“Don’t go to Athens,” they said.
Paul’s companions warned him as they followed him on the road up to the Greek city.
“They’re a bunch of hoity toity intellectuals who just love to hear themselves talk. They are too smart for their own good! They just want to hear whatever idea is new and different, so that they can criticize it and throw it out on the trash heap will all of the other ideas. They care less about Truth than they do about novelty!”
Paul nodded as he continued up the road.
“Well, if you won’t listen to us about where you are headed, remember where you are coming from. How did they react to your message? They put you in jail and threw you out of town! That’s what they did! In Philippi. In Thessalonica. In Beroea. Why tempt fate any more than you already have? Why don’t you go back to somewhere where we already have a presence? Why not go somewhere safe?”
“Uh huh,” mumbled Paul, clearly barely listening as he kept walking.
“They have a synagogue there, but it might as well just be a warehouse for matzah. It is completely ineffectual and the Pharisees who teach there even hate it. No one in that town is going to listen to your words about Jesus. No one cares. Why waste the effort? You aren’t going to change them!”
Finally, Paul stopped and turned around and looked at his companions. He spoke carefully and thoughtfully: “It’s not my job to change them. It’s my job to preach.” And he turned around and kept walking up the road to Athens.
And he was right. He didn’t go to the synagogue, even though that was his regular pattern. Instead, once he arrived, he wandered through the streets of Athens, looking at all of the temples and shrines and before long, he ended up in the middle of the city, on the place called Mars Hill. In the process, he was rejecting, the anti-intellectualism of his companions who would have written off the college town wholesale. And he joined in conversation – the word Luke uses is symballo, which is a collegial conversation with a constructive end…not a red-faced rant or a closed-minded tirade. He engaged in symballo, with the hope of learning and understanding one another. With the philosophers and the Epicureans and the Stoics surrounding him, Paul began to speak.
Anti-intellectualism, the tendency likely felt by many of Paul’s companions, is a long standing danger to the church: fueled by fear of rigorous intellectual debate, many Christians fear academia and those who inhabit that world. They fear that learning or debate or intellectual doubt will somehow threaten our faith or devalue our beliefs or even somehow harm our God. I, for one, am glad that Paul was anything but anti-intellectual. Engaging in symballo was a matter of faith and a matter of mission for him.
I don’t know about you, but when I moved to Lawrence, more than one person said that they would pray for me around all those intellectuals in that college town. “They don’t really believe. They are too smart for their own good. Churches there are ineffectual because the true religion is The University.”
I’m glad I didn’t listen to them. I am glad that I chose to come to a place where we worship God with our bodies, souls, AND our minds – as the youth reminded us last week.
I look out this morning on a host of teachers and professors and – gasp – intellectuals who believe that God is a God of our minds as well as our hearts. And I see in them a faith that is not only reasoned and thoughtful, but also committed and devoted and emotional.
And of course, we aren’t the only ones. I want to introduce a name that perhaps many of you will not be familiar with: Francis Spufford. Spufford is a member of the Royal Society of Literature in England, which means he is an accomplished and well-respected author. He writes primarily nonfiction, and has been lauded with award after award for his works. He is an intellectual – a British one even…tweed jacket and all. Yet, the reason I introduce him to you today is not his list of literary awards, but his faith. Spufford has written a brilliant and witty book titled Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Emotional Sense. In it, he makes an argument for faith that is reasoned and wise and both emotional and intellectual. He pushes back against those who would claim that Christianity is unreasonable magical voodoo, or worse – brainwashing toward violence and discrimination.
Yet, his pushback is not a proof of God. In fact, he says you can’t prove the existence of God in the same way you could prove the existence of an object or person, any more than you could prove the existence of love. Some will always doubt, and we can’t say enough to keep them from doubting. His response, though to that doubt is this: (Christianity is) “something I came back to, freely, as an adult, after twenty-odd years of atheism, because piece by piece I have found that it answers my need, and corresponds to emotional reality for me. I also find that the elaborated structure of meaning it builds, the story it tells, explains that reality more justly, more profoundly, more scrupulously and plausibly than any of the alternatives.”
Which is an echo of an argument of another intellectual believer, who spoke to the Athenians almost 2,000 years ago….
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” said Paul. He knew how he could hook them with a few complements and flattery. But he quickly goes right to the heart of the matter.
“For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription ‘to an unknown god.’”
You see, it seems that the Athenians were so ready to worship and seek the novelty of the next big thing, that they were even willing to bow down to an idol that didn’t even have a name. Just in case they missed one, they decided to cover the bases. Paul saw and named the fact that religion was for the Athenians just one of a whole host of leisurely pursuits:
• Not really a matter of devotion but instead distraction.
