school at Athens

The School at Athens Raphael, 1509-1510 Fresco located at the Vatican

Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” – The Acts of the Apostles 17:22

It is misleading to speak of Athenians as religious or to speak of Greek religion. The Greeks did not have a term for religion in the sense of a dimension of existence distinct from all others. The Greeks spoke of their religious doings as things having to do with the gods,[1] but this loose usage did not imply the existence of any authoritative set of beliefs. Indeed, the Greeks did not have a word for belief. Since the existence of the gods was a given, it would have made no sense to ask whether someone if he or she believed that the gods existed.[2] Thus, Paul, when he made his observation at the Areopagus,[3]  was actually stating the fact that he had observed there were many idols to many gods in Athens, including one to an agnostic or unknown god.

What does it mean to be religious and what is religion?

The word religion comes from Latin and is the combination of two Latin terms that literally translate as “to reconnect or to rebind.”[4] In anthropological terms religion is defined as a “system of symbols…formulating conceptions of a general order of existence…with such an aura of factuality that…seem uniquely realistic.”[5] The term religious is a Christian idea. Early in Christian history, those men and women living in a specific community, which later would be called a monastery or convent, were thought of as religious.

Getting Religion

In my childhood I remember my Aunt Belle, who was an outspoken woman who dominated any environment she was in, often spoke of people “getting religion.” She was, as far as I know, a faithful Christian. My maternal family lore was rich in Calvinism expressed mostly by membership in Congregational parishes. Therefore, to her getting religion meant becoming a religious fanatic—a “holy roller.” Regular people were just Protestant or Catholic. I grew up in this moderate religious atmosphere and knew very little about the gifts of the Spirit. Bible studies in my Sunday school classes skipped over those parts of the Christian Scriptures that told of the works of God’s Spirit among the Apostles. If we read them, they were dismissed as unaccountable miracles.

Many Idols



So, Paul sees that the Athenians were very busy being about the idolatry of the time. In fact, he more than likely said, “I see you Athenians have many idols.”

If he were to look about American society today, he would say, “I see you Americans have many idols.” He might even list them—money, celebrity, power, guns, food and drink, national pride, and so on.

We Live, Move, and Have Our Being

Admiring a statue of Aphrodite and the skill of the sculptor is not wrong, and that admiration is not idolatry. Also, using money, enjoying celebrity, using power justly, skillfully using a firearm, and loving one’s country is not sinful. The Athenian intellectual need to explore ideas was not in itself sinful. In fact, Paul never debated this notion nor did he debate the existence of God. He simply noted that they had an agnostic altar and he could answer the question that who and what this unknown god is. The unknown god is the God of creation and the universe. Paul says, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”[6]Paul teaches the council at the Areopagus that God is all around us in spirit. God cannot be placed into a single piece of stone, or in a temple, or even in a philosophical concept.

Pay Attention!

The Athenians learned through Paul’s conversation with them that the Spirit of God identifies the human condition as spiritual—not merely physical. God’s Spirit teaches humanity that love is the greatest of gifts.

So, my Aunt Belle was almost right when she disparaged people “getting religion.” To her it was mostly an emotional experience generated by religious charlatans. She saw hypocrisy in much of what we call religion. That is, religion is about the certainty of heaven and not about Jesus or even about God.

Instead of being religious those seeking the blessings of God’s spirit need first to be disciples and pay attention to Jesus’ teachings.

We are assured salvation by Jesus’ selfless his dying on the cross and his resurrection victory over sin and death, Therefore, the focus for us, those of us who are his followers, must be on what he taught and then make his teachings a reality in daily living.

Being religious is not enough. Religion is shallow. Religion is about me not about you. The theologian, Marcus Borg, defines the Christian life well for me, he has written, “The biblical understanding of the human predicament and our need is much richer and more comprehensive than conservative and conventional Christianity’s emphasis on sin and forgiveness…. We are blind, diseased, wounded, dead in the midst of life, and our need is seeing again, healing, and rebirth.”[7] Your healing and your rebirth to the potentials of life, and also my healing and potentials is the point of faith in God who is in our living, in the synapse that move us—in our very being.

And, finally, though the promised Advocate, the Mind of God, when we stop being religious and become spiritual—who we truly are—and then a new form of life emerges for us. This new life is a life blessed with the love of God and neighbor.

say_hello_heavenThe words of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest, philosopher, and scientist, capture this hope succinctly. He wrote, “Some day (sic.), after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love; and then for the second time in the history of the world we will have discovered fire.”[8]


[1] The Greek phrase would have been ta theia.

[2] “Religion in Ancient Greece,”  http://upge.wn.com/?t=ancientgreece/index14.txt

[3]   The Areopagus also known as Mar’s Hill. It is the mythical location where the Greek gods Ares and Poseidon clashed and where Poseidon was killed. It was to the Athenians as our Supreme Court is to us today. The men who sat in judgment at the Areopagus were a highly respected group of men that passed on the law, education, and religion for the city.

[4] The Latin terms re, meaning again; and, ligare, meaning to bind or connect. Thus, the word religion in English comes from the Latin phrase, re-ligare.

[5]  Geertz, C. (1993) Religion as a cultural system. In: The interpretation of cultures: selected essays, Geertz, Clifford, pp.87-125. Fontana Press. This citation provided by Wikipedia.

[6] The Acts of the Apostles 17:28.

[7] Marcus Borg, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most, Harper-Collins, 2014.

[8] Quoted from www.tielhard.com citing a meditation from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edwardsville, Illinois. For the 6th Sunday of Easter, 2014.

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