Practicing Pluralism (or, Why Your Brain Won’t Fall Out if You’re Open-Minded)

“Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.”

I’ve had many people toss this pithy little turn of phrase in my direction many times over the years. Not once has one of them ever actually explained what they mean by it. Here’s how their message comes across:

  1. “People who disagree with me are stupid.”
  2. “I think I’m witty.”

If one were to give the benefit of the doubt to another who uses this phrase, one could say that they are expressing their distaste for relativism in religious truth, ethics, etc.

Relativism is the philosophical position that there is no absolute truth to a given matter. Therefore, what is true (or right) for one person is not necessarily true (or right) for another. Therefore one person (or culture) cannot pass judgment on another person’s (or culture’s) beliefs or ethics. Relativism is a cop-out and easily debunked.

Philosophically speaking, relativism is “hoist with its own petard” (a phrase that appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, among other places). A petard is an antiquated explosive weapon, a kind precursor to the grenade or landmine. If a petard were to detonate in the face of the one setting it, that soldier was said to be “hoist with his own petard” or “destroyed by his own weapon.”

Such is the fate of relativism as a philosophical theory: It is self-contradictory, refuted by its own argument, hoist with its own petard.

If one claims that there is no absolute truth in religion or morality, then one must hold this belief to the exclusion of all other beliefs. To the extent that relativists hold themselves to be correct in their relativism, they are absolutists. This is a logical contradiction.

Similarly, if one holds that all perspectives are equally valid and there is no ultimate truth (as relativists do), then they must necessarily regard absolutism as a philosophical perspective of equal value alongside their relativism. This too is a logical contradiction.

This is why we say that relativism is “hoist with its own petard.” It contradicts itself and falls apart under the weight of its own argument.

Relativism is a cop-out. It’s a way of ending dialogue when one party is sick and tired of debate over a particular issue. It could be argued that those who say “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out” are actually encouraging people to stay engaged in the process of critical thinking, rather than take the easy way out (i.e. adopt relativism as a philosophically weak non-position).

If this were what folks meant by “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out,” then I would heartily agree. However, I’ve noticed the opposite to be true. In my experience, those who use this phrase are falling into a similar trap as relativists: They are refusing to engage in the process of critical thinking. They are unwilling to consider viewpoints other than their own and are derisive of those who do. In sense it is their own brains that are “falling out” (or “being stifled”) due to minds that are too closed to engage in rigorous debate. Ironically, they fall into the same hole as relativists, but from the opposite side.

A further mistake they often make is their failure to distinguish between relativism and pluralism. We’ve already defined relativism as the position that there is no absolute truth, therefore what is true for one person is not necessarily true for another. A robust pluralism, on the other hand, states that there is an ultimate truth, but it cannot be fully known by one person or captured by a single perspective.

Take the parable of the elephant, as told by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa:

A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: ‘It is like a pillar.’ This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently. In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.

Retrieved from

The relativist would say that there is no elephant and each blind man was equal to his counterparts in accuracy. The pluralist would say that the elephant is real and its reality is greater than each blind man’s individual experience.

Another way I have described pluralism to my students in the past is to imagine a statue illuminated by spotlights. A light placed on one side of the statue will illuminate some features while leaving others in shadow. A light placed on the otherside will have an opposite effect. The relativist would say that there is no statue. A reductionist might limit discussion to those parts of the statue that are illuminated by both lights (e.g. those who reduce conversations about religion to discussion of the “golden rule”, an ethical principle that appears in multiple religious traditions). Pluralists, on the other hand, see the statue and take note of what is illuminated, where the lights overlap, and what parts remain in shadow.

Pluralism is the virtue of humility, applied to the life of the mind. Practicing pluralism requires of us a high degree of empathy and goodwill for one’s interlocutors. It requires that we remain critically engaged with one another and honest with ourselves. Being a pluralist is a moral commitment to love one’s intellectual neighbors as oneself. Being an open-minded pluralist, in this sense, is the exact opposite of one’s brain falling out. I would daresay it is the human mind at its best.


Image by Rennett Stowe. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
Image by Rennett Stowe. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Reblogged from CNN:

How many ways are there to disbelieve in God?

At least six, according to a new study.

Two researchers at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that atheists and agnostics run the range from vocally anti-religious activists to nonbelievers who still observe some religious traditions.

“The main observation is that nonbelief is an ontologically diverse community,” write doctoral student Christopher Silver and undergraduate student Thomas Coleman.

