Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Are We Alone?

John 14:15-21 and Acts 17:16-34

 Are we alone?

 That seems to be one of the most pressing questions of modern science and pseudo-science.  Billions of dollars are being spent on the search for other intelligent life.  There is SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.  Astronomers scour the night skies for exoplanets, planets outside our solar system that could hold life.  NASA wants to go to Mars, in part to see if it once had, or still has, life.  Others are looking in the skies for UFOs or in the woods for Bigfoot.  Personally, I think we should try to find intelligent life in Washington DC first, but that’s just my opinion.

 The question, “Are we alone?” permeates our culture.  Look at all the movies and television shows that deal with the search for intelligent life:  The Alien saga, Life, Arrival, Mission to Mars, Red Planet, Europa, 2001:  A Space Odyssey, Independence Day, The X-Files, and the list just goes on and on.  

 I’m pretty sure that most intellectuals would deny this, but I think there is a spiritual component to this quest.  It’s also a search for meaning.  

 If we are not alone, it would radically change our self-understanding.  Some think that it would put an end to our division and strife.  Some think it would put an end to the “illusion of God.”  If life happens all over the place, then why do we still need God?  If life creates itself, we don’t need a Creator!  

 But if we are alone, what does that mean?  What if, in all the infinite blackness of space, across all the trillions of stars in the universe, the only place where life exists is here, on our little blue-green ball?  What if there is no one else?  That might have even deeper repercussions than finding life somewhere else.  

 I think Paul’s encounter in Athens can be instructive to us here.  Paul is dealing with people who are basically secular intellectuals.  These philosophers really don’t have much place for God in their worldview.  So perhaps it can teach us something about interacting with the growing number of secular intellectuals in our society.  

 Paul is alone in Athens.  He had been traveling with Silas, Timothy, and Luke.  But amidst all the trouble in Macedonia, they have become separated.  

 Athens was formerly the chief city of Greece.  It may not have been the political capital, but it was the cultural capital.  It was renowned for its exquisite art and architecture and education.  As

a center of learning, it had been surpassed by other cities like Alexandria and Tarsus, Paul’s hometown, but it still lived in the glories of its past.  Greece was one of the first societies to develop extensive schools of science and philosophy, and Athens was at the forefront.  

 It was also a city full of idols.  More than anything, they were now a remnant of the past.  Greek society had become more secular, but they held onto traditions.  They still made the sacrifices, even if they weren’t entirely sure why they did them.

 Paul gets into a debate with philosophers from the two main Greek schools thought of the first century:  The Epicureans and the Stoics.  

 The Epicureans mostly came from the upper classes.  They believed the meaning of life was to find pleasure and avoid pain.  Their view of God was deistic; meaning they believed there was a God, but basically, he was irrelevant.  God was distant, unknowable, uninvolved, and uncaring.  God had no hand in the affairs of the world; everything happened by chance.  And the Epicureans did not believe in an afterlife, at all.  Death is the end, so live it up while you have the chance.  Not entirely different from what we find in our society!

 The Stoics, as the name implies, were not quite so apt to “live it up.”  They were more intellectual than experiential.  They believed the meaning of life is to search out the truth.  They had a pantheistic view of God, meaning they thought that everything is God.  The universe is an extension of God.  And there is a spark of the divine, a piece of God in each of us.  They had a fatalistic view of life: Everything happens because God causes it.  There is no chance.  

 Now the Epicureans had a view of the universe that everything just continued on indefinitely.  But the Stoics had a cyclical view of the universe.  It will go on for a while, then it will be destroyed, and then it will be reborn, just the same as it was.  Neither group believed history was going anywhere.

 And neither of them really had much use for Greek religion.  Both gave lip service to the old traditions and kept offering the sacrifices, but neither believed it really meant anything.  Greek religion was more ritual than anything.  They didn’t give much thought to ethics or piety.  The Greek gods didn’t care how you behaved or if you loved them; they just wanted sacrifice.

 Paul is in Athens, preaching Christ and the resurrection.  People think he is preaching “new gods,” named Jesus and Anastasis, the Greek word for resurrection.  He is called a “babbler,” a Greek word that referred to a bird pecking at grain.  In other words, “This birdbrain is preaching strange gods.”  

