How do you connect with a society that seems not only to have turned its back on you but is running away so fast that your words become almost inaudible in the slipstream?
There are so many things we want to say. And we do feel a sense of urgency. But where to begin?
There are some signal moments in Luke’s record of the transition of the Jewish message of a Jewish Messiah into a worldwide movement for Jews and Gentiles of all shapes and sizes. One such moment is Paul’s well-known connection with the people of Athens. God wanted us to know what happened.
Paul found himself where we are, in a society whose fashionable ideologies were not even remotely connected to his message or to the Jewish antecedents of the Gospel. But he had taken the time to understand them; their thinking.
So when they took him to the Areopagus—the ancient Greek version of Q and A, but without the snide undertone—he chose his starting point.
They had heard this ‘babbler’ (a bit of an insult actually) in their market place and wanted to pin him down. The Epicureans—those devoted to sensual enjoyment; the Stoics—who aimed to be free from controlling desires and emotions… ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods,’ they said.
‘Men of Athens!’ Paul began, ‘I see that in every way you are very religious.’
Paul began with the religious inclinations of the people. Not with their moral failures. He connected with where they were in their thinking. Not with their shame, if they had any.
‘Men of Athens, I see that every way you are a very religious.’ This was acceptable to them; it was truth about their situation as they saw it. Thus Paul began to open their minds. This a far cry from ‘People of Australia you are going to hell…’ As we have seen of late, those sentiments, publicly expressed, do little to open minds and ears. Perhaps that’s why there is no record that Paul ever used those terms in public proclamations of the Gospel.
Our audience today most certainly has its moral failures. Counsellors tell us, however, that broken behaviour most often stems from malfunctioning thought processes and damaged self-image.
In which case, public expressions of moral outrage might make us feel better, but will do little to change the behaviour patterns of those we wish to win. We may well grind our teeth at the moral corruption we see. But the behaviour most likely did not begin there. It began with core thinking.
It’s worth remembering that Jesus said we would go into societies like ours today as sheep among wolves. In which case, he said, we need to be as wise as serpents and harmless or innocent as doves. Wise—engage our brains. Think about our audience. Harmless—look for ways to open ears with minimal possibility for accusation. As did Paul.
Most of our audience today has been ‘blinded by the god of this world.’ You don’t whack blind people because they find themselves in the wrong room as they try to grope their way to the light they cannot see. You take them by the hand and lead them.
The core issue in Romans 1 is the suppression of the truth of the knowledge of God. It is the knowledge of God that needs to be reawakened. So in Athens, this is where Paul began.
The young adults of today have been told all their lives that they are meaningless flukes, that pleasure and ‘freedom’ are the ultimate goals, that there is no need for accountability and, above all, that there is no God. Science is all there is. That is where they are! As has been observed by others, in school, universities and teachers’ colleges, many of today’s emerging adults have not been educated but indoctrinated. Shaped for a cause. The benefits of a classical education, one that teaches them to think more than to know, have been denied them.
Like Athens, we have many false gods and itching ears peeled for their offer of something new to feed hungry souls. Notable among them is the newest fashion—the gender-fluid movement. So, as an example, what might wisdom do?
If we can move past our moral outrage, we might see that the gender-fluid people have been helpful. Strange bedfellows for us to be sure, but they have given us a new starting point; they have created new possibilities for thinking that we would have taken far longer to create.
The gender-fluidity people speak of someone being trapped in the wrong body. Have you thought about that? They are agreeing with Christian rather than Darwinian ‘theology’— that a person is a reality distinct from the flesh and blood that comprises their body. They acknowledge the reality of personhood that transcends human biology. They suggest that biology is irrelevant to the ‘I’ who lives within it. Every cell in their body says they are male or female, but they say ‘I’ am not.
They have given us back the ‘I’.
Could this be turned, as did Paul turn the idols of Athens, to a conversational starting point? Could we begin by commending them, in a Pauline way, on their newly appreciated mystical understanding of humanity, and as Paul might do, suggest to them that there is a God has been saying these things all along? Perhaps.
Our starting point for conversation could be personhood. The ‘I’. The command centre that transcends any and all exploration of the human brain as an organ.
The, ‘I’ who is ‘in the wrong body’ might currently be living in disharmony with the biology it inhabits. But there is a God who made that ‘I’ and who intended for him or her to live with joy and in harmony with and within the body they have. Without the need for chemical and surgical brutality to create a superficial fix.
The reason the gender-fluid people got there was because it is impossible to create an understanding of human beings on the basis of their brains being nothing more than a physical/biological collection of functioning neurons. Atoms and molecules cannot give answer to the complexities of sentient humanity. And personhood.
Bill Bryson, in his ‘A Short History Of Everything’, talks of taking a pair of tweezers and unpicking ourselves until we have a pile of atoms and molecules. Not one of those atoms knows it exists. Not one of them is alive. There is no self-awareness. They are just inanimate chemical elements. And yet, here we are. Deciding. Imagining. Dreaming. Creating. Inventing. Loving. Remembering. (Sadly, for all his wit, Bryson does not display the intellectual curiosity to pursue that line of thinking to its only logical conclusion.)
‘I’ am in the wrong body. Yes, the gender-fluidity people have given our modern generation back the ‘I’, reopening the discussion about personhood.
(I hasten to say that those who are pushing the ‘fluidity’ folly for seditious ideological gain are in a very different category from those who have been indoctrinated or bullied into accepting it. We think of drug barons differently from drug users; or of the megalomaniacs who take us to war differently from the millions swept as gun fodder into their grand plans.)
So, despite their intentions, the priests of gender-fluidity have given us personhood as a new starting point. Is it effective?
Antony Flew, “the world’s most notorious atheist”, past hero and mentor of Richard Dawkins and the like, and author of seminal textbooks on atheistic philosophy still current in major universities of the world, eventually wrote a book entitled, “There Is a God.” It was a brave book! It was like a brick on the henhouse roof for the fashionable new atheists as they scrambled to deride him, call him names and diagnose him with senility.
In his book, Flew speaks of the journey that brought him from atheism to belief in a Divine Being. He got there by thinking about personhood. (In my words) the ultimate, ‘Who am I?’ When ‘I’ decide something who and what is the ‘I’? Who is at the command centre to prompt the organ of my brain to think, remember, make wilful decisions?
Or, in gender confusion terms, who is the ‘I’ who is trapped in a body of the wrong gender?
Antony Flew wrote, ‘I must say again that the journey to my discovery of Divine has thus far been a pilgrimage of reason. I have followed the argument where it has led me. It has led me to accept the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent and omniscient being.”
The gender fluidity issue is just an example. (I picked an easy one.) As is Paul’s Athenian adventure a God-given example. My point is not to allow those who deride us to goad us into unhelpful responses, but to reason—lovingly and with serious forethought—with those we wish to win. And trust to the Spirit of God—whose assigned task it is—to ‘convince of sin, righteousness and judgement.’