Sunday, January 31, 2010

unChristian: Sheltered (Acts 17:16-32)

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place*every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The 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, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor* he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so 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. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.”

29Since 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. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31because he has fixed a day on which he 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.’

32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’

Today we are continuing in our series of messages on the theme unChristian. This series of messages is based on a book by the same name that is a comprehensive compilation of some compelling research done among 16-29-year-olds about their perceptions of Christians and the Church.

Forty percent of people in this age group have turned away from the Christian faith, and I am convinced that is largely to do with the version of Christianity they have been exposed to and the things they have heard from some of Christianity’s most vocal proponents. These young people point out that Christianity in many places is no longer as Jesus intended, in other words, that Christianity has become unChristian.

Today’s message responds to the perception among young outsiders that Christians are sheltered. They think we are backward, old-fashioned, out-of-touch, anti-intellectual, and living in our own protective little bubble. They perceive us to be like an ostrich with our head in the sand, like passengers on the Titanic in the hours before it sank, or a pack of domesticated cats who look like they’re thinking deep thoughts but are just waiting for their next meal. My hope is that we who follow the Christ will be willing to open doors and explore the wonder, complexity, and beauty of all that has been created around us. May we pray.

One of my favorite television shows is The Simpsons. It may not be something you want your young kids watching, but I find it to be brilliant social commentary. An episode in which the fossil remains of a supposed angel is discovered stirs up a controversy and debate in the town that leads to a trial in which the judge says, “In many ways, this case will settle the debate once and for all between science and religion.”

Now personally, I wasn’t aware that there was a debate between the two until I turned about 15 or so, and this is probably a familiar experience for many of you. You raised smart kids. They achieved in school, they excelled, and they went off to great colleges and universities – and those who couldn’t went to Chapel Hill. Because they’re bright and thinking, they come in contact with some of the latest scientific views and research. Then they hear some of the most vocal proponents of Christianity say those exciting new things they are learning aren’t true because those things don’t fit into a certain view of the Christian faith and they’re forced to make a choice. Either, your kids have to give up science to remain a Christian, or they have to give up Christianity in order to be a person who values science. And when you have very loud and vocal and narrow-minded Christians yelling about the evils of science, and very bright and engaging professors inviting them into a world of discovery, who’s gonna win?

JB Phillips has written a wonderful little book entitled Your God is Too Small. The title of this book is at the root of these perceptions about Christians – about being close-minded, sheltered, and unthinking. For too many Christians, our version of God is just too small. Many Christians are closed to the idea of a God that might be a little bigger or broader than our particular worldview. Too many Christians have closed the door on a big and complex God. The perception is that many Christians have already made up their mind about everything in the world, and they simply aren’t open to new ideas or thoughts.

Are we afraid that our faith can’t withstand the questions? Are we motivated by fear, and do our fears force us to take a position on Biblical interpretation and theology and science and faith that are, in reality, losing propositions for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

You think we would have learned, after 400 years of doing this, that this isn’t the right approach. Galileo was a faithful Roman Catholic who loved God and loved science. He had constructed a crude telescope, and based on what he observed, he came to the conclusion that the earth rotated around the sun, that Copernicus was right. At the time, the church taught that the sun rotated around the earth – that the earth was stationary and the sun and stars moved around it. The church taught that because the Bible taught that! In Psalm 93:1: “The Lord has established the world; it shall never be moved.” In Psalm 96:10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30: “The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.” Based upon this and an understanding that the earth was the center of the universe, Galileo’s teachings were considered heresy.

On June 22, 1633, Galileo received this sentence: “Whereas you, Galileo, hold as true the false doctrine taught by some that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable and that the Earth moves, contrary to the true sense of Holy Scripture. The proposition that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture.” Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. His writings were banned from publication and were not published again until 76 years after his death. Now, he recanted his teaching on that day, but I’m told he had his fingers crossed behind his back, because he knew what he had seen with his eyes.

Now, today, we know that the earth rotates around the sun, anyone knows this! But for people of that day, it was just as self-evident that the sun rotated around the earth. I mean, the earth was God’s special creation, of course it would be fixed at the center of the universe! It sure doesn’t feel like the earth is hurtling through space at 490,000 miles per hour, and anyone can see that the sun rises every day somewhere in the east and sets every day somewhere in the west. And for people of that day, based on what they observed and three little verses in Scripture, it was a critical matter of faith that the earth didn’t move.

Today, you and I see it differently. You know that the earth rotates around the sun, but you even know more than Galileo did. Because the sun is just one star in the Milky Way Galaxy over here in one corner of the universe as one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. You believe this! You know this is true, and somehow, you’re still Christians! Even though this doesn’t line up with the literal meaning of three isolated verses of Scripture. How’d you do that?

