How to Disagree
One of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter is Acts 17:22-31; but the reading as presented leaves out a preface and a postscript that are important to me personally. I was made fun of for being intellectual (aka nerdy geek, pencil-neck...), and American society seems to respect intelligence less and less all the time. Politicians and religious leaders strive to sow discord by creating a false dichotomy between faith and reason. When I read the chosen excerpt of the text, I at first see yet another "religious" person making fun of intellectuals.
"You are soooo religious. You even worship an Unknown God (just to be safe?). Well, you're in luck! I'm here to make the unknown known to you." (verse 23)
Now, if you wanted a law-and-order, don't-ask-questions, don't-trust-educated-people society, you didn't need to look any further than the Roman Empire. But this was Greece, where people actually could make a living thinking. Was Paul so dismissive of Greek intellectuals because at his core he was a citizen of Rome? In theory, he would have more in common with the thinking Greeks than the doing Romans intellectually. So why the sarcasm? Was it an act?
In the omitted preface, we learn that they asked him to speak to them! "May we hear this new teaching you have been sharing around Athens? It sounds strange to us, so we would like to find out more." (verses 19&20) With open-minds, they sought intellectual discourse, but got Paul instead. They were looking for areas of agreement, and Paul was being disagreeable. Paul liked to pretend he was just a simple tentmaker, a Joe the Plumber kind of schmuck, but we all know that he was a highly educated Pharisee, was a fluent speaker of classical Greek, and was well-versed in Greek rhetoric and in the Stoic philosophy of his hometown Tarsus. Peter was the mook - Paul was the egghead. So to me, this was not really faith versus reason, or dumb versus smart, or educated versus uneducated, or emotional versus logical; it was intellectual brand A versus intellectual brand B.
On the heals of his snark, it is easy to miss the revolutionary statement Paul made: "God made a diversity of people and nations so that they would have to search for God, to grope for God, so that they could find him." (verse 27) This is a pro-intellectual statement by Paul, who now shucks the good ol' boy country-bumpkin con to show his true Grecian colors. And, it is consistent with my Methodist method of reflection: scripture; tradition; experience; and reason. Like other intellectuals, I was not a tell-me-the-answer student - I wanted to figure it out myself. I understood better, retained it better, took ownership of it that way. Just as Bonhoeffer suspected cheap grace, I suspect easy faith.
Did Paul's audience close their ears and shut down their minds just because Paul did not agree with them? In the postscript we read: "Some scoffed, but others wanted to hear more from him later." (verse 32)
We have a lot to learn from Paul's speech in Athens, but I think the lesson we need most today is the openness, receptiveness, and courtesy of the Athenians in our bookends; verses 19&20 and 32.
(photography by tiwago)