as we would say, a ‘nit picker’) and a ‘preacher of foreign divinities’. But they were interested in anything that was new or strange, so they gave him a hearing.

The themes of Paul’s speech are central to the theological vision of the later father of the Church known as ‘Pseudo-Dionysius’. He was a 5th century Syrian monk who published his writings under the name ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’, one of the people who was converted by Paul’s preaching at Athens. The later Dionysius had huge influence in Christian theology and spirituality right through the middle ages, and especially in the Latin West once his works had been translated.

So what are the themes of ‘Dionysian’ theology as Saint Paul presents it? One is the ‘unknown God’. ‘What you worship as unknown’, he says, ‘this I proclaim to you’ (Acts 17:23).  Thomas Aquinas, profoundly influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius, will later say that in this present life we are united with God as with one unknown. But this unknown God – the God of negative theology – is the creator of all things who made the world and everything in it. It is this God, says Paul, who gives to human beings life, breath and everything. God made all nations from one (literally ‘from one man’), determining the historical periods allotted to these nations as well as the boundaries of their habitations.

God placed in all human beings a ‘natural desire’ for God (though Paul does not use that precise phrase) since the Creator is to be sought in the hope of being felt after and found. It is a good description of any human searching for God, a searching that is perfectly understandable since God ‘is not far from any of us because it is in God that we live and move and have our being’. We are in fact God’s offspring, Paul says, quoting the Greek poet Aratus, and, at the same time, the works of human art and imagination cannot represent God. On the one hand Paul dismisses all idols that might be thought to represent God and on the other reminds his hearers that the only real image of God within the creation is the human being.

The unknown God will always be foreign, new, and young, a transcendent ‘God of surprises’, who cannot and will not be pinned down by the art, imagination or intelligence of human beings. ‘God does not live in shrines made by man nor is he served by human hands’ (Acts 17:23-24). Those who preach this God – God who is living and true, the unknown yet sought after Creator – will be breakers of idols, whether these are idols made by human craftsmanship from gold or silver or stone, or intellectual, artistic or spiritual constructions made by human reasoning and with which we would attempt to have and to hold God (images, ideas, experiences that we might be tempted to regard as naming or identifying or containing God).

Paul continues saying that the time of ‘unknowing’ is overlooked by God who now calls all to repentance in Christ, the one whom God has appointed to be the judge of the world. His audience becomes uneasy at this turn in the discourse – repentance? judgement? a single individual with a divine mission? And then Paul’s preaching breaks down completely at the next step: God has given assurance of this mission of Christ by raising him from the dead.

Inevitably the preaching of the gospel ‘breaks down’ as it comes up against the things that make faith difficult. Such things are many and varied. Some of Paul’s hearers in Athens had heard enough at this point: it was too foreign to their ways of thinking which might have considered the immortality of the soul but certainly not the resurrection of the body. Some promised to hear Paul again about his beliefs – a kind of damning with faint praise – and a few came to believe, notably a woman called Damaris and Dionysius the Areopagite. 

Paul’s speech at Athens is a wonderful example of how to preach to an educated and cultured audience. On the one hand build connections with their ways of knowing and thinking, travel the intellectual road together as far as possible. On the other hand be ready for the point of breakdown, a point that is inevitable, because the gospel calls all to conversion, to metanoia, to a renewal in our ways of thinking. This conversion is not just moral or religious but will always be intellectual as well.

At a time when many feel the weight of intellectual arguments against Christian faith – questions coming from science and philosophy particularly – Paul’s speech remains of great value as a first encounter between ‘faith and reason’. But its value is to be found not just in the success of his philosophical engagement in the early part of his discourse but also in the failure of the later part where the scandal of incarnation and resurrection provokes and troubles established ways of thinking.

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