By Matt Stromberg
In today’s Epistle Reading St. Peter admonishes us, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”
Have you noticed that it is becoming increasingly difficult to share our beliefs with people with whom we have strong disagreements? The Lutheran scholar and social commentator Martin Marty has noted, “People who have strong convictions are often not very civil, and people who are civil often do not have strong convictions.”
What he and many others have urged is a “convicted civility.” It is a good and necessary thing to have zeal for the truth. It is a good thing to have strong convictions. But it is equally important and necessary to hold those convictions with gentleness, respect, and reverence for the dignity of those with whom we disagree.
In a culture increasingly fueled by outrage, contempt, and a self-righteous jostling for the moral high ground, this is not easy!
Many have looked to our reading from Acts — in which St. Paul addresses the people of Athens gathered at the Aeropagus — as a model of how Christians should share their convictions in an irenic way with those who believe differently than they.
When St. Paul first arrived in Athens, he experienced profound culture shock. The culture of the Athenians was offensive to his Jewish and monotheistic sensibilities. He was greatly distressed that the city was full of idols. We are told that he reasoned not only with the Jews in the synagogue but with the Greeks he met in the marketplace.
Many who heard Paul found his beliefs offensive as well. They said, “What is this babbler saying?” Others dismissed him by saying, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange and foreign gods.”
There were others, however, who were intrigued by his message. Some of the scholars and philosophers of the Stoic and Epicurean party began to debate with him. They were interested in learning more, and so they brought him to the Aeropagus or, as the Romans named it, Mars Hill. This was a place where people gathered to discuss the legal, religious, and philosophical questions of the day.
Now St. Paul had very strong convictions. No doubt he wanted to come in with guns blazing, denouncing their horrid idolatry and gross immorality, but — although he had very strong feelings — he practiced restraint. Instead, he learned from and listened to his opponents. He tried to understand where they were coming from. He listened not only for points of difference but for places of common ground. Although he found their culture and religious practices strange and offensive, he asked himself not only “Where are they in error?” but “Where is God at work here? What can I affirm in their system? Where are they bearing witness to the truth?”
Paul looked upon his opponents as fellow seekers after God and truth. While acknowledging the good in his opponents’ viewpoints, he nevertheless maintained his convictions. He used what he believed was good in his opponents’ views to oppose what was bad. He was able to share his deeply held convictions, and even challenge theirs, while maintaining respect and civility.
What is it that St. Paul affirms among what he found in the pagans of Athens?
First, he admirers their piety and religious impulse. This is a significant admission, given how distressed he was by their idolatry. Is it a contradiction to say that Paul was simultaneously impressed by their piety and horrified by the objects of their worship?
I don’t think it needs to be. Paul sees in the people of Athens a thirst to know God and to worship him, but he sees this good impulse twisted, perverted, and misdirected. Instead of directing their worship to the true God, the pagans of Athens have become consumed by idolatry and superstition.
They didn’t seem to have any idea of the truth of the divine, but instead ignorantly paid homage to creations of their own. They had a fear of God, but not according to knowledge. Their fear and superstition were such that — in order to cover all their bases — they created an altar to an unknown God. Paul uses this as an opportunity to inform them about the God that they worship in ignorance, the true God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ.
Although they are ignorant of him, God created everything that is. He has been watching over them and providing for them. He wants to be known by them. “God is not far from them,” he tells them. Here St. Paul is taking the side of the Stoics above the Epicureans. The Epicureans believed that the gods were distant and unconcerned with the struggles and sorrows of human life. The Stoics, however, were pantheists, believing God to be the very soul of the world, filling all things.
Paul quotes a Stoic saying: “In him we live and move and have our being.” Although Paul was neither Stoic nor pantheist, he affirms that God is all around us and that his power sustains us at every moment. God is intimately involved in our life and cares about the choices we make.
Finally Paul affirms that even they, as pagans, are children of God created in his image in order to reflect his likeness. This is a biblical idea, but it is affirmed also by some of their poets. St. Paul quotes the Stoic Cleanthes:
O God most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature’s great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by your just decree controls all
… Unto you must your creatures in all lands call.
We are your children, we alone, of all
On earth’s broad ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing your image wheresoever we go.
While Paul finds much to affirm and admire in the people of Athens, he does not hold back from challenging them to repent. In former times, God was patient with their ignorance and unbelief, but now he is calling them to turn and repent and receive Christ, whom he has made the judge of all the world.
St. Paul shared his belief and hope with both conviction and civility. Can we do the same? Some of the people that day sneered at what Paul had to share, but others were intrigued. We too must accept that not everyone will agree with us. The important thing is to not hide our light under a basket, but to share it with gentleness and reverence.
The Rev. Matt Stromberg is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.