The church of Athens was one of the last churches to be established in Greece. According to one theologian, it came into being around the year 500 A.D. One possible reason for this was that Athens was full of intellectuals. No doubt, they are usually the toughest bunch of people to evangelize. Quite often, they suffer from intellectual pride and furthermore, they have a greater capacity to justify evil; more than the average person.
The city of Athens just happened to be the home of the Areopagus. This is where intellectuals would gather and discuss the philosophical ideas and issues of the day. One day, St. Paul decided to join these high-minded men who prided themselves on sophisticated language and abstract theorems. However, on this particular occasion, preaching to the Athenians for St. Paul was more of a lesson in the art of evangelization than anything else. It would seem that he learned a painful lesson of “what not to do.”
When he preached in Athens, he decided to limit himself to the lowest common denominator. Instead of preaching Christ-crucified, he took a philosophical approach. This was something he would later regret as evidenced in his two letters to the Corinthians. In fact, he appealed to their poets and spoke of the God in general terms and the future resurrection. The Apostle even paid them a compliment by saying the following: "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.”
It was a beautiful oration but one that bore little fruit in terms of conversions. True enough, he did walk away with two new followers: Dionysius and Damaris.
The book of Acts reports that St. Paul then made his way to Corinth. Before he arrived in that city, it would seem that he had plenty of time to mull over his speech at the Areopagus. Perhaps, he even weighed what he could have done differently. After all, his message to the Corinthians had a whole new flavor to it. It is more explicit on what was foolish to the world instead of what was only appealing to it. Talking philosophically about God, in a style agreeable to the Greeks, was probably more eloquent, but it certainly was less effective. The real power of the Gospel emanated from the mystery of the Cross.
St. Paul, with new vigor and determination, told the Christians in Corinth that he was, for now on, going to “proclaim Christ-crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” He may have shied away from this unconventional approach at Athens, but he resolved to shy away from it no more! In fact, he was at pains to contrast the foolishness of the Cross with the refined wisdom of the Athenians when he said the following:
“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside.’ Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?” (I Corinthians 1:18-20)
The point St. Paul raises takes us back to our Lord’s criteria in selecting his Apostles. Can it be that Jesus Christ chose twelve men from humble origins precisely because intelligence, if unredeemed, is a hindrance to salvation every bit as riches are? Some would argue that simplicity and child-like trust are harder to come by among intellectuals. Nevertheless, an intelligent Saint is better off than an ignorant Saint; this, because intelligence and knowledge are gifts from God, whereas ignorance is an absence of those gifts.
In any event, we as Catholics can learn a lesson from St. Paul; especially as we address pressing matters such as religious liberty and the right to life. When we appeal to the public and even make our case to the State in favor of religious liberty, we often limit ourselves to natural law terminology. No doubt, this is an attempt to highlight the common denominator we have with the people.
For instance, we say that Catholic agencies cannot distribute contraception because it is a “matter of conscience.” Or when an argument is made that life begins at conception, we might limit our appeal to the science behind it. This is all well and good. Nevertheless, this approach, as much as it appeals to the familiarity of the public, is, in my opinion, inferior to the apostolic and patristic approach. When they made their case to their audience, what stood out in their evangelization were God’s rights and God’s will. No doubt, Jesus Christ, Son of the Eternal Father, was their emphasis. He was the centerpiece of their message.
For us, to hold fast to Christ’s teaching that using artificial birth control is against God’s plan for married couples and, as such, is offensive to him, is foolishness to the world. Still, we should proclaim it loud and clear anyways. However, because of the potential ridicule or the fear of being ostracized from the mainstream, Catholics distanced themselves from this moral truth…and many others for that matter.
Due to the reluctance to offend, we sometimes couch the argument in terms of “conscience rights” and hence speak very little of “God’s rights.” To be sure, liberty will increasingly be unintelligible and intangible if we do not make a connection between liberty and God’s rights; God’s rights being the jurisdiction he has over every single human being. After all, it is because every person is created by God, for God and in the likeness of God that no government or hostile party can violate human rights. Erase God from the equation of life and liberty, and what you are left with is the survival of the fittest, the strongest and the loudest.
The lesson that St. Paul learned in Athens also applies most fittingly to the Church in America. When Catholics make the foolishness of the Cross the mainstay of their message; when repentance from sin is the condition upon which people become a follower of Christ; and when we unapologetically articulate those moral doctrines that society deems to be foolish and outdated, then we will see gains similar to those of St. Paul "after" his disappointing visit to Athens.