Imagine with me, being in Athens, 2000 years ago.
For those of you who’ve been in present-day Athens, that’s probably not a hard thing to do. For those like me who know Athens mostly from grade 6 social studies, one’s imagination may need a more substantial stretch.
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The Apostle Paul, the early Church leader tasked with spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, had been having mixed success and then here he was in Athens, the centre of Greek culture. As a Jews, Paul had grown up with a strict prohibition against idols of any sort, yet here he was in a city where idols honoured forty or more deities. At one level, this was extremely difficult for him, as it stood directly in the face of the second commandment, which prohibited graven images. Yet at another level one couldn’t help but be impressed at the religiosity of the place. And Paul was at heart a scholar, heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, so the beauty and grandeur of Athens, and the evidence that a sacred realm and the interactions between heaven and earth were important to the people, would have stirred additional emotions. This wasn’t just a place to go and be offended.
In the midst of all this was an idol with the inscription, either “to an unknown God” or “to the unknown God.” This is one of those facts I felt compelled to double-check and yes, it appears that this isn’t just something created by the author of Luke and Acts to set up a good speech by Paul. The Oxford Dictionary of the Bible puts it this way: “Although such an altar has not been found by archaeologists [in Athens], inscriptions are known of altars [elsewhere] dedicated ‘to unknown gods’ (plural). The reasoning was that one or other of the gods might show anger at having been overlooked. Such an inscription was designed to cover all contingencies”.
The oddness of this is striking: there’d be the idols to Poseidon and Ares and Athena and Aphrodite, and then this one: to an UNKNOWN GOD, sort of a safety-net idol to appease any deities that may have gotten overlooked. And so, in our imaginary tour of ancient Athens, we pause here and take in this unusual monument and ask what Paul’s experience in Athens has to say to us in our time and place.
At first, I admit that I’m a bit amused by an idol with a question mark on it – but almost immediately that feeling is replaced by something quite disheartening. For the fact of the matter is that any number of communities in the northern hemisphere in the year 2023 could truthfully have a statue, plaque or building with this same inscription on it: to an unknown God. To huge swaths of our population, God is completely unknown and by some segments, especially on social media, eagerly dismissed as a childish folly practiced by the deluded.
Some of this is entirely of our own making. Wars of religious origin rightfully cause people to think twice about the whole concept of God, let alone religions that set up rule-based response to that God. Hatred against the LGBTQ community, active limitation of a woman’s agency over her own body, the banning of books that encourage an open mind, are all actions inexplicably undertaken by religious folk in the name of God and happily publicized as if this were our norm. Actions of cultural genocide, enacted by Church and Colonizer working hand in hand, generate shame that we will need to deal with for a very long time. The Church, I’m afraid, and the way that Church has related with society, has made it easy for God to be unknown in this time and place.
Speaking from a Canadian Christian standpoint, something that I have seen in the forty-plus years since I preached my first sermon, is a steady increase in people whose families had identified as Christian for centuries, who now have no knowledge of the faith and, in fact, no Christian memory because neither they, nor their parents nor their grandparents had a Church connection. There’s a whole bunch of factors – secularization in all its aspects, the introduction of Sunday shopping and Sunday tournaments, the un-cool factor attached to mainline Christianity, and, out here, the totally understandable desire to get out on the hills on the weekend. The old pattern – of families attending Church as families, children attending Sunday school at least for a couple of years – started fading in most Churches about as early as the mid-60s and was largely done by the time we hit y2k. And with that, “to an unknown God” sadly sums it up.
But there is good news to be found as we seek present day connections to Paul standing before an altar “to an unknown God.” Listen to his approach, as reported in the book of Acts: “22 Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23 As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.” From there, he went on to speak of God the creator, an image which rings true for people of all spiritual traditions. Then he drew connections between what he is saying and Greek philosophy, and then took a bit of risk by speaking of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some of his points were accepted, others were ridiculed, but it’s the way he presented it that impresses me. Turning once more to the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible, “Paul is described as making use of current religious and cultural concepts rather than demonizing them. It represents an attitude of measured appreciation”.
