The case for a secular group on campus

The Acts of the Apostles, a.k.a. Acts, is the fifth book in the Christian New Testament. It’s one of my favorites because it reads a lot like a buddy-cop movie starring Peter and Paul, two early Christian missionaries — Paul is famous for writing a bunch of letters and Peter was the first Pope. Perhaps the most important part of the book of Acts is that it tells the story of how Christianity spread from ‘Jewish Christians’ — that is, ethnically Jewish individuals in Judea who were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah — to Gentiles, people who were never Jewish and converted directly to Christianity. Today, the Christian Church is comprised almost entirely of non-Jews, though a few Messianic Jews, like Jews for Jesus, are still around and have trouble fitting in with both Jews and Christians.

The spread of Christianity to people outside the tight circle of ethnic Jews counts as an interesting interfaith effort, but the part of Acts that sticks out to me most is the following passage, an interaction between the missionary Paul & a group of atheistic Athenian thinkers, from the Acts of the Apostles 17:16.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”

Then, in Acts 17:32, after Paul has said his piece:

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Some may read this passage as a one-sided affair — given the opportunity, the zealous Paul jumps at the chance to preach at a great crowd. To me, however, that reading isn’t particularly kind to the gathered thinkers of the Areopagus. These are learned individuals, philosophers, members of the high court of Athens. I don’t presume they would just let some kook harangue them for hours and then leave. On the contrary, it seems much more likely that what happened at Areopagus was a thrilling back-and-forth discourse between people of foundationally different philosophies.

Stoics and Epicureans were Hellenistic philosophers who, more or less, rejected the kind of God that Christians believed in. While many paid service to state gods, they were foundationally atheistic and secular thinkers. The dialogue between these two disparate factions illustrates a kind of group learning and collective sharing to the benefit and edification of everyone involved. While not everyone in the Areopagus agreed with Paul — many sneered — others, like Dionysius and Damaris, did. Most important were those who said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” They didn’t convert, and probably wouldn’t no matter how much they spoke with Paul. Certainly, nothing would convince Paul to abandon Christ and become a Stoic. But they opened the door for more dialogue. Their earnest interest in ideas allows them to embrace Paul, not only as an intellectual, but as a whole individual worthy of being addressed. I like to think that had Paul’s mission not called him out of Athens and into Corinth, he would have grown his ministry in the city and continued to cooperate and dialogue with the Areopagus. Maybe that’s not a realistic goal for ancient Greece, but what about Swarthmore College?

Certainly, the dominant culture at Swat is a secular one. No matter how much I wrap myself up in Christian life, most of the conversations I have are with people whose faith is different from mine and don’t worship the same God as I do. Interacting with these people is critical, but it’s often challenging to talk about foundational issues — issues of belonging, meaning-making, and the end of things — with secular thinkers. How can I figure myself as Paul when there’s no Areopagus to encounter? To that end, I’d like to propose and promote the formation of a secular students’ group on campus. In my imagination, it would serve as a hub for the discussion of atheist and humanist thought, a support system for people who want to talk about the lived experience of atheism/secularism in a country dominated by Christian discourse, and — my own selfish motive — to serve as an outlet for Swarthmore’s Interfaith Center.

Any students interested in working such a group into their lives at Swarthmore should know that they have the full backing and support of the Swarthmore Interfaith Center. Your Interfaith Interns, Zachary Arestad and Sanaa Ali-Virani, and Joyce Tompkins are very interested in this initiative, and we hope that someone will take us up on this offer.

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