Thursday, May 25, 2006

Acts 17

The reading for Mass yesderday—Acts 17:15, 22-18:1—is one of my favorites, and it greatly impressed me as a youth.
After Paul's escorts had taken him to Athens, they came away with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.
Athens was then a part of the Roman Empire, but it was once a proud independent city-state, and for over four hundred years was a major university town, with famous schools started by Plato and Aristotle; the Roman elite would send their boys to Athens to get a good education.

Here the lectionary skips a number of lines, which are:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he grew exasperated at the sight of the city full of idols.
Of course, Paul hated the idols, and there were thousands of them, but how did he treat the pagans? We have to read on....
So he debated in the synagogue with the Jews and with the worshipers, and daily in the public square with whoever happened to be there.

Even some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion. Some asked, "What is this scavenger trying to say?" Others said, "He sounds like a promoter of foreign deities," because he was preaching about 'Jesus' and 'Resurrection.'
At this time, the Jews were everywhere in the Empire, Christianity spread quickly through the synagogues, but the majority of the population were pagans.

The philosophy of Epicureanism advocated a refined withdrawal from society and politics, while refraining from childbearing and sexual relations, and promoted moderate enjoyment of good food, wine, and art. They believed that the gods lived lives of sublime refinement, and that they cared nothing for man, so they were practical atheists. When the Epicureans call Paul a 'scavenger', literally, seed-picker, they were accusing him of eclecticism, or the picking-and-choosing from one philosophy and another. As there was little political freedom, and the Empire controlled everything, this philosophy was popular with upper-class Romans who just wanted to get on with life without bother.

The Stoics believed in patriotism, self-control, virtue, and conformance of the soul to the natural law. Stoics were active in the world, and taught freedom from passion by controlling emotion. Stoics invented the concept of Logos, or universal reason, which became a Christian concept, see John 1. To the Stoics, Logos was God, whose providence extended throughout the cosmos in all details, and was an uncreated prime mover who shaped primordial matter. Like the Epicureans, they had a materialistic view of the cosmos, rejecting the spiritual realm of Socrates and Plato. Stoicism was also popular among the Roman upper class, and they advocated the creation of a cosmopolis, or universal city: this was seen as a justification for Roman conquest. When the Stoics accuse Paul of promoting foreign deities, they are confusing Paul's word for the Resurrection, 'Anastasia', as a name of a god.

The text continues:
They took him and led him to the Areopagus and said, "May we learn what this new teaching is that you speak of? For you bring some strange notions to our ears; we should like to know what these things mean." Now all the Athenians as well as the foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing something new.
The Areopagus, or Hill of Ares (Mars) was the place of the trial of Socrates, who could not believe in any of the official gods of Athens, but who instead taught about the God, who was the source of all Good. He was the only person ever executed in Athens for this crime.

Like the Paris Left Bank or Cambridge, Massachusetts, Athens was full of scholars who did little but find out the latest theories. Here the lectionary picks up the story:
Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious.
The King James version substitutes 'superstitious' for 'religious', which kind of poisons the story, making Paul a bit less pastoral. The Greek says literally 'reverent to gods'.
For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, "To an Unknown God." What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.
"To an Unknown God"! While these altars were originally set up as placeholders, to placate any god which had been missed in their rituals, there was a later view of these as being altars to the One God, unknown to the pagan priests, but being known to the philosophers as the creator and the source of all good. In ancient Greece, the priests and philosophers were enemies. In Christendom, the priests are philosophers.
The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us.
Paul here speaks directly to the Stoics, who would have found nothing wrong in these statements. Instead of condeming the Greeks as idolators, worthy of Hell, instead he praises their natural, rational religion as containing a part of the truth. That is good pastoralism.
For 'In him we live and move and have our being,' as even some of your poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'
Paul is quoting a Stoic here.
Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination. God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will 'judge the world with justice' through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead."
Here Paul says that God forgives their idolatries, due to ignorance, but the time is coming where we all will be judged. This idea of justice would have been appreciated by the Stoics.
When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, "We should like to hear you on this some other time." And so Paul left them. But some did join him, and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the Court of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

After this he left Athens and went to Corinth.
Paul's preaching worked, especially with the Stoics. Paul seemed to make a distinction between true and false philosophy.

Dionysius the Areopagite is known to have been the first bishop of Athens, and traditionally is known as Denys, the first bishop of Paris. Writings attributed to him are, not surprisingly, deeply steeped in Athenian philosophy, although Catholics generally do not believe that he actually wrote them; while the Orthodox do. The writings of the (pseudo-) Dionysius contain the seeds of Christian mysticism and spirituality based on the philosophy of Socrates and his followers.

Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and orthodox Jews and Muslims tend to hold philosophy in high regard. The Catholic belief that truth cannot conflict with truth leads to a gentle handling of people like the Athenians. Paul hated their idols, but they didn't know any better, and they still had a glimmer of the truth, with their altars "To an Unknown God". So he approached them gently and spoke in a language that they could understand: that's pastoral. Paul could be severe with the Jews, because they should have known better. Paul knew that Christ was the Messiah of the Jews, but He was also the Savior that was hoped for by the Greeks. Christ came for all men, even those who knew of him only imperfectly.

And that altar that Paul saw, "To an Unknown God": Socrates was said to have made it.

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