It is the summer of 2001 and I am in Athens, Greece standing at the foot of the Areopagus. Stone steps carved into its side lead to the summit of the hill, and though the stairs aren’t long, I walk up them slowly because the steps are slick having been worn by the feet of the thousands of tourists who have preceded me. When I consider the density of the granite beneath my feet, I marvel at the overwhelming number of footfalls it took to wear down those edges, smooth the rock’s grain, and burnish it to a shine, thousands upon hundreds of thousands of footsteps from those who have traveled over this small section of the earth to stand on the summit of this small outcropping. Many of those tourists who came before me were of the sort I see gathered to one side when I reach the hill’s crown. A small circle of men and women are sitting on the hill’s edge to my left and a man stands before them holding a Bible and gesturing as he reads. I know immediately that they are Americans — their shorts and sneakers give them away as does the slight southern lilt of the reader’s accent. I recognize the passage the man is reading; it is Acts 17 and the people listen to the words with a far away look in their eyes, seeing in that moment not the other tourists swarming over the rock but the apostle Paul and his audience of Athenian intellectuals. They have come for the same reason I am here, to inhabit the story of Paul, to stand where he once stood and to know that our feet are touching the same ground Paul’s feet touched, though as I look at the smooth surface of the rock below my sandals, I suspect that any surface he actually stood upon has long since worn away. Nevertheless, there is something spiritual about inhabiting the same geographical space as one of the great preachers of our faith and to feel that connection across time. It is the reason so many pilgrims travel to Jerusalem to walk the road where Jesus carried his cross, or to Mecca to worship where Muhammed once lived. It is, in a less religious but perhaps no less spiritual way, the same reason we visit writers’ homes or artists’ studios. In Sacket’s Harbor near my summer cottage, a bridge leading into town is marked by a sign that says, “President James Monroe greeted the troops on this bridge during the war of 1812,” and every time I drive over that bridge I marvel to think that the stones that are keeping me from plunging into that creek bed once did the same for a president of the United States. Such places compress time and space to make us feel a part of something larger than our own limited existence and connected to something greater than ourselves.
As I stand on the summit of the Areopagus that morning in 2001, I imagine Paul and the Athenians engaged in theological debate but as I look around me, my thoughts turn from Paul and the Bible to the marvelous view from the rock’s heights. The Temples and columns of ancient Greece skirt the base of the hill like an apron, marvels of engineering and artistry. In the distance, blue-gray mounts rise up in Olympian haze and I can just catch the sparkle of the Aegean Sea. Not everyone who has ascended the Areopagus is here because of Paul; many are here simply for the view and while their hands may not hold Bibles and their lips may not utter the words of familiar prayers, their eyes shine with wonder and I glimpse on their faces a sense of reverence. You don’t have to be Christian to be moved by the beauty of a landscape. In fact, even for those of us who profess Christ, the awe we feel when we watch the sea pound the beach or the setting sun spill golden rays over a valley would be there with or without the church. These experiences are what theologians call “experiences of the numinous”; they are experiences that make us feel connected with something greater than ourselves whether it be the world of nature, or a sudden sense of kinship to humankind, or a conviction of a divine presence. The experience of the numinous is that still small voice that speaks in our quiet communion with the Other.
Though most people have never heard the word numinous, this is often what they mean when they say, “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual.” They may not engage in any particular religious practice but they have had experiences which have lifted them out of the constraining concerns of their limited selves and helped them to feel part of something much larger than their individual life. They might describe that experience as a sudden certainty that there is more to the world than the eye can see; or they might talk about sensing an unseen energy that flows through the world and moves them to greater awareness on behalf of others. They might even call this deeper connection and otherness “God” but are uneasy about putting their experience into a box labeled with the name of any particular religion. Like the Athenians Paul encountered on the Areopagus 2000 years ago, many people construct private altars in their hearts to an unknown God.
And like Paul, I think that we should never condemn or judge those who are uncomfortable tying their spiritual experiences to a traditional religious practice. Although as we are all too aware, church attendance in 21st century America is on the decline, spirituality is not. Recent polls show that over 60% of Americans still consider themselves spiritual people. They may not attend church, synagogue, or mosque, but they actively seek out experiences that help them forge a deeper connection with the earth, with others, with their inner deepest selves, with something that is greater than themselves. We see this in the rise of mindfulness practices and meditation, and in the popularity of yoga and tai chi. I have heard many non-churchgoers describe their social activism in spiritual terms saying that they experience deep connections to others in their work to alleviate poverty or protest oppressive laws. I have even heard rock climbers, skydivers, and marathon runners attribute spiritual meaning to their pursuit of physical challenges as they strive to overcome the limitations of their physical bodies. And while Christian purists disparage those people calling them hooby dooby tree huggers or self-centered heretics, Paul accepted the validity of these experiences of the divine. Paul recognized that we are surrounded by God and that, as the psalmists proclaimed, even the mountains and the trees can proclaim the glory of God. Spirituality is not anti-religion; it is the religious impulse free of constraint, searching to find God outside of the practices and belief systems of any particular religion. Whereas religion depends on an institutional authority to pass along its time tested ideas and traditions, spirituality allows individuals to decide for themselves how and where they most experience God. Diane Butler Bass, in her book Grounded: Finding God in the World writes, “The most significant story in the history of religion is not the decline of religion in the Western World in the 21st century but a changed concept of God grown from the ground up in which hierarchal institutions and theologies are replaced with a sense of a quotidian God whose holiness is revealed in everyday things.” Everyday things like the sparkle of the Aegean sea or mountains rising up in a blue grey mist or the shine of granite worn smooth by thousands of footsteps.
