The call to proclaim Christ to non-believers takes on a two-pronged approach. St Paul was clear that he had to proclaim Christ to those who already shared much of their beliefs in God, as in the case of the Jews who shared with the Christians the faith of the Old Testament. This explains why when addressing the Jews he would, like Peter and Stephen, draw from the Old Testament, going back to the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. This is what the Christians had in common with the Jews. However, when it came to faith in Jesus as the Promised Messiah and His resurrection, which confirmed His divinity as the Son of God, this was a stumbling block. The idea of a crucified Messiah was scandalous to the Jews.
However, in today’s first reading, St Paul was addressing not the Jews but those who did not share in the tradition of the Jews and the Christians. Rather, he was addressing a group of intelligentsias, the philosophers who were thinkers of the day. They belonged principally to two groups, namely, the Epicureans and the Stoics.
The Epicureans were materialists. They did not believe in an after-life or a spiritual realm. They believed that the universe came about because of the random mixing of atoms. For them pain and suffering were seen as evil. Hence, they pursued happiness by living life to the fullest on earth, not worrying about the next life. To them, there was only one life to live and one should live it to the fullest. This is how the world is living today.
The stoics on the other hand believed in reason and not just matter. Reason shaped matter. Nature, in their view, was rational and had its own laws. Happiness was to just follow the laws of nature and act according to it. One had to accept things as they were and not go against the laws of nature. This explains why the Stoics seemed heartless and emotionless because they followed their reason rather than their feelings. They fought against their passions and believed that happiness was found when one acted according to what was right and true. In other words, happiness was to be found in living a virtuous life. This is akin to Confucianism.
The approach to such a diverse philosophical audience was to establish what was common between the Christians and the rest of them. Indeed, when we speak to people who have no share in our tradition, the way of natural theology would be the politically correct approach. More so when we are living in a very secular, materialistic and relativistic world. Beginning with what we hold in common will help us to engage them immediately. So what did they have in common? St Paul drew their attention to the fact that people sought God. They were religious-minded. “Paul stood before the whole Council of the Areopagus and made this speech: ‘Men of Athens, I have seen for myself how extremely scrupulous you are in all religious matters, because I noticed, as I strolled round admiring your sacred monuments, that you had an altar inscribed: To An Unknown God.” Indeed, this must always be our starting point. Deep in the heart of every man, man is looking for fulfillment, meaning and purpose. All of us seek love, truth and meaning, besides comfort for our body as well. This is because we are made of body and spirit.
Hence, evangelization does not mean proclaiming something so new that our listeners do not already know. It is just that they could not name the vacuum and the void in their life. They are seeking something more, something that could satisfy them completely, since even the things of this world, after some time, will reach its saturation point, and then we will become frustrated and restless again. St Paul put his finger on the heart of the quest. “Well, the God whom I proclaim is in fact the one whom you already worship without knowing it.”
Evangelization is to make explicit what is implicit in the hearts of men. It calls for the courage to name that reality, that void, that desire for comfort, for love, for truth and for life. St Paul once again affirmed that the Unknown God was in truth known to them in their hearts and minds. He said, “Since the God who made the world and everything in it is himself Lord of heaven and earth, he does not make his home in shrines made by human hands. Nor is he dependent on anything that human hands can do for him.” God, by whichever name you call Him, is the Ultimate ground of life, the Ultimate meaning and the Ultimate destiny. Whatever we do, we cannot domesticate God in a place, a statue or even in a temple or church. Of course, through rituals and sacred signs we are brought to encounter God but God is greater than whatever rituals or signs or shrines we have built for God. The Lord said to the Samaritan woman, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:23f)
St Paul then went further to affirm the unity of humanity. He said, “On the contrary, it is he who gives everything – including life and breath – to everyone. From one single stock he not only created the whole human race so that they could occupy the entire earth. Yet in fact he is not far from any of us, since it is in him that we live, and move, and exist, as indeed some of your own writers have said: “We are all his children.” We are all God’s children created by Him and therefore we all belong to the same human family. This explains why every human person has the same desires, hopes and goals in life. We are all seeking fullness of life, love, truth and happiness. Everyone is concerned about his physical, affective and spiritual well-being. The corollary to this truth that we are God’s children means, as St Paul wrote, “we have no excuse for thinking that the deity looks like anything in gold, silver or stone that has been carved and designed by man. God overlooked that sort of thing, when men were ignorant.”
This is why theological language is always anthropomorphic. In other words, God is greater than whatever we can think of Him. All that we say is simply human words or human expressions of what we desire to convey about certain aspects of God. Hence, theological affirmations of God follow the triple Via, via negativa, via positive and via eminenza, that is, we must deny that we affirm about God is exactly what we say, for example, God is love in the way we love. This is followed by via positiva which affirms that when we say God is love, it does convey truth. We end by affirming that all we could say about God is greater than whatever we can think or conceive or say. This is via eminenza.
However, natural theology can only go so far. This can only prepare the ground but the leap of faith must be taken. This was why when St Paul spoke about the crucified Christ and His resurrection, they laughed at him. It was absurd and ridiculous to think of a Messiah, or worse still, of a God who was crucified and rose from the dead. The resurrection of Christ requires faith. This is why the Lord said, “I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth. He will glorify me, since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine.” Unless the Spirit of truth enlightens our minds and touches our hearts, no amount of reasoning can lead a person to find faith in Christ. As St Paul said, the Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, Christ is the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. (cf 1 Cor 1:23-25)
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved. The contents of this page may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission from the Archbishop’s Office. This includes extracts, quotations, and summaries.
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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