Three Cheers for the Athenians!

(Lectionary for May 21, 2017)

“Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). That sentence was surely written by someone who delighted in the tried and true, the stable and dependable, the established and the certain. In fact, it was written by Luke, the author of the third gospel and was composed sometime in the eighth decade ofEl_Greco_-_Saint_Peter_and_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_Projectthe first century, some two generations after the birth of Christianity. For Luke, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was no longer new; it was for him the uncontested and incontestable truth of things, and anyone, even the haughtily intellectual Athenians and their foreign friends, had better get with the program and stop their constant search for the new, because there was no need for that search any more. The Messiah of God had come, lived, died, and been resurrected, and the whole world needed to recognize, accept, and celebrate that reality. The time for a general and continual quest for new knowledge had ended.

Well, has it? I think not. As a died-in-the-wool seeker for truth, both small and capital “t” truth, I hold with my Athenian forebears. I have spent nearly all of my 70 years in little but “the telling and the hearing of something new.” Luke clearly uses the phrase as a first-century put-down, but I hear it as nothing but the correct way to live a life. And right at this point, we face a basic choice about our relationship to the ancient gospel of Jesus; is it an acceptance of certain so-called facts, designated doctrines that are beyond question and dispute, or does it call us precisely to question and dispute as we “work out our faith,” both in fear and trembling and in hard thought and sharp debate?

But first things first. It is very unlikely 1280px-Acropolis_from_Areopagusthat Paul was ever in Athens at all, or if he spent any time there, it was in complete obscurity. Yes, I have been to the site of the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, in the city, more than once, and I have seen the signs that point tourists to the very spot where the evangelist stood to tell the curious, and not-so-curious Athenians about the true identity of their “unknown god.” But when I read Acts 17, I am not reading a speech of Paul, but a reconstructed address of “Paul” by Luke, who had certain theological and sociological fish to fry that interested Paul not at all. Can we really believe that the sharp-tongued, pull-no-punches, impassioned convert, who admonished the Galatians to “castrate themselves,” if they dared to believe something different than he, Paul, had taught them, would suddenly speak to the learned Athenians and friends as if he were a worldly philosopher who quotes Greek poets (Aratus and Cleanthus in this case), speaking so reasonably, with pinkie up, sipping an herbal tea with the rest of the crowd on that day? It defies what we know of the Apostle in all of his genuine letters. Oh, he had his gentle side, no doubt, but crossing verbal swords was his modus, not polite discussion about idolatry.

But of course it serves Luke well to portray Paul in this fashion, painting him as one who could speak with the poor and the worldly wise, and at the last bringing many to belief in Jesus. Hence, the end of this famous scene has several of the listeners convinced so that “some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris (Luke was remarkably inclusive gender-wise), and others with them” (Acts 17:34). Paul, says Luke, can tailor his speech to whatever the crowd demands, and thus can win many to the faith. And so should we preachers, Luke exhorts. OK. Lesson taught and possibly learned.

Though Luke makes hearty fun of the cosmopolitan Athenians and their dilettantish thirst for the new, I find it ironic, at least for me, that the Athenians are my models here, and not Paul. I am finally one of them, a seeker after truth, a quester for the new, a hunter for fuller understanding. I am simply dissatisfied with the easy answer, the quick response, the comfort of the majority. There is always, always, something more to be gleaned, something new and fresh and illuminating to be found, if we do not end the search too soon.

I would suggest that exactly there lies the great problem of the 21st century, the unwillingness of too many of us to probe deeper, to seek longer, to accept at face value so much of what our sources of knowledge cough up for our perusal. In the main I have the media in mind, those interminable fountains of “special reports” and “bulletins” that threaten to drown our ability and desire to discover for ourselves what may be the real truth of things. We need to be more like the Athenians, spending our time “telling and hearing something new,” and if I may add, “something truthful.”

Today’s “fake news” is nothing less than the bane and potential destruction of all that we know and hold dear. When Donald Trump, after nearly four months of a despicable and incompetent administration, still proclaims quite publically that the size of his inaugural crowds was the greatest in history (they were not) and that he would have won the popular vote if millions of illegal ballots had not been cast (there is no evidence of such massive voter fraud), he becomes the instigator, the prime creator of fake news, and undermines the reality that binds us as a common people. His crowds were plainly and factually smaller than nearly all of his predecessors, and he lost the popular vote by nearly 3,000,000 legally cast and counted votes. These are facts; they are not fake news.

The Athenians, who search and try to discern what is new and truthful, who listen to Paul’s astonishing claims of a resurrected man with a discerning and questioning ear, and who though willing “to hear him again about this” (Acts 17:32), maintain their skepticism still, are our prototypes as we attempt to separate wheat from chaff in the news we receive in our over-stimulated and over-saturated days. I am more than happy to listen carefully to Luke’s Paul as he attempts to convince the Athenians that the unknown god they have been worshipping is in fact the well-known God that Paul knows and reveres, I reserve the right and responsibility to embrace what they demonstrate when they, unlike Dionysius and Damaris who leap toward belief and acceptance, withhold full belief but would be glad to hear more. If Luke’s Paul thinks he can convince me to follow this one just because Paul believes that this one has been resurrected from the dead by Paul’s God, he has another think coming to him. I simply do not and cannot believe in the literal resuscitation of a dead man, and if I must believe that to become a follower, then count me out. I hold with the Athenians; I will hear more about this one, but I will go on hearing more, and discerning more, and learning more until my last breath.

To me, belief is not the acceptance of specified doctrines or beliefs, but rather the search for truth, a search that can never really end. True belief is the search itself, and in that I am an Athenian on the Aeropagus, spending my days in the search for something new and true. May your days be equally full of the search for truth, and may your search be fruitful and satisfying and wonderful with the help of the God who is the beginning and end of all our searchingChancelWindowTruth. (Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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  • Iain Lovejoy

    I am not sure why you regard the description of the Athenians curiosity about new things as necessarily a criticism – although I understand this was an Athenian stereotype. The passage says Paul was preaching in the synagogues and in the (presumably Jewish) neighborhood where he was staying, and the ever-curious Athenians invited him to speak to them because they were interested in thus new thing he had to say, and, as a result, a number of them believed. If they hadn’t been interested in new things, they wouldn’t have given Paul a hearing. In 80AD also, Christianity was still a new, periodically persecuted and very much minority religion. I can’t see how the author of Luke / Acts could possibly have thought of it as some kind of ancient settled and universal tradition with thousands of years of pagan tradition and classical philosophy being the “novelty”: this makes no sense.
    I may be wrong, but the interest in new things may be intended to be emulated. I believe that prior to Acts 17 Paul’s preaching to non-Jews had been confined to preaching to “God-fearing” Greeks and proselytes in synagogues. This is the first time (I think) he preaches directly to out-and-out pagans, and it is their initiative and curiosity that leads to it.

  • John C Holbert

    As I noted, I do not believe this story is historical, but rather a piece of Lukan creation to create a Paul who can speak to all folk. My point was simply to say that I stand with the skeptical Athenians, as opposed to Luke’s caricature of them, little that he knows about it in reality.