Athens in Paul’s day is a bit like Boston in ours: it is a city where history comes alive. Grand, imposing monuments line every square and park; the greats of ages past preside over the ballet of coming and going on the streets below. The heroes seem almost to call down from their pedestals, the women and men of marble and stone all but shouting – “You there! Rise to the demands of your moment, as I did mine!” Here is where epic verse was penned. And there – you can still hear the philosophers quarrel. At this crossing, armies were marshaled and marched off to war. And at that, marathoners collapsed, their races won. To walk the boulevards and back ways of Athens, as of Boston, is to see the best of our culture – our ideals of opportunity, justice, creativity, education, sacrifice – it is to see them lifted high, celebrated, memorialized. It is to be humbled, is to stand always beneath, always in the shadow, the long shadow of those who have gone before. It is to be crowded upon by the brilliant and the mighty and the virtuous, not only of yesteryear, but of today, too. It is to be in the company, right now!, of perhaps some of the smartest, most interesting and daring people who have ever lived, talking in languages you cannot understand about things you cannot understand. What momentous, triumph of a drama is being staged just beyond the marketplace? Paul can only imagine! What new medicines are being developed in labs across town, what new paradigms laid out in lecture halls right over the river? We can only imagine! To be in Athens in the First Century, to be in Boston in the Twenty-First, is to feel the thinking and discovery and wonderment everywhere around you. It is to sense the energy of many a hard-won ‘aha!’ in the air. It is to be small before big ideas and big dreams. Paul wanders the city, as maybe some of us wander ours, at once captivated by the intellectual and cultural vibrancy, and unsure how to share in it. For much of the inquiry and the art and the science that thrills Paul, and that thrills us, arises from a thought-world felt to be inhospitable to Christian faith. Paul worries, as maybe some of us worry: how does a believer relate to the broader society? In what ways should a person’s religious commitments come to bear upon their experience and enjoyment of the surrounding culture – a culture by no means wholly evil or perverse, but in fact immensely compelling, with quite a lot to commend for it?
Paul worries, he does. He is, as the scripture says, ‘deeply distressed’. So much of what he sees draws him in, and yet, so much unsettles and disturbs. Were he to withdraw from the carnival of humanity-at-its-most-complex that is life in a city where learning and striving count for everything, were he to hole up, were he to seek refuge in comfortable, in safer habits of thought – we might forgive him that. But Paul does not retreat, quite the opposite: We see him moving back and forth between the synagogue (a haven of religious life, a warm den of piety where Paul could rest in the familiarity of the teachings and the hymns and the prayers) and the forum, where intellectuals boldly hold court; and we see him arguing with everyone, testing the merits of whatever position he hears espoused. He debates ‘devout persons’ and skeptics alike. He challenges the rabbis with the avant-garde syntheses of the philosophers, and challenges the philosophers with the ancient wisdom of the rabbis. Paul embraces a sort of theological cosmopolitanism. The Paul who once called himself ‘a Jew’s Jew’, a mensch who honored the traditions of his upbringing unimpeachably, to the point even of fighting to protect their purity and integrity in fast-changing times, he now casts himself into the currents of Athenian thinking and expression, he immerses himself in, he entrusts himself to the culture. And there is real risk in this; he might lose his firm, sure footing, might be carried off, might drift far from his faith.
But in opening his mind to different perspectives and opening his heart to different people, Paul does not lose his faith; Paul finds it, finds it reflected back to him in the sparkling gems of truth he sees everywhere he looks. The culture of these so-called ‘pagans’ is filled with insights that enrich Paul’s understanding and Paul’s practice of his own religion. (And note: I did not, did not say that there are aspects – few and far between, of course! – that there are aspects of pagan culture that Paul guesses he could be pained to tolerate. No, the world of the skeptics, of the Epicureans and of the Stoics, the world of the best and the brightest out there is a treasure trove of grist for deep spiritual reflection and discovery.) The philosophy Paul studies enables him to articulate his convictions with greater sophistication and nuance and clarity. The philosophy Paul quotes from becomes the very backbone of the mature thinking we see in the majority of the New Testament writings that bear his name. We hear from Paul in Athens ‘as some of your own poets have said, we are all God’s offspring;’ this seed of a thought, borrowed from those who do not share his faith in Christ, will grow and grow in his mind so that, much later, in his letter to the church at Rome, Paul will write of God’s adopting us as sons and daughters, claiming us, in Christ, as children and heirs. We hear from Paul in Athens, ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ This grain of insight, on offer from those who are not themselves believers, will become solid ground within him so that by the time he writes his letter to the church at Colossae, he will stand tall and sure on the rock of Christ, as he now says, Christ ‘through whom and for whom all things have been created, and in whom all things hold together.’
Paul’s confidence in taking the insights of the culture at large to be his own, in letting himself come under their influence, in allowing them to shape his faith commitments – Paul’s confidence in entrusting himself to the world is in fact a confidence in the God whom he believes has made and moves in the world. Athens in his day, and Boston in ours, is a great spectacle of God’s glory, is a theater in which God acts in all things and through all things for the good of all things. God is present everywhere, in everyone, and in everything. Our city, our culture is a temple all its own, a temple inhabited by the Holy One, a temple out from which blessing and revelation and grace flow, flow along in unimaginably strange and wonderful courses. God is the healing in every hospital and nursing home. God is the beauty in every art galley and concert hall. God is the joy in every cafe and nightclub. God is the truth in every classroom and research lab. And God would share God’s healing, God would share God’s joy, God would share God’s truth with us. God is the Life within the life of the city. And God would share God’s life with us.