Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Can Intellectuals Be Saved?

The ruins of Athens.

Today's first reading from Acts presents that wonderful moment that could be called the founding of Christian Philosophy as Saint Paul engages the intellectuals of Athens. In four verses (Acts 17:24-28) Paul presents a summary of the heights and depths of what human reason can know about the Mystery, about "the Unknown God" that they "unknowingly worship" (see Acts 17:23).

These words must have resonated with his listeners even as they strike us today. 

The God who made the world and all that is in it,
the Lord of heaven and earth,
does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands,
nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything.
Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything.
He made from one the whole human race
to dwell on the entire surface of the earth,
and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions,
so that people might seek God,
even perhaps grope for him and find him,
though indeed he is not far from any one of us.
For 'In him we live and move and have our being,'
as even some of your poets have said,
'For we too are his offspring.'

Someone gives us our being, our life and our breath and everything. Someone places us together on this journey of life and makes us brothers and sisters. We are the children of this God who is beyond the whole universe while also being the source and goal of all things, the One who is "nearer to us than we are to ourselves" (as Saint Augustine says in his Confessions) and is also our fulfillment. We seek Him, "even perhaps grope for Him and find Him."

Isn't this what the human adventure is all about: Searching for the Mystery?

We can imagine that Saint Paul had the attention of the Athenians through all of this magnificent discourse. But then came something different. Saint Paul was not interested in a theory. He was making a proposal.

The Unknown God, the Mystery, the source and fulfillment of our being has entered history. He has come to give Himself to us, and He is calling us to follow Him. [God] demands that all people everywhere repent
because he has established a day on which he will 'judge the world
with justice' through a man he has appointed,
by raising him from the dead.

What words are these in Acts 17:30-31? Saint Paul is proclaiming that something has happened, something that calls us (and empowers us) to turn in a new direction, to change, convert, repent. God has "appointed" "a man" in the most profound way possible: He has Himself become "a man" and has defeated sin and death. He offers us healing, freedom from sin and death, the justice that He alone can bestow, a new life.

The Athenians realized that this was not just a conversation. It was an invitation, a moment of grace, a moment that could change the history of their own lives if they freely chose to adhere to the truth about the event that Saint Paul had proclaimed.

Time to decide. This is a provocative moment, and it can be a scary moment. We search for the Mystery, not really knowing what it might mean to find Him. And then, suddenly, He finds us. Saint Paul here represents the proposal that Jesus makes so often in the Gospels: "If you want eternal life, follow Me."

This sudden, dramatic possibility is at the same time a unique challenge to our freedom, a challenge to let go of ourselves. We are called to relinquish our imaginary self-sufficiency and enter into a concrete relationship with this mysterious Other who reveals Himself through a human face. We know from Paul's letters that he understood the living reality of Jesus in the Church; indeed, it was central to his own encounter with the Risen Christ who identified Himself with His disciples.

Paul was saying, "If you want to know the true God, come and stay with us!"

The intellectuals of the Areopagus, no doubt, were taken aback by this wild Jewish rabbi and his ragtag bunch who insisted that the way to find the truth was to follow this man who has been raised from the dead.


Intellectuals haven't changed much in two thousand years. For some of them (and us) this was just plain bad manners. Or worse, it was irrational, crazy, impossible.

Still, the intellectuals must have realized, somewhere deep down inside, that Paul had just said the most beautiful, the most compelling, the most important thing that had ever been said in all the hundreds of years of talking in that famous place.

They were struck. They had a taste of what they had been searching for all their lives. Wild, humble, passionate Paul was offering them a chance for eternal life... part of them wanted to trust him but part of them held back because of all the pretexts and difficulties that intellectuals invent to tie themselves in knots.

We're talking about Saint Paul here. The Athenians who didn't dismiss him as crazy were fascinated and drawn to this amazing proclamation and the man who made it. But they were also afraid... afraid to let go....

So they did what intellectuals always do, what we still do today. They stalled.

“We should like to hear you on this some other time."  They said. (Acts 17:32)

We like this, they said. Can we keep talking about it? Can we talk some more, ask more questions, theorize more, put off making a decision?

Paul gained a few followers for Jesus that day. There was at least one philosopher, Dionysius "the Areopagite" (who would become famous centuries later for theological treatises that he didn't write). There was a woman named Damaris. What was her story? "And others...." A few followers.

I wonder what happened to the philosophers who wanted to keep talking. There's no indication that Saint Paul ever returned there. The Apostle knew he would be wasting his time. He wanted to preach the Gospel. They wanted to dilly-dally.

They still do. We still do. We, philosophers, and even (especially!) theologians. We the intellectual elite. Beneath all our learning and skill there is a great poverty, a weakness, a failure of courage that keeps us trapped between the fascination of truth and the fear of losing ourselves.

From the anxiety of this condition of hesitation many words are born. Volumes of words. Our erudition is a cover for our secret awkward awareness that we are afraid to follow Him. We don't want to let go of our self-love, our petty ambitions, our grudges, our possessions, our self-image and status. Behind the erudition we know we are as helpless and grubby and sinful and needy as everybody else.

Our real hope, our only hope, is the same as that of the simple people who followed Saint Paul on that day: God's grace and mercy. We need the love of Jesus Christ to break through our resistance and save us. We need Him to change our hearts, to win us, to raise us from our deep death. We need the Holy Spirit to humble us and make us silent within ourselves so that we can hear His voice. We need Jesus in the Church, in her teaching, her ministry, her sacraments, and her presence to us through our brothers and sisters.

Don't be fooled by us philosophers, theologians, intellectuals. We need mercy. We need your attentiveness and your patience because we can be very stubborn and very slow. We need your love.

The heart of Jesus is full of love and mercy even for intellectuals. We can be so proud and so selfish and so terrified. But He can work miracles.