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Faces on Faith: A lesson from the ancient Greeks

By Rev. Dr. John H. Danner - | Sep 23, 2020

Rev. Dr. John H. Danner

I recently got a mailing from a not-for-profit organization which included a sticker which read “Apathy Is Not an Option.” I like the sentiment, and believe that for many people it is profoundly true. While we might like to avoid having strong opinions about things like religion or politics, most folks do have such opinions. For most people of faith, regardless of their stripes, it is true, apathy is not an option. Most religious traditions call on their followers to put their beliefs into action, and to work for the advancement of their ideals and values.

Interestingly, the word apathy is rooted in the Greek word apatheia. In ancient Greece, though, apatheia had a very different meaning from the word apathy. Apatheia is made up of the prefix a- (meaning “without”) and pathos (meaning “passion”) and is best translated as “without passions,” meaning not influenced by emotions. The ancient Stoic philosophers were said to be apathetic in that sense of the word. The modern use of the word apathy, however, refers to indifference. When we are apathetic about something, we are indifferent, we don’t care one way or the other about it.

Perhaps it is in this bit of etymology that we can find a word of hope as we move through the next months which will be marked by very strong expressions of beliefs and values. While many of us cannot be restrained when it comes to expressing our views and beliefs when it comes to matters like climate change, poverty, racism, religious liberty and gun control, perhaps we can work to state our positions in ways that are (relatively) free of emotion. Maybe we can try and listen to the other person’s position before going off on and tirade. Maybe we can all add to our list of values civil conversation, respect for all people and the right of others to disagree. Maybe we can just take a deep breath before we speak.

Apathy may not be an option in this election season if you are person of faith. And it shouldn’t be an option if you are a responsible citizen. But apatheia is an option. One we can all choose.

The Rev. Dr. John H. Danner is the senior pastor at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ.