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.

Captivating Cappadocia

June 24.05 (Goreme, Turkey)

3:15 pm

I wasn’t supposed to still be here. But I am.

So I sit in the shade of grapevines as the quiet is illuminated by the chirp of a swallow, the muted beats of Turkish music wafting up from the valley and the occasional moo of the local cow. I have time to listen because I am sick (food poisoning or the like). We had not planned to bed down in this charming town for so long. But thanks to a little bacteria that first hit Krista then myself, we are getting to savor our setting.

Now for another day I am surrounded by volcanic rock formations more bizarre than lunar landscape. Some rocks host pigeon houses, others are tributes to ancient churches and others are now cave hotels, like ours.

Cappadocia’s curious contours were formed by the eruption of three volcanoes, which are said to date back 15 million years ago. Its first inhabitants pre-date the Hittites who built up the region in 1200 BC, creating elaborate underground cities and rock homes. It later became a center for Christian thought when the Cappadocia siblings (Basil, Gregory and Theadora, who trained her brothers) and Gregory of Nyssa came on the scene in the 5th century. These early Christian scholars were able to integrate the classical system of learning with church theology. They shaped the way the Byzantine Eastern church taught and discussed doctrine. Their influence on the Church of the East parallels that of Augustine’s effect on the West.

In the 5th century churches were built, schools were formed and monasteries became replete. Apparently Cappadocia had a thriving Christian community for almost 1,500 years. I ponder the mysterious disappearance of the Christians in this area. Yesterday Eric and I went on an elaborate search for a church that was still active. Goreme, the winsome town where we have stayed, had a plethora of cave churches. But our quest to find one still in use ended with a declaration that there were no more Christians living here. Where did they go?

My question was interrupted by friends and easier thoughts.


The sun is sliding down the sky and my sickness is slipping away. So, we climb up to the peak to see the fireball’s final descent. Turkish music is still stirring in the air and the beat is too compelling not to dance. The breeze lures me and my scarf around in circles as light flutters down the volcanoe rock formations. I hold the moment close, asking it not to leave me.

11: 20pm

The sky is a black box displaying Venus and Mercury. I am feeling a little weak, but I couldn’t resist letting the night take me where it would. This meant dining on “Mama’s” cooking (we became friends with the owners) and then going with “Papa” to a wedding party. Krista and I were greeted by the groom and then a host who offered us hand sanitizer, cigarettes and candy. We ventured into a back-garden filled with over fifty men, where we would told we could have a pick of any. We chose to simply enjoy the passionate songs of the traditional Turkish singer as we drank tea and chatted with two kind older men. I did discover when the Christians left Cappadocia. Apparently Christians and Muslims lived sided by side up through the Ottoman times, but when Ataturk came to power the Christians disappeared. While the Armenians were being killed in the country (1914-1917), likely these Christians were a part of the half-million person population swap with Greece. A bit of sadness invaded the glory of the night as I was caught between the realities of the generous Turkish hospitality and the realization that a city of churches no longer has Christians living in it. Papa kindly took us back to our cave hotel, but the sounds of our singer followed us. I could still hear his voice and the drums as I fell asleep. The music from the valley mingled with my thoughts. My mind did not wander to the sites we had seen, but the new friends we had made.

In our four days in Goreme we had met stellar people from Brazil to Korea. Among our new friends were Rosie and Bedo, our Turkish tour guides, who exuded a contagious pride in their country and a deep appreciation for Islam. I gained a quick affinity for Bassa, a 26-year-old doctor from South Africa, who had a poetic soul, inquisitive spirit and a passion for truth. Bassa described Allah as greater than any perception – more distant than we can imagine and closer than our jugular vein. His longing to know and live truth was inspiring. We also toured with Victoria and Kate, two Kiwi women who had a gracious persona and an impressive strategy to travel months on end, and dined with Joey and Melinda, Aussies whose love of music and each other was magnetic.

We suspected that we might leave this former Christian center without meeting one follower of Christ, but Jerome’s acquaintance shot down our suspicions. Jerome is a 23-year-old from Singapore with an easy laughter and a near constant smile. He converted from Buddhism to Christianity just four months ago. However, his love of Christ and understanding of struggles and riches of faith was vast. I was wonderfully challenged by his unabashed adoration of my Lord.

