Summary: The similarity of Athens to post-modernism and how Paul helps us in sharing our faith.
Living in Modern Day Athens
Paul, on his second missionary trip, entered the beautiful cosmopolitan city of Athens for the first time. Paul would have no doubt been astounded by the beautiful architecture. On a high hill overlooking Athens was the acropolis, the government building, and next to it one of the most beautiful temples in the world, the Parthenon, dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena [show pictures]. Yet among all this architectural beauty, the first thing Paul was struck by were the idols he saw everywhere. Construction was in process on the largest Temple in Athens, the Olympian, dedicated to the worship of Zeus. There were so many idols they created an idol to an unknown god just in case they missed one. The fact that Paul was disturbed by this is quite remarkable considering every city Paul had been in on his missionary journey had idols and temples for worshipping the Greek and Roman gods and goddess but this city took the award, and it disturbed Paul. He found himself in a culture which was very religious, yet didn’t know the one true living Creator God. In this city religious tolerance was the norm, they were all good, worship whichever god or goddess works for you, as long as you didn’t claim your god to be the superior to anyone else’s, or worse yet yours was the only god or religion (sound familiar?).
Athens was also a center of education, particularly of philosophical thought. People came from around the world to be educated in Athens. Before Paul, Athens had been the home of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. The two main philosophical trends in Paul’s day were the Epicureans and Stoics. Epicureans basically believed the primary goal of life was seeking happiness, however by Paul’s time it had declined to seeking pleasure. While the Stoics on the other hand placed thinking above feeling and tried to live in harmony with nature and reason, suppressing their desire for pleasure (LASB).
What’s amazing to me as I think about Athens is how closely our American society is reflecting Athens. What do I mean by that? First, you need to understand our culture is changing whether we like it or not. Younger generations don’t think like their parents or grandparents generation. The term coined for this change is post-modernism. The modern culture most of us grew up with was based on certainty, clear morality - right and wrong, science was considered irrefutably true and unbiased, and it could explain everything, and it has a very positive view of humankind to solve all its own problems. But after two world wars, the cold war, the fall out of the sexual revolution of the sixties and its long term impact on the family, and global terrorism there has been a major shift in the thinking and priorities of a younger generation. Post-moderns no longer believe in certainty, or even that there is objective truth at all, neither science nor religion will be able to give us all the answers. Humanity isn’t all that great after all and there is a skepticism toward people and pessimism about the future (think global energy crisis, world pollution, global warming).
The reason I say it reflects Athens, at least in a religious and philosophical sense, is because in Athens, they were a very spiritual people (even Paul said that) and had a smorgasbord of religious and spiritual options and philosophical ideas, and these spiritual options were all seen as equal and valid, except by those which claim to be the only way, which were seen as narrow-minded or ignorant. In fact, Christians and Jews were called atheists by the Greeks because they only believed in one God.
Today younger generations tend to consider themselves very spiritual, unfortunately it isn’t organized religion they seek, like Christianity, but rather they seek religious experiences which they hope will bring them happiness and fill in the emptiness they are experiencing (Epicurean philosophy). They might try a little New Age, Eastern Meditation, Buddhism, Astrology, or all of them even mixed with a little Christian spirituality and see absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s basically the attitude ’if it works, if it makes me happy, if it makes me feel good, then do it’. There is no longer the view that there is one absolute truth, one right religion, or even moral absolutes. For them it depends on the situation and whose perspective it is coming from. They can say things like, "that might be true for you, but I don’t see it that way." Everything is relative to the individual’s perspective. And they are very skeptical of anyone who makes absolute claims. In fact they just tend to tune them out. They no longer see in black and white, but shades of gray. So the purpose of life tends to be a pursuit of happiness, many times through whatever self-gratification they enjoy.