A Rhetoric of Desire
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
22 October 2023
I’ve not yet made it to Athens. So, I haven’t stood in the Areopagus where Paul delivered this sermon. Where Socrates questioned his interlocutors. Where the great philosophers and sages of Ancient Greece engaged in their discourses about all the great ideas.
But a couple of weeks ago I was in the ancient Greek city of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily. As I sat on the ancient temple steps that are now part of the wall of the cathedral, I wondered if Paul or Plato or Aeschylus or Archimedes had sat there too, as all of them had lived in or traveled through that city.
I delight in being in such places, with deep and rich ancient histories. Such travel helps to make the stories and the ideas come alive.
One of these days, hopefully, I’ll be in Athens and stand in the Areopagus and remember Paul’s sermon.
The theologian Willie James Jennings writes of this story and sermon in Acts 17, “Here we witness a rhetoric of desire.” What does he mean?
For Jennings the desire being illustrated in this moment is actually God’s. He writes, “God wants the Gentiles. God desires those who desire idols. . . . This speech is driven by the irrepressible longing of God to embrace wayward creatures by every means possible.”
And because God desires these Gentiles, Paul also turns towards them. He won’t turn away from these folks who believe differently from him and practice a very different faith. Idol worship, of course, was anathema to a faithful Jew like Paul. But rather then turn away in disgust, he turns towards these pagans and engages them, on their own terms, and in their own language, and with their own thoughts and ideas.
Jennings points out how radical this is. He writes, “Luke performs a new human in these words given to Paul.”
I’ve been saying throughout this sermon series that Paul believes Jesus has inaugurated a new age and with it a new humanity. The network of new, small gatherings that will become the Christian churches are themselves experiments in new ways of living—a new family, a new society, a new culture, even a new politics and economics. And the people drawn to these assemblies are becoming new people, new creatures, focused on the radical love of God, intent on breaking down every barrier and setting humanity free. This is Paul’s witness to the world and the witness to the world that each of these churches is becoming.
And, so, even here, Paul is modeling this new humanity that turns towards those different from him.
God’s desire is for all of God’s children. And the story identifies that those children also have a desire for God, even if they don’t fully understood it or have gone about it in misguided ways. For both the worship of the idols and the philosophical discourse are evidence of human longing.
But the idols are a problem—no matter how beautiful ancient Greek sculpture remains even to us 2500 years later. Jennings writes, “The idol is a collective self-deception, a point of facilitation where human fantasy and wish, circulating around material realities, generate distorted hope. The idol facilitates a hope of control of both my life and the life of the gods.”
An idolatry of control is ultimately a culture of death, devoid of meaning, robbing us of our full humanity.
But the God of Israel is offering something better. Something good, true, and beautiful. A life of freedom, joy, and love. For a new age has dawned in the resurrection of Jesus. And the fullness of God is given to everyone. This is a new time of possibilities.
In our own time one trend has been the increase in people, particularly younger people, identifying as or being attracted to nihilism. You see it in popular culture—in the popularity of zombie stories, doomer memes, and the ubiquity of the image of staring into the abyss.
In its harshest form, nihilism believes there is no meaning, no truth, no right, sometimes even no clarity on what is real. What’s been on the rise in this century is usually softer forms and generally as a response to all of the bad things that have occurred in the last twenty years. A 2021 study of 10,000 young people in ten countries found that 56% of them believe that humanity is doomed. A whopping 75% said they view the future as frightening. And “45 percent of 16-25-year-olds said climate-related anxiety and distress is affecting their daily lives and ability to function normally.” In another study, “one-fourth of 16-25-year-olds . . . feel they will ‘never recover’ emotionally” from the pandemic.
An NPR show discussing the popularity of nihilism included this comment that helps us to understand: “At a certain moment, a culture discovers that its most esteemed values are for nothing. Nihilism is that moment where the rug’s pulled out from under you and nothing takes its place.” Which is what the last two decades have felt like for many people.
I was drawn to these paragraphs in an article on the website Huck about the popularity of nihilism:
In her book, The Sunny Nihilist: How a Meaningless Life Can Make You Truly Happy (2021), Wendy [Syfret] argues that nihilism can provide a balm for modern hyper-individualism and an obsession with finding meaning in everything, from our jobs to our skincare routine. The philosophy of ‘sunny nihilism’, she wrote, offers “a blank page; a chance to enjoy the moment, the present, the chaos and luck of being alive at all”.
