GK Chesterton is reputed to have said, ‘When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing anything’.
In today’s changing world Christianity is often dismissed as being anti-intellectual: ‘No-one with half a brain could be a Christian’. Many reject it, not because they think it is false, but because they think it is trivial. If they think at all about the meaning of life, they want something that hangs together and makes sense of the complex cluster of their ideas, their longings and their experiences. Many simply want a world-view that makes them feel good.
And if we raise the subject of God, people tell us they don’t like the idea of ‘God’ because he would want to interfere with their life and be a kill-joy. ‘God is all right,’ they say, ‘as long as he doesn’t intrude into my space. I’ll call you, God. Don’t you call me!’
We live in a society where there is a complex set of ideas – longing for freedom, belief that this world is all there is, and a relativism of ‘your truth and my truth’. Yet in the cities of the West there is a lingering memory of the God of the Bible. Most people still agree that, if there is a God, there is only one God and that he exists as a spirit – without a body. People also agree that, if God exists, he is love – not someone filled with hate.
Response? How then do we respond to such a cluster of ideas? In Acts 17:22-31, Luke records Paul’s address to the Areopagus in ancient Athens. In Acts 17:16 we read that when Paul first came to the city he was deeply distressed to see that it was full of idols. John Stott commented, ‘Paul saw that the city was smothered with idols. He felt deeply distressed and provoked by the idolatry because it dishonored the name of God.’
Luke records what Paul did: he spoke in the synagogue with the Jews and devout persons, and also in the marketplace with those who happened to be there. We can’t help but admire Paul – not content only to be an intelligent tourist, taking in the sights and culture of one of the most remarkable cities of the ancient world.
Paul’s response was to defend and promote the God of good news. It is evidence of his impact that the Athenian philosophers wanted to ask him questions: ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’
Two groups took him to task. The Epicureans, ‘philosophers of the garden’, reckoned the gods were so remote that they had no interest in or influence on human affairs. Life was a matter of chance. Men and women should pursue pleasure for there would be no judgment, and no life after death. The Stoics, ‘philosophers of the porch’, said there was a supreme god that they confused with a pantheistic ‘world soul’. They emphasized fatalism, submission, and coping with pain (‘stoicism’).
Into this bazaar of ideas and beliefs Paul came. When asked what he taught, he stood up at the Areopagus and said: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22ff).
It was an ingenious opening to what became both a defense and a presentation of God’s gospel before the Athenian intelligentsia. Without quoting from the Bible yet drawing from what it reveals about God, he engaged with contemporary ideas within Greek thought. He pointed to five features about this ‘unknown God’ – features that I will identify next Wednesday.
In the meantime, you might like to consider the world-views and beliefs held by people you know. You might also consider questions you could ask them, to get them thinking about the larger issues of life and their place within it all.