Holy Trinitarians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully on the objects of your worship, I found among them, your sanctuary, with the inscription, “Loving not Judging.”
That’s the way I imagine Paul preaching to you–us–if he were here today. At least if he were going to preach to us at all like he preached to the Athenians in our first reading from Acts, that’s the way he would begin.
He’s at the Areopagus when our story begins, which is a rock outcropping in Athens, named for Ares, the Greek god of war. If you know your Greek mythology, it’s where the Greeks believed Ares was put on trial for the murder of Poseidon’s son, Halirrhothius. Areopagus is also the Greek word used for a city council that would hear public debates. But all of that is besides the point–sort of.
We learn, from the Areopagus, that the Greeks were polytheists, meaning they believed in many gods. Ares was one of their twelve major deities. The altar inscription Paul finds in Athens, then, “To an unknown god,” was a way for the Greeks to “cover their bases,” in the case that there was an additional god out there somewhere, but had not yet been revealed to them or that they had not yet discovered.
The Epicureans (and I know, this is more than you probably want to know about the Greeks, but stick with me, there’s a point–I promise) were the ones who brought Paul to the Areopagus to question him–not because they necessarily disagreed with what he was he saying, but because they were curious. It was a new teaching and the Epicureans were the intellectuals of the day and naturally interested in issues of religion. Of course, what Paul wants to show them is that God, capital ‘G,’ “who made the world and everything in it” is, in fact, this god they do not yet know, but the God whom, ultimately, they are seeking. What Paul is doing for them is filling in the gaps left by an unknown god.
I think if Paul were preaching today, it’s also what he’d be doing, at least to a certain extent. I don’t think he’d be responding to polytheism, a religion with multiple gods as much as would be secularism, that is, no god, or no religion.
“Religion” is a loaded word these days. On one hand, there are still some–many, probably–who would lift up religion in its traditional, “gimme that old time religion” sense. On the other hand, “religion” seems to be taking on much more secular overtones, maybe hearkening back to John Lennon and his plea: “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too.” Increasingly, people are turning away from religion, especially young people, they tell us, as they perceive it as being hypocritical. We’ve all heard the statistics on the decline of mainline Protestantism. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that half of all Americans and 60% of those between the ages of 18-29 agree that religious groups are driving young people away by being too judgmental about LGBT issues. The numbers have gone down since the original poll in 2013 and Holy Trinity is certainly an exception to that (remember–these are general perceptions) but still, that doesn’t speak well for religion, in its general and traditional sense.
We’re much more likely to hear the word “religious” to refer to secular practices and habits and much less to refer to worship and church attendance. You exercise religiously. You tend religiously to your aging parents. You do yard work religiously.
The effect of all of this is not unlike the situation with the Athenians. We’re tempted–and by “we” I mean society, not Holy Trinity–to worship an unknown god–which, literally, in the Greek is–and listen carefully–an “agnostos theos.” Yes, it’s where we get the word “agnostic.” Our god becomes unknown to us when we give up on religion in favor of something like secular humanism, which basically means we have the ability to behave morally and ethically in this world without believing in or specifically knowing about God.
I suppose that’s true. “Loving not Judging” for example, while very moral and ethical in nature, says nothing specific about Christianity or Jesus. You could live your life according to this mission, perhaps even come up with this mission yourself, without ever stepping foot in a church.At least, I think you could, though I don’t suppose any of us will ever know for sure, will we?
What in the world, then, is the point of this more traditional sense of religion? What’s the benefit of filling in the gaps left by an unknown God, as Paul does for the Athenians, and perhaps for us? What’s the use of grounding our mission and ethics in the risen Christ? Well, listen again to the way Paul describes it:
The 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, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From 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, so 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.
We might point out, first, that there is an acknowledgment in this that God is the One who gives–life and breath and all things–to all people and that part of being created by God means that we can search for, and find, God. In that description of God is an inherent understanding of justice and equality–that God gives to all and is accessible to all. That’s how we ground our mission in religion, but it still doesn’t quite understand the benefit of it, for simply grounding it in our religion does not make it uniquely ours.
The benefit of this is relationship, which, I think is ultimately what we are searching for, in the end. There is a certain amount of grace, (okay, an abundance of grace) that comes from a God “who is not served by human hands,” as Paul puts it Acts, or “of whom we can receive, but to whom we may not give,” as Martin Luther puts it in one of his prayers. And out of that grace comes relationship and all that it entails–gratitude, sorrow, love, praise, forgiveness. If all we had was an altar to an unknown god, “agnostic faith,” which I’m not necessarily criticizing, but describing as mission without knowing or understanding its source, we would miss out on what is, ultimately, the most loving relationship we will ever know and, I think, our “loving not judging” that happens out there in the world would be quite weaker than it is when we can ground it in the God who “gives to mortals life and breath and all things” and the God “in whom we live and breathe and have our being.”
Sometimes, the term “God of the gaps” is used as evidence for the existence of God. The gaps in scientific knowledge leave room for the work of a divine being. You’ve got to fill those gaps with something, so you might as well call is “God.” In some ways, Paul is filling in the gaps left by the Athenians’ unknown God with the God “who made the world and all that is in it.” In so many more ways, however, our God causes those gaps left by so many unknowns not simply to be filled as one would fill in a ditch with dirt, but to to overflow, teeming with grace and mercy, as a volcano that erupts with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
I know it’s a tough time to maintain confidence in religion and certainly in this 500th anniversary of the reformation, we should remember that religion needs constant reforming. BUT, that said, for the sake of the world, we cannot give up–or rather, God will not give up–on filling in the gaps left in a very secular society with a love grounded in relationship with a loving God.