• Not really a matter of trust in one who is unseen, but instead reliance on what is seeable or touchable or malleable.
• Not really a matter of whole-heartedness, but instead half-mindedness.
That’s why they threw up a shrine to “an unknown god.” Just in case they missed one. And Paul calls them on it. He reaches back into his history and channels the prophets and the Old Testament preachers who railed against idolatry…“he who is Lord of heaven and earth does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
Idolatry is not just a first century problem, and it is not just about wooden statues or golden gods. It is about anything that we use to replace God. An idol anything that we name as God that is actually something that we make into a god – that which is controllable, malleable, usable – a tool to accomplish our goals or vision. When we remake God in our own image, we are guilty of idolatry. We replace the truth of the one true God with our own individualized gods. And, like Paul, Francis Spufford also calls us on it. He names gods that we create that are not the one true God, and not worthy of our worship:
He rejects the god of violence. Christians have been guilty over the centuries of seeking violence against those of other faiths, those who disagree with us in any way, even against ourselves and our bodies. The god of violence is not the One true God. It is an idol.
He rejects the god of gracelessness. Christians have also been guilty of turning God’s righteousness into our own self-righteousness, and rejoicing in the judgment and punishment of others, instead of following God’s example of grace. The god of gracelessness is not the One true God. It is an idol.
He rejects the god of power. Christians since Constantine have had to struggle with the power that the world gives. Whenever we move from being an oppressed minority to being a powerful majority, we run the risk of missing what Christ came to preach and stand for. Spufford claims, “When Christians try to exercise power as if it were God doing it, cruelty and suffering and tyranny follow swiftly.” The Inquisition. The Crusades. Holy War. The god of power is not the One true God. It is an idol.
He rejects the god of the status quo. He warns that if we begin to follow Christ and it turns out that Jesus just wants us to be what we always have been, be careful. That’s not Jesus you’re following. Our call as Christians is to leave behind the categories of in and out or accepted or rejected. It is to leave behind our old prejudices and assumptions, and follow a new way and a new life. The god of the status quo is not the One true God. It is an idol.
And like Paul, Spufford doesn’t hold back. In fact, if you are easily offended by course words and strong statements, this is not the book for you. Spufford pins his ears back and attacks the idols of our day. The false gods.
In their place, he rejoices, we are invited to follow and worship what he calls the “God of everything.” This is not a God who is malleable, controllable, or usable. It is the God above and beyond and within everything. It is what theologian Paul Tillich calls the Ground of Being. God is in all and throughout all. But yet is also beyond all.
Which is, of course, the echo of an argument made by another believer, about 2,000 years ago…
“In him we live and move and have our being.” Paul said. “You set up a shrine to an unknown God. Let me tell you how you can know this God. Let me tell you about how this God created everything. Created every star in the sky and grain of sand on the beach. And created us, each of us, in his very own image. Formed you intimately and knows every hair on your head. Let me tell you about this God who became one of us. Lived among us. Taught among us. Even died for those teachings. But didn’t stay dead long. Let me tell you about the one who I worship who was raised from the dead, who did not let death have the final say. Who showed that not only was God intimate and personal and “not far from us” but also above and beyond and greater and more powerful than we could ever imagine. Even more powerful than death!
“Let me tell you about the God that I worship!
“This God cannot be captured with stone or wooden images or idols. This God cannot be reduced to a political platform or ideology. This God cannot be controlled or manipulated for our own needs or our own power. This God explodes out of our categories and expectations.
“Let me tell you…”
We celebrate the same story of grace and forgiveness and resurrection, every time we gather together for worship. We tell and retell the story of the one who created the stars and the sand. We tell and retell the story of the one who created each of us lovingly and knowingly. We tell and retell the story of the One who defeated the power of death in his resurrection and ascension.
And as we do, Paul’s story becomes Francis Spufford’s story becomes our story. And the story of grace and forgiveness and resurrection and healing becomes ingrained in our hearts and our lives. As it has been with Francis Spufford and a host of intellectuals and thoughtful Christians like him. For they have found that Christianity makes “surprising emotional sense,” as the title suggests.
And so, I end today with a description from Spufford. It is a part of his story of his experience with the church, which he calls a vessel of hush, and worship, which is where we meet the God of everything. From the chapter called “Big Daddy.”
“Someone, not something, is here. Though it’s on a scale that defeats imagining and exists without location (or exists in all locations at once) I feel what I feel when there’s someone beside me. I am being looked at. I am being known; known in some wholly accurate and complete way that is only possible when the point of view is not another local self in the world but glows in the whole medium in which I live and move. I am being seen from inside, but without any of my own illusions. I am being seen from behind, beneath, beyond. I am being read by what I am made of.” (p. 63)