I suspect that if St. Paul landed almost anywhere in America today he might say the very same thing he said to the Athenians: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” Or, as Eugene Peterson writes it in his paraphrase “The Message,” “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously.”
Indeed, we Americans do too. I downloaded a report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and discovered that among all adults contacted:
78.4% called themselves Christian of which 51.3% were Protestants of which 26.3 were Evangelicals, 18% Mainline and 7% historic black churches. Catholics were 24%, Mormons 1.7%, and so on through the various Greek, Russian and other orthodox believers.
4.7% were “Other Religions” – various Jewish expressions 1.7%, Buddhist less than 1%, Muslims the same, Hindus even less – Unitarians and other ‘liberal’ faiths 0.7%.
The “Unaffiliateds” comprised 16.1% of which 1.6% were Atheist, 2.4% Agnostic, 12.1% nothing in particular.
(A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday when I really wanted to be at a lacrosse game, I wished that I was “unaffiliated”!)
The “unaffiliated” have seen the greatest growth and Catholics have “experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation change.”
The Midwest most closely resembles the religious make up of the overall population. The South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of Evangelicals. The Northeast has the greatest concentration of Catholics, and the West – as you might guess – has the largest proportion of unaffiliated – atheists and agnostics.
Back in the Athens of the 1st century there was a great marketplace of religions and philosophical options: Stoics, Platonists, Epicureans, Judaism, Mithras, the Emperor cults of many gods – and Paul was in the midst of it: learning, challenging, engaging, inviting – as much fascinated as depressed – because he saw all these temples and shrine and altars to just about everything. He even saw an altar to “An unknown god” (Agnosto Theo).
I wonder, if St. Paul landed in someplace in America today, what shrine, altars and idols he would see? He would see a whole lot of churches, and other places of worship – some mostly empty. I wonder what he would think about Starbucks, health clubs, casinos, golf clubs and the other places where we “worship” and offer our sacrifices of time, talent and treasure?
I suspect that St. Paul would recognize the similarities between our American civic religion and the civic religion of the Roman Empire.
And I believe that he would still notice that the “unknown god” is doing pretty well – the god of the gaps, the final insurance policy god, the god that covers all the bases, the god that hedges the bets, the god of the doubts even among those who believe.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
And the question remains: how do you and I engage in this marvelously diverse culture? How do we talk to our children who are now unaffiliated, or agnostics, or atheists? How do we talk to cousins and spouses who are more theologically conservative than we are, or trying out one of the multitude of options or those in mixed marriages?
Paul says: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” In other words, “let me introduce you.”
Paul understood that we all are seekers – we search for the connection with the higher powers, we grope for God, and yearn for relationships and meaning, for community, for identity – it is who we are. We feel “awe” and “love” and “sadness.” And Paul says: right there is a proof of God – we look for and detect things that are bigger than us. We know there is something out there: call it Science, call it “doubt,” call it whatever you want.
Did you see the advertisement in the paper this past week – celebrating the new community of Atheists – who are awed by the “natural but not the supernatural?” Sounds to me like a new church: they have community, a creed, they are even evangelizing! Who would have thought atheists would evangelize? I am only sorry that Christianity has made itself so unappealing an option – that we have made God more remote, confusing and unknown.
Paul says: “YES! There IS a connection between what you can see in nature and learn from science and feel intuitively and God.” Paul lifts up our natural yearning to grope after and proclaims that there is a God is groping to find you! A God who seeks the lost sheep. A God who welcomes the prodigal home. My God, what a God!!
This power that creates every living thing is so close…it is not far away. Breathe deeply. The Creator God is in, with, and under all things, for “in God we live and move and have our being.”
Christians understand that we share this insight with others. As St. Paul writes: “even as some of your own poets have said: “For we too are the children of God.”
Faith, you see, is not a battle to be waged but a truth to be shared.
God to us is bigger than anything we can fathom and YET the genius of Christian faith is that the “bigger than anything we can fathom” has become one of us – and dwelt among us. And for the Christian, our faith is not simply intellectual or another philosophy, just another way of looking at the world. It is an ethic – we are held accountable to a God of judgment.
And by “judgment” I don’t mean that some will end up in the pit of fire. I mean God will make all things right. God WILL deal fairly with the poor and the rich. God WILL reconcile the whole world to himself. God WILL welcome every beloved child and thereby judge our prejudices shaped by the color of skin, or the accent, or gender, or sexual orientation.
We Christians have not done a good job of naming this unknown god that people search for.
God holds you and me accountable to living what we believe, and doing what we think God would have us do. Not in fear of God’s retribution, but in hope that we might actually move this crazy world towards the world that God would want.
And for us all that we do is predicated on a man Jesus Christ who lived and died and rose again. Paul is right – if this isn’t our starting point – let’s shut this place down.
For in the resurrection we have this amazing invitation that is ours for the taking: that truly nothing separates us from God’s love, that death is not the end, that life is very much worth living, that suffering and the worst that we can experience, and have experienced don’t get the final word, that truly “it ain’t over, till it’s over.”
We have let that message get away from us. While Christians argue about who gets into heaven, and what you HAVE to belief, we have become a propositional religion instead of a demonstrative faith, a descriptive faith, an interactive faith, an engaging faith that is not embarrassed or apologetic.
And sure, just as in Athens, many might think we are joking, but there will be those for whom your words and your witness—your invitation will turn the light on and be the word they need to hear, what they have always been groping for, the welcome that they have been wanting to receive. They just need an introduction!
So into the religious marketplace we go: in wonder and confidence—and with some intelligence, humor and love–that in Jesus Christ we see God, and in God we live and move and have our being and so does everyone else!
Make the introduction!