Click here to read the full article

I had fun with this study because, although I don’t ascribe the label atheist to myself, I am not a theist in the classical sense.  For those who may not be familiar with the terms: Classical Theism refers to belief in an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, and personal deity who is responsible for the creation of the universe, exists separately from it, and interferes with its normal operations at least occasionally.  Depending on who you ask, the God of classical theism might also be defined as omnipresent, immutable (unchanging) and/or impassable (incapable of feeling or suffering).

I really like a conversational strategy adopted by Unitarian Universalist minister John Buehrens: whenever someone says, “I don’t believe in God,” Buehrens responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”  Most of the time, he says, he is able to say that he doesn’t believe in that God either.  Likewise with me: if the classical theist concept of divinity is the only legitimate definition of the word God, then I would be forced to classify myself as an atheist.  For various reasons, I reject outright the ideas of immutability, impassability, and separateness from the universe.  I radically redefine concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, creativity, and personality in ways that would make them nearly unrecognizable to a classical theist.  For reasons that I admit are not entirely rational, I continue to accept the quality of benevolence as central to my understanding of the idea of God.

There are two thinkers with whom I tend to resonate when it comes to talking about God.  The first is philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich who famously declared that God is not “a being” but “Being Itself” or “the Ground of Being”.  This is also vaguely reminiscent of St. Thomas Aquinas who said (not in so many words) that God does not “exist” but “is existence”.  In more recent years, Forrest Church (another Unitarian Universalist) wrote in his book The Cathedral of the World, “God is not God’s name.  God is our name for that which is greater than all, yet present in each.”

Like most atheists, I have no trouble acknowledging that God is a mythical concept devised by human minds in a particular cultural milieu.  I utterly reject the hypothesis that there is actually an “old man in the sky” who created the world, controls everything, and condemns earth to destruction and the majority of humanity to eternal postmortem torture as punishment for various moral and dogmatic infractions.  If that’s who God must be, then you can call me an atheist.

When it comes to the six types of atheists, I might be classified somewhere between a 3 (seeker-agnostic) and a 6 (ritual atheist).

Regarding the 3 (seeker-agnostic) the article says this:

This group is made up of people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience.

Silver and Coleman describe this group as people who regularly question their own beliefs and “do not hold a firm ideological position.”

That doesn’t mean this group is confused, the researchers say. They just embrace uncertainty.

Regarding the 6 (ritual atheist) the article says:

They don’t believe in God, they don’t associate with religion, and they tend to believe there is no afterlife, but the sixth type of nonbeliever still finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions.

“They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.”

For many of these nonbelievers, their adherence to ritual may stem from family traditions. For others, its a personal connection to, or respect for, the “profound symbolism” inherent within religious rituals, beliefs and ceremonies, according the researchers.

If I had to classify myself as an atheist, based on my rejection of classical theism, it would probably look like some combination of these two categories.  However, I don’t consider myself an atheist because even a combination of these recently expanded ideas is still too dogmatically confining for me.

So here I am: neither a classical theist nor an atheist.  If there is a widely acknowledged category that most closely describes the place where I live, it would be panentheism (God exists within the universe and the universe exists within God).  Unlike pantheism (God is the universe and the universe is God), panentheism leaves more room for mystery and transcendence beyond the realm of time/space/matter/energy.

However, because I like to challenge conventional labels and make up new words, I’ve been playing with the term alt/theism as a description for where I’m at.  Don’t read too much into it or get your torches and pitchforks ready, this is just pure fun with words.

For me, as an alt/theist, faith in God is based on a meta-rational “hunch” about the mysteries of existence, connection, personality, and harmony.  My hunch (which I cannot prove as fact but cannot reject as possbility) is that each of these experienced realities is derivative from some larger source or whole that can never be fully understood or explained by human reason.  To this mystery, the language of my Christian tradition attaches the name God.  My only hope in the quest for understanding is to approach the very tip of reason’s precipice and peer over the edge into the ongoing mystery with my eyes, ears, heart, mind, and mouth hanging open in wonder.

I Have Called You Friends

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian Church.

John 15:9-17

If you were to ask the average person on the street to define the term ‘God’ (as it is often used in most contemporary monotheistic religions), you would probably get an answer similar to what the late Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson used to call the God “up there.”  In his more cheeky moments, Bishop Robinson also referred to the God “up there” as “the Old Man in the Sky.”  This idea of God was taken quite literally by superstitious people during the Medieval Dark Ages.

