Today, we continue exploring Paul’s sermon in Athens as a way to open up the wider conversation about God. In part one we addressed why the question “Who or what is God?” has become somewhat meaningless and unhelpful in our modern culture. In Part two, we saw how Paul proves that the “unknown God” is actually known by all (vs27), thus eliminating the idea that Christianity was an exclusive new religion, but the means to God for everyone. Today we go deeper into Paul’s alternative orthodoxy as a roadmap into the modern conversation for our religious and culturally diverse world.
Paul never offers those at the Areopagus the sinner’s prayer, or an invitation to accept Jesus into their hearts. No threat of Hell, no requirements for church attendance, not even the requirement to leave their religion, and yet many believed (v30). How is this possible? Paul is NOT using the same framework the church uses today.
Paul’s anthropology is not based in “otherness.” His faith is inclusive, not exclusive. Paul doesn’t differentiate based on paths, but on proximity (v.27). Paul sees the work of God in others who are very different from himself. He doesn’t diminish their belief, he simply starts on common ground, not in their differences. Expansion, not contraction.
“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Acts 17:23-26
Paul goes right to the heart of religion and points out that while we get all worked up about frameworks, protocols and pomp, God is not so impressed. The altars around Athens showed their religious was similar to Paul’s own belief prior to his Christ experience. Greece was full of temples just as Jerusalem. Paul identifies with the framework, but then proclaims that God is beyond it (v23).
Religion is a box or container. It may be nice, even historical, traditional, and cultural. The pomp and circumstance, rank and file, power hierarchy, elaborate rituals or nuanced requirements certainly take up our time, our energy, and are distracting enough to convince us that “the God in our building” is concerned with all that stuff. Paul deconstructs the whole thing by opening the box of human spirituality, namely: God is the contents not the container, and access God will always be on God’s terms, not ours.
The Christ story means we don’t access God, but God access us. God is found in the marginalized, mundane, and suffering human existence, not the elite, sacred, and set apart. What is more mundane than the life of man? And yet God goes there in Christ Jesus. Paul is saying: “Your religious framework won’t bring you to God any more than mine did. God comes via inner experience” (Saul’s conversion). This is a scandal to Platonic thinking.
Access to God is no longer via external, but internal. The work of Christ is inside-out, not outside in. Paul finds solidarity with their sincerity in which they assemble their altars, then exposes the real altar is life, breath, everything. We don’t go to God, God IS. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. God inhabits all breath. The altar has relocated.
Our ability to see the new altar has to do with “how” we think. Platonic dualism separates sacred and secular, good and bad, right and wrong and divides the world into valid or invalid. The church’s struggle to see how God dwells in every person (regardless of religious belief) indicates that it thinks more like Plato than Jesus or Paul.
What would Paul say if he were walking through our modern cities? What altars would he see? What would he think of our endless suburban temple mortgages and cradle to grave empires? I doubt Paul would celebrate our elaborate faith systems that separate themselves from each other and everyone else. He’d see it as moving backwards.
Humanity and Divinity are joined and displayed in Jesus, and experienced in Paul. This was unbelievable in the Platonic world, and it’s still a scandal today.
Paul’s theology reveals that God is not up there, out there, over there, but only HERE, only NOW. Paul is relocating the starting point of any conversation about God, away from religious frameworks and into inner experience. Thus the modern conversation is for all comers, regardless of belief, origin, or tribe. We all start with the experience we have, nothing more, nothing less. From there we become aware! Waking up is the essence of resurrection.
We know we have awakened to this same experience when we no longer possess “otherness.” Religions compete with their temples. But the Christ story of the temple veil torn in two, creates an open floor plan where otherness is forever lost. No otherness between man and God, nor between each other. We are now the temple (1 Corinthians 6:19).
What about you? Are you completely hung up on religious distinctives? Can you distinguish between your box and its contents? Do you diminish others over your box? If so, Paul’s invitation to you is to go wider and exchange Plato for Jesus. The voice of the institution is strong but narrows us, but the inner voice of God expands us.
Are you skeptical of organized religion? You’re in good company. Like Paul you probably intuit that one is no better than the other. Paul’s invitation to you is to go deeper and narrower with that part of you that wonders, that possesses awe, or has endless questions. Work from the inside out, trusting the voice within.
God’s voice within always leads to a bigger, more inclusive place, where God and humanity are joined. By any other name, this is always the story of Christ.
Thus the altar of the unknown God is now relocated within each of us. The meeting point of God is not our religion box, but in all life, breath and everything.
May we have eyes to see.