Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Paul at the Areopagus

Based on the first reading from May 16th's liturgy:

Paul at the Areopagus:

The church of Athens was one of the last churches to be established in Greece. According to one theologian, it came into being around the year 500 A.D. Athens was full of intellectuals. No doubt, they are usually toughest bunch of people to evangelize. Quite often, they suffer from intellectual pride and they further have a greater capacity to justify evil.

The city of Athens just happened to be the home of the Areopagus, where intellectuals would gather and discuss the philosophical ideas and issues of the day. One day, St. Paul decided to join these high-minded men who prided themselves on sophisticated language and abstract theorems. However, on this occasion, preaching to the Athenians was more of a lesson in the art of evangelization than anything else.

In his preaching, he decided to limit himself to the lowest common denominator. Instead of preaching Christ-crucified, he took a philosophical approach. This was something he would later regret as evidenced in his letters to the Corinthians. In Athens, he appealed to their poets and spoke, in general terms, of the God and the future resurrection. The Apostle even paid them a compliment by saying the following: "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.” It was a beautiful oration but one that bore little fruit in terms of conversions. But he did walk away with two new followers: Dionysius and Damaris.

The book of Acts reports that St. Paul then made his way to Corinth. It would seem that he mulled over his time at the Areopagus. Perhaps he even weighed what he could have done differently. After all, his message to the Corinthians had a whole new flavor to it. It is more explicit on what was foolish to the world, instead of what was most appealing. Talking philosophically about God, in a style agreeable to the Greeks, was probably more eloquent but it certainly was less effective. The real power of the Gospel emanated from the mystery of the cross.

St. Paul, with new vigor and determination, told the Christians in Corinth that he was, for now on, going to “proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” He may have shied away from this unconventional approach at Athens, but he resolved to shy away from it no more. In fact, he was at pains to contrast the foolishness of the Cross with the refined wisdom of the Athenians:

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside.’ Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? (I Corinthians 1:18-20)

Can it be that Jesus Christ chose twelve men from humble origins precisely because intelligence, if unredeemed, is a hindrance to salvation every bit as riches are? Simplicity and child-like trust are hard to come by among intellectuals. Let there be no doubt, an intelligent Saint is better than an ignorant Saint; this, because intelligence and knowledge is a gift from God and ignorance, an absence of that gift. But even among Christians, the intellectually gifted can find themselves in a world of mere ideas with little or no practical experience of how things work in the real world. And as it pertains to unbelievers, I have found that the most intelligent among them are duped by the most by secular, power-hungry politicians.

We as Catholics can learn a lesson from St. Paul; especially as we address matters on religious liberty or the right to life. When we appeal to the public and even make our case to the State in favor of religious liberty, we often limit ourselves to natural law terminology; this, in an attempt to highlight the common denominator we have with the people. For instance, we say that Catholic agencies cannot distribute contraception because it is a “matter of conscience.” Or when an argument is made that life begins at conception, we might limit our appeal to the science behind it. This is all well and good. Nevertheless, this approach, as much as it appeals to the familiarity of the public, is inferior to the apostolic and patristic (i.e. Church Fathers) approach. When they made their case to powerful men or to their audience, what stood out above the rest was God’s rights and God’s will. This was their emphasis.

For us, to hold fast to Christ’s teaching that using artificial birth control is against God’s plan for married couples and, as such, is offensive to him, is foolishness to the world. Still, we should proclaim it loud and clear. However, because of the potential ridicule or the fear of being ostracized from the mainstream, Catholics distanced themselves from this truth. Furthermore, we couch the argument in terms of conscience rights and speak very little of God’s rights. To be sure, liberty is unintelligible and will remain so if we do not make a connection- for all to see -between liberty and God’s rights and jurisdiction over every single human being. It is because every person is created by God, for God and in the likeness of God that no government or hostile party can violate human rights. Erase God from the equation of life and liberty, and what you are left with is the survival of the fittest, the strongest and the loudest.

The lesson that St. Paul learned in Athens also applies most fittingly to the Church in America. When Catholics make the Cross the centerpiece of their message- when repentance and sacrifices are the condition upon which people become a follower of Christ -and when we unapologetically articulate those moral doctrines that society deems to be foolish and outdated, then we will see gains similar to those of St. Paul "after" his disappointing visit to Athens.