After traveling to Athens, Paul encountered both an altar to the unknown god[s] and a living blog of thinkers, poets, and intellectuals, pseudo and real. He found a speaking platform and launched an apologetic sermon in the midst of the marketplace. Paul did not have religious Jews as his listeners, but Stoics and Epicureans. Though Paul’s words on resurrection hardened some listeners, others were touched and became believers (Acts 17:16-34).
Daily, each of us enters the contemporary marketplace and engages in the world of ideas. Here we find contemporary Stoics and Epicureans: falcons who do not hear the falconer’s voice, sheep who know not the Shepherd’s voice. Trained falcons respond to only one voice, likewise sheep. Today there is a plethora of dissonant voices. The marketplace is filled with religions and philosophical views. Many people, like frightened birds, cannot find a secure place to land.
Today’s youth are no exception. Richard Palmer’s book Does the Center Hold? suggests that western thinkers of all ages continue to seek a center. When Paul stood before the Stoics, naming their poets to affirm the reality of a universe dependent on God, he was ready to direct them to a religious center in Christ. We must also be ready for this task, especially when our audience consists largely of youth.
Youth today are bombarded with images of a Christ of culture, directly opposed to the revealed Christ of Scripture. The best a good religious person can do, they are told, is to embrace the faith of Jesus. When everything falls apart, they are told, they can find within themselves a deep spirituality much like that of Jesus, and this spirituality, they are told, is a healthy substitute for “traditional Christianity,” and an escape from the petty feuds of denominationalism.
This spirituality is nothing new; such a concept was held in various forms by the Epicureans and Stoics of Paul’s day. Today’s enlightened religious pluralists assert that saving natural revelation is evident in all religions. Religious dogma and religious sentences are subjective, having religious value but no truth-value. The truth of religion is to be found not in its dogma or teaching, but its fruitfulness in religious lives.
God’s witness of himself in nature is effective insofar as God allows Himself to be revealed this way. Hence, man remains “spiritual.” But what are the limits of such revelation? Blaise Pascal (d.1662) sums it up well: “Knowledge of God without recognition of our misery engenders pride (hubris); the recognition of our misery without knowledge of Jesus Christ produces despair! But the knowledge of Christ Jesus frees us alike from pride and despair, because here we find conjoined God and our misery and the only way in which it can be repaired.”
Philip Melanchthon highlights the shortcoming of natural revelation when he writes:
Finally it was very foolish of our opponents to write that men who are under eternal wrath merit the forgiveness of sins by an elicited act of love, since it is impossible to love God unless faith has first accepted the forgiveness of sins. A heart that really feels God’s wrath cannot love him unless it sees he is reconciled. While he terrifies us and seems to be casting us into eternal death, human nature cannot bring itself to love a wrathful, judging, punishing God it. It is easy enough for idle men to make up these dreams that a man guilty of mortal sin can love God above all things, since they themselves do not feel the wrath or judgment of God. But in the agony of conscience and in conflict, the conscience experiences how vain these philosophical speculations are. Paul says (Rom. 4:15) “The law brings wrath.” He does not say that by the law men merit the forgiveness of sins. For the law always accuses and terrifies consciences. It does not justify, because a conscience terrified by the law flees before God’s judgment. It is an error, therefore, for men to trust that by the law and by their works they merit the forgiveness of sins (sections 36-38).
The 16th century Confutation persists against the modern affirmation of Vatican II that says: “Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ, or his church, yet sincerely seek God, and moved by His grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.” (#16/ Documents of
Vatican II/Abbott, p. 35.)
Though we condemn Vatican II’s conclusion that natural and general revelation can lead to saving faith, we affirm that this revelation provides a point of contact with the unbeliever.
How does all this apply to your work with Christian youth? Making a bridge from the “spirituality” of our time to the Jesus of the New Testament, the God of Abraham, is a valuable task. The reality of God’s revelation is detailed in Romans 1 and 2. Though man has distorted God’s revelation, people still find themselves conscience-plagued in their response to God in ethical living and fear divine sanctions for disobedience (Rom. 2:12-17). These plagued and fearful consciences are in desperate need of the comfort only Jesus can give.
How does one make such a bridge with today’s youth? Consider this: Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Chronicles of Narnia may at first appear to be little more than new ways to entertain ourselves. But today’s youth are attending these movies in droves. Why? What attracts them to these stories? Why this fascination with the struggle between good and evil, darkness and light, and supernatural forces? Take the time to find out, and begin a conversation based on what you learn.
Additionally, check out major booksellers and peruse not only the Christian section, but also the spirituality section. You will see a public arena, full of voices, each having a “special insight” outside of God’s Scripture into the secrets of religion (e.g. The Left Behind series, The Da Vinci Code, etc.). Many people (Key members for the Jesus Seminar, Robert Funk, Burton Mack, etc.) offer public forums, lectures, and signings, declaring that they can tell people what pastors or denominations are too afraid to say. Youth can be susceptible to such things. Know the arguments of the modern sophists, prepare well-constructed apologetic refutation of their claims, and teach your youth the truth.
We end as we began. Does the center hold? When the falconer’s voice is not heard, the falcon can only wander in spiraling elliptical confusion. The Shepherd’s voice is our center. May we, like Paul, keep laboring at the bridge which connects natural and general revelation to the full display of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ!
Dr. David P. Meyer served as a professor of theology at Concordia University-Nebraska before retiring. He now lives with his wife in Seward, Neb.
Robert Benne, Integrity and Fragmentation: Can the Lutheran Center Hold? (link in PDF)*
Richard Palmer, Does the Center Hold? An Introduction to Western Philosophy
Winfried Corduan, No Doubt about it: The Case for Christianity
The Second Coming — W. B. Yeats (Referenced throughout article)
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Bethlehem to be born?