Paul slinks into Athens, and he’s in a rotten mood. He’s having a bad week. Earlier in the week, he got himself kicked out of the city Thessalonica by an angry mob of troublemakers. Then he met up with some buddies in the neighboring city of Berea, and all their preaching and Jesus-talk got them kicked evicted from there, too. By the time Paul arrives in Athens, he’s ready to pick a fight. Paul is spitting mad – revolted – because of all the idols in the ancient city. You could call 1st century Athens the “god capital of the world,” a place so full of deities to worship that the Athenians must have needed something like the Yellow Pages just to keep track of them all. Paul’s first move is to argue. He finds some philosopher types, some Stoics and Epicureans, and he has at them. They are confused, to say the least. They wonder, “What is this babbler saying?” These philosopher types take Paul to a place called The Areopagus, or “Mars Hill.” There are more philosopher types there, and they begin to question Paul, firmly but politely. At this point in the story, the narrator decides to give us a crucial piece of information: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Athens is the place for philosophers and thinkers. It’s the home of Socrates! And that should ring at least one little bell of caution, because Socrates was put to death for “corrupting Athens with strange new gods”— and that’s precisely what the Athenians think Paul is doing.
Paul calms himself down and begins to speak. But instead of criticizing the Athenians for their many, many shrines to many, many gods, Paul focuses on just one—an altar that bears an inscription, “to an unknown god.” It’s almost as if Paul realizes that his priority is to share the gospel in a way that allows people to open their hearts to it. He comes to understand that in order to offer Good News that connects, he needs to control his impulse to criticize, fight and focus on differences. He needs to create trust from a place of humility. And I have a feeling that the humility part was hard for Paul.
How do we respond to those whose faith is different from ours? We create trust with humility. Good News that connects must help us deal with the biases we have about people of other faiths. I’m talking about unassuming conversations and open ears when it comes to learning from Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, and atheists. There’s another group we need to pay listen to. It’s the fastest growing faith affinity group is in America: Those who have no preference. They are called “unaffiliated.” Some call them “Nones.” Let’s call them the “spiritual-but-not-religious group.” Most of these people believe in God, or in a universal spirit, but they are not confined to understanding God through any particular religion’s version of who that God is. They tend not to get involved in religious institutions. They think we are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.
The spiritual-but-not-religious folks cause some church people very uncomfortable. A fairly well known UCC minister just wrote a book entitled, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough. As you can imagine by the title, the author does not think much of this new trend. In a recent interview, she described the spiritual-but-not-religious trend as a “shallow combination of exercise and caffeine, coffee shops as spiritual community, hikes as pilgrimages, The New York Times as sacred text, and sunsets—don’t ever forget the sunsets. These people are always informing you that they find God in the sunsets. Well, excuse me, as if people who go to church didn’t see God in a sunset. You know, my take is that any idiot can find God in the sunset. What is remarkable is finding God in the context of flawed human community.” In her book she asks, “Who are you, God of sunsets and rainbows and bunnies and chain e-mails about sweet friends? Who are you, cheap God of self-satisfaction and isolation? Who are you, God of the beautiful and the physically fit? Who are you, God of the spiritual but not religious . . . Who are you, and are you even worth knowing? Who are you, God whom I invent? Is there, could there be, a more interesting God who invented me?”
Mental note: Whenever someone says words like “These people . . .” or “Those people . . .” it’s the beginning set up for us-versus-them dynamic. As I’ve said before, when we allow ourselves to take part in an us-versus-them system, then we run the risk of denying our participation in brokenness. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with some of the author's points. But in this instance, I don’t think she’s offering the fullness of our Good News in words that can connect – in ways that create trust through humility.
I’m reminded of a story about a cowboy who went to an up-scale church wearing jeans, ragged boots and a worn out old hat. As the cowboy took his seat, people moved away from him. No one welcomed him. As the cowboy was leaving the church, the minister approached him and asked the cowboy to do him a favor. “Before you come back in here again, have a talk with God and ask what God thinks would be appropriate attire for worship.” The old cowboy assured the preacher he would. The next Sunday, he showed back up for the services wearing the same ragged jeans, boots, and hat. Once again he was completely shunned and ignored. The minister approached the man and said, “I thought I asked you to speak to God before you came back to our church.”
“I did,” replied the old cowboy.
“If you spoke to God, what did he tell you the proper attire should be for worshiping in here?” asked the preacher.
“Well, sir, God told me that He didn’t have a clue what I should wear, seeing as He’d never been in this church.”
There are lots of people, both inside and outside the church, who say “I’m a spiritual and moral person. I try to live as well as I can, and do the right thing by others. And yet I’ve been in churches where I feel like a second class citizen because I don’t know the ritual or the lingo or the dress code.” The whole purpose of religion is to bring together. That’s what the word means. Religion comes from the same Latin word as ligament. It’s a connection. Good News – good religion -- connects us with one another, connects us to God and connects us in community. A connecting faith must be the opposite of exclusive and judgmental. Religion’s prime concern must be bringing together head and heart, past and present, beliefs and values, people and neighbors, tribe and nation, spirituality and institution, individual and environment.
Imagine a religious system where we encourage all people to think and explore ideas for themselves. Imagine a religious system where we encourage all people to wake up to the spark of divinity within, as system where we see the spark of God’s delight in others. Imagine a religion where treating people right was more important than being right. Imagine a religion where compassion was more important than creeds and rituals.
Imagine a holy place ringed with stained glass windows. Imagine bright light from outside, through stained-glass windows into the holy place. Sit with that image for a moment . . . In this image, the light is the truth, the windows are religion and the holy place is the world. As light shines from outside through the windows into the holy places of the world, in the same way religions are a medium – a filter -- by which truth comes into the world. Here’s the thing . . . The window is not the light. The window is not the light. And religions need to be distinguished from the truth that they let into the world. The Church is one place into which the light shines, but it’s not the only place. For many people, it doesn’t happen because some of our theology has become so dilapidated, we easily confuse ideas about God with the truth about God.
Here is what I want . . . I want The Apostle Paul and ministers, and churches, and myself to remember: Religion is the window, not the light. We who get angry with those who want to only see God in the sunset – for we who think being spiritual but not religious is a cop-out, I close offer the words of Maya Angelou from her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning.”
There is a true yearning to respond toIn some ways, Acts 17 is about recognizing ourselves as one people -- God’s people. It’s a reminder about how anger can cause us to stumble and fall into judgment and manipulating. When we can calm down, take a few deep breathes, when we become aware of the divine radiance all around us, we can sense God’s deep, abiding hope for us.
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers -- desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,
Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours -- your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Paul understood something on that day on Mars Hill as he swallowed his anger and talked with those philosophizing, spiritual-but-not-religious Athenians. God is not the window. God is the light. God is the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Here on the pulse of this new day, we receive the grace to look up and out and into the eyes of our sister, into the face of our brother, into our crumbling world that cries for the breaking dawn of a new day. We look up and help give birth to new dream of connection – of trust and humility.
Lillian Daniel, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough