Paul in Athens: Acts 17

Some of you probably remember the movie “Sunset Boulevard” with William Holden and Gloria Swanson. It is the tragic story of a fading movie star (Norma Desmond) and a young writer (Joe Willis). Norma desperately believes with a break, a screen test and some powder and rouge, she can make a return. She doesn’t call it a comeback. She will not use that word, in fact. William Holden says to her when they meet, “I didn’t know you were planning a comeback”, to which she responds, “I hate that word. It’s a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.” Of course, she didn’t desert the screen. She was left behind when talkies replaced silent films. But she never accepted it. “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” She replies, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Totally out of touch with reality she wanders around her mansion dreaming of her imminent return to glory. Toward the end, William Holden is asked why he doesn’t tell her the truth that she is finished. “You don’t yell at a sleepwalker. He may fall and break his neck.”

That is a perfect description of the Athens that Paul enters in this chapter. The glory days are over but they still have their memories of greatness. Athens is just a shadow of what it once was. You know those parts of a city that are preserved as historic and called “old town”? They are tourist spots with gift shops and perfectly restored to what used to be. They are not growing but they are kept for those who want to experience a little of what it once was. Philosophy in Athens used to be a blood sport but now it is a distraction – a sideshow for the tourists. The ideas don’t really matter the way they used to. Athens is tired and has been passed by. It is a retirement community for professors taking themselves a little too seriously and arguing over the smallest and most insignificant points. What once was the intellectual center of the world has faded and those two great philosophies that defined the ancient world – Epicureanism and Stocism – are degraded and ignored. But that is the inevitable end of idolatry because it begins with self interest. They did not set out to make idols. They set out to find happiness and understanding on their own terms.

It’s important to say a word about them as they were the two banks of a river into which Paul stepped. Epicureans originally believed that the way to happiness was simplicity and that the ideal life is meant to be free of physical pain and mental anxiety. To do that, you must eliminate everything that is disturbing or creates desires that cannot be fulfilled. Life is to be reduced to the simplest of pleasures. They stayed away from ambition of all kinds and were happiest when most removed from public life with all the responsibilities and stresses and preferred being cloistered with like-minded people and friends. They were the original Woodstock generation.

Stoics, on the other hand, were like first born children. They believed that duty, virtue, honor and public service were the roads to meaning and happiness. It was reason and self-interest alone that motivated them. Ayn Rand would have made a good stoic except for one thing. Stoics believed that wealth was not for self-gratification but for performing virtuous acts done as public duty. Stoics were self-controlled, rational and focused on being responsible and successful. They made excellent next door neighbors.

Those differences once sharply defined people in Athenian society. Now, they matter to those with nothing better to do but spend their days in the city square reminiscing and pretending to be interested in the deeper things but it doesn’t really matter much. Peter Drucker once said, “In the academic world the fights are so intense because the stakes are so small.” Nothing could better capture Athens that day. It had lost its influence, power, prestige and standing. It had become a university town for Roman students – quaint but impotent. They were former stars looking for a return.

I wish Paul had come to Athens 200 years earlier and he would have had a truly stout argument and, perhaps, even created the same kind of disturbance he did in so many other cities he visited. The distorted and empty forms are what Paul was facing. Not the pure form of Athenian philosophy but what it had become. That’s what we face today with the useful and productive philosophies that shaped us: freedom, capitalism, individual responsibility. They have become distorted over time and become what was never intended. But anything taken to its logical conclusion will do that. However, there was little energy left to argue – only to be curious and mildly interested in this “babbler” (the word literally means an ignorant plagiarist with no original thoughts of his own but only what he has picked up from others) with a novel idea about religion. It perked up their day and gave them something to talk about. They weren’t upset. They didn’t haul him before the magistrates or stone him. There were no riots. They essentially invited him to wine and cheese at the faculty club. They invited him to the Areopagus to meet with the Council – their version of the insiders who they believed were the real influencers and intellectual style setters. We would call them the self-appointed elite who read each others books, attend each others lectures and retweet each other on Twitter. They are legends in their own minds.

But, in Athens, even though they were intrigued by every new thought as a chance to argue the finer points, they were concerned about any thoughts that might fundamentally change their mindset. Stay within the lines and the categories. It was fine to add another option to the mix as long as it did not threaten the basic values. It reminds you of a modern university that values free speech and the free exchange of ideas as long as they are the right ideas spoken with the right words. As G.K. Chesterton said, “In real life, people who are the most bigoted are the people who have no convictions at all.” The Athenians were not concerned about any new idea that did not threaten their assumptions about what was meant by tolerance.

Paul might have been looking to pick a fight but he would not find it here. Only disdain and darkened minds. He was not on trial. He was there for them to decide if he should receive a license to preach. Were his credentials satisfactory? Was his message provocative without being disturbing?

