I wonder if you’ve ever had one of those moments when you felt a bit embarrassed about being a ‘religious person.’ Maybe it was when you opted out of a meeting because it overlapped with a church commitment. Maybe it was when you decided not to carry out a procedure because of your faith. Maybe you passed on taking a particular client because it would have violated your conscience. Or maybe the awkward moment simply snuck up on you in a conversation at the pub. I think about this every once in a while when our family piles into the car on a Sunday morning. I sometimes feel a bit conspicuous. It feels like we’re the only ones on our street heading off to church. Maybe you’ve felt this way too at some point. Maybe you even tried to find an excuse for whatever it was that could have drawn attention to your faith. You threw a soccer ball into the car so it looked like you were headed to the park or you told your colleague you weren’t actually praying—just napping a little bit.
This past Sunday our congregation read from the book of Acts 17. I think there are a few things in there that can help us out. One of them is simply the fact that being ‘religious’ is not as rare as it might feel.
Our Acts reading began this way: “Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus.” Some older translations say that he stood on “Mars Hill.” It’s the same place. The Areopagus was a place, a rocky outcrop in Athens across from the famous Acropolis. But the Areopagus was also a group of people. It was a court that originally met near this prominent spot.
Paul, the man who stood in front of this group, was not from Athens. He was there waiting for two traveling companions. Instead of just taking in the scenery, though, he decided to mix it up with the locals and share with them the message he had been delivering in cities throughout the Mediterranean basin. The book of Acts tells us that Paul would go to the synagogue and the marketplace. He would make his case to average people as well as religious leaders and philosophers. And it was because of this that members of the Areopagus became curious and wanted to hear from Paul. They wanted an explanation.
So Paul stood in front of these men and he began to speak to them with an observation. It was this, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” He wasn’t making anything up. In ancient rhetoric this opening was called the exordium or the proem. The purpose of this part of a speech was to prepare one’s audience, to make them receptive, to what the speaker was going to say. When Paul says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” he means it as a sort of compliment to get on the good side of his audience.
We know that ancient Rome was a pluralistic place. There were many religions and life philosophies practiced in the cities across the empire. It was probably a bit more like our context in Ottawa than like southern Manitoba or the B.C. Bible belt. In these paragraphs from Acts we see references to the imperial religion, with its many gods and rituals. There is a reference to Judaism, a faith one of the peoples Rome had conquered (there would have been many other such minority religions). These paragraphs also mention the life philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism. So Paul said that the people of Athens were extremely religious.
Here’s my first point: we too live in an extremely religious place. We might not think so because of the declining numbers in many churches. But we do. Religion just looks different than it used to. Paul was able to see expressions of religious devotion even though it didn’t look like his own. The extreme religiosity he observed was not his native Judaism. Yet he’s culturally literate enough to notice objects of worship throughout the city.
Here in Ottawa I think it’s appropriate to mention that for some people the Canadian project is a religion. It’s bigger and more transcendent than the things we can see and touch. To some people it’s worth sacrificing for, worth giving life and limb for, worth offering our children for. Who would deny, if they walked through our city, that there seem to be sites of worship. Paul probably also noticed public rituals and festivals in ancient Athens. And don’t we see this here too? High-holy days of public life. Perhaps, at this point in the hockey season, we should mention sport as well.
But there’s more. If being religious means believing in something that transcends this world and believing that our normal lives of frailty and suffering can be transformed into something better—there’s more.
What about the many ‘new’ spiritual practices our neighbours are taking up? Those are all about the transformation of our lives at one level or another. That’s religious stuff. Or think of the craze of mindfulness and all forms of natural spirituality. That’s all around us. It’s religious stuff too.
The ancients used rituals that seem peculiar to us in order to make their lives better: to give them a better outlook on life, to improve the way their bodies felt, to help them learn, to feel more satisfied. Don’t we do the same through medicine—traditional or non-traditional? Isn’t this one of the ways we try to transform ourselves today? Isn’t this one of the ways we try to feel less needy? Don’t we place an astoundingly high, a religiously high, hope in medicine? Ours is an extremely religious city.
Or think about this, for all the iffy-ness many people will express around specific ideas about God, most of them get pretty dogmatic when it comes to ethics. People might say today that your view of God is fine for you but not for them, but they will not say the same thing about how children are treated or various minorities or even the land. If you back into someone’s car in the parking lot, you will not get out of the jam by saying that your morals say it is okay for you to do that. People believe there is something that transcends our individual perspectives. And they believe it with a dogmatic certainty. We live an extremely religious time. It just doesn’t look like it used to.
There’s nothing forcing you to agree with me on this, but I think human beings are inescapably religious. Or we could say, we are meant to worship. We can’t help but worship. Or, to change the language just a bit, we could say that we are meant to love. What we ultimately love—be it Canada, athletic glory, psychic bliss, or a sense of wellbeing—that is what we worship. What we love most is what we worship. And it always shows up in our habits and in the little rituals that structure our lives. I think Paul would tell us that we and our city are extremely religious.