For much of the history of the church, two separate and in many ways opposing views of God have existed side by side. The view that has dominated is the one we are most familiar with — that of God sitting in a distant heaven while human beings live below on earth. In this view, the church’s job is to be the mediator between heaven and earth. You, the person in the pew, the church says, can’t possibly hope to fully understand or engage the holiness of that mighty transcendent God without help and so if you want to experience God, you have to come to church where the trained clergy will enable you to receive the blessings and absolutions of your God. Before the Protestant reformation, this hierarchy was so rigid that people in the pew didn’t even need to understand the words of the priests or read the Bible for themselves. The priests were trained to bridge heaven and earth and the lay people just waited while they did their job. Even after the Protestant reformation, however, clergy were still reluctant to give up their authority. I mean, what’s the point of all of that schooling and work to be ordained if any old person can experience God on their own terms? And so, while the Catholic church insisted on the necessity of the priestly led mass, Protestant churches insisted on adherence to proper doctrine, doctrine that we the clergy would write and explain to you.
Ah, those were the good old days! (Just kidding.) Diane Butler Bass argues that during the 20th century, this hierarchal view of God in heaven and people on earth with the church in-between began to collapse, literally flatten as the tiers of heaven and earth, and even hell all merged into one. People enduring the suffering of World War II, seeing in the Holocaust the genocidal capacity of the human heart, and fearing the rise of technologies capable of destroying the earth made a God in a far off heaven seem too irrelevant and uncaring. People didn’t need a distant powerful God — human beings had power to spare. We no longer feared a hell to come because we had seen our own capacity to create hell in our midst. Now we understood that what we most need is a God who understands our suffering, who lives not in some far off place but right here with us in the midst of our everyday concerns. We don’t need a God who can change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel in his bare hands but who can simply teach these tattered sad wounded human hearts how to love again. As people searched for this more intimate God, they began to rediscover that second view of God which has existed quietly alongside the more dominant view of the institutional church, the God that Paul describes to the people of Athens as the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Paul says, “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.” God isn’t restricted to the confines of human built constructs, whether they be the pillars of an ancient Greek Temple of the interior of a church building or even the strictures of a particular theological system. God doesn’t live in the boxes we create for God; it is we who live in God.
“Wither shall I go from your Spirit?” the Psalmist says, “or where can I flee from your presence?” In God, we live and move and have our being for we live immersed in a God drenched world.
The writer Anne Lamott said of her search for God, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”
We come to church not to find God but to understand the nature of the God we have already experienced out there in a God drenched world. For us as Christians, God takes on the face of Christ and here we learn through Christ’s teachings that the holiness we feel as we gaze at the vast canopy of stars overhead is the holiness of a gracious God inclined to mercy and concerned for even the lowliest among us. We learn that this God that we can feel tugging at our hearts as we look at the face of a hungry child is a God who knows our tears, who will go all the way to the cross for us, and will remain with us through the darkest night. And in Christ’s resurrection, we learn that this unnamed God we sense in the swelling of spring’s buds, in the delight of a newborn lamb, in the green shoot of a plant pushing its way through warm soil is a God in whom life is irrepressible. God can and will bring life again and death will be defeated. Even the worst that human beings can do to one another cannot conquer the powerful love that is God.
In the ordinary day to day world, we glimpse that love and life pulsing through the earth around us, in the people we meet, and in the quiet meditations of our hearts — God is not confined to this building and worship but is all around us every day. We come here to church to put a name to what we feel, to learn more about this most wondrous and holy God, and to understand better how we can respond to that Spirit that calls us.
Thomas Merton once wrote, “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him.”
Or as Paul told the Athenians, “In God, we live and move and have our being.” God is everywhere and always. I hope that you have a sense of God this morning in this place as we worship together and prayer with one another, but even more so, I hope that when you walk through those doors, you continue to sense that most holy God with you surrounding you, enlivening you, moving your heart, and opening your eyes to the wonder of a world drenched in the sacred and emblazoned with God’s gracious love.