When we Christians act like children who never matured. . .
I remember taking my young children to school. I would often sit in the car and watch them play in the playground until the bell rang. Occasionally, they would look up just to make sure I was there, and then the bell would ring and my day could begin. When the bell rang again and they came out, there I was parked just outside the play yard, waiting to pick them up.
I’m sure that for a time in their life, they thought they owned me, and the only thing I did all day was sit and wait for them; that they were my only concern in life; that I had no other passions, no other work to do, no one else to take care of, no other worries, but keeping them safe, and loved and sheltered. And that is as it should be.
But there needs to come a time when they mature and come to, perhaps the shocking realization, that they don’t have a monopoly on me and my time, that I do have other passions and other work to do, and over time, if they mature, they could come to respect that. I think there is an analogy in there when it comes to Christians.
Tom Ehrich, in a Meditation entitled, Moving on From a Child’s View, puts it this way: Many Christians want to believe that God is theirs alone, that God stands. . . waiting only for them, that God’s affections are limited only to those who believe in Jesus Christ. They latch onto Scriptures that suggest exclusivity. They want to believe that they, and they alone, are God’s beloved. They are the “elect,” the “chosen people,” the “apple of God’s eye,” and all others are heathens who need to be brought into the one holy tribe. The idea that other pathways to God might exist is anathema to them. How could God possibly hear a prayer that doesn’t end with ‘In Jesus’ Name’? How could a competing faith, like Judaism or Islam, have any claim on God’s delight? How could God possibly care for non-believers, for those who find meaning and joy in life outside the boundaries of a religious institution?
This child’s view of God has caused no end of warfare and terrorism, bigotry and arrogance. It also stunts our relationship with God. Childhood, after all, is a condition we are meant to outgrow,
I think St. Paul, in the first reading from The Acts of the Apostles understood this only too well when he stood before the Areopagus and said,
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘to an unknown God.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
Relativism is one of those words that usually presses a hot button or two for many people.
Relativism was given some renewed attention when the newly elected Pope, Benedict, pretty much trashed the word while comparing it to Naziism in his opening homily. It is one of those words that has been coopted by certain groups of people, and as so often happens, it has been distorted in the process.
I would like to suggest to you that at the heart of the word relativism, is the word relative. At its very heart, and at its very best, relativism is an effort to bring ideas and people into relationship with one another. It doesn’t mean one must automatically compromise every value one holds to be true.
Now I doubt that many people would label St. Paul a relativist, but that’s exactly what he is in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning. His writings are among the youngest of all Christian writings in the New Testament, and yet he shows us how a grown-up Christian should view the world. He creates a relationship with those Athenians by acknowledging that they are on the path to the sacred just as he is on that same path.
This Pauline sermon to the Greek World is nothing more than a downright plea for interfaith dialogue.
Paul acts like a mature Christian should act; he takes the time to search his heart to find a way to relate to them. He does not talk in exclusive terms, nor does he invoke a monopoly on God’s love. Notice what he says first:
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.
Paul could have pointed out all the things those Athenians were doing that were contrary to his ecclesiology, but instead he first made a conscious decision to find what they are doing right.
What if we, like St. Paul, gave away a compliment before we assaulted a person’s premises and conclusions, or assumed they had an agenda that was antithetical to our own. I have a feeling that Paul probably felt like saying:
You Athenians are so full of yourselves that you build shrine after shrine to cover all the theological bases. . . why you wouldn’t know a real god if one jumped out and bit you on your back side.
But no, instead he called to the universal longing for the sacred and the holy that I believe is in all human beings. That longing for the divine is a great place to start, a great place to find common footing, and to put the other person in a place where they will listen to you and discover something about the God that possesses you!
A kindergarten teacher once asked the class, What color are apples? Most of the children answered red, a couple said green, and one clever child said golden.
But one child dared to raise her hand and said, Teacher, apples are white.
The teacher explained that apples could be red or green or golden, but apples are never white. But the child was adamant, and finally said, Teacher, you have to look inside.
When Christians fail to look inside, fail to accept that God doesn’t belong only to them, that’s when they practice shameful Anti-Semitism, and that’s when Christian Churches mock their God by garnering signatures on a petition to prevent a Mosque from being built in their town. That’s when Christians act like children who never matured, and they are an embarrassment to the rest of us.
You see, what Paul chose to give to his opponents was an invitation for them to look inside and see the yearning for God that we all have in our souls. Paul built a bridge to the Athenians, and so this is perhaps the most Jesus-like deed on record for Paul.
St. Paul found a little bit of Greek Philosophy, religion, and poetry that he could be comfortable with, and instead of denouncing or ridiculing the Athenians, he used these materials to build a bridge.
Bridge construction between our ecclesiastical and biblical teachings and the culture outside the church doesn’t erode our faith or compromise it into oblivion, it’s following the Jesus of our faith in the most profound way possible. It can only happen if we stop making God the gruesome reflection of our own smallness.
I think the questions before us at this point is can we become grown-up Christians? Can we mature enough to allow for a larger and more diverse community? Can we acknowledge that others who don’t think like we do can still be on a path to the Holy and the Sacred? Is it possible that one day all shrines will be seen as shrines to the Sacred One who is known by all?
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