Paul in the Areopagus
Paul in the Areopagus, 27 August 2023
A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham, at Choral Evensong
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
2 Kings 6:8-23 and Acts 17:15-end
The subject of religion is big news in our modern world. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in matters of faith in the world media that few would have predicted. From the rise of religious fundamentalism in recent decades, to the influence of the Christian vote in determining the outcome of American presidential elections, to debates about equality laws in our own country, religious affairs have thrust themselves into our collective consciousness in a way that we- even though we are British and do not like to discuss religion- can no longer avoid. Contrary to all predictions of its gradual decline, the relegation of faith into the private sphere, religion and questions of faith are now an inevitable part of our public debates and discussions. Religion, it seems, is back on the agenda, albeit in new and challenging, and sometimes frightening, ways.
Ironically, it is often atheists we have to thank for this. Richard Dawkins has probably done more to reawaken interest in God and keep questions of faith alive in the public imagination than any preacher could do. There are a huge number of books out there, responding to Dawkins’ famous book The God Delusion– such as Alistair McGrath’s amusingly titled The Dawkins Delusion, or Keith Ward’s Why there Almost Certainly is a God or Tina Beattie’s The New Atheists. Lively debates as to the existence of God, and the influence of religion in society- whether it’s felt to be benign or otherwise- continue.
The Book of Acts tells the story of the founding of the Church. In the episode we heard read to us in our second lesson this evening, Paul addresses the unbelievers in Athens, the cultural opinion formers of his day. The Athenian culture, like ours, recognised the importance, in a multicultural world, of religious questioning and debate, of being open to new ways of making sense of the world; and this legendary Athenian curiosity leads Paul into the Areopagus, where he is called upon to account for his faith. The book of Acts is full of long speeches in which Peter and Paul and others put the case for their newfound faith through the skilled use of rhetoric. During 2011, the year of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, actors at the Globe Theatre undertook to “perform” readings of the whole King James version of the Bible over a period of months- and I remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed listening to these passages from Acts; to me, hearing them read aloud by a skilled actor captured something of the impassioned atmosphere in which Christians argued alongside Jews and Epicureans and Stoics, in a culture where, as in our own, Christianity was just one among a plurality of religions and ideas competing for airspace.
In this combative environment, Paul says something we might find surprising. Rather than simply denouncing his unbelieving opponents as godless and immoral, he looks to where he sees points of connection with them, common ground. Even atheists, he says in our reading today, have something of God in them. Look at what some of the Athenian poets have written, he says- “For we too are his offspring”- here is an insight from a non-believer that affirms an idea close to Paul’s heart, that God is capable of loving beyond the artificial boundaries we erect between ourselves; God’s expansive love extends to Gentile as well as Jew, enemy as well as friend.
Much of the debate in our media between atheist fundamentalists like Dawkins, and the- often conservative- Christians who respond to them is characterised by mutual dislike and arrogant disdain, the “perennial stag-fight between the men of Big Ideas,” as the Roman Catholic feminist theologian Tina Beattie memorably puts it, in her book The New Atheism (2007), p.9 that I mentioned earlier, with neither side willing to acknowledge anything of value in the insights of the other. But this does not reflect the spirit of St Paul. Paul, in the book of Acts, appeals to the goodness of creation, the natural order and beauty of the world, that speak to him and to the Athenians alike of God, albeit a God as yet unknown to them. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul uses arguments from nature to appeal to Christians; here he uses them to appeal to people who are searching- for meaning, for transcendence- that they might perhaps reach out for God and find him. At the same time, this belief in the goodness of the created order as we experience it through the study of philosophy and the sciences leads Paul to affirm that the knowledge and ideas of his opponents are truthful, even if partial and incomplete. “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellent and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things,” he writes elsewhere, in the letter to the Philippians (Philippians 4:8).
As Christians, ours is a universal story- a metanarrative. We believe that, in ways we will not fully understand until the end of time, Christ is the saviour, not only of all humankind, but of the cosmos itself. But Paul encourages us to recognise that the locus or our faith is not confined to the institutional Church, it encompasses instead the whole of creation. And while Christ is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, we are also called to recognise signs of Christ’s sustaining and redeeming activity in all things.
If our faith is a way of life, not just a set of ideas, our spiritual lives a deepening of a relationship of trust, not fear, in which traditional divisions give way to a focus on God and the story of God’s love for this world, then there should be no closing down of genuine dialogue and openness to others. As St Peter writes in his first letter, “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” Reverence means respect, a vision that recognises the divine spark in every human being, that expresses faith, not through evangelisation and an agenda to convert, so much as in dialogue and a shared quest for meaning. We are called to be confident in our faith, yes, to defend it, but not to be defensive, to learn as well as to teach, to listen as well as to speak, and to allow our faith to be nourished by all the peoples who inhabit our planet and all the forms of life which make up its dynamic movement.
The renewed interest in our media in religion, then, should be something to celebrate for the Church. For while fundamentalists, either religious or atheist, are unlikely to change their views, this new openness to discussing matters of faith in our public arena gives us a new opportunity to engage, as did Paul, with our postmodern culture. Paul discovered a point of connection through a poem. Art and beauty, creativity and imagination, provide a connecting narrative between the endeavours of science and of religion. They give us a shared language of transcendence, and invite us into conversations without violence, dialogue without closure. All we have to do is be open to listen and to learn, to watch for the movement of the Spirit in creation, the God who is always both beside us and beyond us, and to follow where the Spirit is leading.