Weighty differences between worldviews can separate Christians from those of other persuasions, but in my work offering a defense of the Christian faith, I know firsthand they can be discussed without compromise and without animosity, with gentleness and respect. Raised in the East but living in the West, I have learned that reason and rationalizing are not the same thing. People often think they have reasons for their beliefs. But reason means different ideas to different people. To a professor of philosophy, it may mean a sound argument. To a teacher in a high school in India, it may mean exhibiting cultural respect for one’s own ancestral beliefs. It is critically important to know that behind every belief is a “believer,” and behind every question is a questioner. The belief is part of the worldview, and the worldview is not always well scrutinized by reason.
So here is what I present as a coherent worldview. Whether religious or irreligious, everyone has a worldview. A worldview basically offers answers regarding origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. In our very human longing for answers to such matters, we share common ground with each other. A sound worldview must answer individual questions in correspondence to reality, and the sum of all the answers must be coherent.
How Did Paul Approach His Audience?
With Holy Anxiety
As I observe the apostle Paul, who was cradled within three cultures (Jewish, Greek, and Roman), I see how he approached his mixed audience. A look at his assumptions and his method is instructive. His address to the Athenians in Acts 17 provides a blueprint. We are told, for starters, how he was “deeply distressed when he saw that the city was full of idols” (v. 16). Such holy anxiety is an indispensable prerequisite to significant communication. A Christian communicator will never lighten any load until he feels the pressure in his own soul.
That kind of distress led Paul to observe and listen, to dialogue, reason, discuss, and persuade many through the power of the Holy Spirit. Listening, in fact, is a vital part of responding. The more and the better we hear those of differing beliefs, the more and the better they will hear us. This is especially true today when sensitivities run deep.
There is a second assumption the apostle makes: a rigorous religion can be conceived and nurtured in ignorance by the masses. Paul communicated that the Athenians’ yearning for the divine was a positive trait, but their systems of worship were not good enough if their truths were untested. He applauded their search for God. That positive lead-in is commendable, as it is self-defeating to trample underfoot everything others hold dear before giving them the message of Christ. My mother used to say, “There is no point cutting off a person’s nose and then giving them a rose to smell.” Cultures carry huge connections to the past. Respect must be given to that, but the driving point in conversations with those of different faiths must always be toward the truth. Like Paul, Christians must gently present the gap between what is believed and what is true.
Notably, while maintaining sensitivity, Paul also capitalized on his listeners’ lack of understanding with regard to their own beliefs. One of the most shocking lessons one learns in countries where culture is interwoven with religion is that living within a certain framework all the time is, in a sense, the surest way to be detached from it. As a Chinese proverb says, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish.” Most Hindus, for example, know little about Hinduism’s scriptures or its development in dogma. Most Buddhists know little about Buddhism. Religion is much more a culture to most people than it is a carefully thought-through system of truth. Even Islam faces this type of ignorance. And dare I say that most Christians know little about the teachings and history of their own beliefs.
Paul had before him a group of people who were seekers after God, but their understanding of truth was scanty. He met the challenge by wisely alluding to one of their poets; the usage helped him create a legitimate bridge with his hearers. In similar ways, we must direct people so as to open them up within their own assumptions, moving them from what they know and believe to what they don’t know and what they disbelieve. When that happens, the conclusion is inescapable: “What you now believe may be good, but it’s not good enough.” There always has to be a persuasive element, and that comes from their familiarity with some authority and the ability to identify with that.
Presenting a Redeemer, Not a Religion
Importantly, Christianity is not a religion or perspective; it is God’s self-disclosure in Christ. It is built on and built through a relationship. Paul strove ardently to drive this point home. The crowd had gathered to hear what this “babbler” was saying, but his message pointed—as ours must—to the Person and work of Jesus Christ. The ultimate question, then, is not “What is the answer?” It is “Who will answer?” The cry of everyone’s heart is for a Savior, a champion, a personal Redeemer. It was this Redeemer that Paul presented.
At great personal cost, Paul took the gospel to Athens. His sensitivities, his knowledge, his finding common ground, and his presentation of the unique answers of Jesus built the framework of his message. It is little wonder that he changed history by carrying the message with such effectiveness to the known world. He used both the Greek language and the Roman road, literally and figuratively, to do it. Our approach must be as thoughtful.
Ultimately, however, the change of a person’s heart is God’s work. And in doing our part, we must rest in that conviction.
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