Folks these days, while they might use language about God that describes “the Old Man in the Sky” as being “up there,” will most likely admit when pressed that God (if they believe there is a God) is neither biologically male, nor does “he” exist in a physical location that just so happens to be directly vertical in relation to the speaker’s current point of reference.  Most folks who believe in a traditional monotheistic deity these days tend to think of the God “out there” (to use Robinson’s words again).  In other words, they think of God as a singular, intangible, all-knowing, and all-powerful Supreme Being who exists independently of the created universe.  Depending on their overall outlook on life and religion, they may or may not identify this Supreme Being as benevolent or compassionate.

The attribute of God that people tend to name more than any other is omnipotence, which means “all-powerful” or “almighty.”  Have you ever paid attention to how often people begin their prayers with the words ‘Almighty God’?  We kind of take it for granted that God is almighty.  We figure that a Supreme Being can do anything that comes to mind.  This is a tremendous source of strength and comfort for those who face difficult circumstances.  It’s helpful to know that God is in control, can handle any crisis, and has a plan to work everything out for the better.  The downside to this idea is that there seems to be so much meaningless suffering in the world.  How could God possibly bring good out of it?  Philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with that question for thousands of years.  If they ever come up with a single, universally acceptable answer, I’ll be sure to let you know right away.

I find it interesting that omnipotence has taken such a central place in our ideas about God.  When you think about modern society, it kind of makes sense.  Modern people are obsessed with power.  In the last five hundred years, we’ve used the power of science and technology to accomplish things that our ancestors never dreamed of.  We’ve come to see ourselves as the masters of our own destiny.  We worship what we value, so it would be fair to say that modern people worship power.  When we try to conceive of a Supreme Being, the first thing we think of is someone who possesses unlimited power.  Thus, to the modern mind, God must be omnipotent.  It is as the philosopher Voltaire famously said: “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.”

However, our faith in the power of power has been shaken as of late.  The twentieth century, with its two world wars, the holocaust, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, gave us reason to doubt our ability to bring about utopia through science and technology.  The current century, as young as it is, has already drawn our attention to the growing problems of global warming, international terrorism, and social stratification.  The modern era’s faith in the power of power has left us feeling empty, helpless, and alone in a sea of political propaganda and consumer advertising.

The God of modern power-lust has also presented us with certain problems.  I’ve already mentioned what philosophers call “the problem of evil.”  How can an all-powerful deity allow such horrible things to happen in the world?  Whole books have been written on that question, so I won’t get into it just now.  The problem I want to focus on is a relational one.  There is only one way to relate to a God who is primarily understood as all-powerful: servitude.  Obedience is all that matters in a power-based relationship.  This much is true, even when power is trustworthy and only exercised in the interest of our individual or common good.

This idea of God is quite popular among religious believers today.  God is an all-powerful lawgiver with a plan for the world that must be obeyed to letter, or else…

The spirituality shaped by such a theology is characterized by crime and punishment, as well as guilt and forgiveness.  Average people, uncertain of what an all-powerful Supreme Being wants of them, tend to vest the authority for moral decision-making in some tangible and supposedly infallible source like a church, a Pope, or a Bible.  This infallible source, so they say, represents the will of God to the people.  In their minds, questioning the words of the Pope or the Bible is disobedience toward God.  One must either obey or face the consequences of eternal damnation in the fiery abyss of hell.  As you can see, this is how religious fanaticism and fundamentalism are born.

So, the question I want to ask today is this: is there a way to relate to God outside of the modern obsession with power?  The answer, in my opinion, is yes.

I have already noted how the only way to relate to the omnipotent God of power is as an obedient servant.  So, with that in mind, I love how Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel reading, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.”

Jesus was (in)famous in his day for challenging the authority of traditional orthodox religion in order to replace it with authentic and radical relationships.  His own family called him insane, all the preachers said he was demon-possessed, and respectable folks called him a glutton, a drunkard, and “a friend of sinners.”  Those who followed him were as diverse as they were dense.  They were ancient versions of government workers with guerilla fighters, barstool brawlers with church choir soloists, adult film stars with senators’ wives.  It was an offensive and unlikely collection of people that found friendship with this remarkable person and each other.

Jesus, in his teaching and his living, replaced the God of power with the God of love.  He told his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  He makes it clear to them that his friendship with them is not based on religious observance or moral performance.  He says to them, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”  His love for them is a free gift of grace.

Gone is the sophisticated legal system of the Torah with its 613 commandments.  Gone too are the famous tablets of the Ten Commandments.  In fact, the only commandment that Jesus leaves his disciples is the commandment of love.  “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”  The only thing Jesus asks us to do with this free gift of love is pass it on.  And the end result, he says, of this extravagant love-fest is a lasting fullness of joy for eternity.

