St. Paul’s Proposal to the Pagans

What must happen before pagans will turn to Christ?

Raphael, “Saint Paul Preaching in Athens,” ca. 1515
Raphael, “Saint Paul Preaching in Athens,” ca. 1515 (photo: Public Domain)

A writer by the name of Aldous Huxley — whom I suspect most people have never heard of, despite his having written Brave New World, a widely renowned work of dystopian fiction that has never gone out of print — once said that, “There was a time when I gazed upon the stars with great wonder and amazement. Now, late in life, I look up at the heavens in the same way in which I gaze upon the faded wall-paper in a railway station waiting room.”

Now for those who may never even have seen such a place, train stations having gone the way of toasters and typewriters, this may be a source of wonder and amazement as great as knowing who Huxley was. Also stars, inasmuch as most people no longer look at the night sky, owing to either indifference or, more charitably, light pollution, which prevents our seeing them. Thus leaving the Milky Way no longer seen or even looked for — notwithstanding the late Lorenzo Albacete having dedicated his wonderful little book, God At The Ritz, to Luigi Giussani for helping him to see it.

The point is, we live in an age in which most everything has become flat as a map. Modernity has a way of doing that to people, of leveling everything in sight, reducing it all to a state of utter and univocal sameness. A perfectly predictable flatness, looking ever more boringly alike. Think of all those Happy Meals at McDonalds, where it scarcely matters whether you’re eating the damn thing in Kansas, California or Vermont. It will always and everywhere be exactly the same Happy Meal.

No sense of awe or mystery or wonder can survive a reductionism so complete, so totalizing. Perhaps Marx was right, after all: “Everything solid will melt into thin air.” Nietzsche, too, whose description of modernity amounts to an amputation of the historical memory: “Something came along with a sponge and wiped away the horizon.” We have lost, in other words, a sense of the sacred, the hieratic, and are thus forced to live in ever darkening valleys where the light of Christ can no longer reach, leaving the Word unspoken, unheard. We have grown deaf and dumb to “the poetry of the transcendent,” as my old friend and mentor, Fritz Wilhelmsen, used to say.

But do not think for a moment that the problem is altogether peculiar to our own hyper-modern age. Poor St. Paul faced a similar frustration when he had gone to Athens in search of fresh converts, and found instead that both he and his message had been categorically dismissed by the sophisticated scoffers of Greek rationalist culture. He had only sought to satisfy their curiosity about Christ, whom he’d spoken of as this Crucified Jew who rose from the dead. Why should that have been the warhead that, upon impact, unleashed such withering rejection? Especially as they were not entirely unreceptive to his speech, at least not the earlier bits where he commended them for their wonderful religiosity.

Here he is, then, facing the assembly in the middle of the Areopagus, addressing them in the most agreeable and ecumenical way. “Men of Athens,” he begins, “I perceive that you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” And so Paul proceeds to unmask, as it were, the face of this heretofore unknown god. He tells them:

“What therefore you worships as unknown, this I proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:24-27)

So, what’s going on? Why should they then turn hostile the moment Paul plays the Christ card? Who, it turns out, will be the very embodiment and proof of a God “not far from each of us.” Particularly when the earlier bits fell on ears receptive to the sheer reasonableness of his argument. There is simply no other way to account for the world, for its evident beauty and order, unless there be a God to make and sustain it. It surely cannot have created itself. And, certainly, no pagan god, nor even a busload of them, could possibly have made something out of nothing. As Paul will later remind us in his Letter to the Romans:

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. … So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” (Romans 1:19-23)

Are they grateful, then, for the correction? That Paul, having undertaken to disabuse them of pagan superstition, should they not welcome the opportunity to convert? To escape the polytheistic trap of worshiping reptiles? No, they are not. That is because, included in the package is Incarnation, which no self-respecting Greek, or Roman, will accept. It is not only that God would enter time, a notion quite insupportable enough to the ancient mind; but that he should actually be found in the flesh of a Crucified Jew, who thereupon rises triumphant from the grave. Well, that is more than pagan flesh will bear.

Which moves one to ask, What, then, must happen before pagan antiquity will turn to Christ? Stay tuned, as they say.