Wendy thinks that, rather than surrendering to nihilism, we should focus on Nietzche’s view that rules, laws, and morals are social constructs. “That can be a very liberating idea, because you can ask, well, why do we take capitalism to be the absolute truth?” Wendy says. “The reality is, the world is total chaos, and everything you think you know is a construct that someone created, and can be dismantled.” This has helped Wendy break out of productivity culture. “[Sunny nihilism] gives me a framework to pause and ask: do I actually want to be doing these things? Or am I just absorbing a narrative of success that’s ultimately treating me like a worker drone?”
Syfret argues that the collapse of institutions and systems that brought meaning actually opens up an opportunity for us to create something new.
There is a sense in which the Christian good news agrees. Institutions do fail us. Attempts to exercise control bring harms. Much of the way we live is a social construct that can and should change. The resurrection inaugurates a new time of possibilities. Paul has turned towards the Athenians and is offering them a chance for something new. God turns towards us and offers us the same. So what do we desire? What does God desire for us?
Paul viewed the Christian proclamation as offering a counter to the culture of death and negativity in his time. For Paul the resurrection of Jesus is the source of a universal yes to life. The radical French philosopher Alain Badiou states that this is centrally what Paul’s message is all about—a yes to life to counter nihilism’s no. Paul wants to eradicate negativity with the grace of God.
For grace is pure giving that affirms all that is good and opens up possibilities. And this yes to life is made available to all of us because God’s Spirit has been shared with all of us. We are invited into the fulsomeness of God.
The Greek Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes that the Holy Spirit is “fruition, love, rejoicing, delight, felicity, and beatitude.” God has given all of that to all of God’s creatures, filling them with God’s own bounty. Such that we can become “radiant mirrors of divine beauty.”
God is the actuality on which all possibilities depend. Hart says, “God shines forth in human longing.” There’s desire again. In our longing, God is present. God graciously offers us the chance to become all that we are and can be and desire to be. We can flourish and live in delight. For, as Hart says, God is “the infinite treasure of delight glimpsed within every delight.” Every joy, every excitement, every beautiful moment, every good and delightful thing is a glimpse of God.
Quite poetically, Hart writes, “One cannot contemplate a flower, watch a play, or pluck a strawberry from a [basket] without being situated within an [unbreakable] intentional continuum that extends all the way to God in [God’s] fullness.”
In every moment of delight, we experience part of the fullness of God. Which is why we can live with complete freedom and joy and generosity. Hart writes that the law of love is “a kind of anarchic escape from all such rules.” Instead we live directly in relationship to the fullness of God.
Which is what gives us the freedom to turn towards those who are different from us, who don’t meet our expectations, even who disgust us. Like Paul did to the Athenians. Modelling a new humanity. Because we are not trying to control one another, we can witness to the world by inviting and inspiring others to relax, to let it go, do not fear, but join us in the fullness of God. We can let it be.
The Church Father Maximus the Confessor described God as “delight and affection and joy” and said that what God is is what God desires for all of God’s creatures. This winsome, gracious God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
So what Paul offered the Athenians that day was a chance to break free from everything that had constrained them, especially a culture of death and control, and to live fully and graciously into the freedom and love of God, which calls them to a life of joy, delight, and affection.
That is Paul’s witness to the world.
And our invitation too.
Because of the fulsomeness of God’s grace, we can live with winsomeness and delight. The best human life isn’t about meeting expectations, enforcing rules, criticizing others, being judgmental or negative. It is about joy, affection, and delight. Turning towards one another in love. This is what God desires.
So, living as God intends us to live ought to be easy. But, being human is so often hard. Why? I believe the difficulties are quite often a result of us humans getting in our own way, and getting in the way of others.
Let’s think about those times when we mess up, when we aren’t saying yes to life. Like when we erect barriers and divisions. Maybe when we try to compel others to meet our expectations, or are critical and negative. In those moments, we can give ourselves the grace of forgiving ourselves, because we understand that we are pushing hard against flawed social programming. And a whole culture of control, negativity, nihilism, and death.
But while giving ourselves a break, we should also be clear that when we fail, we aren’t being our best, we aren’t living as God desires us to. Because God desires a new humanity that lives fully into the joy, affection, and delight that is God.
And, so, we should make clear that our aim, the goal of our spiritual growth and maturation, is to say yes to life. To fill ourselves with joy and freedom and love. Let us live felicitously. Let us live winsomely. Let us live delightfully. For that is God’s desire for us.