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The Rev. Frank Logue
King of Peace Episcopal Church
Kingsland, Georgia
May 5, 2002

Thoroughly Postmodern Paul  [1]
Acts 17:22-31 

Not so very long ago, church would have had little competition for your time this morning. Oh sure, there was the perennial pull of sleeping late on Sunday. You could say that you worship at Mattress Methodist, Box Springs Baptist, Pillow Presbyterian, or the Church of the Holy Comforter. But other than sleeping in on Sunday, there wasn’t much else to do. No stores open on Sunday morning. No sporting events taking place. Nothing.  

Sunday mornings were reserved for church. Perhaps it wasn’t that way everywhere, but in the Deep South where I grew up, Sunday was church day. However, my own daughter is not growing up in that same dominantly church-focused culture. Lots of other activities and interests now vie for our attention. And if we don’t have a soccer match, tee time, or some other distraction demanding our Sunday morning, then the very over-busyness of our lives makes it all the easier to give in the temptation to sleep late. In the span of one generation, the assumption that we would be in church, at least during this time every week, has disappeared. 

Why should we assume that Sunday morning is church time when America is no longer a Christian nation? Pluralism has become the state religion. All beliefs are equal. All religions equally true. Therefore, we should not assume that someone is Christian or even religious at all. In this postmodern age where all belief is relative, and no truth absolute, my own truth is what matters. Whatever is true for you is great. I’m glad you found it. But it isn’t my truth. Does any of this sound familiar? 

I want to share with you a video clip from that foul-mouthed, if insightful, postmodern film Dogma. In this scene, two characters talk about reaching a crisis in faith. 

[insert film clip from Dogma in which Bartleby and Bethany
each talk about how they cam to lose their faith.] 

Bethany told about the exact moment she lost her faith. For Bethany, it came when her plans were not good enough for God. She found her life in shambles and God was more disappointment than comfort. One person losing her faith is a crisis. However, sometime in the past century, our culture lost its faith. I don’t mean to say that everyone in the culture lost his or her faith, but that as a culture, we lost our collective faith. I can’t point to the exact moment that it happened, but I can name what happened. 

Faith came under a two-century long attack from reason and science. Two hundred years of explaining faith on rational terms sapped belief of its believability. Science grew by leaps and bounds, leaving religion tagging along hopelessly in its wake. 

Anyone could see it coming. Noted authorities from a variety of fields posted the signs of the demise of organized religion well ahead of time. In 1878, noted anthropologist Max Müller wrote,  

“Every day, every week, every month, every quarter, the most widely read journals seems just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion is past, that faith is a hallucination or an infantile disease, that the gods have at last been found out and exploded.” 

The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries grew out of the Christian quest for knowledge of the natural world. The very pursuit that religion encouraged took on a life of its own and sought to take the place of religion. Reason, not religion, began to reign supreme. The only things that could be claimed as fact became things provable through the scientific method. Religion was on the run. Karl Marx proclaimed Christianity was “an opiate for the masses” and Nietzsche declared, “God is dead.” 

It took a little while for the message to sink in, but sometime after World War II, the culture began to listen to the Enlightened thinking of Marx, Nietzsche and others who found religion to be irrelevant and passé at best, dangerously deluded at worst. By the 1960s, Nietzsche wasn’t alone in proclaiming the death of God. But the cultural concepts of God were not the only things dying during that decadent decade. The whole Enlightenment project itself was also beginning to unravel. 

Two of the great pillars of the Enlightenment, and all modern thinking, were belief in inevitable progress and the inherent good of all knowledge. The idea of progress started with Darwin’s evolutionary views but went much farther. Everything was seen as getting better all the time. Mankind was advancing, leaving behind older, more primitive ways for a brighter future. Religion was part of the obsolete baggage to be shed along the way. This was in part because we humans were constantly learning and advancing. As new frontiers of knowledge were crossed, the whole human project was beginning to outgrow God. 

These ideas that humanity is inevitably progressing and all knowledge is good also took a battering in the past century. For anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, these Enlightenment ideals died even as Earth emerged from the Second World War. The idea that everything was getting better all the time died in Auschwitz, Dachau, and other Nazi death camps as German industrial might harnessed itself into a killing machine of unprecedented efficiency. Then we learned that knowledge can be value neutral at best.  The idea that knowledge is inherently good was incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We could no longer delude ourselves into believing that humankind can pull itself up by its bootstraps.  