Even though he was deeply disturbed by what he saw, he was not going to tear down any idols as an opening. That’s the root word from which we get “iconclast” or one who destroys icons and the strongly held beliefs of others. That was not Paul’s intent. In fishing language he was not going to “hook ’em and yank ’em” but instead was fly fishing. He wanted to start with subtlety and gradually lead them toward his basket. It didn’t work but he tried. He starts not with an argument but a tip of his hat to their devotion and religiosity. They appreciate the finer things. That is obvious. But, there is one thing he has noticed. They must not have everything their philosophies of simplicity and virtue promise. There must be something missing because there is still the nagging sense of there being a god or a way to happiness they have ignored or missed. Like us, there was a persistent and nagging sense of something missing, something that would make things right, something we’ve lost or not yet discovered. There’s a permanent vacancy light on in our heart’s window.

It’s true for all of us he reassures them. We all are groping for the one true God and we all have gone down different paths and cul de sacs looking for him. But all the while we were looking for him he has been standing right next to us. He is not far away or detached. He is here in the midst of us. What we long for is not in the distance. It is next to us. Have you ever walked down a dark hallway and suddenly without seeing it you “sense” there is a wall or a door? It is as if the air thickens. We cannot see it but either due to a change in air pressure or some kind of sensitivity we just know we are approaching something solid and we should be careful. It’s the same with God. While we cannot see him we have a built in sensor that tells us he is near. He is close by. It reminds me of the lines from T.S. Eliot.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

But to describe him would be like Jonah describing a whale from inside the belly. No one can picture who God is because no one but one has been on the outside. No one has seen God except the Son. So we all grope to find words that define the inside of the belly thinking it will be God and none of us come close. We all construct him with the materials we have at hand. For some, it is reason and duty. For others, it is emotion or fear or sympathy for people. For some, it is an all inclusive tolerance and belief in the lowest common denominator. It is the great soul or the ground of being. So God has to come close to us and reveal himself for who he is.

That would have been a novel thought for both Stoics and Epicureans. God was far removed from them. In fact, it was not even necessary that he exist at all. It was the pursuit of this world happiness and self-fulfillment that mattered most. All this talk about the God who created us and is the Lord of heaven and earth is getting close to exclusivity and threatens their idea of many paths to happiness. I suspect even they did not take their idols seriously. After all, someone once said of Athens, “It is easier to find a god than to find a man.” There were more idols in Athens than all the rest of the ancient world combined. They had turned religion into a commodity.

But then Paul edges them closer to the sore point. He uses the word “ignorance” as if he meant it for them. And he does. More than that, he now takes an even more serious and confronting tone. He uses words like “commands”, “repent”, “judge” and “justice”. This is not interesting anymore. The novelty has worn off. We like options and interesting ideas but not people who come into our well-defined, petty and self-important world with all those words that make us uncomfortable. After all, the whole purpose of religion is to make us comfortable, isn’t it. “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” That’s what C.S. Lewis said and that’s what Paul was doing. Paul was yelling at a sleepwalker and once roused they can be dangerous to themselves and others.

But he does, in a sense, yell at them. He shouts the good news. Jesus died and has risen and will judge the world. But, instead of believing, they dismiss him. No one believes in resurrection except in some kind of symbolic sense like atoms recombining or Spring following Winter but the arrogance of this little know-nothing plagiarist telling us that we, the elite, will be judged by a dead Jew is too much. The notion that the whole world will be judged by the standard of one insignificant and forgotten man is more than they can take. The interview is over. Paul’s chances for joining the club are finished and except for two men and a woman he is dismissed with sneers.

Paul never goes back to Athens. As far as I know, he never attempts to preach again to complete unbelievers – only to Jews and god-fearing Greeks. That may have been the best failure of his life. He realized that mission was for others and he concentrated on those to whom he was called. And because of this failure to convince the philosophers we have three of the most stunning passages in the New Testament. Paul’s declarations of the confusing simplicity of the Gospel.

Read Romans 1 from the perspective of his experience in Athens.

Romans 1:18:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

1 Corinthians 1:18-28:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

Colossians 1:15-20:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[g] your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Even now we find people hoping to make the Gospel completely reasonable to the men of Athens – and they always fail because ultimately the Gospel is offensive in some way to those who say they will believe if only we could convince their reason or offer enough proofs.

G.K. Chesterton said, “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man” and he was right. So we need to be careful when we hear people promote Paul’s address on Mars Hill as a template for presenting the Gospel to intellectuals and the elite. It didn’t really work. In the end, the Gospel is a mystery and only understood by faith that makes a man or woman take a risk and go beyond what they can know for sure.

Maybe the Gospel is best expressed this way by the poet Mary Oliver’s simple advice in “Instructions for living a life.”

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

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