One of my most beloved quotes from the Christian Scriptures, one that I draw on very often in times of stress, is “For in [God], we live and move and have our being.” (1) For me this is a beautiful statement of the absolute immanence of God, of our inseparableness from God because God is the locus of our entire existence. Imagine my surprise to find out the speaker, Paul the evangelist, is actually quoting from the Cretica – written by a Cretan poet named Epimenides, circa 600 B.C. In the next breath he quotes another poet, Aratus the Cicilian, circa 315-240 B.C. (2)
At first I’m very surprised by this, why would Paul be quoting old, dusty Greek poets – well, I guess not so dusty at that time – when trying to evangelize? Of course, I have to remember that Paul didn’t have these Christian Scriptures in his day, and even if he did, would he have quoted from it for this particular speech? Probably not, considering the context of where he is speaking. He is in Athens in the comedy of errors known as Acts that ensues after the Gospel of Luke. Many biblical scholars see Acts as written by, and an extension of, the author of the Book of Luke. Which is important to note because each Gospel writer had a particular agenda: each interpreted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through a particular lens. The writer of Luke focused heavily on what the Gospel meant for a Gentile, or non-Jewish, audience. And Acts continues with that lens.
So, that’s our context: Paul is in a city that in its heyday was the center of all sorts of human inquiry – science, philosophy, art, theatre, rhetoric, architecture. Though perhaps on its decline, Athens was still a place of diverse ideas, people, and ways of being. Paul realized that despite such plurality, he still could draw on a common, traditional language of the people to which he spoke. And he did so to drive home the point he was making – “See, my Athenian friends, even your trusted Greek poets spoke of what I am talking about here.”
It’s not so surprising then after all, that Paul quoted Epimenides and Aratus.
But we can’t end there – in the context of the writer of Acts, because Scripture always needs to be drawn forward into our own context. In fact, as Paul clearly showed, even other bodies of knowledge need to be drawn forward, to help us understand our own, immediate context. In part, that is what we mean by stating we believe in a living God: that the inspiration of God – found even in ancient, Greek poets – did not end in a particular time or place. The Spirit of God is continually moving within and inspiring humanity. So, what inspiration can I find here within our passage for our time?
First, Paul makes an important point in Acts 17:26-27: that God bound humans to time and place so humans would seek, reach for, and find God. (3) As a third-year seminarian, I can’t help but read this in light of Paul Tillich, the 20th century theologian. Don’t get me wrong, as a third-year seminarian; I am pretty much over Paul Tillich. Somehow though, he usually manages to weasel his way into my papers, and now apparently, sermons. He too asserted that we are bound by time and space in what he called ontological categories.(4) Meaning that, for these two ontological categories, we are only now and here – which may look drastically different, depending on your particular now and your particular here. An ancient Mayan culture is vastly different than say, a 20th century Middle Eastern culture. We can think of many different human scenarios that seemingly have no common ground. And coming out of a modern-world, how to negotiate this reality is to assert there must be one, and best, universal way in which God is revealed. But Paul isn’t saying that in our passage, the Greek poets he quotes aren’t saying that, and Tillich defines a component of grace as that God works within our ontological categories. God, as a loving, living God with boundless grace and boundless patience, will honor our own particular heres and particular nows to reveal Godself.
So, what does that mean? Always the question, right? That’s interesting, but what does it mean?
It means that here we have a way to open ourselves up to the possibility that God, as a loving, living, grace-filled God, is also revealed outside of our own time, place, and tradition. It means that the place to begin inter-denominational and inter-faith dialogue is that God, by God’s very nature, is revealed within each tradition. This is scary for some. We all talk about tolerance, right? Tolerance as an ideal is a great thing. But I’m not talking about tolerance here. I decided a couple years ago I didn’t want to merely just tolerate another person and their world-views. I wanted to be able to affirm. And sure enough, over time, God showed and continues to show me, ways in which I can affirm another. This is one way, to believe as a core component of my faith, that the loving, living, grace-filled God I believe in works within the limits of our own embodiment, our particular heres and particular nows.
In many ways, this requires that we educate ourselves about the “other” whoever that other might be. It also requires that we dialogue, because a large part of our particular here and our particular now is that we are pluralistic, technological and global. We no longer have the option of remaining entrenched in our own understandings. Well, we do, but it’s not going to get us much further toward any sense of the Kingdom of God here on earth. I say this because our technological ability to engage in battle over differing ideals has reached such a critical point that we now can completely decimate entire countries with one armament payload. I say this because our dominant Western faith traditions do not contain the Earth wisdom that indigenous religions do that is necessary to avoid environmental devastation. We all need to talk, going in to each situation with the understanding, that a loving, living, grace-filled God revealed something of Godself within differing traditions that is now CRUCIAL to the entire world’s survival.
I have a hard time envisioning this God – Trinitarian? Pantheistic? Panentheistic? Mosaic? A Mosaic God? However, this language is no longer working for me because it’s still working from language that essentially makes God into a deity. But Paul, the Greek poets, and even Tillich seem to be pointing toward an even larger vision – that the very ground of our being is God. And everyone, by the sheer fact of their existence, has their being in God.
Now, this is problematic because there’s a lot of wrong out there, there’s a lot of ideals within a lot of religions that are not the most life-giving. But I think that’s the point of any dialogue – to discover what we both have to offer, but to also reexamine our own faiths and world-views to find out what we need to let go.
At the end of this sermon, I don’t think I’ve given you anything concrete to take home and say, “Yes, this is true, and I now believe it.” What I have done, however, is offer you an invitation to open yourself up to the working of the Spirit of God in the other. Hopefully, over time, you too will begin to not merely just tolerate, but affirm that all of us are needed, now, in our globalistic, pluralistic world to bring about the Kingdom of God. And that necessitates that God is larger, more loving, more living, and more grace-filled than we ever thought possible.
1. Acts 17:28, NSRV
2. Kenneth Barker, Donald Burdick, John Stek, Walter Wessel, Ronald Youngblood, eds. The NIV Study Bible. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995). Commentary for Acts 17:28, page 1683.
3. Acts 17:26b-27, NSRV
4. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Volume 1. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pgs 192-198. In addition to time and space, Tillich also speaks of causality and substance as two more ontological categories.