Somehow, you found the ability to reconcile these two different things. At some level, we have to recognize that religion and science aren’t enemies, if, for no other reason, because science and religion are asking different sorts of questions about the same sorts of things. By and large, religion asks “Why” questions and science asks “How” questions. These are two vastly different aims, and it is entirely possible that a scientifically sound answer can co-exist next to a faithfully sound answer.

Think of it this way. You may observe a kettle whistling on the stove and ask, “What has caused the water in this kettle to boil?” From a scientific standpoint, you may know that heat causes the water molecules to speed up their movement. As they got hotter, they move faster and faster, bouncing and crashing off one another like rednecks at a demolition derby. Eventually, some of the molecules crash so hard off each other that they escape their bond with the other molecules and float off into the air – and we call this escape steam. But someone else with a different perspective could ask the same question, “What has caused the water in this kettle to boil?” and their response would be, “Because I would like a cup of tea” or “Because someone turned on the burner.” Now, which of the explanations of the water boiling is true? They are all equally true. Moreover, the truth of one statement does not negate the truth of any of the others.

Where we get into trouble, it would seem, is when we abuse the Bible and ask it to give us answers it was never intended to give. The Bible was written to tell us about God and humanity’s ongoing relationship with God. It tells us who God is, gives us glimpses of what God is like, and narrates our often-failed attempts to live as God’s people. It gives us guidelines about how to live with each other, how to care for each other, how to be good stewards over the earth, and how to better align our hearts and wills with God’s. It gives us strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow with words of comfort about who God is and who we are as God’s children. But then, too many Christians are also trying to read the Bible as if it’s a history textbook or a science textbook, and are asking the Bible to speak to issues of history or modern science, a task for which it was never intended to be employed.

Part of the problem with this debate is the fact that we’ve set it up as a debate. We’ve seen science – or really, too much learning and intellectualism in opposition to Christianity. This seems odd to me, given that for most of Christian history, faith and learning were very close friends. The great universities of Europe were founded by the Church. In this country, universities with names like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Wake Forest, Elon, Davidson, and Wofford were all founded on religious principles. At its best, the Church saw itself contributing to and reaping the benefit of the advances in art and science, in mathematics and humanities, in social sciences and education, in engineering and commerce.

When Duke University’s gothic West Campus was under development, James B. Duke wrote “In the middle of the campus I want a great towering church, because such an edifice would be sure to have a profound effect on the minds of the young people who study there.” Today, Duke Chapel stands at the center of the university. Right in the middle of the school’s seal, you’ll find the latin words “Eruditio et Religio” – learning and religion. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism made famous this line: “Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.”

Too many Christians fall prey to the problem evident in a children’s sermon in which a pastor looked at the kids and said, “I am thinking of something that is brown, has a bushy tale, lives in trees, and gathers acorns each fall.” The kids were silent for a moment and one boy finally said, “Well preacher, it sounds like a squirrel to me, but I’m sure the answer is Jesus.”

Friends, unthinking religiosity is sure the answer is Jesus or some other such equivalent even before the questions have been asked. Unthinking religiosity lapses into traditionalism, which Jaroslav Pelikan calls the “dead faith of the living.” Christianity is viewed as sheltered because too many of its followers have substituted visionary faith for lazy formulas.

If our answer to every query is simply, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” based on a rigid and narrow interpretation of Scripture in which we ask the Bible to answer questions it was never intended to answer, it won’t be long before we are declaring any thinking or intellectual person a heretic. Based on these formulations, it is easy to see why so many people perceive Christians to have our heads buried in the sand, unwilling to acknowledge new learnings and discoveries happening all around us. And too often, this is what Christians are actually doing – we cling to antiquated formulas and worldviews because we have been trapped by a picture of God that is too small, because our faith has constructed a house of meaningless cards that threatens to tumble around us, because somewhere we were taught that questioning is the opposite of faith and we’ve been afraid to question anything ever since.

I find it odd that so many Christians are frightened by intellectual advancements or think that the sovereignty of God is somehow threatened by a theory about how something in the world works. We are commanded in the Scriptures to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. “You cannot love God with all your mind and leave it untended. As creatures created in the image and likeness of God, we are called to think, motivated by a desire to know and love God truthfully and faithfully.”[1] I fear too many religious people become religious simply to avoid having to think, finding it easier to passively accept everything on blind faith and never wrestle with the big questions or discover just who this God is. It is, no doubt, in this sense in which Marx described religion as “the opiate of the masses.”

So then, how do we proceed? Galileo gives us some insight. He said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use.”

First, Christians need to be viable conversation partners in the towers of intellect and the great halls of learning. In the passage of Scripture we read earlier from the book of Acts, Paul confronts the thinkers of his day on their own turf. He is in Athens, the seat of philosophy and a place where people went to think deep thoughts. It was a place where the intellect was celebrated and a place in love with new ideas and ways of thinking. In that setting, Paul engages the intellectuals with an intellectual argument. He begins by complementing them – he says he can tell that they are very devout! This is a lesson for Christians. Too often our conversations begin as an argument, but Paul begins by acknowledging and celebrating common ground. But then, he presses on and shows them how his teaching about God can actually fill a gap in their worldview. It turns out God was there all along, but Paul was simply giving them some language to recognize it, for those who chose to believe.