What Jesus knew on an instinctual level, and his friends learned by following him, is that God is love.  The experience of a lived compassion and affection is more than just a fleeting emotion.  It is divine.  Love, as Jesus lived and taught it, is an expression of that which is the “Ground of all Being” and the very heartbeat of reality.  Live like this, he says, and you will touch the face of God.  For Jesus, God is not some all-powerful Supreme Being who rules the universe from a golden throne behind a pearly gate on a white, puffy cloud.  The throne of God, the place from which God reigns, is much nearer to us than that.  The kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, is within you and among us.

If you want to find God, don’t look up, look deep.  Look into your own eyes and those of your neighbors.  Honor the relationships in your life and you will automatically be following the will of God for you.  As the Christian theologian, St. Augustine, once said, “Love and do what you want.”

This is a radically different view of God than the one we get from religious fanatics, fundamentalists, and other modern folks who are obsessed with power.  According to Jesus’ experience, love (not power) is the primary attribute of God.  Everything else we might say about God must be understood in light of this first principle.  This kind of God, the one revealed in and through Jesus, is Emmanuel (i.e. “God with us”).  The life of Jesus represents a fundamental shift in the way we think about God.  Going back to serving the demanding God of power after this would be an act of sheer idolatry.

Jesus’ God of love offers us a healing balm for the wounds and ailments of power-driven modern society.  In spite of our incredible technological capacity for communication and information exchange, folks of all ages today tend to feel more isolated and lonely than ever.  We are besieged by an endless invasion of barbarians who tear us and each other apart in the effort to obtain our money and our votes.  We are horrified to discover, as Charlton Heston did at the end of the movie Soylent Green, that we are all destined to become mere consumers and products for consumption.  But Jesus shows us that there is another way.  There is more.

Jesus turns us onto the God of love and the subversive power of committed relationships.  When we, as a community, begin to learn and practice this art, we find ourselves living the life of heaven on earth: the fullness of joy forever more.  We might not be luckier, happier, or more prosperous than before, but we will have discovered the secret to living well.

I want to invite you then, whoever and wherever you are, to begin to look deeper into the relationships in your life.  Take a second (or third) look at your family, friends, and neighbors.  Take an especially good look at those you might consider your enemies.  Take a look at those strangers you pass by in public and at the store.

If you’re listening to this sermon online or on the radio, I would invite you to take a break our culture’s individualism and consumerism to come visit us on Sunday at 10:30 and start exploring these relationships with us at our church.  We don’t do it perfectly all the time, but we give it our best try.  Come and get involved.  See what love looks like in our little community of unlikely friends and ragtag disciples.  Get involved and help us look for God in these little things.  Maybe you’ll find the God of love while you’re helping Wally move chairs after the rummage sale, helping Vivien make sandwiches, or helping Rod put up the Christmas tree.  These are the places and times when heaven comes to earth and the Spirit of God takes on flesh and bone again.

These relationships are sacred.  Try to treat each person as you would treat Christ himself.  Maybe you could memorize what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 and recite his words silently to yourself as you interact with people, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  This is the secret to living well.  This is the fullness of joy.  This is how the kingdom of heaven comes to earth.  This is how we come to recognize the sacred face of Jesus’ God of love.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

Ways Through Time to Eternity

Fascinating thoughts on pluralism by philosopher John Hick. 

Warning: Liberal warm fuzzies ahead.  If you don’t want those, feel free to stop reading now.

The future I am thinking of is accordingly one in which what we now call the different religions will constitute the past history of different emphases and variations within a global religious life. I do not mean that all men everywhere will be overtly religious, any more than they are today. I mean rather that the discoveries now taking place by men of different faiths of central common ground, hitherto largely concealed by the variety of cultural forms in which it was expressed, may eventually render obsolete the sense of belonging to rival ideological communities. Not that all religious men will think alike, or worship in the same way or experience the divine identically. On the contrary, so long as there is a rich variety of human cultures—and let us hope there will always be this-we should expect there to be correspondingly different forms of religious cult, ritual and organization, conceptualized in different theological doctrines. And so long as there is a wide spectrum of human psychological types—and again let us hope that there will always be this—we should expect there to be correspondingly different emphases between, for example, the sense of the divine as just and as merciful, between karma and bhakti; or between worship as formal and communal and worship as free and personal. Thus we may expect the different world faiths to continue as religio-cultural phenomena, though phenomena which are increasingly influencing one another’s development. The relation between them will then perhaps be somewhat like that now obtaining between the different denominations of Christianity in Europe or the United States. That is to say, there will in most countries be a dominant religious tradition, with other traditions present in varying strengths, but with considerable awareness on all hands of what they have in common; with some degree of osmosis of membership through their institutional walls; with a large degree of practical cooperation; and even conceivably with some interchange of ministry.

