Athens, Rome, Atlanta
I was on a plane when the hype of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code was still on the upswing. Several seats ahead of me, a conversation about the scandalousstory was drawing otherwise subdued travelers out of their newspapers. "It makes you look at the church differently," one voice said, triggering a quick "yes" from the woman beside her. Meanwhile, the passenger on my left, inspired by the conversation in front of us, described his distaste for Christianity as if it were a flavor of ice cream. "Buddhism is far more interesting."
The world we live in is globalized, pluralistic, and post-secular. It is also more like the first century than any of the previous centuries the church has lived through. In the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, Jewish, secular, and pagan worldviews were living side by side then as they are now—and "Hellenism" is the term that denotes they were not living as wholly separated entities of thought. Much like the merging worldviews we find today, there was an embracing of various strands and streams of thought and life. Hellenism was everywhere, and it set the agenda for the pluralistic culture that would continue to develop under Roman rule. By the time Rome took power there was an unparalleled flow of people, resources, and philosophies central to one location. Cities became international stomping grounds for a wide variety of religions and ethnicities, as they similarly exist today.
As in the Roman world, people who confess belief live in an environment where there are not only multiple faith communities around them, there are faith communities spilling over into other faith communities, and worldviews embracing strands and fragments of other worldviews. In every society there are multiple, viable options for religious preference, and every hybrid option in between. Like a cafeteria of religious and non-religious choices, the consumer is able to choose based on appetite, comfort, or convenience.
For those whose beliefs are rooted more in conviction than comfort, it is easy to feel that we must inherently be cultural naysayers, gypsies who wander through this world unattached and (hopefully) unaffected. Where I live in Atlanta, I can see the effects of postmodern and pluralistic philosophies in the daily life of an international city where traditional southern values coexist with the voices of secularism, atheism, and every minor and major religion. But as a Christian like the apostle Paul within first century Rome, I don't believe all is lost in the fog of a thousand religions. Far from this, as Paul discovered among the people of Athens, such a cultural context presents me with both risk and opportunity.
Of course, pluralism can indeed make us all something like the believers in Laodicea, and our apathy and illogic in making all religions the same can make us indistinct and irrelevant, neither hot nor cold, Christian, Jewish, or pagan. But pluralism can also present great opportunity for believers, as it did for Paul who used the signs of all religions to point specifically to one. Likewise, globalization can bring about questions that may not otherwise have been asked. Is Islam any different than Christianity? Is this particular tenet of my faith something scriptural or something cultural? Does American Christianity have anything in common with the practice of Christianity in China, Uganda, or Europe? So often it is the recognition of life outside our familiar worlds that brings the first glimpses of our own worldviews into focus. For those willing to receive it, our current context can be a provocative gift.
The world in which we find ourselves is full of fog and fallacies, but I believe it is also full of the unfailing love of God. For Christians who are aware of the kingdom of God among us, we need not be confined to cultural naysaying, but can live as visionaries of God's grace, harbingers of hope, and catalysts for transformation. For we testify to the radical work of the cross in the world and in our hearts, and to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ who, unlike any other, exchanges guilt for grace, ashes for beauty, and sorrow for joy.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.