An Unknown God
The three most common claims that I hear about God these days are that God wants to have a personal relationship with you as an individual, God is uninterested in us, or God doesn’t exist. I don’t intend to argue for or against any of these claims, because I think they are unarguable. I am willing to accept that any or all of them might be true, because my faith and my understanding of God is not changed, stretched, or challenged by any of them.
Instead, I would like to suggest that the answer to the question of God’s existence and our understanding of God’s will is not based on who or what God is, or who we are, or what we do. It is based on the fact that we are limited creatures with the ability to do something that no other creature – as far as we know – can do. We can hope. We can live with struggle and pain and suffering, and we can still expect that something better is on the way. Not only that, we even have the ability to expect that our difficulties create the opportunity for better things to come!
Maybe that is because we are the only creatures – as far as we know – that think of ourselves as something special and unique. A seed doesn’t have to hope that it will grow into a plant. It simply grows or rots. Most animals have brains that limit their cognitive process – as far as we know – to functions of fight, flight, eat, sleep, and reproduce. Sure, there are herd mentalities and pairing behaviors, but the point is that the basic animal brain function is to respond to stimuli in a way that allows them to keep responding to basic stimuli – it’s how they stay alive.
Humans, on the other hand, have a knack for survival that is based on something more than reacting to the world as it is. Although we can get stuck in survival mode, and frequently do, our brains are wired in a way that anticipates, expects, and moves toward the world as it can be – the world as it will be. Sometimes we find that we can control the outcome, and sometimes we find that we simply can’t. Historically we have taken the events that are out of our control and ascribed them to the gods – beings that exist beyond our control.
Perhaps nowhere was this more clear than in the ancient city of Athens – named for the Greek Goddess, Athena – and that’s where Paul found himself in our passage today. In Athens, the Greek Gods were still worshiped, but the Gods were not worshiped in the way that we think of worship. Some scholars suggest that there was more of a separation between practices of worship and daily living than we tend to talk about when we describe practices of worship today. Then again, some things have not changed a bit.
The Gods were a resource when things weren’t going right. In some ways it was like an early version of the smart phone. Crops aren’t yielding? We’ve got an app for that. Fertility? We’ve got an app for that. Somebody died? We’ve got an app for that. The Gods were really not interested in personal choices or ethics. The Gods were simply the explanation for forces that were beyond control. They were moody and easily offended, yet they were really only concerned with their turf. Given that creation was held at their whim, it was only natural to try to curry their favor when times were tough.
And just to be sure that no god was left out, the Athenians had a statue for “an unknown god.” As Paul’s travels had taken him to Athens while he awaited his traveling companions, he was overwhelmed by the number of gods and the confusion these people must be experiencing. So, he argued in the synagogue for Jesus. They weren’t buying it. He argued with anyone who would talk to him, and eventually they took him to the Areopagus – because that was the place to hear different opinions and discuss the meanings of things.
At first they thought he was telling them about a foreign god – for they believed that gods held sway in certain regions, just like Kings and Princes. And Paul tells them that they have been wise to hedge their bets, but that the unknown god is THE God; that God created all that is; and that God had scattered humanity so that we might search, grope, and perhaps find the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Then Paul lowers the boom by borrowing the words of their own poet, Aratus, to say that we are not the offspring of Zeus, but of the God who is so powerful that even death does not limit God’s activity and love.
Of course some of the Athenians scoffed. Death? They had an app for that. But some listened and said,“We will hear you again on this.” We have no way to know,but I wonder if the thing that struck home was the fact that Paul told them that if they are God’s offspring, then they can’t have come from an image or creation that they formed out of the stuff that God made. The statues and idols were believed not only to represent the Gods but also to embody them. To say that the things we make are divine flips the relationship and makes us the creators of our gods. Paul is simply saying, “God is God, and you are not.”
Now – as elementary as that sounds, and as locked and loaded in ancient history as this story is – I can’t help but wonder if we do not still need to hear the same thing today. Our culture is ever more pluralistic. The image of the melting pot of America where everyone seasons the stew to create a unified and complex Judeo-Christian flavor has given way to the concept of the tossed salad where each contribution is appreciated for the flavor it brings. We have celebrity “Idols.” We have celebrated individualism to the point that it has become a center of value, and we have so many centers of value that we find it hard to say what and whom we are devoted to – also known as worshiping – and to what and whom we are not.
So, with all that tugs at us, and all that keeps us reacting to the present moment, and all that limits our vision of hope for the future, the first thing we have to hear and to be willing to say in the Areopagus is that “God is God and we are not.” The next is that this God, the one we do not know and cannot fathom or see, is bigger than the God that we can conceive. And the last is that this God is not waiting for us to establish a relationship, because God – being God – is already in a relationship with all of creation.
Yes, it is through Jesus that we understand and see God’s love, but it is almost like jumping in a pool and realizing that you were already swimming in it! In God, we live and move and have our being. We can say that God or God’s love is like gravity or oxygen or even a consuming fire, but God simply is. God is the ground of all being.
Still, we need things to point to that describe things we cannot understand or see. We need touchstones and talismans to remind us of where we have been and where we hope to go. Our offices and homes are littered with them like tiny shrines to little gods.
I confess that on my desk there are a few. First is the miniature Red Flyer wagon filled with jelly beans. It was a gift from some followers of Jesus who became my family at a summer camp. The wagon reminds me of the whimsey God created me with. The jelly beans remind me of a time when my dad showed me the delights of an Amaretto flavored bean. This altar reminds me that God created me, has carried me through difficult times, and that a life of faith is filled with endless combinations of bitter and sweet.
There is also an acrylic paperweight with a quote from Isaiah that came from a member of the church that raised me, though she joined the church after I had already left for seminary. The clear acrylic reminds me of the waters of baptism and of God’s claim upon me. The giver of the gift and the scripture upon it reminds me that, in a church, we are all in it together and all strengthened by God.
Along with these is a wooden desk set that was carved for my grandfather by a friend. The wood originated in the boards of a church that burned long ago. It reminds me how fragile life can be – especially life lived in community – and it reminds me that nothing we create is ever as sacred as the One who created us.
Clipped to the desk set is a clothespin with the words, “Pass it on” written in marker. It reminds me of a time when I played games with children to see who could clip the most pins on the most people without their knowledge because sometimes grace is best understood anonymously. Next to these is a permanent marker. The marker is to remind me that there are only two things that are truly permanent. The first is change. You can always count on change. The second is God’s love. God’s love will never change.
Lastly, on my desk is a Hazelnut. Next to it is a quote from Juliana of Norwich, a Christian mystic who lived in a time of plague and destruction and experienced deep spiritual revelations in the midst of her own suffering. The quote says, “All she needed to know of God lay in the hazelnut: God made it. God loves it. God looks after it.” Lady Juliana of Norwich
In the midst of our idols and talismans – no matter how well intended – we must hold fast to the hope that we receive from knowing that God is God and we are not. We must remember that the God in which we believe is bigger than the God we can conceive. And we must be willing to speak and to act in the Areopagus in ways that demonstrate the love of God, in whom we live and move and have our being.
In that way we will keep the commandments of Jesus to love as we have been loved. And in the words of Jesus, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
I pray that it may be so with you. I pray that it may be so with me. And to God be the glory,now and always. Amen.