Beyond this the ultimate unity of faiths will be an eschatological unity in which each is both fulfilled and transcended—fulfilled in so far as it is true, transcended in so far as it is less than the whole truth. And indeed even such fulfilling must be a transcending; for the function of a religion is to bring us to a right relationship with the ultimate divine reality, to awareness of our true nature and our place in the Whole, into the presence of God. In the eternal life there is no longer any place for religions; the pilgrim has no need of a way after he has finally arrived. In St. John’s vision of the heavenly city at the end of our Christian scriptures it is said that there is no temple—no Christian church or chapel, no Jewish synagogue, no Hindu or Buddhist temple, no Muslim mosque, no Sikh Gurdwara. . . . For all these exist in time, as ways through time to eternity.

John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths

How Important is the Afterlife?

Ok class,

My classes will never be as cool as this guy's.

Time to sit up and pay attention.  I’m asking YOU a question today, so I want to see lots of answers and comments down below!

This is a question that my philosophy students at Utica College are pondering and discussing this week and I thought it would be fun to put it before you.

I was having lunch at a cafe yesterday when someone walked up and handed me a religious pamphlet that asked whether I knew for sure that I was going to heaven when die.  This is an interesting question.

It’s even more interesting that so many in the fundamentalist camp choose to start their evangelistic pitch with this question.  If one’s faith is based on fear for the ego’s survival in an unknown afterlife, then it doesn’t seem to be qualitatively different from the dog-eat-dog drive for survival in this world.

I’m not trying to disparage eternal hope for anyone, but during Holy Week, Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself.  His vision and ultimate concern was much larger than his drive for egoic survival.  He embraced death willingly and so became the primary model by which Christians measure their faith.

There is an extent to which I believe we Christians are called to do the same.  Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  Christians like to remind each other that Christ died for us, but there is also a very real sense in which we are called to die with Christ.  We are participants, not merely consumers, in the unfolding drama of eternity.

Friedrich Schleiermacher said it like this in On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799):

Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. … Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one’s own finite self.

The question I am putting before you, superfriends and blogofans, is taken from chapter 9 of William Rowe’s Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction.

How important to religion is the belief in personal survival after death?  Do you think that religion must stand or fall with this belief?  Can you imagine a viable religion which accepts the view that death ends everything?  What would such a religion be like?  Explain.

Post your answer in the comments below!

All Truth Is God’s Truth

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

My text is Acts 17:22-31.

Legend has it that, sometime around the year 600 BCE, there was a plague that struck the ancient city of Athens, Greece.  At a loss over what to do, they called in the philosopher Epimenides, who came promptly.  The plague, so they thought, was due to one of the gods being angry with the city.  In order for the plague to be lifted, that deity would have to be appeased by a sacrifice.  But the ancient Greeks had so many gods, how were they to know which one was upset?

Epimenides proposed a solution.  He took a group of sheep to the Areopagus (a.k.a. “Mars Hill”) and released them to go out in every direction.  He ordered attendants to follow the sheep and, wherever one laid down to rest, there they built an altar and made an offering to whatever god or goddess was associated with that place.  In this way, thought Epimenides, they would cover all their bases and increase their chances for beating the plague.

But there was still one problem: what if the sheep lay down in a place that had no affiliation with any deity?  “Well,” he said, “build an altar anyway!”  Maybe there was another god or goddess who was not in their pantheon.  In that way, they would really really cover all their bases.  So, according to this legend, that’s how it came to pass that Athens had altars that were dedicated “to an Unknown God”.  After the plague had passed, the Athenians maintained the altars in remembrance of what had happened there.

Centuries later, the apostle Paul happened across one of these altars during his visit to Athens.  And Paul, ever the conscientious preacher, decided to use it as a sermon illustration.  The leading citizens of Athens invited Paul to speak in the Areopagus, the exact same place from which Epimenides had originally sent out the sheep, and they listened to what he had to say.

