Philosophy and Religion

The following message was given at St. Paul’s UCC in Eureka, SD on Sunday, May 25, 2014. The scripture used was Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21, and I Peter 3:13-22. The title was Philosophy.

As we noted in some of our announcements, tomorrow is Memorial Day. It is a day to reflect mostly on the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice so that our country is able to operate under a democratic form of government and enjoy certain freedoms that we all hold dear. This day makes me think of a lady who was one of James’ coworkers in Jamestown. Carol’s husband had been a life-time army man. She explained to us that in his era, right after WWII, he was told that his loyalty was to God, country and family, in that order. When he asked for leave to get married he was also told that if the army wanted him to have a wife they would have issued him one. I believe that there is a bit different attitude by the military towards family in our current generation, but I can understand their need for loyalty which in turn translates to safety. Soldiers who are dedicated are more likely to have each other’s backs and come through tough fighting unscathed. This sort of thought process is not just a rule, it is a philosophy. It is a direction to live by, and it is important in order for the soldiers to live.

Philosophy as a body of study or a subject matter in an institution of learning is defined as: the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge or conduct or a particular system of thought based on such study or investigation, or the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, especially with a view to improving or reconstituting them. A bit different definition came out in the 1970s just when I was studying philosophy in college, and perhaps the idea came from a comedian but I am not totally sure. Anyway, I know that we had a standing joke that the real definition of the philosophy major was: mess up your mind class. Philosophy as a matter of study makes you contemplate what is right or good or the truth in the life around you. It makes you think deeply about things and perhaps it is makes you understand the WHY of something.

The story that we read in the book of Acts today touches on philosophy and is set in Athens, the city that is the birthplace of certain philosophies; in fact two of them are mentioned in the earlier scriptures: Stoicism and Epicureanism. Without going into great detail about their differences which are significant, let us suffice to say that each of these beliefs focused on living a good life in a truthful way. They believed in virtue and honesty and wisdom, but their focus was on the here and now with no regard for life after the body dies. This is quite a different thought process than what Paul is about to present as he tries to teach them about Jesus and his death and resurrection.

For those of us who have ever had to look at ancient or even world history, we might remember that Athens was the city from where Socrates and Plato come. I still have my copy of Plato’s Republic and though I don’t remember any of the details of it; I know that in a broad sense it deals with learning about what is right and ethical, and that the people of the time were quite obsessed with learning. Even our text today says that they were happy to spend all of their time learning or telling about something new. The people of Athens were eager to learn new things, and that was exactly what Paul was ready to present to them.

Paul ended up in Athens because he and Silas had to flee for their lives from Thessalonica. As you go through these texts and read about Paul, you get the idea, at least I do, that he probably had a manner that was just a little bit abrasive. It seems that no matter where he is, he can get things stirred up. Maybe that is how he came to be chosen. Remember Paul was the one who was really zealous against the Christians, and when he is finally converted, he becomes just as zealous in favor of the Christian beliefs and sharing the story of Jesus.

In Thessalonica and most places that he went, Paul always approached his mission work by going to the Jewish synagogue if there was one. He liked to start in the synagogue because he could start with something the people knew, the stories of Moses and the prophets. By doing that, he could point out how Jesus was fulfilling all of the old prophecies and the law that Moses was given by God to the Jewish people. It was a way for Paul to connect to the people, and then tell them the new, good news about Jesus, his death and resurrection and the grace that is free to all. But this time as others things did not go so well, and they were forced to basically run for their lives.

Now when Paul and Silas get to Athens, they find a somewhat different city. Athens is quite worldly, and though there are Jews and a synagogue in the city, as a whole Athens has people who worship all sorts of Gods, and in fact he finds the city is filled with idols. This idol worship really bothers Paul, and again he starts arguing or as the scripture says, he debates with some of the others in the square. Finally they bring him to the Areopagus (airyOPohgus), which is the hill near the Acropolis where the judicial council was known to meet. Apparently they were interested in hearing what Paul had to say, but just in case he gets too far out of line, they are ready to “hold court” about what he is saying.

Now going back to Philosophy and thinking about the connection between religion and philosophy, I want to share one of the basic ideas of Philosophy of Religion. The belief that comes from that study is this: If you can imagine the question, “Is there a God, the answer must be yes.” Human kind has always contemplated the idea of a greater being. Primitive societies are known to worship all sorts of Gods. The Greeks and especially the intellects of the Athenian society did not have a problem with the idea of “Is there a God?” Their problem was that they had a God for almost everything possible. Paul wasn’t in any type of jeopardy by talking to them about the existence of God; his problem was getting them to understand the idea of One and Only one God.

We also see from the scripture the fact that they had so many idols was actually a benefit to Paul because one of their Gods was the Unknown God, and that is how Paul was able to approach the idea of God and Jesus and the resurrection and grace, and all of the things that we have known for the majority of our lives. Paul began his presentation to the Athenians by noting just how religious they were. He commends them on their Gods, and instead of talking to them of a new God, he explains that he knows who the Unknown God is. And he tells them of Jesus and what his life and death and resurrection can mean to all of them. He talks to them of salvation.

And aren’t we so much better off than those silly intellectual Athenians? Look at us in our modern world with our superior technology and busy lives and oh so many advancements, you would never catch us standing out in the square discussing the meaning of life while worshiping all those idols. Isn’t it great that right here today we can say with confidence that we are so much better than those ancient Greeks because we don’t worship idols or other Gods? Or do we?

John writes that Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” If I remember correctly about what we learned through the messages leading up to Easter, the commandment Jesus gives us is to “Love one another as he loves us.” If we believe in this one God, this one son Jesus, we are to love one another, and not just in a passive, happy, feely sort of way, but really love each other in the sort of join a friend for coffee or a meal or helping with a task or a problem or whatever it takes.

We need to be careful not to be so complacent. Having other Gods in this age is not necessarily the same as the idols of the Athenians. What is it that we worship, or maybe the question is this, what is in our life that prevents us from worshiping the one true God? What do we allow to get between us and our time with God, and I don’t mean that worship is only done inside a church building or only inside this church building. A relationship with God is personal, up close and personal as the saying goes. There are lots of things in our daily lives that can take the place of that relationship. We need to be wary of the things that interfere with that relationship. We need to be aware of what keeps us from loving one another as Jesus loves us. And most of all we need to keep listening for God’s directions to us as individuals and as a church. We certainly have some philosophy to fulfill. And as we close, I want to share with you a few of the quotes I found on the UCC website regarding philosophies. I read them in backwards order to end with Charles Schulz. It was a hit. The site to find this is:

Sorry, but the link thing won’t happen until I figure it out or Paulina teaches me. (wow, I just found out that it works) I have had others try to give me advice and it never soaks in.

Charles M. Schulz, 20th century
“Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, ‘Is life a multiple choice test or is it a true or false test?’…Then a voice comes to me out of the dark and says, ‘We hate to tell you this but life is a thousand word essay.'”

Neil deGrasse Tyson, 21st century
“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

Baruch Spinoza, 17th century
“I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.”

Epictetus, 1st century
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Glenda zimmermam
    May 25, 2014 @ 19:22:17

    What a great message, LuCinda! I have missed church for three Sundays in a row now after having not missed a single Sunday since last summer. I feel like a complete heathen. I know being sick means you have to stay away, but… I still need to commune with The Lord every week in His house. God said if you do not acknowledge my Father in front of your fellow man on earth, how can I acknowledge you in front of my Father in heaven. Next week, Elliot’s twins are getting baptized and I can’t wait to be there. They are such a blessing. Have a great week and I’ll see you soon.



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