Acts 17.16-34: 16 While Paul was waiting for [his fellow missionaries] in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place* every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For 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. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor* he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God* and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.”
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’
32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
I spent the day in the Union at our booth for Club Fest, handing out fliers, talking with students and generally promoting our ministry here at the University Lutheran Center. We were given a table next to the Iowa State Pagan Community – a location that led to a lot of double-takes and smiles this afternoon. I didn’t mind the double-takes or the smiles. I didn’t like the flinches I saw when people noticed the Pagan Community’s table. What I liked even less was the winking, conspiratorial “do you mind being next to those people” I sometimes got from other Christians as they noticed our neighbors.
I’m not saying I’m a pagan at heart. Far from it. One of the folks at their table spent the afternoon complaining about how the Christians had stolen all of our holidays from pagan observances (guilty, but that doesn’t mean pagans can’t continue to celebrate solstice), and laughing about proudly wearing a shirt with a pentagram the next time the fundamentalist Jesus-shouters visit campus (which I’d dearly love to see, because I can’t stand the Jesus-shouters, either). We disagree about the heart of what it means to be religious and, from what I could tell, we disagree about the true nature of Christian faith and practice. The fact that they see a caricature of what we do is, I would imagine, reciprocal: having never set foot in a pagan ceremony or community of any kind, I’m completely ignorant of their rites and customs, so how could I comment on their community with any kind of accuracy?
Here’s the thing I didn’t like about my fellow Christians assuming I had a problem with those people: doesn’t anyone remember that we were once those people, too? When Paul spoke at the Aereopagus in Athens, when Peter addressed the crowds at Pentecost, when Augustine and Irenaeus were preaching throughout the Mediterranean, they were all those people in their societies: the weirdos with the strange beliefs, the minority religious folk, the people who weren’t ‘fitting in’ to society. 1500 years of Christendom, where Christianity was often the only religious choice for our ancestors, trained us to consider our religion the norm for all people, and view others with suspicion and, unfortunately, outright derision, as I saw several times today.
Here’s the other thing: the days of Christendom are over. We are actually on our way back to being those people again. It’s already happened in Europe, and it’s happening here in America, too. We are in a society where deep, regular participation in a faith community is becoming the exception, and we need to realize that truth now, for our sake as Christians and for the sake of the world in which we serve.
If Paul had considered himself to be among those people in Athens, it’s very likely he wouldn’t have found a receptive audience at all. But notice that when Paul began to address the crowds, he didn’t belittle or ridicule the faith of the people of Athens: he acknowledged their desire for spiritual truth, and then made a bold case for what had been revealed to him by Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. He neither denied his faith nor pretended to be someone other than a disciple of Jesus, yet his acknowledgment of other religious practices allowed his own message to be heard more clearly and in a more positive light. His willingness to approach other faiths lent credence to his own.
That’s a lesson we would do well to learn. I am convinced that respectful conversation with a person of another faith does far more good for the kingdom of God than some idiot with a sign promising damnation for those who refuse to repent. We believe in a God who loves so passionately that his own Son came to give his life away for all of humanity, Christians and pagans alike: aren’t we called, then, to recognize the image of God in those who do not see it in themselves?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem titled “Christians and Pagans” during his captivity in Tegel Prison in Berlin, in July 1944:
All people go to God in need,
For help and calm and food they plead.
That sickness, guilt and death may cease,
All, Christians and Pagans, pray for peace.
But some turn to God in God’s need and dread,
A God poor, despised, without roof or bread.
By sin’s harm weakened and by death distressed,
Christians stand steadfast by their God oppressed.
God goes to all in their need and dread,
Their souls’ loving grace and their bodies’ bread.
By the crucified Lord who for them was slain,
Both Christian and pagan God’s pardon gain.*
A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (c) 1995 by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds. Published by Harper Collins Publishers, New York. p. 515