Paul Put the Pieces of a Puzzle together for Dionysius at the Areopagus

Some people want to fit the pieces to the puzzle together.

Perhaps, my favorite speech (sermon) in the Bible is Paul’s address to an elite group of people in Athens. The people in Athens were fond of spending their time “in nothing except telling or hearing something new”. (Acts 17:21) When some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers heard Paul in the marketplace, they brought him to the Areopagus.

Do you know people like that? They like to talk philosophy, but they don’t do it out of a love for the truth. They just like the intellectual challenge or the exercise of the imagination. Those conversations are ultimately unfulfilling unless truth is the object.

When Paul came to Athens, he was struck by all the idols he saw. (Acts 16:17) Athens was filled philosophies and gods of unending variety. In this way, Athens was like the modern Internet: a person might not ever exhaust all the possibilities. A person could spend a lifetime trying without ever synthesizing all the information and fitting the pieces to the puzzle of life together.

Paul cut the chase. Referencing an inscription: “To the unknown god”, Paul opened his speech with the statement, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)

I love that! Paul started where they were. He started with something familiar to them, and he used it as a segue into an introduction of “[t]he God who made the world and everything in it”. There were temples everywhere in Athens, but Paul was not shy in saying that the “Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples made by men”. (Acts 17:24)

Paul wasn’t interested in small talk, or ideas for nothing but the novelty of them.

I also love that Paul quoted Greek philosophers and poets to them. He quoted Epimenides of Crete for the proposition that “In him [the God who made the heaven and earth] we live and move and have our being”; and he quoted Aratus for that proposition that we are His offspring. (Acts 17:28)

Paul was educated, and he could speak the language of educated people. He could take poetry and use it in a sermon on God. He didn’t play their games, though. He didn’t speak just to hear himself talk. He didn’t pander to their penchant for novel ideas.

He called them to account: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30)

Paul preached the Gospel, the good news that Jesus died for our sins, redeeming us from destruction and giving us the hope of everlasting life, but Paul lost most of his audience at that point. They weren’t interested in “dogma”. They took offense at the exclusivity of Paul’s message. They liked ideas, but they weren’t interested in truth. Sound familiar?

Truth, of course, is exclusive. That’s the nature of truth. People like the Athenians, and people who embrace post-modern thought today, don’t want to want to hear ideas that are exclusive. They want variety. They want to keep their options open, ironically even to the exclusion of truth.

A few people, though, were moved by Paul’s sermon. They wanted to hear more. Among them was Dionysius, the Areopagite. For Dionysius, Paul provided him the missing piece to the puzzle of his life.

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CS Lewis on the “True Myth”

All myth is an attempt to shine light on truth. True Myth is the ultimate Light shining on the ultimate Truth. 

The Areopagus in Athens

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are the translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened…”

This quotation is from CS Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greeves: from The Kilns (on his conversion to Christianity), 18 October 1931. If you have read much of what I write, you would readily notice that I quote and reference CS Lewis often. He resonated with me in college, and he continues to resonate with me.

He is cited by more diverse groups of people, perhaps, than any person I can think of. He had a unique way of approaching things from fresh points of view, often pulling those fresh ideas from the dusty tomes of ancient literature. His concept of myth and True Myth is one such point.

Some might consider his frequent allusions to ancient, pagan myth heretical, and some might even confuse his love of pagan myth as New Age. I find him to be extremely orthodox in unorthodox ways, and I find his creative approaches to orthodoxy to be refreshing and thought-provoking.

We don’t have to look any further than the ultra-orthodox, Apostle Paul, to find some common ground with CS Lewis. When Paul was in Athens, some Epicureans and Stoics he met in the marketplace, brought him to the Areopagus to address an erudite Greek crowd. In that address, Paul referenced an altar inscribed “To An Unknown God” and quoted Aratus, a Greek poet: “in him we move and live and have our being”. (Acts 17:22-28 quoting from Phenomena 5)

Paul used a quotation from a pantheistic poet to convey a theistic principle about God. (See Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?) Paul connected with the people “where they were”, using language and references they understood to convey something about God. In one sense, this is how CS Lewis relates the ideas of myth and True Myth.

It’s interesting to me, as well, that Paul knew enough about pagan poetry to quote Aratus. In Titus 1 (v. 12), Paul quotes a Cretan philosopher, Epimenides. Again, it’s striking that Paul knew enough about pagan philosophy (presumably) that he could quote Epimenides.

CS Lewis observes that myth contains some elements of truth, which shouldn’t be surprising at all, as truth is universal and should, therefore, be something that is universally recognized. The difference between myth and True Myth is that all myth ultimately is a shadow of the True Myth.

All myth is an attempt to shine light on truth. True Myth is the ultimate Light shining on the ultimate Truth. All myth conveys truth through storytelling. True Myth isn’t just another story, though; it is The Story. It isn’t “just” myth, but reality – “it really happened” as CS Lewis says.

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