“What Indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

“Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully 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. 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, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so 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. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since 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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he 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.”

Acts 17:22-31

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”1 In the many centuries that have passed since Tertullian coined this question, it has become a rhetorical hammer to be used in any discussion the relationship between faith and reason. Regardless on which side the user is advocating for, the question is a useful tool to shift the burden of evidence onto the opponent; or simply to make a tactical retreat when losing the rhetorical battle, as it enables both sides to claim they “won” the debate by arguing that the categories of faith and reason are fundamentally incompatible. 

It is fascinating that people from all philosophical convictions have used this phrase to serve their own ends. For materialists, nihilists, stoics, and atheists, dismissing the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem allows them to quickly categorize and dismiss claims made by the faithful. Claims of faith may be useful or necessary in a psychological or social sense, but ultimately dismissible as they are outside the category of “knowable claims”. For theocrats, fidiests, and pious speculators, severing the connection between Athens and Jerusalem allows them to remain willfully ignorant of their own faith, and relieves them of any burden to examine their actions so long as they are done “in God’s Name”. 

There is much to be gained rhetorically if Athens and Jerusalem are seen as opposing forces. It makes for great tv, books, political platforms catering to voting demographics, and any other means to profit off philosophical irresponsibility. As the old proverb goes, “Rhetoric is not about convincing your opponent, but the audience”.

Thankfully through the tireless efforts of philosophers, theologians, skeptics, scientists and ethicists, and the work of our own Anglican tradition, we generally recognize that attempting to separate Athens from Jerusalem is a fruitless project. The much-touted “Faith vs. Reason” debate a false dichotomy used to sell tickets, books, and time in-between television commercials. Even Tertullian himself knew better, as he was well educated in Aristotle’s logic, rhetoric, poetry, metaphysics, and politics. It was through the work in Athens that the fathers and mothers of the Faith developed the doctrines of Salvation, Trinity, Incarnation, the Nicene Creed, and Real Presence in the Eucharist. Modern sensibilities and methods of archaeology, linguistics, history, and Biblical interpretation also originate in Athens, from principles developed by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In the very chapter that Tertullian makes his famous proclamation of frustration, Tertullian accuses his opponents of intellectual dishonesty, twisting the work of Aristotle for their own gain.2 

The reason the false dichotomy between Athens and Jerusalem continues to persist, besides being immensely profitable, is that the differences between Reason and Faith are often discussed, but the differences between Rhetoric and Philosophy are rarely taught. Rhetoric is the presentation of philosophical positions in speaking, writing, or any other human communication. It is a tool meant to present complex truths of the Universe to humans. In a sense, Rhetoric is the user-interface of Philosophy. Philosophy is the collaborative work of discerning Truth by observing, evaluating, experimenting, and speculating intellectual claims. Rhetoric, like any tool, is neither good nor evil, because it does not in and of itself contain any truth, it is subject to the skill and motives of its user. In practical terms, Rhetoric comes easily and is easily used to manipulate, exploit, or even conceal the Truth; while Philosophy is troublesome, difficult, slow, and painfully incremental, but the reward is discovering and knowing Truth.

Often the frustration in both Athens and Jerusalem is not their shared project, seeking Truth, but the reality that Truth is challenging to find, and even once discovered, challenging to verify. As any first-year philosophy student and politician can attest, rhetorically, it is far easier to criticize than to provide a solution. Even when we are given a Spirit of Truth, as Jesus promises us in today’s gospel, how can we explain, verify, or share this Spirit of Truth with our neighbors? Even Jesus says sharing the Spirit of Truth is difficult, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him…” [John 14:16].

This is the problem that Paul faces in Athens. The scene in Acts today places Paul in a difficult position, making a philosophical case for Christ amongst a highly intelligent group of skeptics. Though it is not explicitly said so, the rhetoric Luke uses when recounting the story of Paul in Athens implies that Paul, after preaching about “new gods” in the marketplace, is arrested and brought to trial in an Athenian courtroom. While Paul was not arrested, (Luke describes the stoic, epicurean, and other philosophers “taking” Paul and bringing him to their school to engage in a debate. Acts 17:18-21) Luke describes the scene like a courtroom to remind us of a famous Athenian who was arrested for teaching of “new gods” in the marketplace: Socrates.

