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Evensong on Sunday

St Margaret’s Church, Binsey
August 27th 2017 [Trinity 11]

Revd. Professor Martin Henig

Psalm 95; 2 Kings 6: 8-23; Acts 17:15-34.

For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription. To the Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. [Acts 17:23],

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Paul, like so many of us was a man of two worlds. Through his education he was steeped in Jewish Torah but also in the language and culture of the surrounding Hellenistic world, which sprang ultimately from Ancient Greece whose cultural hub was Athens.

Last week,  the reading was about Paul’s and Barnabas’s conflict with the pagan world at Lystra. A man, crippled from birth, has been healed by a tall stranger [Barnabas] and a shorter companion [Paul]. In a traditional world where the even, monotonous tenor of life was interrupted by unforeseen events, the divine was perceived everywhere and epiphanies, appearances of the gods, were frequent, and it was by no means an irrational conclusion to see these two visitors who had cured a chronically ill man as Zeus and Hermes. Indeed, as my friend Grahame Soffe, has pointed out the healing may have occurred in close proximity to the temple of Zeus. It was a natural conclusion  that ‘the gods are come down to us in the likeness of men’ (Acts 14:11) and in consequence it was right and proper to offer sacrifice to them. Paul took rather a condescending attitude to the people of Lystra, perhaps because the local populace spoke Lycaonian and not Greek, rather than because they were simply pagans? However, Paul’s debate with the Athenians (Acts 17:16-34) was altogether more cerebral, concerning the nature of deity, and assumes an intellectual equality.

Other examples of altars to Unknown Gods were known in the Greek world, and Soffe, indeed, illustrates an example from Pergamum. There had always been debate about the nature of the divine, and an appreciation that the divine, was the very  font of morality and not simply a power or a number of conflicting powers needing to be appeased, as anyone who is familiar with Plato’s Socratic dialogues knows. Paul  quotes the Stoic  Aratus, in verse 28 with the words about God  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’, which have come to be used frequently in Christian contexts. Indeed, the conversion process was not all one way, and neo-platonic thought had a considerable influence on some of the Church fathers, and if we are honest on many later Christians.

Some of the Athenians are convinced, others less so, but it would appear his reception in Athens was friendlier and more relaxed than in some other places.

For me this episode has something to tell us about relationships with other faiths. We only get Paul’s monologue, admittedly composed by Luke, and not what the Athenians, Stoics, Platonists and the rest might have said to him in return. There is enough in what we know about Greek philosophy and religion  for us to regard their beliefs with especial empathy.

We are rather unlikely to meet practitioners of Greek religion, but we should try to engage with other faiths, not to convert but to learn. A greater knowledge of Judaism at the time of Jesus helps us to understand his life and ministry better, when we realise, as Geza Vermes has demonstrated, that there were other, contemporary  Galilean preachers, amongst them Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, while later Jewish insights into the divine from Talmudic times to the present. This has certainly entered theological faculties and the better theological colleges, but far too seldom the pulpit. It will be argued that we are particularly close to Judaism (though history, alas ,has attempted to deny it) because after all we share the Hebrew Bible, and Jesus, his family and the Apostles were all Jews.

Many other religious traditions provide insights that   we might take into our faith. I especially value Buddhist meditation practices and  the Hindu and especially Jain concept of Ahimsa , meaning we should do no harm to any living creature. This is an Edenic doctrine which melds with the central Christian quality of love, far more often honoured in the breach than in its performance. It has certainly been adopted by many members of the Anglican and Catholic animal organisations and the Animal Interfaith Alliance with which I am associated.

We should be secure enough in our own faith to honour those of others, to seek what is best in other traditions, and to bless those who have given us these insights. I have always seen great wisdom in the words of a great 4th century Roman senator, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus: ‘Not by one path alone can we perceive so great a mystery’.

In Lystra, and even in Athens, Paul proclaimed his faith in the market place. His approach may sometimes have made converts, but at what cost?  I am convinced you are more likely to find the divine in the quiet places of nature, and the silence of your own hearts.

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.