13 May 2015
St. Paul was a good choice to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. He was raised in Tarsus: a crossroads of cultures from Greece, Persia, and the lands of the Jews. He had a keen eye—once his eyes were opened—to see God at work all over the place. And so, he could go up to Greece and see the Wisdom of God at work in the Athenians; he could see the desire for God in their construction of the temple dedicated to the “Unnamed God.”
This is even taken by some to think of the ancient Greeks as unknowing followers of God; they were attuned to divine Wisdom, yet the name of God hadn’t been revealed to them the way it had been to the ancient Hebrews. But that didn’t mean God wasn’t at work in them. Now, that view might be a stretch, and it might not be. But St. Paul’s encounter with the Athenians and his praise of their religious sensibilities is enough for us to consider how God might be at work in other cultures, other practices which may not strike us as Catholic, or even Christian.
In the Second Century, a Christian writer, Tertullian, asked the question: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” That is, what does the apparently worldly wisdom of the Greeks have to do with the divine Revelation of Christianity? And we might be tempted to ask something similar, like: “What does secular culture have to do with the Church?” “What does the internet and social media have to do with Christian values?”
And the answer is actually pretty simple: They’re all places where faith can exist and be encountered. And that’s because faith—in itself—doesn’t exist except in the mind of God. Faith only exists in the context of something—some culture, some value system, some set of rituals and practices, and so on. Faith needs something else to bring it to life. And that “something else” is what we call “culture.”
Aristotle would understand this illustration: try holding in your hand the color blue. It can’t be done. In itself, blue doesn’t exist except in the mind of God. Instead, things are blue. Fabric is blue, paint is blue, light waves highlight blueness. Things are blue. But blue in itself . . . no, that doesn’t exist. And that’s like faith. Faith exists, it only happens in the context of human culture.
And so, wherever there is human culture, there is the possibility of faith at work. St. Paul knew this. And so, he could look at the Athenians and see: God is at work here. But it wasn’t just a private understanding; he told the Greeks about it; he told them how God was working in them and through their Athenian culture. In this way, Paul was acting like the Holy Spirit, who Jesus describes as simply relaying what he sees and hears.
There is a lot of faith happening out there, even in people we might consider non-Christian or agnostic, or whatever. Our work is not to judge and condemn others. Our work is to look for God with open eyes and open minds. And then to point him out to others when we see it. St. Paul didn’t tell the Athenians they were going to hell. He said to them: Hey! God is at work here—and let me show you how he’s working.
Wherever there is human culture, faith is probably present in some form or another. Let’s look for it with open eyes and open minds, and praise God for what we find.