In this scene of Paul making his case in Athens, Luke wants us to remember Socrates’ famous Apology to the Athenian court. Both Socrates and Paul are portrayed as valiant defenders of intellectual honesty and responsibility faced with a hostile audience. In both stories, the defender makes an excellent case, exemplifying all values of intellect, rhetoric, and honor Athens is known for, yet they are unsuccessful. Socrates is put to death, and Paul is scoffed at and decides to leave the city shortly afterwards. The key difference between Socrates and Paul that Luke puts to the reader is the content of their message. For Luke, the message of Jesus freeing humanity from death through the Resurrection is the Truth that Socrates had always sought.

Socrates, as we have come to know him through the writings of Plato (much in the way that we know Paul through the writings of Luke), had three fundamental teachings. First, that the Truth must be vigorously sought out. Second, the intellectual humility that he “knew” nothing. Finally, that it was his personal duty to go around Athens pestering people with relentless questions, demanding that they justify anything they ever said, to prove to them that they know less than Socrates. Socrates’ method was to seek out the Truth through dialog, the hope being that two people examining their beliefs thoroughly and honestly together could discover the Truth together. However, the way he practiced this method raised the ire of many of his fellow Athenians, as it was often intrusive, at inappropriate times (such as parties and even court sessions), and usually devolved into debating about semantics rather than discovering Truth. Often it became an exercise of futility, as Socrates was unparalleled in his rhetorical skill and for every excellent answer given to him, he could always find another question.

The most egregious example of Socrates’ method devolving into distraction rather than discovery of Truth is his dialog with Euthyphro. Euthyphro was an aristocratic young man who was taking his father to court for neglectful treatment of a slave that resulted in the slave’s death. Euthyphro taking his father to court is highly scandalous, as preserving the honor of one’s family, especially one’s father, is paramount in Athenian society, and the life of a slave is considered worthless by comparison. Socrates runs into Euthyphro on the court steps, as Socrates’ own trial follows Euthyphro’s, and asks him why he is taking his father to court. They debate for a little while, but Euthyphro ultimately answers, “because it is the Just thing to do”. Socrates responds with another question, “why is it the just thing to do?”, to which Euthyphro responds, “because the gods say it is Just.” Socrates’ question to Euthyphro’s answer has been immortalized as a topic of debate ever since, “Do the gods say it is Just because it is Just, or is it Just because the gods say that it is Just?” This is now known as the Euthyphro dilemma or the Divine-Command problem in the study of Ethics, and though Socrates and Euthyphro debate thoroughly, they ultimately come to no solution. A much-annoyed Euthyphro goes into the court to press his case, and Socrates continues to seek, but find no Truth on the court steps.

Four hundred years later, as Paul makes the case for the Gospel to the Athenians, Paul references Socrates’ reaching for the Truth,

“From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps reach for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”

Acts 17:22-24-26

The Gospel comes not as a replacement or opposition to the philosophy done in Athens, or anywhere, but to celebrate and fulfill it. Paul recognizes the philosophers’ intuition, that the Truth has always been near, but always seemed just out of reach. That Truth that eluded Socrates has been given to humanity through Christ. The Truth being a world created by a loving God, who gave Himself for the sake of humanity.

Though the Resurrection and the Spirit of Truth are scoffed at by most of the Athenians, as they scoffed at Socrates’ demands for intellectual honesty, some were moved by Paul’s apology, and became followers of the Truth in addition to being seekers of the Truth.

But how is our claim of the Truth any better than Euthyphro’s? How can the Gospel, with its many commands to repent, to have faith, to love, respond to Socrates questions? Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” [John 14:15]. Are we to do these things simply because Jesus tells us to, or does He tell us to do these things because they are what we must do?

We need not choose, because Christ and the Command are inseparable, they are both Love. Christ does not command us to love as an authoritarian would dictate a law, nor is Love an outside force more powerful than Christ forcing His hand. Christ commands us to love, and is Love incarnate. Christ commands us to repent from evil and turn to Good, because He is Goodness incarnate. He calls us to be merciful because He is Mercy. To try and separate them is as false a dichotomy as separating Athens from Jerusalem.

There are many questions that remain, countless dilemmas to consider, this is the ceaseless work of philosophy and faith. Seeking to understand the Infinite is an endless quest. We may take heart that in all the questions, the confounding rhetoric, and depths of knowledge we have yet to understand, we know the Spirit of Truth.

“You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

John 14: 17-24

1Tertullian. Prescription Against Heretics, Ch. 7: “Pagan Philosophy the Parent of Heresies: The Connection between Deflections from Christian Faith and the Old Systems of Pagan Philosophy”

2“Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions —embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing!” (Tertullian Prescription Against Heretics, Ch. 7″)

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