Rather than the “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude that has marred so many religious interactions, Paul found a way into religious dialogue by respecting what was there as a starting point, what the people there found meaningful. I recall back in my undergrad days being influenced by a Religious Studies scholar named Gustav Mensching who advocated for what he called “substantial tolerance” in relation to other religions – not just “putting up with” or “allowing” other beliefs, which still has an uncomfortable power dynamic, but recognizing that in all religions, “the encounter with the holy is possible.” As a German who lived through both World Wars, Mensching saw religions, together, having the responsibility of guarding the human conscience; he also saw that in their purest forms, virtually all religions see peace as a divine virtue to be mirrored in human life. Mensching pleaded with the religious people of the world to be the exact opposite of intolerant toward one another, and this willingness to have religious dialogue is what I see in Paul’s approach as well.
At the risk of being accused of a theology that is an inch thick and a mile wide, this starting point of speaking and listening with openness and respect must be our approach if the Church is to have a future at all. We must continue to be committed to deep interactions with other people of faith in a land with such a rich tapestry of religions. We must continue to create space – in venues like our Wednesday night Evensong services, now in its 22nd year, by learning opportunities organized by our Spiritual Explorations team, and by the relatively new work of Green Exodus – places where people can gather to engage in spiritual explorations of many flavours. And we must also find ways and means to talk with other “people of good will” who have neither spiritual nor religious inclinations. Paul, to some degree at least, understood this in the very earliest days of the Church, and that encourages me.
There’s one more thing I’d like to say before we wrap this up, and it relates to a word that can be taken two ways.
In reflecting on the Greek idols and altars “to an unknown God”, French Archaeologist Robert Turcan pointed out that the Greek word agnostos translated “unknown” is ambiguous: “it could mean ‘unknowable’ or ‘unknown,’ depending upon the context”. He went on to write, “God could in fact be ‘unknown’ without necessarily being ‘unknowable.’ Even from a philosophical standpoint, ‘unknowable’ does not require an absolute or irreconcilable meaning. God can be unknowable by the ordinary means of cognition or reason yet still be knowable by means of divine grace” in our “mystical intuition.”
Now, it’s clear that to Paul this idol was to a god who was “unknown” rather than “unknowable” but I’d like to hold this two-fold meaning in tension for a bit. The presence of this idol in Athens was, in a way, a very visible admission that the people did not fully understand everything about the heavenly realm – there were gaps in their understanding. Similarly, within the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition one of the things we know with absolute certainty, is that we do not know everything about God with absolute certainty. Faith, as the theologian Paul Tillich put it, inherently includes doubt. We have a history with God, we know what it is to feel existential love, we have experienced freeing grace, we know what it feels like to do something just and loving in Jesus’ name. But the moment we attempt to claim complete clarity & knowledge when it comes to God, we cross the line from faith to a certainty that simply is not part of the picture.
The eternal creative author of existence is well beyond human understanding. From the moment that Moses asked God, “what is your name” and got the answer, “I AM” – i.e., “I am the God who is, the God who exists, that’s all you gotta know” – a significant part of God has remained mysterious – beautifully, frustratingly mysterious. In Jesus, we see an expression of God in human form but even with that, mystery remains. And in a way, that is one of the most hopeful aspects of our relationship with the Divine, as we seek ways to keep on being a relevant, engaged faith community in the Bow Valley: there is an attraction, an allure, to the God whose creative expression we experience in the mountains and rivers and wildlife that we love so much. This is not a being whose essence can be distilled down to a list of dos and don’ts; we, as followers of Jesus, recognize a fullness of holiness in Christ without needing to dismiss or downplay other ways of recognizing and respecting the sacredness of life. In our hearts, in our souls, we know what we need to know about God, and we understand as much as we are able to with our minds, and part of our human journey is to be okay with that.
To quote the Apostle Paul, “in God we live and move and have our being.” The God in whom we live our lives holds us in creativity and love, wisdom and justice and kindness all at once, and that guides us as we engage others in their sacred journeys. It is a blessing to be on these paths, sometimes converging, sometimes diverging, sometimes criss-crossing, as we together with one another and together with all living beings embrace God’s amazing gift of life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Mensching, Gustav. Quoted in https://www.academia.edu/19539513/Practical_Science_of_Religion_Theoreticaland_methodological_considerations
Oxford Dictionary of the Bible. Cited by Oxford Reference at https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803114806732;jsessionid=7303E54B1F9F99C4BB1056F21E1B5B96#:~:text=Paul%20had%20noticed%20an%20altar,anger%20at%20having%20been%20overlooked.
Smit, Jana Louise. https://historycooperative.org/greek-gods-and-goddesses/
Theoi Project. https://www.theoi.com/
© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.