As I fell asleep with music and thoughts swirling in my mind and medicine in my body, my heart wasn’t awake enough to muse about what God might be doing in the lives of these new friends and my own. All I knew was that I missed them already and couldn’t help but be grateful for our extended stay in Cappadocia.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Eastern Exposure

An eastern breeze woos me forward as I write you. When my ferry reaches land I will be in Turkey and half way through my sacred trek from Rome to Jerusalem. Since I wrote you last, my journey along the ancient Roman pilgrim routes has taken me through Albania, Macedonia and Greece.

While I set out to learn more about God, the world and my faith, I should have suspected that I couldn’t escape learning about myself as well. Conversing with people from diverse cultures and traveling along the Mediterranean with a double-wide backpack strapped around me in a sea of small-thighed women has caused me to look at a few identity issues along the way.

However, I am trying to cut down on public narcissism. So I will write to about others’ identity issues – specifically the hopes and struggles of the countries along the pilgrim path I visited during this latest leg of travels.

Albania is in a curious stage of rediscovering itself. It emerged from an isolationism rivaling North Korea just 15 years ago. Now a transformation is taking place: the populace is allowed to drive, the former dictator’s mausoleum has been converted into a bowling alley/concert venue and the mayor of the capital city, Tirana, has painted the communist buildings purple, red, yellow and orange with geometric designs. However, the rediscovery of religious roots is requiring more than fresh paint for the facades of souls. Albanian nationalism remains the popular religion of the day. Albanians are said to be 10% Catholic; 20% Orthodox; 70% Muslim and 100% atheist.

Albania has an extensive history of religious alignment with whoever is in power. However, it was once a significant place on the Via Egnatia pilgrim path. Paul and Timothy, important pastors in the New Testament era, are said to have traveled there. During my visit I met people who have set aside their nationalism to discover a relationship with God transcending their ethnic heritage. Among them was Lida. She is a beautiful woman in her early forties who was raised Muslim but has recently become a Christian. She says her country has failed to hope because they didn’t know the real meaning and experience of God’s love. For Lida the one thing Albania needs is God, then it will rediscover itself fully.

According to my chats with elderly people in Macedonia, their country seems to be mourning the loss of its former identity. I met Christopher, a gregarious and slightly disheveled small boat captain in his sixties, along the boardwalk in Ohrid. He spoke of his regard for the former dictator, Tito. He exclaimed that when Tito was in power the economy thrived and people felt safe, free from the fear of being robbed. Christopher associates democracy with a bully-capitalism, which promotes deviant ways to make fast money. He speaks of the rise of the mafia and sees democracy as bringing crime up and employment down.

Despite Christopher’s laments for the good old days of dictatorship, he says he loves America. He learned his English by watching American movies and attributes his passion for Christ to his encounter with American missionaries a decade ago. Christopher lives in the region where the early Christians developed the Cyrillic alphabet and trained missionaries to reach the Slavic peoples. But he says it took people from the States to help know God in a special way.

Greece seems to be grappling with its own sense of religion and nationalism. For centuries to be Greek has meant one is a Greek Orthodox Christian. However, I spoke with youth who say the church doesn’t feel relevant for them. I met a lovely 23-year-old named Matilda who believes in God but spoke of being caught up in the pressures of fashion and image. She contemplates the struggle between faith and materialism, but she said materialism is the path most traveled by those her age.

However, the gap between this generation and the church has not been completely lost. While I was in Meteora, Greece I met Vaslis, a monk around my age, who described God by using the paintings in the church. He showed me an image of hell and heaven. He said that hell was a place where no one knew who each other was, all identity was lost. Heaven was where people’s personalities were in full color by the light of God’s love.

By encountering people of faith in Albania, Macedonia and Greece revealed my own struggles and hopes. As my identity issues continue to be exposed, my prayer is that I journey through it in the light of God’s love. I’ll keep you posted on the learning as I travel east through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.


The realities of backpacking

Seeing the world as a backpacker is definitely a defining experience. First of all, I thought our six week trip was a long endeavor until I met people traveling for months and even for years. It is not uncommon for Australians to travel for a year or two or even more as we discovered.
Also, as freeing as it might seem to live out of a backpack, after a while your pack becomes a weight and you start ditching things along the way you once thought valuable just because your back is breaking under the weight.
I have also learned on this trip that you may stay in places with bedbugs, you are never to proud to sleep on a dirty ship floor for eight hours, that having clean clothes is something you once had, you can get sick in route and you will most definitely take many forms of travel; on foot, ship, hydrafoil, taxi, charter bus, mini van bus and random strangers.
We have two weeks left and four countries to see, we have dirty clothes but many new friends. Would I choose to do this trip again knowing what I know so far and have experienced-yes!