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A Matter of Discussion or Decision? (Nick Boone)

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Nick Boone

   NickBoone  The apostle Paul’s sermon to the Athenians at Mars Hill is generally regarded to be one of the greatest sermons in the New Testament, outside of those given by our Lord himself.  Yet, Paul’s sermon received only an apathetic response.  His listeners said, “We will hear thee again of this matter,” and some simply mocked him, while only a few became believers (Acts 17:32-4).  The Athenians were very educated people, and they knew quite a bit about religion and philosophy.  That is probably why Paul’s sermon is so highly regarded today: Paul worked hard to make that sermon applicable to his educated, pluralistically-inclined audience, and his words speak effectively to those of us surrounded by a hyper-educated, pluralistic society.  But the Athenians weren’t interested in truth; that is, they weren’t interested in commitment.  They only wanted to hear Paul speak again at some later date.  The Athenians perfectly fit the description Bishop Fulton Sheen uses to characterize many twentieth-century thinkers: those for whom “religion is merely a matter of discussion, and not of decision.”

As a college teacher, I have encountered many non-believers who know a lot about religion. Many academics know as much or more about the Bible and Christianity as most Christians do.  Over the few years I have been working at a secular university, I have found myself in some conversations about religion with these academically-oriented non-believers.  The results have been less than satisfying, for in the midst of discussing what I view as topics of eternal value, they feel free to joke about, or toss off, or defer to a later time.  Like the Athenians, they merely want to discuss; they don’t want to decide.  They don’t want to commit.

Religion is ultimately a matter of decision.  It is a serious matter.  In fact, it may be the only issue in one’s life that is even graver than “life or death,” since it determines eternity after life and death.  Christianity ought to affect every aspect of our lives.  If Christ is the Truth, then we are truly blessed; but if he is not the Truth that he claims to be, then we must agree with the apostle Paul that we are “to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15:19).  But in the conversation of some people, religion is just like politics or sports–something to discuss, but nothing to get serious about.  We can laugh and joke about it.  After all, does anyone really think it matters that much what a person believes, or how a person decides to worship God?

This flippant attitude is prevalent even amongst Christians.  After church at the dinner table or in restaurants, how many times have we heard worship discussed with a sort of dissipated mirth?  How many times in our conversation has the most holy hour of the week been treated as if it were a mere amusement among the other amusements of our lives like sports or the stock market?  How many times in our conversation are we critical of the worship, distancing ourselves from the event as if we have no real part to play in it?  It seems to me that many of our conversations regarding religion do nothing but cheapen it.  We use it as a point of discussion, and we refuse to engage it as a matter for serious reflection.  What would non-believers wonder if they happened upon our typical talk regarding our religion?  Would they think it a matter important enough for them to investigate, or would they go away comfortable that they spend Sunday morning watching football pre-game shows?  We must remember to treat our religion with reverence: it is ultimately a matter of decision, of commitment–not merely discussion.

However, this is not the whole story.  If religion is seen only as a matter of decision, and not at all a matter of discussion, we can too easily slip into the convenient attitude that talking about religion, especially to non-believers, is like “casting your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6), and is, therefore, to be avoided.  However, we must be able to discuss our beliefs with others who may not be ready or willing to take it seriously enough at first.  This is a very difficult task since we must avoid compromising our religion, making it seem less holy than it is in order to be more palatable to our listeners, while at the same time remaining open and approachable.

The biblical example we should hold in tension with Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill in Acts 17 is John 4, when Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.  Here we see our Lord breaking with stereotypical views about who was and was not worthy to discuss religion.  Interestingly, we see that Jesus does not force the subject of religion on the woman, nor does the woman force Jesus to discuss it.  Instead, it grows naturally out of their conversation–in a non-threatening way.  In fact, it is Jesus’ respect for the dignity of this woman that allows her to ask him a question which then opens up the possibility for a religious discussion.  After Jesus asks the woman for a drink, she says, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman.  How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:9).  The door is now open for Jesus to discuss religion with her, and she takes him up on the offer.  As a result, many people in this woman’s village come to know the Messiah.

John 4 teaches us that we must be ready to discuss religion with anyone we meet.  We cannot know what wonderful things God may have planned for what we, in our limited human understanding, may see in a conversation with a colleague or even a stranger.  However, Acts 17 shows us that many times our pearls will end up being trampled by the swine; some people will continue to view religion as merely a matter of discussion and not at all a matter of decision.  In these cases, we must simply continue to pray for God to open the hearts of these people to the faith.  For religion is not ultimately a matter of discussion.  Being willing to discuss religion with anyone we meet is necessary for us–Christ gives us a great example.  However, discussion must eventually progress into decision, or we risk cheapening our religion–that which should be most precious to our hearts.  We must keep our religion holy in word (conversation) as well as in deed.

So finally, what is it? Is religion a matter of discussion, or decision?  Obviously, to truly practice our religion we must have both.  If we leave decision out of the equation as we discuss our faith with those around us (whether believers or non-believers) we risk debasing our religion by making it merely a matter of discussion.  It becomes merely one of many topics that can be discussed for our amusement, but nothing more. On the other hand, if we guard our religion overmuch, thinking it too serious a matter to ever bring up in conversation, then we risk burying our treasure in the ground, like the one-talent man (Matt. 25).  We will never share our faith with anyone, and we do not allow the Holy Spirit to work through us to bring others to the faith.  Therefore, we must be ready to discuss our faith, but we must be on our guard to make sure that we keep it holy as we speak to a generation all too eager to engage in prolonged discussions, but rarely ready to make ultimate decisions.

 

Nick Boone is a Professor of English at Harding University




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That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:10