“To an Unknown God”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this pretentious babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.)
19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”
21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.26 From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we, too, are his offspring.’
29 “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (NRSV)
A fine line can separate the trust that makes a disciple courageous, and the certainty that makes a zealot dangerous. Paul often appears to have one foot on either side of that line. In his letter to the Romans, he even seems to confess as much: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:15, 18b) And so Paul is alternately a bull in a china shop stampeding over breakable treasures, and a humble mystic walking alongside fellow travelers with compassion and patience.
Paul’s watershed moment began on the Damascus Road. Prior to that experience, Paul—as Saul—was a militant fundamentalist. Steeped in furious certainty, he terrorized Jesus-followers. After his experiences of grace on the road to Damascus, and then in Damascus with Ananias, Paul himself becomes a follower of Jesus.
Now, he’s still Paul. He still has the capacity for decisive speech and action. And during his transformation, Paul’s actions, once fueled by certainty, become fueled by the lingering burden of guilt, as well. Eventually, Paul claims forgiveness in Christ, and, yet, because forgiveness never includes forgetfulness, he cannot shake those memories. “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” he tells Timothy. And he calls himself the “foremost” among sinners. (1Timothy 1:13, 15) In all things, Paul struggles to balance his fervor as a zealot, and his desire to love as Christ loves.
Entering Athens, Paul sees idols everywhere, and his zealot’s blood begins to boil. He heads to the synagogues and marketplaces to argue with whoever “happened to be there.”
In first-century Athens, rhetorical debate is a kind of spectator sport, sort of a cross between Sunday morning talk shows and minor-league hockey. And Paul begins to argue zealously against idolatry. And he gets attention.
Aggravated at this “pretentious babbler,” the Athenians drag Paul to the Areopagus, and place him before the people who help to shape the mindset of the empire. And Paul, always a work in progress, speaks as both disciple and zealot. He walks with the hoof of a china-shop bull on one foot and the sandal of a holy mystic on the other.
Speaking with compassion first, he says, in effect, You Athenians take your religion seriously, and that’s great. You even have a statue set aside to honor what you call ‘an unknown god.’
Then Paul gently paws the ground with his hoof saying that he knows who that unknown God is, namely, “God who made the world and everything in it…[the] Lord…[who] does not live in shrines made by human hands.”
It’s interesting: In the midst of the pantheon of named and storied Greek gods, someone in Athens had the honesty to acknowledge spiritual mystery, to acknowledge that not all can be named and explained. Not all can be known.
Now, this isn’t Paul’s first debate. And as the Apostle, he musters the humility and the wisdom to focus on the unknown god as common ground. Such a concept resonates with a devout Jew who hears God saying things like, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8)
Paul will remember, too, that to proclaim and preserve the inscrutable holiness of God, Israel refuses even to pronounce the name of God—thus Jehovah, Adonai, and Elohim instead of Yahweh.
If Paul has learned anything, and if he knows anything, he has learned that he knows only that God is not a created being. God is not some perfect version of us. In his teaching, Paul beautifully presents the paradox of God. God is real and near enough to be the one in whom “we live and move and have our being,” the way fish live and move and have their being in water. And at the same time, this mysterious Presence transcends all the rhetoric, all the “art and imagination of mortals.” That means God transcends any given religion. The Creator simply cannot be fully defined or known by the creatures.
If the paradox of God as deeply intimate and yet unknowable is accurate, then building altars to God can represent our grasping for the kind of knowledge and control that we, as creatures, cannot have. Even our most well-intended altars are still human creations. And because they require attention and protection, they often do more to keep us distant from God rather than to bring us closer to God.
Altars abound in our world, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, political, economic, academic, or any other “religion.” And it seems to me that they all risk assuming a degree of certainty that claims to have solved mystery and overcome transcendence. And when that’s the case, they become idols, things that can be known, predicted, controlled, and even wielded like weapons.
As Christians, then, we need to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.
To what extent do we turn our churches, our committees, our doctrines into “altars”?
What “other gods” do we allow into our holy spaces? Do we make the God revealed in Jesus actually dependent on those idols?
What do we write into our theologies and polities that opens the door to the kinds of selfishness and faithlessness that Jesus neither encourages nor excuses?
I have neither the authority nor the wisdom to declare final answers to questions like that. I do think, though, that we are all very much like Paul. We are part china-shop bull with the capacity to do things we cringe even to imagine. And yet we’re also part mystic with the capacity to demonstrate transforming faithfulness and compassion. So, we are both capable of and culpable for worshiping idols whose apparent strengths only reveal our fears and weaknesses. And we’re also capable of speaking the truth in love, of doing justice, and bearing witness to the inexpressible mystery of God who lies both beyond our grasp and at the very core of our being.
In the 1300’s, an anonymous author wrote a book entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. This guidebook for Christian contemplative prayer states that there is only one way for human beings to “know” God, and that is to lay aside all of our assumptions and all of our codified beliefs about God. In courageous surrender, we turn ourselves over to what he calls “unknowingness,” and there we begin to encounter—to feel, to taste, and to see—God’s true nature. According to the author, God cannot be “thought.” God can only be loved.1
It seems to me that the point of this thing called the Christian “religion” is not, somehow, to know God. For we cannot know that which cannot be known. The point for us is not even “to get to heaven when we die.”
I think that the point of entering and practicing our faith is to love the One who is love. (1John 4:7-21) And don’t we do that most faithfully and effectively when we courageously, joyfully, and yet very simply love one another and care for the Creation?