DEEP THRILLS

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Published by Alison Bowen on 06/19/06 under Media Press

DEEP THRILLS

Even a Greek diner’s java cup evokes Socrates for Eric Metaxas

By ALISON BOWEN
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Eric Metaxas might just know the meaning of life.

Metaxas, 42, is the founder and host of Socrates in the City: Conversations on the Examined Life, a floating Manhattan lecture series lately headquartered at the Union League Club. Following the example of Socrates’ maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” the semimonthly event provides a place where busy people in suits and sports jackets can discuss, as Metaxas puts it, “life, God and other small topics.”

“It’s going to challenge people, but at the same it’s going to challenge them in a way that’s provocative and exhilarating and hopefully even fun,” he adds.

Metaxas was born in Astoria, Queens, to a Greek father and a German mother (they met in an English class). Now an upper East Sider, he says his own quest for the meaning of life began with a childhood rooted in the Greek Orthodox Church and culminated when he was 25 years old after attending Yale.

“When you’re in college at a place like Yale, all of the influences lead you to think that sophisticated, serious people don’t ask big questions too much, and they certainly don’t get very serious about faith, and certainly not Christian faith,” he says. “You graduate with this idea that there’s nothing there really for me.”

Metaxas says that after he asked God to reveal himself, God did so in a dream, very dramatically and personally. Although he’s reticent on the details, he says it solidified his faith.

“It was like going to bed single and waking up married,” he says. “I had absolutely no doubt that the Bible was true, that there were good answers to these questions.”

Socrates in the City is one of a handful of projects in which Metaxas is involved, along with raising his 7-year-old daughter, Annerose, with Susanne, his wife of nearly 10 years; serving on the vestry of Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal Church in downtown Manhattan, and participating in the New Canaan Society, a Christian men’s fellowship group.

Catherine Billon, CEO of Internet company RiverWired, who met Metaxas five years ago through mutual friends, tries not to miss a Socrates in the City event. She says Metaxas has the ability to make even the most banal of topics interesting and the most dismal of situations promising.

“He’s eternally hopeful, no matter how dark the situation,” Billon says. She adds that Metaxas’ wit often diffuses tension when discussions turn to touchy topics. “Humor is the great equalizer.”

With the development of Socrates in the City, Metaxas can add “discussion starter” to his list of accomplishments as a writer, speaker and frequent emcee.

Most recently, he wrote Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but Were Afraid to Ask). In contrast to Socrates in the City, where Metaxas incorporates many different theological views, the book specifically attempts to answer questions about Christianity.

Metaxas’ career as a writer also spans humor pieces for The Atlantic Monthly and others, and writing for the children’s video series “VeggieTales.” Upcoming projects include a biography on 18th century abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Over lunch at Orsay on the upper East Side, his easygoing personality extends to both his meal companion and the waiters, who know him by name. Sipping a Diet Coke with lemon, he explains why he brings in Socrates speakers from as far away as England. “I want to bring voices that you’re not going to bump into in New York City,” he says. “They’re voices that are largely absent from secular New York culture. I think that’s a big problem.”

Metaxas decided to gear Socrates in the City toward what he describes as the “elite class” of New York: businesspeople and professionals who may not otherwise take time to explore faith.

“We’re kind of preoccupied with success and those kinds of things,” Metaxas says. “The human heart and soul and mind don’t stop looking for satisfaction just because we’re really busy. Those questions don’t go away.”

The idea for Socrates in the City emerged after a friend encouraged Metaxas to form a Bible study for New York professionals. Metaxas thought that the typical New York businessperson would not be attracted to a religious convention in an auditorium.

“They’re really busy, especially some of a certain ilk of New Yorkers, the ones who are least likely to read Nietzsche on the subway,” he says. “They’re there on a cell phone in a cab. Those are the types of folks, if you invite them to a really nice club, and have wine and hors d’oeuvres, they’ll listen to someone who’s interesting.”

Each Socrates session begins with about 30 to 45 minutes of wine and hors d’oeuvres, after which Metaxas introduces the guest speaker, who talks for about 30 to 45 minutes. With the postlecture question-and-answer session, the upscale atmosphere melts into a down-to-earth theological discussion.

“I thought it would be a cultural service, in a sense, to the professional class in New York  kind of like a soup kitchen for the mind,” says Metaxas.

The speakers, all handpicked by Metaxas, have included Boston College philosophy professor and author Peter Kreeft and House of Lords Deputy Speaker Baroness Cox and British physicist Sir John Polkinghorne.

“That’s the caliber of mind that New Yorkers need to be able to taste and experience,” Metaxas says. “You can hear all kinds of speakers in New York, but something about a guy like [Polkinghorne], he tends not be in the cultural milieu of New York City.” Although he upholds a strong Christian faith, Metaxas deliberately orchestrated Socrates in the City to stimulate conversation that reflects different theological views. The nonprofit series is sponsored by individuals and not affiliated with any religious organizations.

“I think the great fear is that these questions do not have answers,” Metaxas says. “I guess I feel like there’s really good news. The good news is that there are good answers that I think people would want to hear as opposed to, ‘Life has no meaning.’”

Metaxas has drawn his own conclusions about the meaning of life, and he points people toward his book as an explanation of his personal views. Socrates in the City, he says, is intended to prompt thought and conversation from all walks of life.

“The main thing about society, it’s about examining life,” he says. “You can only lead people into the quest and the conversation, and they will go as far as they want. You have to allow people the freedom to explore.”

(For more info visit socratesinthecity.com where you may purchase CDs of previous events.)