Saturday, June 25, 2005

St. Paul's Message for Today's Athenians

Recently, we've been noting recurring themes in the responses we hear to our question, "How would you describe God?". Many reflect that the search to know God is universal, and that all religious paths can lead the authentic adherent toward God. This universalistic view is sometimes complemented by a conception of God not dissimilar to the Platonistic understanding of God as the distant "unmoved mover" who sets all things in motion and orders the cosmos with His thoughts. The ancient Stoics referred to these primordial divine thoughts or precepts as the "spermatikoi logoi", which need not be discerned through religious instruction but could be intuited in our very nature. Since we all have embers of divine reason within us, we can discover the Mover in ourselves and in the world around us. Quite fittingly, one of the places where we've encountered this universalistic view was on the Areopagus (Mars Hill) in Athens, the site where Paul once engaged Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.

Surprisingly, Paul did not refute the Stoic conception of the spermatikoi logoi in his dialogue with the philosophers. Paul, in fact, stakes his argument on the unquestionable existance of this pan-religious, universal quest (like many Jews of his day--including Jesus--he gave surprising deference to the gentiles on some matters). While Paul dwells at length on the folly of pagan idolatry, his comments there are not as provocative as the text of Acts 17 might make one think. In fact, with his tirade against serving lifeless icons (such as the premier icon in the world at that time on the hill above him) Paul is more likely casting his sinker into their midst. Paul would have known that these philosophers shared his contempt for showy pagan religiosity (his statement "Men of Athens, I see that you are religious in all things" bears a twinge of light-hearted sarcasm). But Paul was well-aware that they did not share his notion of a relational God-head who is very much involved in our lives. To the Stoics and Epicureans, the gods (if they existed at all) were inimically absent and remained distantly unconcerned with the affairs of men. They taught, in fact, that it was useless to entreat the divinities for favors...much less their images.

The quest of the Stoics and Epicurians, as for many of us today, was simply to achieve serenity in one's lifetime through careful reason and self-discipline. As Paul Veyne has described in A History of Private Life, their ideologies were "the tranquilizers of life". Theirs was the science of living the well-lived life (the Epicureans, in particular, coined the aphorism carpe diem). It is thus easy to see why the Athenians dismissed Paul out of the Areopagus. Paul's science of living for the life to come--as opposed to the present one--completely undermined their quest. With Paul, knowledge of the divine spermatikoi logoi carried a certain accountability. It could mean a private, costly devotion to the Creator of the Universe. Still, the striking difference of his conception of the spermatikoi logoi from theirs is that he regarded them as signs of a beckoning, relational God.

In our journey we have discovered that regardless of their religious stripe, certain individuals express an infectious closeness with God. We are now in Cappadocia, where the early Church thinkers first fully integrated the Classical intellectual heritage of philosophy and rhetoric with Christian theology, and so bequethed to the Church their rich legacy of "Natural Theology", the science of knowing God through a carefully reasoned reflection of the cosmos. We had the privilige to bump into two Natural Theologians here while touring the ruins of the ancient Christian cave cities of the region. One was Bassa, a young doctor from South Africa of Muslim background who expressed an authentic yearning to deepen his relationship with God. Another was Jerome, an officer in the Singaporean army and a fledgling convert to Christianity from a Buddhist background. I immensely enjoyed how these two loved to listen to one another without condescension and with authentic interest. They never responded with well-worn doctrinal catch phrases (as you might expect between a typical Muslim and Christian), but immediately built on one anothers insights and expressed humility in their thoughts. Reflecting back on them and previous respondents, those individuals who do seem to be on a path towards knowing God sincerely seem to have one thing in common: they respect views other than their own and are deeply aware that the quest for a life of authentic devotion to God can only first exist because of God's outstretched hand toward us.