The catastrophic occurrences that came to light at the end of World War II revealed the problems with the Modern thinking, which was the product of the Enlightenment. This end to the certainty of reason created a climate in which everyone else’s truth is suspect. There was no one truth anymore. Your truth is your truth, but it might not be mine. In fact, you are probably only proclaiming something true as an excuse to oppress me.  

The word postmodern is used to describe the world now that we are no longer sure that science and reason alone can give us the answers. Even as confidence in reason alone dwindled, people came back to faith in a startling variety of ways. The flower power generation of the 60s began to look to the East and experiment with Tao, Buddhism, and transcendental thinking. Stuffy old Christianity was replaced with excitingly unfamiliar faith practices.  

Then by the 90s, this interest in other faiths coalesced into the New Age movement. New Age religion is decidedly not new, it doesn’t want to be. New Age religion instead offers the cafeteria plan to religion. Stroll down the buffet line and pick and choose among a host of options including eastern religions and Native American spirituality. The only real taboo choice was Christianity. 

Now we live in a pluralistic culture where not offending someone else is valued far more than universal truth. This is because there is an assumption that there is no universal truth. Our society is decaying from the inside because we have unhitched ourselves from our Christian roots. With the end of Enlightenment thinking and the suspicion of universal truth, our culture no longer has a source to which we can appeal for moral decisions. We have no common basis to discuss anything from medical treatment to nuclear disarmament.  

Pluralism would seem to present a new challenge to the already battered Christian faith. Yet, we find in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles that our own religious setting is not so different from first century Athens, Greece. 

Paul stood on the steps to the Areopagus, the supreme court of ancient Athens and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ to a pluralistic society. As Paul noted, the people of Greece were so open to various religiouns, that he even saw an altar to an unknown god. The Athenians were sure to know the altar as it was also on the Areopagus, not too far from where Paul was speaking.  

Paul’s words to the pluralistic society of Athens ring with clarity in our own pluralistic times. Paul said,  

“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.” 

In the 17th and 18th century, science and reason sought to confine God to a shrine made of human hands. God was confined to what we could prove by scientific method. This is not so different from Paul questioning the people of Athens on why they confined God to the imagination of mortals. Paul challenged the Athenians noting that God had set up the world so that in groping for God we would find him, for God is not far from each one of us as it is in God that we live and move and have our being. 

How does Paul’s proclamation of the Living God come across in our own times? First, I think it would help to acknowledge that when Nietzsche declared that God is dead, he wasn’t completely wrong. But if God was dead, whose god was dead? Perhaps it was the god of Immanuel Kant who wrote of religion within the limits of reason alone. The Enlightenment killed the god of reason and the philosophers, not the one true God. The death of Nietzsche’s god was no great loss as the god who was killed off by the 19th and 20th century thinkers had only been invented in the 17th century. The god with a little “G” bound within the limits of reason alone was never the living and true God proclaimed by Paul and experienced in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

God has not only overlooked the time of human ignorance as Paul called it. God has also overlooked the time of human knowledge as expressed in modern thinking. Don’t hear me as bashing reason though. There is nothing wrong with God-given reason. In fact, one of the things I love about being an Anglican, as Episcopalians are referred to in most of the world, is that we have for more than 450 years appealed to scripture, tradition, and reason as tests for doctrine. Reason and knowledge are not obstacles to faith. Reason alone, completely divorced from any concept of the spiritual, is the obstacle. Insistence that God must be confined to what we now know and can prove through scientific method is the problem. Faith is not irrational, but faith is something that cannot be explained with reason alone. For God is bigger than our words. God is bigger than our thoughts.  

Yet the God who is beyond reason alone is not beyond our experience. We can experience God working through us as we reach out to share God’s love with others. We can experience God here in our worship and in communion. The God we worship is not an unknown God out there some where. The God we worship is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Sometimes you may have to grope a bit as you learn to let go of all your Enlightenment baggage. Let go of reason long enough to experience God in ways beyond reason. If you seek after God, you will find God for God is near to each of us.  


[1] Two important resources for this sermon were Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The full wealth of conviction, by Diogenes Allen (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989) and Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths: Building bridges to faith through apologetics, by Alister E. McGrath (Zondervan House, 1993).


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