Legend has it that, sometime around the year 600 BCE, there was a plague that struck the ancient city of Athens, Greece. At a loss over what to do, they called in the philosopher Epimenides, who came promptly. The plague, so they thought, was due to one of the gods being angry with the city. In order for the plague to be lifted, that deity would have to be appeased by a sacrifice. But the ancient Greeks had so many gods, how were they to know which one was upset?
Epimenides proposed a solution. He took a group of sheep to the Areopagus (a.k.a. “Mars Hill”) and released them to go out in every direction. He ordered attendants to follow the sheep and, wherever one laid down to rest, there they built an altar and made an offering to whatever god or goddess was associated with that place. In this way, thought Epimenides, they would cover all their bases and increase their chances for beating the plague.
But there was still one problem: what if the sheep lay down in a place that had no affiliation with any deity? “Well,” he said, “build an altar anyway!” Maybe there was another god or goddess who was not in their pantheon. In that way, they would really really cover all their bases. So, according to this legend, that’s how it came to pass that Athens had altars that were dedicated “to an Unknown God”. After the plague had passed, the Athenians maintained the altars in remembrance of what had happened there.
Centuries later, the apostle Paul happened across one of these altars during his visit to Athens. And Paul, ever the conscientious preacher, decided to use it as a sermon illustration. The leading citizens of Athens invited Paul to speak in the Areopagus, the exact same place from which Epimenides had originally sent out the sheep, and they listened to what he had to say.
While the sight of so many altars to so many different gods and goddesses made Paul extremely uncomfortable, he was nevertheless very affirming of the Athenians’ religious practice. “Athenians,” he said, “I see how religious you are in every way.” He then went on to describe how he had come across Epimenides’ “altar to an Unknown God” during a stroll through town. Paul also praises their philosophical insight, quoting directly from Epimenides himself, “In [God] we live and move and have our being”.
Isn’t this odd? A Christian missionary preaches a sermon where he praises the polytheistic religious practices of the Greeks, doesn’t mention Jesus (except indirectly), and fails to reference even a single verse of the Bible. In fact, he takes as his text a poem written by Epimenides, a pagan philosopher! I don’t know about you, but I can imagine pastors getting fired from their churches for less than that! Yet, this is the great apostle Paul, the Church’s preeminent theologian, a New Testament author, and the preacher who supposedly set the standard by which all others would be judged. What in the world was he trying to do here?
First and foremost, I think Paul was making a statement about God by the way in which he paid respect to the philosophies and the religious practices of the Athenians. Paul was saying that the Christian God honors wisdom and devotion wherever it is found, even when it is found in those who are not Christians.
All Truth is God’s Truth
“All truth is God’s truth.” This is a scandalous statement. It has serious implications for us all, especially those of us who live in an era of history that has seen so much division and conflict along religious lines. If the God we worship as Christians is the same God who Paul preached about to the Athenians, then we too are called to honor and celebrate truth wherever we find it, even when it comes from non-Christian sources. While this does not mean that God is calling us to give up what is unique and special about our Christian faith, it does mean that God is calling us to look for the best (not the worst) in our neighbors of other faiths. It means that Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Atheists are not our enemies. It means that God is calling us all to learn from each other and grow together.
Augustine of Hippo, a famous theologian from the fifth century, said it this way:
“A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to [God], wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.” (On Christian Teaching II.75)
“All truth is God’s truth.” This statement also has implications for our lives outside the specifically “religious” sphere. It means that the discovery of truth in fields like science, medicine, art, government, and commerce has a divine quality to it. In our society, which tries to keep the sacred apart from the secular, there is an assumed conflict between “faith and science” or “faith and politics”. But if we take Paul’s implications seriously, then the line between sacred and secular is blurred. Suddenly, the fight to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS becomes a holy quest. Likewise, those who work to further the common good in both private and public sectors are engaged in a spiritual vocation.
In the sixteenth century, the reformer John Calvin wrote:
“If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God.” Calvin goes on to describe disciplines such as politics, philosophy, rhetoric, medicine, and math. He finishes, “No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God?” (Institutes 2.2.15)
While Paul proclaimed his deep admiration for the Athenians’ wisdom and devotion, it’s important to note that he also challenged them toward growth. He invited them to “repent”, that is, metanoia, which is Greek for “change the way you think” or “think differently”. Paul’s particular challenge to the Athenians had to do with their relationship to their objects of worship. He said:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
Quoting the philosopher Aratus, Paul continues:
“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”
Paul invited his Athenian listeners to open their minds and think beyond the level of surface appearances to the deeper spiritual reality in which we all dwell. He said:
“From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth… so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’”
In the same way, we as Christians have something to say to world around us. The word “evangelism” has become kind of a bad word in our society. It conjures up mental images of TV preachers asking for money. For others, it makes them think of religious groups who use guilt and fear in in order to convert and manipulate others. Well, evangelism doesn’t have to mean any of those things. In fact, the word itself literally means “gospel” or “good news”, which is the exact opposite of guilt, fear, and manipulation.
Don’t we have good news to deliver to the world around us? Don’t you? What kind of difference has God made in your life? What does your faith mean to you? Maybe it gives you a sense of continuity with the past or hope for the future. Maybe your faith in God helps you find strength and comfort for today. You should feel free to share that experience with others as you participate in respectful conversation that celebrates their own wisdom and devotion. Who knows? You might find that someone is quite touched by what you have to say. They might even start to feel more interested in or attracted to Christianity. If so, that might be a good time for you to invite that person to attend church with you. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s a big and lonely world out there. Some folks feel lost in it. They’re looking for something to believe in or somewhere to belong. If one of your friends is searching in that way, why not invite them to explore that feeling together with us?
Evangelism doesn’t have to be a dirty word. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a word at all. Some of the most powerful sermons are the ones we preach with our actions. After all, a single act of compassion says more about God than all the books in a theology library. As you have often heard me say, in words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:
“Preach the gospel always. Use words when necessary.”