The following are notes taken during the session.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually 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 are indeed his offspring.”
Introduction: The Primary Philosophical Questions
In May of 585 B.C., the first ever predicted solar eclipse was recorded. It had been predicted by Thales of Miletus, who is considered to be the father of Western philosophy and science. He was captivated by a pressing problem: How can I make sense of all of the diversity of my experience in this world? This gave rise to the concept of a universe and a university (unity + diversity).
The answer Thales found to his question was that the singular principle that makes sense out of everything else in this world is water. Why? He noticed that everything he saw in the world appeared either as a solid, liquid, or gas. Water manifested itself in each of these forms. Water also sustained life, which is most important.
Another problem that faced philosophers was the problem of motion. We typically assume that something in motion has been moved by another object. Thales looked for something that had the capacity for hylozoism, something that could move by itself. He came to the conclusion that water was this thing. Those that followed after Thales suggested other substances.
Parmenides, a prominent pre-Socratic philosopher, said, “Whatever is, is.” This may seem to be a transparent observation, but it is very profound. If something is real, it can’t not be. Non-being is nothingness. For everything to exist, there must be an unchangeable, fully actualized being.
Over against the thinking of Parmenides came the challenge of Heraclitus. He made the assertion that whatever is, is changing. We experience this in the process of aging. The operative word, then, is change or flux. He was famous for saying, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” The distinction was made between pure being, which can’t change, and our existence, which is constantly changing.
Who is right? This is what awakened Plato from his dogmatic slumber. By his time, philosophy had become dominated by skepticism. Socrates, Plato’s teacher, had begun asking the Stoics penetrating questions. He said that you can’t have a coherent science without both university and diversity. This eventually gave rise to Plato’s theory of ideas. Aristotle, Plato’s student, sought to resolve some of the problems Plato was left with. He postulated his idea of God: the Unmoved Mover, one who is the source of all motion and not the result of someone else’s motion.
After Plato and Aristotle a whole wave of skepticism arose. Two prominent schools of thought in this era were Stoicism and Epicureanism. They both abandoned the quest for ultimate reality and turned their attention to things they could learn and use right now. The Epicureans advocated refined hedonism: the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The Stoics came up with a calculus, as it were, of pleasure, in the effort to avoid excess in either consumption or abstention.
Paul in Athens
When Paul arrived in Athens, Luke tells us that he was “deeply moved.” His soul was provoked within him because he saw that the city was given totally to idolatry. The best that Athens could produce, in the final analysis, was to be a center of factories devoted to the making of pagan idols. Paul went to the synagogues and marketplace preaching Christ. He then went up to the Areopagus and encountered these philosophers whose practice was to meet every day and discuss what’s new.
He began to teach the philosophers: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” He noticed that they were filled with religion because their city was filled with idols. They even had one dedicated “To the Unknown God.” Paul said, “The one whom you are worshiping in ignorance, I want to declare to you this day. He is the one who is the creator of all. He is the one who does not need your prayers, your gifts, your worship, your idols. In fact, he doesn’t need anything.”
Paul urged them to seek God and then gave what I believe to be the most profound philosophical statement in the whole New Testament: “In him we live, we move, and we have our being.” Ultimate reality is found in God who is the creator of everything. God is absolute, pure being. He reveals himself to Moses as “I am who I am.” He is the supreme monarch of heaven and earth. God alone has pure actuality. There is no room for improvement with him.
I’m a human being. More accurately, to use Plato’s language, I am a human becoming. I still have potential that hasn’t been realized. I’m still changing. But God doesn’t change. My being is not found in me independently. It is found not in water or air but in God, who brings something out of nothing.
Let this be a brief introduction to the way the biblical witness gives answers to the questions that have plagued theoretical thought as long as there have been people. We will never find an answer to being if we try to find it outside the being and the character of God.