So, maybe we don’t need to feel embarrassed at being a ‘religious’ person. But that isn’t all Paul is after in his little speech before the Areopagus. He isn’t content to say, “Well it looks like we’re all religious—hurray! We’re all in the same boat.” No, Paul has had an encounter with Jesus. He has experienced Christian community. He thinks Christian teaching makes sense of the world. So, from this initial exordium he trots off on a four step (or so) argument.
First, he extends his connection with the Athenians. He tries to show further what he and they have in common. After all, Paul believed that God had revealed divinity to everyone through the created world. Paul assumed there would be places where his understanding of God and that of other faiths would overlap. In Athens this starts with the idea of the ‘unknown God’.
Now, there’s a second step to Paul’s argument. He gets specific. To the people of the Areopagus he says that this God whom they know but don’t know—this God created everything. That was a distinction from some of the beliefs floating around Athens. Many ancient people believed that the world was created from a part of a god’s body or from pre-existing material. The unknown God is different.
Now, the third step. Because this God stands apart from creation human beings are on level ground. There were some religions in Paul’s day that taught that some people were inherently better than others. The faith Paul is describing doesn’t do that. This is true even though some early leaders had a hard time getting a handle on what this meant. Paul says that we are all set to search for God. He emphasizes the point by quoting some pagan poets.
Paul takes a fourth step: he points to Jesus. He denies that a creator God could be rendered in gold or silver. Paul is using Greek logic here: if we are God’s offspring (if we are caused by God) then it can’t be true that God is like some thing, some hammered or carved thing, that we have made. Paul is assuming that an effect can’t be more powerful than its cause. If God caused the cosmos, then we can’t think that a gold or silver image could really point us to God.
In a lecture she gave a couple of years ago the philosopher Janet Soskice tells the story of a young graduate astrophysicist who said he could no longer believe in God. Why? Because, he had concluded, the universe was simply too complex. Yet, Soskice points out, if the God we believe in is the one who created space and time, as Paul hints at in this passage, then surely complexity is not the problem. God becomes hard to believe in when we make God a thing or a bearded old man or a cosmic tinkerer.
But if God is all that—so remarkably different and elusive—how do we know anything at all about God? It’s a logical questions, and this is where Paul gets to the heart of his faith. The answer is in Jesus, the image of God, raised from the dead.
I think we find it hard, in our own time, to make this last step, to mention Jesus—to get specific. While I think it’s true that we live in an extremely religious city, it’s hard for us to move with grace from what we have in common with others to sharing our differences. Differences can be hard to talk about.
One of the prominent arguments against faith is based on our worry about difference. It’s the idea that because we disagree there can’t be one true religion. Have you heard this? And this idea, in turn, is linked to a common doubt we’ve all had. We observe that most people believe something akin to what their parents believed, or something drawn from their home culture. “So,” we worry, “is my faith ‘just’ a product of my context? Am I a Christian because I was born in—Steinbach? What if I was from Riyadh?”
This is a good question to ask ourselves if we’re ever in the place where we are starting to feel a bit arrogant about our view of things. It’s an especially good thing to ask ourselves if we’re tempted to use our religion as a rationale for violence. However, there is something we often miss about this question. It’s the fact that this question applies to everyone. Just as Christians, Muslims or Buddhists must ask this question of themselves, so does the person who says all religions are essentially the same, so does the agnostic and the atheist. These views too are connected to our culture of origin.
We all stand in the grip of this question: is there nothing more to our religion than our upbringing? This is a challenge to each and every human creature, not uniquely a challenge for Christians or other spiritual children of Abraham. To be human is to be shaped by family and culture. Nationalism, hedonism, narcissism, stoicism, epicureanism, atheism and agnosticism—none of them shake free of the challenge.
Let’s not be afraid, then, of being ‘religious’. I think everyone is. Everyone has a vision of the good life, something that they love and are drawn to. Everyone has habits and rituals that they think will transform them. Nobody has a view of life that can be proven to be separate from their upbringing or their cultural context. The specificity of our faith is not what should make us feel odd about being Christians.
What should make us feel odd—if we want to feel that—is the deep and very Christian affirmation of God’s grace. This is a counter-intuitive religious notion. Religions, whether they are formal or informal, are mostly about making ourselves good enough. However, Christians believe that religion isn’t about making ourselves better or working our way to God. It’s about opening ourselves to God’s abiding love. It’s about opening ourselves to God’s abiding Spirit. It’s about opening ourselves to a world of grace.
Oh God, may your Spirit transform our religious impulses, remove our fear of standing out, let us be channels of our grace. Amen.
 I’m thinking of Charles Taylor’s definition of religion from A Secular Age.
 I believe this observation can be traced to the analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga.