Reading “When Athens Met Jerusalem”

In When Athens Met Jerusalem, John Mark Reynolds distills the challenge Christianity faced at the birth of Christendom, and notes the similarity to today’s environment. Now as then, Christians live in a time of great fluidity, and human beings (especially in the West) are floundering in the wake of modernism’s death and postmodernism’s lack of shape. Reynolds writes that we must follow the first Christians’ example to rediscover and reinvigorate a beautiful picture of the kingdom.

John Mark Reynolds wrote When Athens Met Jerusalem to tell the “story of Greco-Roman intellectual preparation for the coming of the Christ.” So far, it’s an engaging story, one that begins with a tour of Greek philosophy from the pre-Socratics onward. Reynolds believes that we need to understand the ways that Greek philosophy influenced Christianity–specifically by sharpening it, helping to define both what Christianity and Christendom (Reynolds’s term not for Western civilization per se, but for the true country of any Christian) are. We desperately need to know this story, because we face a similar world. Of the birth of Christendom, he writes:

Religious uncertainty and change were in the air. Old ideas had failed spectacularly, but new ideas had not yet taken their place. Christians faced a cultural, political, and social environment that was both attractive and, at least in part, hostile to the gospel. How they were able to not only survive but also thrive and create a better, more appealing culture is a good lesson for all Christians today. (emphasis added)

That call–not only to imagine but to create, to enact, a vivid and robust picture of Christian life–is every Christian’s primary vocation. One key to the Church’s future will be a recovery of thinking. Thinking is much more than the cerebral engagement of ideas–after all, we weren’t made to be brains on a stick, as James K. A. Smith notes in Desiring the Kingdom. Instead, it comes closer to a more open definition of “thinking,” perhaps as pursuing the truth in a mutually engaged community. 

Let me stick to that first word, pursuing, in this post. The Christian life is nothing if not a pursuit. We pursue the true, the good, and the beautiful in the person of our Triune God. A pursuit assumes something out there, a goal, a destination, and for Christians that goal is God Himself. (Not coincidentally, we get our term for this ultimate goal–telos–from Greek philosophy.) So we do not journey through our lives aimlessly, hoping to reach something good. Instead, we constantly check what we know about our goal, the information we have received and are receiving, and keep moving.

Also fundamental to the idea of pursuit, if I may persist in that physical representation of something more than physical, is struggle. And there’s the difficulty. Too often, Christians have followed the extreme West (i.e., American culture) in rejecting struggle as worthwhile. We want the best, and we want it with the least difficulty. This disposition shows up in athletic pursuits (PEDs, for example), in education (grade inflation and teaching to tests), and even in Christian life (the Christian “success” movement).

If we have any hope to create a vivid and beautiful picture of the kingdom, one that will invoke desire not just for the good life but for Him who is the Good Life, then we have to begin by changing the way we think about thinking. For starters, we must think of it as a pursuit, one that has a definite Goal, and one that will likely involve struggle. Reynolds’s book provides some additional help for that reorientation, beginning with his exploration of the birth of Greek philosophy.

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