Tuesday, May 16, 2017


Figures on the Terrace by the Acropolis -- Lawrence Alma-Tadema

In the passage from Acts for this Sunday Paul preaches in front of the Areopagus, a rocky platform beside the Acropolis in Athens. This is a key moment in the history of Christianity and the world. Two great cultures meet for the first time -- the religion of the Jews and the philosophy of the Greeks.  Athens and Jerusalem are the streams of thought and culture from which all the most important aspects of our civilization take their origin – philosophy, theology, history, the arts, the sciences and technology. Both Jew and Greek were passionately concerned to understand how the lives of human beings could be rooted in reality, how they could transcend individual fads and passing fashions, and be lived in harmony with the whole creation. 

St Peter -- Crivelli
When the Epistle for this Sunday says “even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed” it could be taken to be stating one of Socrates’ most fundamental ideas. This shows that -- despite Tertullian's famous question "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" -- in certain ways Jew and Greek were not so far apart. But while the Greeks looked to philosophy to understand the world (today it is science to which people turn), Peter thinks a more fundamental requirement is that ‘in your hearts you sanctify Christ as Lord’.

Paul is clear about this vital shift of perspective. “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth . . .will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead”. The implication of this is that humanity needs more than science or philosophy, valuable though these are.  At bottom, the ‘Spirit of truth’ is not something impersonal – knowledge -- but something personal -- love. It is only when we grasp this profound insight that our experience of human nature (who we are) and of the human condition (the world in which we find ourselves) can be fully reconciled. The world that God has made for us may be studied as a physical system governed by causal laws of "matter in motion". There is undoubtedly a lot to be learned from studying it that way. But the Christian religion holds that inquiries of this kind cannot sound reality's depths. Rather,  the world is a cosmic expression of Divine love, and animated by that love.

In the Gospel, Jesus identifies the Spirit of Truth as a Holy Spirit and promises a truly remarkable kind of intimacy with this love. We are not orphans in an alien cosmos because, he says, ‘I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’. That is why Peter thinks that a 'sanctified heart' matters more than intellectual understanding.

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