When the apostle Paul visited Athens, sometime around 50AD, he found that “the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16) Not only was the city dominated by the massive temples of the Parthenon, but the streets were invaded by a veritable forest of smaller shrines, images and altars. Not content with their own gods and goddesses, the Greeks had imported cults and philosophies from all over the known world. They probably regarded this as a sign of sophistication; Paul saw it as a sign of desperation. “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious!” he told them (Acts 17:22). ‘Religious’, indeed – but totally wrong.
One wonders what he would have made of modern London. We don’t like to describe ourselves as ‘religious’ these days (‘religion’ is becoming a pejorative term). And that’s not because we now live in a secular society; a consistently large proportion of people continue to believe that there is some kind of existence over and above the material. We just prefer to use the word ‘spiritual’ to describe it. ‘Religion’ is ‘bad’: it conjures up thoughts of arcane rituals, stuffy committees of old men (and women) and enforced conformity to a set of beliefs that no-one really understands. ‘Spiritual’, on the other hand, is a ‘good’ word: it has connotations of freethinking independence. Instead of a ‘take it or leave it’ set menu, we want a multicultural, ‘a la carte’ approach. And this chimes in with the post-modern notion that there is no such thing as absolute truth: what’s true for me can legitimately differ from what’s true for you.
This state of affairs is usually made out to be a good thing – but I’m not sure that its supposed benefits are actually much in evidence. Our society may have kicked away the harness of organised religion, but we are not getting any happier as a result; if anything, the reverse is true. We are experiencing ever higher rates of family breakdown, loneliness and mental health problems. In order to distract ourselves from our collective state of rootlessness, we immerse ourselves in entertainment, alcohol, drug culture, or the Internet. We may have a higher standard of living and a longer life expectancy, but in many other ways our society is not so different from the first-century Roman Empire: multicultural, materialistic, complacent, sexually decadent and novelty-seeking.
This was the culture that Christianity (a novelty in its own right at that time) took by storm. The citizens of Athens had felt the need to make space for a shrine dedicated to ‘an unknown god’ – but Paul knew that God, and was ready and willing to introduce them to Him. In a modern culture that admires the ideal of ‘searching for truth’, Christians reckon that we have found it! We have a firm rock to hold on to, giving us confidence to get on with the business of living; we know a Fatherly embrace that has a purpose for the whole universe; we are part of a story with a happy ending. Anyone interested in joining us?