Begin by taking a look at Acts 17:22-28
Paul is in Athens; or at least the story Luke tells in his sequel book Acts paints the picture of Paul
addressing this major city of the classical world. This is a great city, with great history and great
thinkers and Christianity is weaving its story through this historic place. If we were first century
folks dwelling around the Mediterranean Sea, we might sense the high stakes of the
conversation. You see Luke, our author, paints a picture with some classical brush strokes,
framing the scene in a manner reflective of another moment in the history of that great city—the
moment when Socrates was engaged in a high stakes trial before the thinkers of Athens. Luke
wants you to take note of this moment and what it means for Paul to be in conversation with the
folks of a world famous city.
Athens is a robust, educated, polished city with temples and shrines to gods from every known
corner of earth. The people of Athens are deeply curious about their faith and the faiths of
others; unlike our modern world they don’t need an organization like Project Interfaith or a
special service once a year to bring them together across timeworn religious boundaries. The
Athenians, as Paul put it are religious in every way. They are excited and curious about the
religions of the world. They are rooted deeply in their own faith studies and they are willing to
explore the faith of others. Paul sees temples and shrines from every corner of the earth, he
listens to people celebrating Gods and Goddesses with particular gifts and unique natures, he
see statues of stone and wood and metal and he hears poems and liturgies from every tongue.
Paul has been listening to the city. He knows enough about his faith and enough about the
faith traditions of others that he can speak their language and so when asked about his faith he
frames it in their terms. His goal is to be heard, not to make people conform to his own
language for God, so he uses the language they know. He frames the faith that sets his heart
on fire in terms that others can understand and he does something profound. The people of
Athens are so open to the mystery of faith that they have space for an unnamed God and so
Paul offers language to explore what has previously been unnamed. God is the very ground of
our being; Paul names a God beyond temples and geography, a God that cannot be divided
into some attributes or created in only one image. Paul invites people to experience the God in
whom he lives and moves and has his being, a God that is vulnerable enough to be seen
through a crucified peasant and durable enough to be resurrected and live on God’s dream of
love beyond the world’s works of violence.
Paul’s moment begs us to consider the community around us. We can certainly sense the
reality of diversity. We, like Paul, share in a community of profound difference and diversity.
We not only sense difference in the folks who practice their faith with different words and in
different temples, but we probably could look at the faces to our left and right and find folks
who have different understandings of God and different words they find comfort in using to
relate to God.
We share much in this story of Paul but there is something that seems very different. Paul does
not seem to be surrounded by folks who say they are spiritual but not religious. I don’t think
there were any NONES around Paul. N O N E S ...not the folks with habits but folks who look at a list on a
survey and choose none of the above when it comes to religion. Scholars and researchers alike
have named that we are surrounded by a growing number of folks who don’t hitch their identity
to a tradition and folks that maybe don’t have a particular religious literacy from which to
begin the conversation with other religious ideas or identities.
I can certainly understand why we have so many NONES. Every major world religion is woven
through with threads of love, compassion and peace, yet when we look closely at the fabric of
faith we find signs of hate, when we pull back the curtain we see holocausts and genocide,
when we look closely those threads of compassion are over run with intolerance and
inhumanity. Being a NONE is a lot safer than choosing intolerance or creeds you don’t
understand and you don’t have to fall into the old traps of being right on the assumption that
someone else is wrong.
I have received emails from folks beyond our congregation terrified of church. I have visited
with parents so offended by the religious literacy they inherited that they will do anything to
protect their own children from religion. For some, I think, there is a sense that no religion is
preferable to bad religion.
Mike and I have been taking some parenting classes lately and this week we were part of one
that was not at Children’s Hospital but rather was a part of Project Interfaith’s “Parenting in a
Pluralistic World” series. The conversation centered around the tension of how to raise children
with strong faith identities in a diverse world. As the speaker concluded, parents began to ask
questions which highlighted, not in theory but in practice, this modern reality of folks being
more comfortable as NONES. People were clearly sensing some longing for a faith space to
call home; however, it was clear there was anxiety over picking the wrong place and there was
one Mom who struggled with the idea of sending her daughter to an Easter service with a friend
from school, she seemed afraid she might catch something. And I understand, there are a lot of bad things I
wouldn’t want anyone I love to catch and there just doesn’t seem to be a good vaccine for bad
After a moment of pause and grace, the speaker responded. First, the scholar suggested,
American parents worry far too much. Then he made a profound invitation to worry less as
parents about what type of Christian or Muslim or Jew your child might become and more
about the type of Christian or Muslim or Jew into which you are growing. This, I believe is an
invitation to all of us, not just in how we interact with young people, but how we interact with all
people. To be brave enough to dive into faith, to be open enough to take time to study and
question. To explore faith with deep seriousness and get beyond the elementary school
reading levels we have inherited to a truly honest place that says we don’t have all the answers.
Deep faith means we can listen and care for others, not build up walls and boundaries, but
deep faith takes time and it is not easy.
That’s in this story from Paul too. We didn’t hear it but it is there. We don’t see it in Athens but
it is there. We don’t see Paul in the synagogue decade after decade but it is there. We have to
read between the lines to see the psalms he has sung and the prophets he has studied, but it is
there. We don’t see Paul in study, worship and prayer week after week, day after day but Paul
could not be in Athens living that moment without his deep roots of faith. Being rooted opens
him to explore the world and being rooted it can do the same for all of us. Being rooted can
make us better people, better parents, better citizens.
Paul proclaims God is present beyond the wood and stone, beyond the temples and shrines,
beyond the divisions humans make with each other and the divisions they make in the name of
the Divine. Paul knows his faith in a God that sets his heart on fire and opens his eyes from
blindness. Paul lives his faith so he can care for others. Paul roots himself in God’s love so he
can be open to the questions around him. Paul studies his faith with deep reverence so he can
love the world around him. May we have the courage to dive in with him and listen to the world
around us today.
Rev. Debra McKnight