Acts 17: 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.
Paul is in Athens, debating with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. They hear strange ideas from Paul, and would like to understand what he means. Paul remarks on their objects of worship, even with an inscription “To an Unknown God,” offering: “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Paul continues, citing a seventh or sixth century BC Greek philosopher, Epimenides, with Paul offering the last line of what is this longer passage:
They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.
Epimenides is writing of Zeus; Paul suggests that he was, in fact, in search of the one true God.
Paul also cites Aratus, offering the last line from this longer passage:
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring ...
Paul certainly knew his Greek philosophy.
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong
In this book, Armstrong sets out to describe what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, a period from about 900 to 200 BC. This was the time of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece.
C.S. Lewis has also examined this wide swath of philosophy in the Appendix to his short book, The Abolition of Man. He offers numerous illustrations of Natural Law to be found in history and in many cultures: ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Chinese, Old Norse, Babylonian, Roman, Hindu, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Australian Aborigines. As offered in Ecclesiastes 3, God has set eternity in the human heart – every human heart. All men seek God.
Returning to Armstrong: The Axial Age was the time after the end of the Bronze Age, a cataclysmic upheaval of the prior order resulting in the struggle throughout the Eurasian world for a new order. She describes the period:
The Axial Age was one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical, and religious change in recorded history…
She claims that we have yet to surpass the insights of this Age – in times of spiritual and social crisis, men have turned back to the wisdom of this Age – and of the wisdom that came out of this Age, to include Christianity.
The wisdom of this Age was to be found in the doing, not in the believing. What mattered was behavior, which would then transform belief:
The only way you could encounter what they called “God,” “Nirvana,” “Brahman,” or the “Way” was to live a compassionate life. …First you must commit yourself to the ethical life; then disciplined and habitual benevolence, not metaphysical conviction, would give you intimations of the transcendence you sought.
I know that this will raise controversy among and between various Christian denominations, mostly depending on how firmly one stands on the idea of total depravity. I will only suggest: Armstrong is writing a book covering traditions far wider than Christianity – and, obviously, that pre-date Christianity; she is not attempting to settle an unsettle-able theological controversy. Nor will I do so here.
All the sages preached a spirituality of empathy and compassion; they insisted that people must abandon their egotism and greed, their violence and unkindness. …Each tradition developed its own formulation of the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not have done to you.
Armstrong here cites what I have come to know as the Silver Rule – a rule that is far closer to the non-aggression principle than is the Golden Rule. Certainly, as she includes characteristics of empathy and compassion, she is describing what most have come to know as the Golden, not Silver, Rule.
If the wisdom of this Axial Age can be summarized in one word, that word would be love. Love is not a feeling or emotion; love is to be found in doing.
There are some slants that Armstrong takes in the book with which I disagree; however, my purpose is not to examine these. I will remain focused on the passages I find valuable toward an understanding of man’s meaning and purpose, with the ultimate objective of supporting Natural Law and the liberty derived from this.
From Blaise Pascal:
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. …And yet after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look.
We must keep in mind that true happiness is not to be found in today’s superficial understanding of the word; it was always considered beatitudo – the happiness that comes from serving others; other-regarding action.
After describing man’s efforts to achieve happiness without faith, he concludes:
But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable Object, that is to say, only by God Himself.
There is a common ethos to be found throughout the thoughts and beliefs of people around the world; this was found in the philosophical traditions throughout Eurasia during this period to be examined by Armstrong, this period known as the Axial Age.
While working through this book, my primary focus will be on the Western tradition although I will include examination of these other traditions in order to support this view that the Golden Rule is common to all men, and that all men seek God.
As it has developed in the Western tradition, we walk a line that takes us through Plato and Aristotle, Jesus and Paul, Augustine and Aquinas. It is a line that leads us to Natural Law – a Law necessary if one is to speak of Natural Rights and the liberty that requires these.