The first reading is that famous speech of St. Paul, given at the heart of ancient Greek culture, the Areopagus of Athens. Listen to the opening words:
You Athenians, I see that in every respect you very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at our shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because needs anything. Rather it is he who give to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”
That’s more than half of the speech right there. What a great way to meet people right where they are! I’m here to tell you about the God you already distantly acknowledge, Paul says. God is closer than you think, Paul is saying. Then he simply proceeds to have them contemplate their experience of existing right then and there, gathered to listen to him on Mars Hill.
This scene recalls a news item that I heard on National Public Radio. A National Day of Prayer was scheduled in the US for May 6th. This fact prompted the American Humanist Association to petition President Obama that he mandate, instead, a National Day of Reason in place of the National Day of Prayer, which was recently called by a federal judge, a violation of separation of church and state. St. Paul would be amazed and amused at this discussion—amazed first that some people felt it necessary to isolate a particular day as a day of prayer, and amazed as well that others would see the need to counter that tradition with a Day of Reason, as if reason and prayer are somehow contradictory. His speech to the Athenian philosophers implies that if we just reason about the experience of human existence, we discover that we are dependent for the existence on something (someone?) other than ourselves. Existence comes as a gift. Where there is a gift there is a giver. When you can perceive everything that is, the whole cosmos, as a gift, you perceive a Giver. Is it not reasonable that the receivers of the gift express thanks to the Giver. Yes, the interpretation of existence as a gift from a transcendent Giver is an act of faith, but that faith is not against reason; it is simply a life-giving step beyond the reach of reason. Faith and reason don’t need separate days to be acknowledged, nor does it require presidential mandate to authorize these human acts.
We just listened to the first half of Paul’s speech. He preaches the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection in the second half. But the first half is enough to remind us of what the mainstream Christian tradition has come to embrace as wisdom: namely, that faith and reason go together, and that it is reasonable to pray and no governmental mandate is need to exercise those dimension of true humanism that we call reasoning and praying.