Sermon: Idle Idols

05-25-2014     Preaching Text: “Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.’” (Acts 17:22)

A few weeks ago Linda and I went to a lecture by a well-known academic who teaches religion at Boston University, Stephen Prothero. He was speaking at Cape Cod Academy, a private school in Osterville.

Perhaps best known for advocating that the Bible be taught in public schools, not from an evangelistic point of view, but rather as a foundational document without which American and Western civilization makes little sense, without which students are left with a large gap in terms of understanding our political, social, literary, and intellectual history.

Along these same lines, he has a new book which seeks to identify what he sees as the “canon” of American civilization, a list of the most important books, speeches, and laws within the history of the American experiment. He places, for instance, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail alongside The Declaration of Independence. To know America, he argues, each plays a pivotal role.

But as the evening wore on, I found myself becoming vaguely restless. For as gracious and informative as he was, I wasn’t entirely sure what the overall point was. He struck me as an encyclopedia of information, as a computer data base containing voluminous facts, yet I wasn’t sure, as I say, where all the information was pointing to.

He lamented the current “culture wars” but never seemed to offer any solution or proposal, instead concluding with a rather vague plea for greater civility within the public square. But how, I wondered?

In looking over today’s reading from Acts, I thought of him. Athens, after all, was the greatest university town in the world. It was filled with academics, philosophers, and other various thinkers. Nothing pleased an Athenian more than discussing, debating, and arguing over theories and ideas.

But, as with many academicians, the residents of Athens, at least according to historical accounts, mostly just wanted to talk. They weren’t, in other words, all that interested in action – or even, one might add, drawing conclusions! Instead, they mostly valued mental acrobatics; they liked intellectual stimulation for the sake of intellectual stimulation.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, Paul had less luck in Athens than anywhere else on his evangelistic tours. The Athenians liked the vagueness of religious and philosophical debate. In fact, as the Book of Acts tells us, the things of religion were understood as veiled and unknowable to the human mind. Which meant, for one thing, that no one could be held morally accountable.

I was struck by Paul’s initial reaction to what he sees in Athens. At first, we are told, he sees all the ineffectual idols all over the city (it was said that in ancient Athens it was easier to bump into an idol than a person!) and is “deeply distressed” over the sight. Eugene Peterson, in the Message, puts it that the more Paul saw these idols the “angrier” he got!

Yet as Paul stands on Mars Hill, or the Areopagus, he offers nothing but pastoral words. “Athenians,” he says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” while citing the innumerable idols and statues all over the city, or, as he diplomatically calls them, “the objects of your worship”.

In a brilliant evangelistic move, he then remarks on an altar he had seen with the inscription, “To an unknown god,” and proceeds to tell them about Jesus Christ, the unknown God.

His next step is to argue that Jesus Christ is not some idle idol, not a god of murky inconclusiveness, but a definite and defining God. As such, among other things, there is no excuse for a dithering intellectualism. In fact there will be a day of reckoning no less!

Elsewhere in his talk, he defines all intellectual religious inquiry: that every single human being, as a creature made by and for the one true God, instinctually  longs and searches for God. It’s in our DNA.

In much of the literature I read about church today, I am told how contemporary Americans don’t like to be boxed-in, religiously speaking. They don’t like dogma or any other narrowly perceived vision of God. They prefer, in other words, a vague Athenian-type inconclusiveness.

But notice what Paul does. He engages the philosophers. He argues his point. To the Epicureans, who held that life is random, the gods remote and uncaring, and that therefore the only proper goal of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, he counters in specific ways.

To the Stoics, who held that everything that happens in life is God’s will, and that therefore the best thing you can do in response is accept whatever comes your way with courage and without resentment, Paul counters in specific ways.

Too often, or so it seems, we Christians avoid the specifics in presenting our faith. We indulge and even encourage the culture’s vague inconclusiveness about religion. After all, we certainly don’t want to appear unenlightened by parroting dusty, centuries-old Christian doctrines.

Then again, human beings are made to formulate doctrine, dogma, as well as specific beliefs. Whether we know it or not, everybody has a philosophy, a belief system, yes, even a religion – and that goes for the atheist as well as the believer.

The question is not, in other words, whether we have a philosophy of life or not. The question is whether we have a good or bad one!

On a related note, we, today, too often hear calls for suppression of certain forms of speech. We’ve all likely read about the various commencement speakers at colleges and universities who recently were disinvited or chose to bow out after intense criticism by students and faculty.

But rather than suppressing speech, and in the spirit of Paul, we should have more speech. The best response to bad speech, in other words, is not suppression or intolerance, but good speech. The best response to bad ideas is good ideas. The best response to bad philosophy is good philosophy. And the best response to bad religion is good religion.

To retreat into a kind of ‘safe zone’ where all ideas are carefully managed or where vagueness and inconclusiveness are considered of highest value no doubt would have been altogether foreign to Paul.

Our challenge, in contradistinction, is to proclaim the gospel with intelligence, respect, and out of genuine love, knowing too we’re all dogmatic creatures, religious at heart. Amen.