A Fool’s Errand

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In the Baptist church where I grew up, we heard rumors of “intellectuals” lurking in the world beyond our safe fellowship who relished the opportunity to attack our faith. While we had never met one, we knew that one day we would, and it would be the fight of our young lives. We had to be prepared. We had to have a plan and a set of responses.

Fortunately, just as David served as our model for slaying giants and Samson for bringing down pagans, we had Paul’s confrontation with the philosophers of Athens as the way to best the intellectuals later in life. We studied his brilliance in the subtle approach he took with them. Like the cagy fighter he was, he sized them up carefully, shadowboxed with them for a time, and then stunned them with his logic and intellect. For us, Paul was our champion and our guide in the inevitable conflict we would have with intellectuals—or Episcopalians and Methodists.

Except it wasn’t completely true. Paul did not stun them. In fact, he didn’t really win at all.

While philosophy in Athens had once been a blood sport, by the time Paul arrived they were a shadow of their former selves. Athens was tired and defeated. It had become a retirement community for professors taking themselves a little too seriously and arguing over the smallest and most insignificant points. Philosophy and debate were almost a distraction for those without much better to do­—a sideshow for the tourists from Rome. The glory days had passed.

Had Paul come years earlier he would have had truly stout opponents. However, there was little energy left to argue—only to be curious and mildly interested in the “babbler” with a novel idea about religion. It perked up their day and gave them something to talk about. They weren’t upset. They didn’t haul him before the magistrates or stone him. There were no riots. Essentially, after hearing him in the square, they invited him to wine and cheese at the faculty club. They brought him to the Areopagus to meet with members of the Council—their version of the Inner Ring they believed were the real influencers and intellectual style-setters. Today, we would call them the self-appointed elite who read and critique each others’ books and articles, attend each others’ lectures and retweet each other on Twitter. They were, and are, legends in their own minds.

Paul might have been looking for intellectual exercise or even a fight, but he would not find it here. Only disdain and darkened minds. He was not on trial. He was there for them only to decide if he should receive a license to continue speaking. Were his credentials satisfactory? Was his message provocative without being disturbing?

There is a great line from the movie “Sunset Boulevard” where William Holden is asked why he does not confront Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) with the truth about her no longer being a star: “You don’t yell at a sleepwalker. He may fall and break his neck.” Or, he may turn on you.

Paul did exactly that. He shouts the good news that the world will be judged by the standard of one man. It was the high point of the speech where people would normally either rise up and stone him or fall down in belief. Instead, they merely dismiss him as a babbler and a fool. The interview is over. Paul’s chances of joining the club are finished and he is waved off with a sneer to intellectual obscurity.

Paul never goes back to Athens. As far as I know, he never attempts to preach again to intellectuals or philosophers. That may have been the best failure of his life. He realized his mission was to others. But, because of this failure to win or even impress the intellectuals, we have three of the most stunning passages about wisdom, foolishness and the confusing simplicity of the Gospel. Had it not been for the embarrassing defeat at Athens we might not have had Romans 1, I Corinthians 1 or Colossians 1.

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Even now we find people hoping to make the Gospel completely reasonable to the men of Athens— and they always fail because ultimately the Gospel is offensive in some way to those who say they will believe if only we could convince their reason or offer enough proofs. So, we need to be careful when we hear people promote Paul’s address on Mars Hill as the template for presenting the Gospel to intellectuals and the elite. It didn’t really work.

In the end, the Gospel is mystery and only understood by faith that makes a man or woman take a risk and go beyond what they can know for sure. Maybe the Gospel is best expressed this way by the poet Mary Oliver’s simple advice in “Instructions For Living A Life.”

“Pay attention

Be astonished

Tell about it.”

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    John Kelly

    Thanks for this. I struggled with this several years ago in talking with this particular niche of folks. I’ve come to believe exactly as you have observed. So instead of entangling myself with the intellectuals, I’ll just send them you way….:-)

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      My philosophy professor in college told me once, “I am an atheist but there are days when I cannot get something out of my head I heard as a child. Jesus loves me this I know.”

  • Avatar
    Jack Modesett

    I once asked Ray Stedman how he handled those who just wouldn’t listen. He replied, “Feed the hungry and leave the rest alone.”

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      I like that. Ray was right about lots of things.

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