Second, Christians need to stop focusing on divisions, particularly between those who are perceived to be right and those who are perceived to be wrong. Have you ever noticed that whoever is setting the definition of what is right and wrong always sets the boundary in such a way that they, themselves, are sure to be included? The goal of Christianity is not homogeneity – making all people the same – believing, doing, and acting all the same. The goal of the Christian faith is unity in spite of our differences. In one of his most formative sermons, “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley said, “In matters that do not strike at the heart of scriptural Christianity, we are free to think and let think.” There are great matters of opinion over which Christians may disagree that have nothing to do with the heart of the Gospel message. And, those things do not threaten the heart of the Gospel in Jesus Christ. Certainly, opinions and theories about matters of learning fall into this category. What would it look like for us to focus not on the places we disagree with others, but the places of commonality? Again, John Wesley, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Third, Christians need to be lifelong learners. God has imbued us with gifts of reason and intellect and does not give them to us that we might forgo their use. Chaim Potok writes “A shallow mind is a sin against God.” We are called to have simple faith, not simplistic faith. But, aren’t we supposed to have faith like a child? True enough, meaning that we are supposed to trust God. But have you ever noticed how children learn? It is the a process of constantly asking questions. Children question everything! One of the favorite questions children ask is “Why?” Everything! When my nephew, Nathaniel, was about four, he called me to the window in their kitchen to look at a car outside on the street. He said, “Why does that car have tape on the door?” I said, “Because the door is falling apart.” “Why is the door falling apart?” “Because it is worn out or was perhaps poorly manufactured.” “Why is it worn out?” By this time, I was ready to end this little inquiry, so I simply said, “Because it’s a crappy car.” And he said, “Yeah! That’s a crappy car, and that’s a crappy van next to it!”

So when we talk about having faith like a child, it’s a combination of a deep trust with the curiosity to discover the world around us. We have all been given varying gifts and ways of seeing the world. We need to have room for people to explore. The world is a complex place, we cannot simply shove simple answers at their complex questions. Christians must be lifelong learners.

Fourth, Christians need to exercise a little humility. It’s okay for there to be questions for which we don’t have an answer. It really is okay for us to recognize that God is a little mysterious some times. What I find is the more I approach life with a measure of humility – and granted, this is something I am still learning how to do – the more I find myself in awe of what God does.

No one likes a know-it-all. Don’t you find yourself innately skeptical of someone who claims to have all the answers? When I was in middle school, a classmate by the name of William H. Brown III impressed us all with his expansive vocabulary. In fact, we all called him Encyclopedia Brown. But then, we went to high school and got into our English classes, and found out he wasn’t using those words even remotely correctly, and we weren’t quite as impressed with him anymore.

Friends, Christians are unChristian when we are close-minded and sheltered. When we think we have all the truth, when we think we have it all figured out, when we think we have all the answers, when we think intellectual advancements have to line up exactly with a literal reading of a few narrow passages of Scripture. Christians are unChristian when we are slow to listen and quick to speak.

We get it right when we’re teachable. We get it right when we have a humility about us and a willingness to say, “You know, I am passionate about certain things and I believe certain things and I have convictions about certain things, but I’m open to hear what you have to say.”

When you hear people boasting and bragging about how much they know and what they’ve got figured out, it’s usually a sign of emotional and spiritual immaturity. Mark Twain put it this way: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Here’s something I find. The people who are most spiritually and emotionally mature have one thing in common. They tend to speak less than other folks. They tend to say things like, “The more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know. And the closer I get to God, the smaller I feel, I realize just how far away I still am from God, and how much I need to lean on God.” So when I meet people who have everything figured out and have all the answers and want to tell me their answers and want everyone to adhere to their answers, I think, “You’ve still got some growing to do.” Because a day will come when we all say, “You know, I don’t have everything figured out, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m learning and I’m growing and I’m seeking them out.”

Friends, my prayer for each of us is that we won’t worry so much about having all the right answers. I pray that we’ll have a faith that is deep enough that we can enjoy the questions.

[1] Jones, L. Gregory. “Why Bother to Think?” Christian Century, Nov 15, 2000.


  1. I think perhaps the pot calls the kettle black; it seems to me you are saying quite a lot and that you have it all figured out. ??

  2. Hi anonymous -

    I hope it doesn't sound like I have it all figured out - I am certainly a work in progress!

    I think you've stumbled on me trying to work through my own feelings and opinions on these sort of things, in light of what I believe Scripture to say about them.

    One of the things I realize is that the more I know about anything, the more there is yet to know. I can say that with certainty. The rest is difficult to judge.