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The convergence of two worlds: “St Paul Preaching at Athens”, 1737, by Giovanni Paolo Panini (© English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)


One of the richest moments in the New Testament comes in Acts chapter 17, when Saint Paul travels to Athens. It tells of the convergence of two worlds which the modern reader usually regards as separate: the biblical and the classical. The Jewish convert to Christianity encounters “certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks” who ask him about the new doctrine which he is preaching; he is taken to the Areopagus (where the Evangelist tells us parenthetically that the Athenians spend their whole time “either telling or hearing some new thing”). Paul is already displeased that the city is “wholly given to idolatry”, and now he sees an altar inscribed “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD”, which stimulates him to give an extended sermon on the true nature of God, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being”. Some of the locals regard him as a “babbler” and mock his account of the Resurrection, but he gains adherents, including a certain Dionysius the Areopagite. Overall, however, this is an occasion where one’s sympathies are no less with the Greeks than with the Apostle. For did they not have a point in describing one of their gods (amid the familiar pantheon) as unknown? Did not the Jews par excellence worship a God who had no name except “I AM” and whose presence in the Holy of Holies was hidden behind a veil? Were not the Athenians expressing an age-old but also contemporary thought in identifying the deus absconditus — the hidden God?

These hard questions provoke yet harder ones. Can we believe in God and, if so, in what sense? Can we believe in the God revealed in the New Testament and, if so, how? Such questions persist in the minds of many, even (perhaps especially) in the minds of non-believers. They particularly trouble those who might wish to believe, but feel (or are made to feel) that they cannot respectably do so. This is a time in which the borderlands between faith and doubt, and between doubt and agnosticism, are heavily populated. We may take, as a paradigm inhabitant of these places, an intelligent rationalist who is, in Leslie Stephen’s phrase, a devout sceptic: why should and how can he believe in the Deity, or have a Christian faith? Or is it axiomatically obvious from the given premises — intelligence and rationality — that he cannot? Is God so concealed, assuming Him to exist at all, and so abstracted from the world of time and space, that worship of Him (or him) is an exercise in futility?

Those who occupy this territory see unattainable certainties on either side. For example, many Roman Catholics are strongly motivated to adhere to their faith by obedience to a mother Church of high antiquity and authority (the latter largely self-conferred). To say this is not to denigrate their beliefs, but our sceptic cannot put his trust in princes, even princes of the Church (and to do so may lead to an unnecessary loss of faith when Church leaders are found personally wanting.) Evangelical Anglicans at Holy Trinity Brompton and its many daughter churches seeded through the Alpha course believe that they are born again into a personal relation with Jesus; but their exclusive creed appears to our subject to be based on a combination of naiveté and literalism — to say nothing of a wilful disregard of much modern textual scholarship — which treats any point of view other than their own (even other Anglican professions) as wrong-headed if not positively dangerous. Jews and Muslims have the advantage of supranational cultural loyalties with which to buttress faiths that make relatively modest metaphysical demands — perhaps enviably so — when compared with the baggage of Christian metaphysics. Many believers of all these persuasions believe that religion is given by God, whereas the sceptic is pretty sure that religions are made by men in an attempt to express an idea of God, and are therefore bound to exhibit all the flaws (as well as all the sublimities) of human creation.
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