While the sight of so many altars to so many different gods and goddesses made Paul extremely uncomfortable, he was nevertheless very affirming of the Athenians’ religious practice.  “Athenians,” he said, “I see how religious you are in every way.”  He then went on to describe how he had come across Epimenides’ “altar to an Unknown God” during a stroll through town.  Paul also praises their philosophical insight, quoting directly from Epimenides himself, “In [God] we live and move and have our being”.

Isn’t this odd?  A Christian missionary preaches a sermon where he praises the polytheistic religious practices of the Greeks, doesn’t mention Jesus (except indirectly), and fails to reference even a single verse of the Bible.  In fact, he takes as his text a poem written by Epimenides, a pagan philosopher!  I don’t know about you, but I can imagine pastors getting fired from their churches for less than that!  Yet, this is the great apostle Paul, the Church’s preeminent theologian, a New Testament author, and the preacher who supposedly set the standard by which all others would be judged.  What in the world was he trying to do here?

First and foremost, I think Paul was making a statement about God by the way in which he paid respect to the philosophies and the religious practices of the Athenians.  Paul was saying that the Christian God honors wisdom and devotion wherever it is found, even when it is found in those who are not Christians.

“All truth is God’s truth.”  This is a scandalous statement.  It has serious implications for us all, especially those of us who live in an era of history that has seen so much division and conflict along religious lines.  If the God we worship as Christians is the same God who Paul preached about to the Athenians, then we too are called to honor and celebrate truth wherever we find it, even when it comes from non-Christian sources.  While this does not mean that God is calling us to give up what is unique and special about our Christian faith, it does mean that God is calling us to look for the best (not the worst) in our neighbors of other faiths.  It means that Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Atheists are not our enemies.  It means that God is calling us all to learn from each other and grow together.

Augustine of Hippo, a famous theologian from the fifth century, said it this way, “A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to [God], wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.”  (On Christian Teaching II.75)

“All truth is God’s truth.”  This statement also has implications for our lives outside the specifically “religious” sphere.  It means that the discovery of truth in fields like science, medicine, art, government, and commerce has a divine quality to it.  In our society, which tries to keep the sacred apart from the secular, there is an assumed conflict between “faith and science” or “faith and politics”.  But if we take Paul’s implications seriously, then the line between sacred and secular is blurred.  Suddenly, the fight to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS becomes a holy quest.  Likewise, those who work to further the common good in both private and public sectors are engaged in a spiritual vocation.

In the sixteenth century, the reformer John Calvin wrote, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God.”  Calvin goes on to describe disciplines such as politics, philosophy, rhetoric, medicine, and math.  He finishes, “No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God?”  (Institutes 2.2.15)

While Paul proclaimed his deep admiration for the Athenians’ wisdom and devotion, it’s important to note that he also challenged them toward growth.  He invited them to “repent”, that is, metanoia, which is Greek for “change the way you think” or “think differently”.  Paul’s particular challenge to the Athenians had to do with their relationship to their objects of worship.  He said, “The 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.”  Quoting the philosopher Aratus, Paul continues, “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.”  Paul invited his Athenian listeners to open their minds and think beyond the level of surface appearances to the deeper spiritual reality in which we all dwell.  He said, “26From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth… 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’”.

In the same way, we as Christians have something to say to world around us.  The word “evangelism” has become kind of a bad word in our society.  It conjures up mental images of TV preachers asking for money.  For others, it makes them think of religious groups who use guilt and fear in in order to convert and manipulate others.  Well, evangelism doesn’t have to mean any of those things.  In fact, the word itself literally means “gospel” or “good news”, which is the exact opposite of guilt, fear, and manipulation.

Don’t we have good news to deliver to the world around us?  Don’t you?  What kind of difference has God made in your life?  What does your faith mean to you?  Maybe it gives you a sense of continuity with the past or hope for the future.  Maybe your faith in God helps you find strength and comfort for today.  You should feel free to share that experience with others as you participate in respectful conversation that celebrates their own wisdom and devotion.  Who knows?  You might find that someone is quite touched by what you have to say.  They might even start to feel more interested in or attracted to Christianity.  If so, that might be a good time for you to invite that person to attend church with you.  I know it sounds cliché, but it’s a big and lonely world out there.  Some folks feel lost in it.  They’re looking for something to believe in or somewhere to belong.  If one of your friends is searching in that way, why not invite them to explore that feeling together with us?

Evangelism doesn’t have to be a dirty word.  In fact, it doesn’t have to be a word at all.  Some of the most powerful sermons are the ones we preach with our actions.  After all, a single act of compassion says more about God than all the books in a theology library.  As you have often heard me say, “Preach the gospel always.  Use words when necessary.”