In Acts 17, Luke characterizes Athens as a place where people “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” a whole city that treats ideas like commodities, traded every day for the gratification that comes from hearing something new and interesting. This gratification is just one more idol alongside all the others Paul encounters in Athens. He’s here waiting for Silas and Timothy, and in the meantime will converse with people all over town. He quickly gets a reputation as a “babbler”. His message about the risen Christ isn’t something the Athenians are used to hearing, but enough people want to hear him out that he’s brought before the Areopagus (the religious high council in Athens).
Put on the spot, Paul begins with a sly compliment (“I see how very religious you are in every way”) which quickly turns into a cutting critique of the utter futility of all idolatry.
The true God, says Paul, has no need of a house made by human hands. In fact, the true God has no needs at all (slicing right through the pagan theology of gods who are always demanding bigger and better sacrifices). Rather, he is the God who gives all things, most especially life itself, in the hopes that humans would reach back out in return, grasping, searching, only to find out God has been intimately close by all along. “In him we live and move and have our being.” Our very existence and movement in the world is grounded in God’s existence. The life that burns within us, that pours into and out of us, is nothing less than the life of God himself. Our God is infinitely beyond our ability to comprehend, and yet has made himself known. Our God is infinitely out of reach, and yet is intimately close, as close to us as our own breath. Our existence is found in this God and in nothing else.
Whether ancient Athens or our own world and culture today, people are grasping for something to believe in. People are desperate to know the divine. Oftentimes we humans fumble in our attempts at it, but we keep grasping. The Church in America is seeing a lot of people give up and leave. They’ve been burned by the Church one way or another, and it’s no longer something that creates an encounter with the divine, so they’re getting rid of it.
But spirituality is going nowhere. The hunger to discover the transcendent is alive and well. Just as much as ever before, people are grasping for God, even if they’re not doing so in church. Maybe they’re looking for God in another form of spirituality, but the point is – they’re looking!
And in this world that’s so hungry for God, the Church gets to bear witness to the God who gives life and breath and movement to all things, to the God who needs nothing and gives everything. We get to bear witness to the God who is both beyond our comprehension and yet knowable, both out of reach and yet intimately close, who is perfectly revealed in the person of Jesus.
Let’s not take Paul’s experience in Athens as an invitation to throw our theology in the face of everyone whose religious practices we don’t approve of. Instead, let’s continue to bear witness to one another, our own brothers and sisters in Christ. The life of God burns within us, is pouring into and out of us. Let’s share that life with each other. Let’s recognize every day that our breath, our movements through the day, our time and place in this world are gifts from the creator who gives and gives. Above all, let’s fall deeper and deeper in love with this God.