In the passage from Acts for the sixth Sunday in Easter Paul preaches in front of the Areopagus, a rocky platform beside the Acropolis in Athens. This is a key moment in the history of Christianity, and of the world. Here, two great cultures meet for the first time -- the religion of the Jews and the philosophy of the Greeks.
Athens and Jerusalem are the streams of thought and culture from which all the most important aspects of our civilization take their origin. Both Jew and Greek were passionately concerned to understand how the lives of human beings could be rooted in reality, how they could avoid falling for individual fads and passing fashions, and how best they might be lived in harmony with the whole creation.
When Tertullian, one of the Early Church Fathers, posed his famous question "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" he was giving voice to a doubt about how easily these two ways of thinking could be combined. For the Greeks, the pursuit of wisdom meant gaining knowledge of the way the cosmos was structured and functioned. Their hope, and their faith, was pinned on what we would today call science. For the Jews, by contrast, reality was ultimately personal, a reflection of the will of its divine creator and ruler, and their faith consequently, lay in knowing and following God’s purpose.
The Epistle for this Sunday reveals something about this difference. Peter says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” But the kind of reason he is referring to is not founded in evidence or experiment. Rather, it springs from something more basic, that ‘in your hearts you sanctify Christ as Lord’.
In his speech to the Greeks, Paul is clear about this vital shift of perspective. “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth . . . will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead”. The implication of this is that humanity needs more than scientific knowledge, valuable though this is. At bottom, the ‘Spirit of truth’ to which Jesus refers in the Gospel, is not something impersonal – scientific knowledge -- but something personal -- love for God through Christ. It is only when we grasp this profound insight that our experience of human nature (who we are) and of the human condition (the world in which we have to live) can be fully reconciled.
The world that God has made for us may be studied as a physical and biological system. There is undoubtedly a lot to be learned from studying it that way. But the Christian religion holds that inquiries of this kind cannot sound reality's depths or tell us how best to live. Rather, the world is a cosmic expression of divine love, animated by that love, and inviting a personal response from us.
In the current crisis, our lives have been drastically altered in the name of ‘following the science’. The Church has gone along with that, and laid its public worship aside. But now we are confronted by this question: the impersonal science we are following gives us predictions and death counts. But does it give us reason for the hope that we have? Actually, does it give us hope at all? Might it be that Jesus is calling us to proclaim afresh “the Spirit of truth, whom the world (especially in its current state of anxiety) cannot receive”?
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Christ Church Morningisde
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