Paul gets all up in the Pagan Air

No, no! That’s the wrong Damon…

+J+M+J+

The Readings for Wednesday in the 6th week of Easter (C1)

I see that in every respect you are very religious…
Paul’s word for “religious” is δεισιδαιμονεστέρους deisidaimonesteros. This is the only place in the Greek scriptures where it is used. It means “fearful of the gods” or the “daimons” (which are not “Demons”.) Nowadays we say “Religion is a fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a group of people. These set of beliefs concern the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, and involve devotional and ritual observances.” And, “Religious, besides meaning “having to do with religion,” can also mean “acting as if something is a religion.” We think in terms of “organized” religion vrs “spirituality” where the latter means more along the lines of something a la carte: I get to make it up as I go along. I get to decide what and where to worship, in fact, I may not even worship, in the accepted sense of the term.
Paul, however, did not mean “religious” the same way we do. In fact, he meant “Spiritual” almost exactly as we mean it. deisidaimonésteros (from deidō, “to dread” and daimōn, “a deity”) – properly, religious (superstitious) fear, driven by a confused concept of God – producing “sincere” but very misdirected religion. Indeed, this is the mark of heathenism. (word study.) One pagan might not care at all what Venus says, but Diana of the Ephesians would be all the rave. However, we don’t want to offend Venus either, so we won’t disrespect her.
More importantly, Paul’s use of deisidaimonesteros fits nearly everyone in our modern, Western world, hung up in our culture of “offense” and “scientism”: we are superstitious about both. We have created daimonic energies around everything from sex and identity to political movements and slogans. We are fearful of offending all the daimons – the powers of the air, as Paul says elsewhere, the powers and principalities that run things. Again, these are not “demons” in the Exorcist sense. These are entirely human things. You might think of these as Cultural Constructs properly understood as “when enough people think something is true, it is.” 
We are surrounded by cultural constructs today: ideologies that function enough like traditional religion that they compete with or meld with traditional religion for the same cultural real estate. They get a victory either way. What is “MAGA” but a pseudo-religious mantra that either overrules all Christian morality or else invades and colonizes it?  Feminism can either drive out religion or become melded with it. We have Christian feminists and we have secular feminists who are “recovering Christians”. We have racialist ideologies that manifest inside traditional religious communities: Byzantine, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic. Yet we also have racists who reject “traditional religion” which they say is destroying “racial identity”. Economics become religions when people use “the invisible hand” or state power to overrule the God of Christianity and Judaism on the one hand or on the other to attack and destroy him. Scientism can be used to denude the spiritual content of progressive Christianity or to deny the importance of anything that sounds religious (or even philosophical) at all. We let the construct take the center stage and then try to dress it up in our various religions – instead of letting the religion dictate the direction and everything else better try and hold on. Or else we retreat from it.
Paul would know us today. These things – and many many others – all fill up the gaps in our culture created by the abandoning of the Areopagus by the Church. I know some say we’ve been forced out, but that’s only because we’ve let it happen: we’re afraid not only to speak the Gospel in public but also to model it. We don’t want to be seen as Catholics qua Catholics. We have a fear, not of having to “speak up” on a controversial topic, but rather of being asked to explain ourselves. “Behold, how these Christians love one another!” said Tertullian. We’d rather not go to the park because people might talk about us. The Church has not been driven out of the public square, she has ceded it whole cloth. She’s afraid of losing her tax status, or her safety nets, she is worried about what people might think of her, or what sins might get uncovered. Hiding in the corner is safer. The Church – compared to which not even the Gates of Hell are stronger – is worried about daimons.
Paul would challenge us to learn his language: to take the deisidaimonesteros of the culture and redirect it to God, as St Paul did when he invaded the Hill of Mars and took the field of Battle for Jesus. Preaching in public… here on of my favourite stories about John Wesley:

In the days of John Wesley, lay preachers with limited education would sometimes conduct the church services. One man used Luke 19:21 as his text: “Lord, I feared Thee, because Thou art an austere man” (KJV). Not knowing the word austere, he thought the text spoke of “an oyster man.” 

He explained how a diver must grope in dark, freezing water to retrieve oysters. In his attempt, he cuts his hands on the sharp edges of the shells. After he obtains an oyster, he rises to the surface, clutching it “in his torn and bleeding hands.” The preacher added, “Christ descended from the glory of heaven into . . . sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with Him to the glory of heaven. His torn and bleeding hands are a sign of the value He has placed on the object of His quest.” 

Afterward, 12 men received Christ. 

Later that night someone came to Wesley to complain about unschooled preachers who were too ignorant even to know the meaning of the texts they were preaching on. The Oxford-educated Wesley simply said, “Never mind. The Lord got a dozen oysters tonight.” 

Would that we could be so eloquent with our lives and our actions. Would that our lives spoke the Gospel in places where we might gather such oysters.


Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.