I guess some Western tourists, when they venture overseas, throw themselves enthusiastically into the full strength experience of a foreign city – wandering through the markets, sampling local food from street vendors, leaving the beaten track – learning a few words of the local language – and for them the overseas holiday becomes a real venture into unknown territory – even if at the cost of coming home with a crook tummy, or of taking a wrong turn and getting lost in a city where you don’t speak the language.
But of course most of us take the less adventurous “package tour” option – I read somewhere recently that McDonalds in Bombay does a roaring trade with Western tourists who prefer to play it safe – a hamburger with fries at a McDonalds any where in the world is virtually identical – so even if you know that it’s not going to be amazingly good you also know that it’s not going to be amazingly bad – on the one hand it’s always a bit bland but on the other hand at least we know it’s never going to surprise us – the lure of the familiar is that at least we know what we are getting.
In a sense, that’s the dilemma for today’s church, and for all of us who are called to proclaim the Christian gospel in a world that more and more looks like a marketplace of ideas and options, a world where there are so many different religions competing for attention, where the dominant religions of competition and consumerism make the claims of the Christian gospel harder and harder to hear. We seem to be faced with a choice – do we go down to the marketplace, in other words, do we work at making the gospel more accessible, more “relevant” in today’s culture, do we try to establish a dialogue and try to find common ground with other religions, do we learn the language and use the insights of modern depth psychology or social analysis or political science – or do we in a sense stick to McDonalds – do we stay within the boundaries of our tradition and faithfully proclaim a gospel in language that fewer and fewer people seem able to hear?
So today St Paul, the accidental tourist, is wandering in the streets and the market place in Athens – as a matter of course starting off at the synagogue, because like every large cosmopolitan city in the ancient world Athens has a sizeable Jewish population and in the middle of this university town with its amazing plurality of cultures and religions and ideas the Jewish community would faithfully observe its own traditions and faithfully worship the one God who made the heavens and the earth – but then Paul ventures out into the market place where there is every conceivable god on offer – quick fire gods who promise immediate gratification, gods for the greedy, gods of ecstatic indulgence, gods of nationalism, gods with all the answers, gods of magic, gods to prop up the Roman political system, gods to keep the working classes happily in their place – gods for the curious – in fact all the gods we can also find in the market place of our own secular culture and sometimes even in our churches.
Paul dives headlong into the “no holds barred” competition of the ancient world’s religious market place and shows that he can stand up intellectually against its best philosophers – at this point we half expect him as a good Jew to launch into a tirade against paganism and idolatry but instead we are startled by what almost sounds like approval – something very close to agreement – “you Athenians are clearly very devout – so devout that you even have an image to an unknown god just in case you’ve maybe left one out”. Very cute.
And yet, Paul isn’t just finding a hook to hang his argument on. He’s hit on something very important, in fact he’s making the same fundamental point that the 4th century BC writer of the Wisdom of Solomon also makes. It’s the fact that this God is unknown that is so important. This most elusive God is the one who can’t be captured by intellectual arguments or ideas, who can’t be pinned down in temples made by human hands, not the one in Jerusalem or the dozens that line the streets of Athens or the shopping malls of Perth. This un-pindownable God Paul claims is the God at the heart of everything – the God of Jews and Greeks, Christians and Muslims and Buddhists, the God of atheists and football fanatics – the divine essence that is as close to us as breathing but that slips through our fingers like water as soon as we try to hold it. And to make his point Paul quotes not a Jewish but a pagan poet, Aratus, who wrote in Athens 300 years earlier “in, or perhaps through, whom we live and move and have our being” – Paul, the monotheistic Jew, recognises a spiritual kinship with the pagan Athenians, the truth that wherever we find ourselves in the bewildering market place of human culture and ideas we are immersed in God and if we are prepared to listen we can hear the rhythm of the divine just beneath the surface of our every day life. As – like Paul – we find ourselves living in a culture and at a time where all sorts of different intellectual fashions and religions collide, we need to learn to listen with every one who – however different from us – is also trying to hear the voice of God’s spirit.
In our own land this Spirit has been represented as the Rainbow Serpent, shimmering in the landscape of lakes and caves and rock formations for tens of thousands of years – we need today to listen to what the Spirit is saying to us as Australians through the spirituality of the Aboriginal people. Many young people find they are most connected to their spirituality through the experience of nature; the deep silence of the desert or the beauty of the sun setting into the ocean – we need to listen to what they are telling us. As Christians we need also to be sensitive to the spiritual currents in our secular culture - for example through the spirituality of the ANZAC tradition; the spirituality of mateship and self sacrifice, even – though as a fully paid up member of the anti-football league I hesitate to say it – the spirituality of sport.
But Paul doesn’t leave it at that – if he did he would be advocating no more than some sort of warm fuzzy tolerance, in which everything is relative to everything else. Because Paul goes on to make the robust and un-water-downable claim that this essentially unknowable but universally experienced God – the One who is not far from every one of us – has revealed himself most fully in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The God who tells Moses “I am who I am” reveals that his character is to be faithful and to travel with his people through the wilderness. The God who gets local and who makes himself known through the life and ministry of Jesus as the God of generosity and compassion and justice, the God of the poor and marginalised who reverses the expectations of secular power and authority –– the God even more powerfully revealed in the empty tomb who shows us that nothing, not even death itself, can separate us from his love. And, Paul claims, this Jesus has become the yardstick and the criterion by which we can recognise the presence of God’s Spirit in our world and judge the authenticity of competing claims to spiritual authority and experience.
I think the middle way that Paul takes in Athens – the middle course that doesn’t veer either into a fundamentalist claim that other religions and other forms of spirituality are false or Godless; or into a shapeless relativism that approves equally of all religions and all forms of spiritual experience – I think this provides a clue for the church of the 21st century as like Paul we find ourselves in a marketplace of religious and cultural alternatives. We can enter into conversation with the world around us, and find common ground with men and women of other faiths of no faith at all – in fact I think we have to, if we are to be the church that God is calling us to be. But at the same time we can proclaim the fundamental truth of our faith, which is that in Jesus Christ we are reconciled and brought face to face with the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
The good news in all this is that we human beings are God-shaped, made in the image and likeness of God as the earliest creation stories of the Hebrew Bible affirm. And that God doesn’t wait for us to realise this, God doesn’t wait for us to learn the language of the angels before he or she starts a conversation with us – instead, God learns our language, God speaks to us in whatever time and place we live in, in the language of our own culture, the spirituality of our own place and our own time. Wherever and whenever we choose to look, to scratch the surface of our own experience, wherever we sink a well we find living water because as Jesus himself promises us, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit is woven into the DNA of life itself.