 So they bring him to the Areopagus, literally, the Hill of Ares.  Areopagus was both to the place and the council that met there.  The Areopagus oversaw “public morals.”  They made sure dangerous ideas were not allowed in the city.  They were the folks who sentenced Socrates to death for teaching new ideas.  But they were also always curious to hear new things.  

 So Paul begins his message:  “I see you are very religious.  You have many altars, even one to the unknown God.”  According to the story, in the sixth century BC, Athens was hit by a plague.  They sacrificed to every god they knew, and still the plague continued.  So someone suggested they sacrifice to the unknown God, and the plague stopped.  Paul says, “I will make him known to you.”

 “He is the Creator.  He made us.  He doesn’t live in temples we make.  And he doesn’t need to be served.”  Idols had to be served.  The idea of an idol was that it was an avatar of the god.  By feeding and caring for the idol, you were actually feeding and caring for the god behind it.  You would do this either to care for the needs of the god, or to appease the god, to keep its wrath away from you.  

 “The true God gives life.  He created all the peoples of the earth.  He is sovereign over history.  And he desires we would seek him out.”  The grace of God that motivates us to seek out God is called prevenient grace.  And it is available to all.  God has put a desire for him in each and every person.  We are all made by God and made for God.  

 All people are essentially religious.  Some might not admit it, but we are all searching for something greater than ourselves, something to give meaning to life.  It is an inherently human trait.

 A couple years ago, I went to a seminar at my old seminary.  The presenter was talking about a place in Turkey called Gobekli Tepe.  Gobekli Tepe is the oldest known man-made structure, somewhere between 10 and 12 thousand years old.  But it’s not a city; it’s a temple, a place of sacrifice.  Now what’s remarkable about that is that, according to our understanding of human history, it predates agriculture.  People were still hunter-gatherers 10 thousand years ago.  Anthropologists used to think human beings invented religion after they found agriculture and built civilizations as a way to try to influence the gods to give them good crops.  But with the discovery of Gobekli Tepe, we learn that human beings have always been religious; we have always wanted to connect with God.  

 We long for God.  God is not a part of creation.  I remember one time seeing an episode of the series “Cosmos,” with Carl Sagan, a renowned atheist.  He explained how the thought of God creating the world was ridiculous because if we say “God created the world, then we have to ask

who created God?”  He started with a deficient understanding of God, a Creator who is no different than the creation.  God is not part of the world, but he is knowable.  We know God because he has made himself known in Scripture, and especially in the person of Jesus Christ.  

 “He is not far from us.  In him, we live and move and exist.  We are his children.”  Paul is quoting here from Epimenides, a Greek poet.  He is using the language of his listeners to convey the truth.  Paul doesn’t quote Scripture to these Greeks.  Scripture was meaningless to them, so he spoke in their language.  

 But Paul does condemn their practice of idolatry.   Not only was it incredibly wasteful, but it corrupted the understanding of the relationship between God and humanity.  “God wants everyone to turn away from idols and turn to him.  The world is heading for judgment by the resurrected One.”  

 Paul started with their ideas, met them on their terms.  Christians should neither be anti-intellectual nor afraid to engage in discussion with intellectuals.  But in the end, the gospel demands a response of faith.  Paul asks them to believe in things that they did not believe in:  A resurrection, a judgment, an end to history, that history is going somewhere.  These ideas were out of sync with Greek thought.  It can be helpful to talk about the gospel in language that people understand, but in the end, it requires faith in things that are outside of ordinary human thinking.  

 Some people mocked Paul for his beliefs.  Others delayed, saying, “Well, this is interesting.  We’d like to hear more later.”  But a few believed, including a member of the Areopagus.  

 Getting back to our original question:  Are we alone?  The gospel answers that question in John 14:  “I will not leave you orphaned.”  We are not alone.  God is always with us.

 Can science prove that claim?  No.  It requires faith.  

 But I find the lacking of a purely scientific understanding of life and the universe is that if we are alone, if there is no God, then why do we long not to be alone?  Why are we so intent on finding something greater than ourselves, even if that something is only intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?  If we are simply cosmic accidents, if we just happened by chance, why do we long for spiritual fulfillment?  To me, it makes more sense to think of ourselves as made by God and made for God.  

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