Whose Truth is Strange?

We need to examine our neighbor's beliefs.

Strangers in our Times (5)

“God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.” Acts 17.24, 25

Practices and implications

We can see that Paul understood not only the practices of pagan religion, but the implications of it as well. And he suspected that his audience, while quite familiar with and zealous for the former, had probably never considered the latter. Their religion made sense to them. Except that, as Paul was about to demonstrate, it didn’t make sense at all.

Unbelievers in our secular age are in the same boat. They have embraced a view of life and the world which they accept and pursue as an act of faith, and which suits them fine. That is, the way they conduct their daily lives, the goals they pursue, the diversions they indulge, the convictions they hold dear, and the dreams they cherish – while this all seems to be working out well enough in practice, seen against the larger backdrop of the implications of their worldview, what they believe doesn’t make sense.

But unless we understand the times, and think carefully about the worldviews we encounter each day, we won’t be able to help our neighbors discover the strangeness inherent in their approach to life.

Believers, all
The fact is, all the people have a worldview, and every worldview is grounded in a series of faith convictions – beliefs. That is, people believe things about the world, themselves, and how they ought to live, which they can’t prove but take on good faith. This is what they learned in school; it’s what the media and culture constantly reinforce; and all their friends think like they do as well. Why shouldn’t they believe?

People think, talk, and act the way they do because, in their heart of hearts, they believe this is what’s in their best interest. They probably wouldn’t try to foist their views on you; but that just suggests that they know their views aren’t universally reliable. For most people, urging others to embrace your ultimate convictions in life isn’t like yelling, “Your house is on fire!” And they don’t want you to foist your views on them. After all, each of us must reach our own convictions about the way things ought to be, without undue pressure from others. Or so, at least, most people believe.

The Greeks in Athens didn’t have to be persuaded of this; they knew all about believing and trusting and trying to line up your life with your convictions. Paul’s foray onto the bridge of religion, which he had begun with a word of sincere affirmation, may have been a little easier than ours – given the disenchantment of our age – but it was no different. His task was to communicate his beliefs to people who already believed the world was a certain way. This is what we must do as well.

Unreasonable beliefs
Note carefully what Paul did in these verses: Having established that he understood them and their religious practices, and even affirming them for their beliefs, he invited them to consider just how reasonable their views were. Athens was cluttered with little temples, roadside kiosks, and images of every kind, representing the various gods that pervaded the whole of their lives. These had to be cared for – temples and shelters, daily offerings of food or flowers, dusting and polishing, and whatnot.

But wait a second: these gods were supposed to have great powers. They could affect everything from your daily welfare to the harvests of the city to the security of the entire nation. Why, Paul wanted to know, should we think that such all-powerful gods would require the help or attention of puny people? I mean, how powerful can a deity be who requires me to dust him off, supply him with a fresh garland of flowers, and make sure he gets put back on the mantle in just the right place?

And as for the Athenians’ “unknown god,” he was so mysterious and powerful that no one knew anything about him, except that he was “unknown.” Think about that for a moment.

Is it not the same with the beliefs and convictions of the people of our secular age? Once we have established a bridge of affirmation, we will want to begin having a look at our neighbor’s ultimate convictions. For example, we might say, “It seems to me you’ve figured out how you want your life to go. You seem to know what you want and how best to achieve it. But how do you know this? And how do you know that what you think you know is actually true? How can you be sure that there isn’t something better for you than what you’re currently trying to get out of life?”

What you will be doing at that point, as you begin to turn the focus of your conversation on your friend’s beliefs, is to lead him in discovering where the real strange truth lies between you. Stay on this tack, searching out the implications of your friend’s beliefs, and soon enough it will become clear that the strange truth in your conversations is not coming from you.

For reflection
1.  Why is it important that people identify the sources of what they believe? What does this reveal about the authorities on which they base their lives?

2.  What is the Christian’s authority for what he believes? How does that authority compare with the authorities unbelievers typically rely on in constructing their worldviews? How confident are you that your life is based entirely on the Christian’s authority?

3.  Why is it important to help our unbelieving friends examine the things they believe?

Next steps – Conversation: Read the last section of this article again (under the heading, “Unreasonable beliefs”). Go back to one or two of the folks you’ve been talking with and try out this approach. How do they respond?

Do you understand the Gospel? Feel confident in proclaiming it? Our booklet, The Gospel of the Kingdom, can help you share the Good News with confidence. Order your copy by clicking here. While you’re at it, order a copy of Joy to Your World! and see how you can conduct a consistent witness of joy to the people God sends you to each week (click here).

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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