“You should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations God allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet God’s divinity has always witnessed to that which is good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.”
I read Paul’s words, and my first reaction is to think, “Ha! That’s what I’ve been saying all along!” I started this Big Read through Luke and Acts by emphasizing attentiveness, which I, and many others, consider a kind of prerequisite for the spiritual life. And I hear this emphasis on attentiveness in Paul’s words – pay attention to the rains, and the generosity of the earth, pay attention to your eating and relish the simple joy of food and drink. Don’t assume that you need your idols in order to do this. Don’t invest charismatic leaders, or processes or procedures, or memories and hopes, or the material goods that you accumulate, with the status of the divine. If you do so, you will be drawing your attention away from the divinity that is all around you, in the snow and rain and sunlight, in the quiet of your home, in the love of your community. Look for God in everything, and not just a few select things that you think you can control.
I am definitely reading my own point of view into Paul’s words, and yet I don’t think his words contradict that point of view. I think they support it. Yet the response of the crowd gives me pause. When they find that they can’t worship Paul and Barnabas, they stone Paul and try to kill him. Thwarted idol worship leads to violence. Joy and amazement that can’t be quantified, controlled, and contained, is simply too frightening. And this response to a spirituality of awareness and radical amazement was not restricted to first century Lystra. It is present in our world, and very present in the Christian past. The great mystics were always careful to give lip service to orthodoxy. They knew that they were encountering the divine in a way that was beyond human description and understanding. They also knew that there was an entire culture within the institution of the church that was deeply, deeply invested in claiming that its understandings were correct, that our glimpses of God could be captured in words and written down as doctrine.
In our current time, our greatest spiritual teachers are indifferent to orthodoxy, and feel less institutional and cultural pressure to defend any orthodoxy they might have. This doesn’t mean that they have contempt for the past, for the pieces of wisdom gleaned from great church councils and the saints who battled over small points of doctrine. If contemplation of these things increases our capacity to love, then we should contemplate them. If we want to reject them out of a kind of arrogance, a belief that we are somehow better or more enlightened, we should resist that impulse and turn again to the humility that opens our hearts to God. If consideration of theological disputes is important to our living within the discipline of our communities, we should consider them. But we shouldn’t give our hearts to them. Instead we should remain attentive to the world, to the swirling of grace and divinity through the moments of a day, and to the Beloved Community of humility and forgiveness.