Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Unknown God

 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this 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.) 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? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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. 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, 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. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 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.”

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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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.’

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. -- Acts 17:16-34

There's an old saying that goes something like "Flattery will get you nowhere", but in this case, a little flattery got Paul quite a hearing.

Paul was wandering around Athens, a city noted for its arts, philosophy and sophistication. Among the many public buildings he spotted a number of temples dedicated to various members of the extensive Greco-Roman pantheon. Why so many? It wouldn't do to ignore a god who might get upset at the slight and do something awful in retaliation. There was even an altar to an "Unknown God," a true marker of how seriously Athens took its god-worship. There might be another god out there they didn't know about but they weren't taking chances that the unknown god would get upset. Messing around with gods just wasn't good.

Paul called attention to this altar when called before the Areopagus, the Athenian high council that mandated things both judicial and legislative, to explain his claims about this "Unknown God."  Now, if anything, Paul could talk a good talk and knew when a bit of flattery would get him somewhere and this was definitely one of those times. He commended Athens for its religious observance and then proceeded to tell them that this Unknown God actually had a name -- God -- and had created all things including time. This God didn't have or need idols of gold or silver, even stone, clay or wood. This God was different and this God was bigger and better and more powerful than any of the representations of the traditional gods of Greece and Rome. Paul laid it all out and the Athenians listened.

I wonder what gods Paul would find worshipped if he wandered around one of our modern cities?  Tall buildings as temples?  Gods of commerce and ease and pleasure? Idols of rock stars and entertainers and public figures?  Worship of money and greed and "I've got mine, good luck getting yours"?  I don't think it would take him long (once he got over the culture shock) to see those temples and altars and idols. We make it very easy; it's called advertising and it works. It encourages our worship of things we probably don't need by portraying them as things we do need, we must desire, we must possess.  Never mind the cost, whether financial or ethical, we must have these things in order to be fulfilled, comfortable, and on par with or above our neighbors. We worship money and power and often overlook the cost to our souls for doing so.

There is still an Unknown God out there, one we visit on Sunday but don't always remember during the week. It's not a god whose essence or power can be captured in an image no matter how precious the metal or how flawless the gems adorning it. It's not a god who is susceptible to flattery and can be bought off with offerings and occasional flattering attention. This is a God who has the power to create universes with a word and who has a refrigerator big enough to show the pictures of every person that has ever been on the face of the earth. We can barely even begin to comprehend the vastness of our ever-expanding galaxy, much less the borders of space that seem to be pushed back with each new telescope and every continued spacecraft journey, so how can we even begin to figure out the limits and expanses of God?  We can't, and so in some ways God remains unknown. What we do know, however, is that God is here, now, among us, unseen by us, often unrecognized by us. God is in the faces of the beggar with his tin cup next to the restaurant where plates of unfinished food are often dumped in the garbage or the woman bending over a sewing machine for hours, sewing garments to be sold for ten thousand times as much as she will earn for making them, or the child suffering from a disfigurement or disease that could be easily cured if the money and the doctors were available. God is in the butterfly and the cat and the snake, the rocks and the trees and the restless ocean. Everything that is, has been or will be has a bit of God within it, perhaps even those things to which we devote our lives to attaining, obtaining or maintaining. What we don't see in many of those things, though, is the God-spark, the presence of God in all things, a spark waiting to be encouraged to grow into a full flame. Paul would probably shake his head and wonder where the message went astray.

Paul's words didn't reach everybody who heard him that day but some got the message. Some are just now reading this story and getting the message.  Some, though, will read or hear the story and simply keep walking -- walking past the temples and altars that we have created to worship in place of the Unknown God who beckons us.

No matter how much we know (or think we know) about God, including what we don't know, there is so much more than we can ever even imagine. God is in the little boxes we have that we label "God" and think we understand what is there, but God is also outside the box since no box could possibly contain all that God is. Still, we seek the Unknown God that we know is there and yet don't fully comprehend. Sometimes we just go for the wrong god, the one we do understand and for what we think that god will do for us.

The Unknown God -- still present and still unknown. I wonder what Paul would say? I doubt the words would be flattering.

Originally published at Episcopal Café Saturday, August 3, 2013, under the title "Flattery."

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