We are in the third week of exploring Paul’s second missionary journey with Silas, Timothy & Luke. They were met with success, but also persecution. They are thrown out of synagogues by fellow Jews, beaten and jailed by the Romans for being subversive in preaching that Jesus the Risen Christ is Lord rather than Caesar. After a riot took place in Thessalonica, Paul’s companions took him to Berea 50 miles SW. But agitators hounded him, “stirring up the crowds,” wanting to expel them from the region. With their lives continually threatened, believers in Berea shelter them, hiding Silas and Timothy and secretly escorting Paul to Athens sailing 200 miles south, landing in Athens. While Paul waits for Silas & Timothy to join him, went to the local synagogue, as was his habit, then wanders around, like a tourist, in one of the oldest cities in the world – the intellectual cradle of the western world, the birthplace of philosophy.
As Paul moves from the Jewish synagogue to the Greek marketplace, he is overwhelmed by the number of shrines with their idols. There were statues everywhere – to gods, heroes, sacred and secular, known and unknown. His Jewish understanding of the first commandment, Thou shalt not have any gods before me, was assaulted. Paul is distressed by the city flooded with idols – with mythological gods for every occasion under the sun. One particular altar jumped out at him with the inscription, “To the Unknown God.” Within this pantheon of deities – they apparently didn’t want to overlook or offend some deity. For Paul, this inscription was a sign of spiritual searching for the something more.
Sean White in the commentary Feasting on the Word, writes that Athenians lived in the center of intellectual pursuits, with an insatiable desire of learning, enjoying telling or hearing something new. Though religious, they remained uncertain and failed to find the rest for their longing. This inscription signaled a deeper existential religious curiosity and restlessness.
Paul starts theological conversations with Jews & Gentiles; with philosophers & politicians. Paul shares with the intellectual elites, opening their minds to a new image of God, the one God revealed in Jesus the Christ.
Paul engaged a group of Epicurean & Stoic philosophers who ridiculed him. “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” In their view, he advocated inferior, “foreign gods”. 500 years prior to Paul’s visit, Socrates was also accused of “proclaiming foreign divinities.” He was brought to trial at the Areopagus and lost his life. We read that Paul is also taken into custody and brought to the council at the Areopagus, a small rocky hill with a stone amphitheater outside the city center, near the Acropolis. For centuries, even before the democracy of Greece was formed, the educated went to this hill to debate philosophy and make legal decisions. The Areopagus was both a geographical place and a group including the most prestigious council of elders in the history of Athens where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were adjudicated. It was called “Ares’ Hill” for the Greek god of war. When the Roman Empire co-opted the Greek pantheon of gods, it became known as Mars Hill for the Roman god of war.
But Paul isn’t taken to trial like Socrates was. He is invited to present his ideas in a formal way as they ask: “May we know what this new teaching is?” Paul introduces the unknown god to the Athenians as the God of his Jewish heritage, the God who names God’s self as “I AM” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” Paul realized they were seeking for something larger than themselves. He recognized that their obsession with idols and the latest ideas was a distraction and a mask to disguise the spiritual hunger that lay just beneath the surface. Paul says they are religious in every way erecting many temples, even one to the unknown god. He proclaims that they have been worshipping the same God, “the God who made the world. The Lord of heaven and earth does not live in shrines made by people, nor is God served by human hands, as if God needed anything.” Paul then said, Our basic nature is to search for this God. We do not know this God, but we search and grope for God, who is like “an unknown god” to us. 4th century St. Augustine said something similar: “You have made us for yourself; our heart is restless until it rests in you”. And yet, this does not stop God from knowing us. Indeed God is not far from each of us.
Paul affirms their spiritual hunger by quoting universal wisdom from their own Greek poetry from
6th century BC poet Epimenides the Cretan, “In him we live and move and have our being”. This understanding has become a key concept in contemporary Christian theology – German theologian Paul Tillich’s notion of God as the “Ground of being”. One of my favorite contemporary theologians, Marcus Borg, often used this phrase in his understanding of God’s presence in our lives. For in God we live and move and have our being.”
Searchers and seekers. Isn’t that what we all are? There are those who search for meaning, those who search for joy, those who search for purpose. Most of us, at some time or other, feel that something is missing from our lives. And we go searching. We are not unlike the ancient Athenians. Health, happiness, family, connection, belonging, seek peace and solitude, deeper meaning or enlightenment. What is our unknown god for which we search?
Native Americans call it “the great Mystery”. Who am I, who is anyone, to speak of the unknowable Mystery of God? To speak of eternity, the divine, the beyond, the ultimate, the Ground of All Being? Perhaps we should be a bit intimidated by the “unknowness” of God. It is good to have a dose of humility when we are tempted to be certain of God’s exact character or will or name. The essence of God cannot ever fully be named or articulated.
The great Mystery as Native Americans call it allows us to hold in tension other religions and other understandings of God. Paul did not believe that there were many paths to God. He was not a universalist. And yet, he used the Athenian religious practice to point to the way, the truth, the life as he understood it. What does it mean to be so rooted and grounded in our understanding and experience of God, so centered in our experience of the Christian story, that, like Paul, we cannot help from seeing the spiritual hunger in the people we meet?
There is an ancient story of a group of blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time and try to describe it. One touched its giant leg and says, “It’s like a tree.” Another felt its writhing trunk and said, “No. It’s like a giant python.” A third encountered the tail and said, “Are you crazy? It’s like a coarse rope!” God is like the elephant in this story, in that none of us have the capacity to see the fullness of God, or conceive of the total majesty or mystery of God. And so we Bring Many Names for God in our experience of the holy and sacred. God answers to Father, Mother, Creator, Beloved, to Holy Mystery, to Comforter of Our Souls.
Rev.Jane Anne Ferguson, contributor-Feasting on the Word, biblical commentary Plymouth UCC, Ft. Collins Who is the God that we proclaim? Who is the ONE we seek before any of the idols in our lives? As we live and move and have our being in this God – in the midst of pandemic, in the midst of divisive political strife, in the midst of economic uncertainty, may we put aside the idols that tempt us when we are fearful, that distract us in our grief. May we turn our hearts, our ears, our minds, our full attention to the ONE who is ever-present, who grieves with us, who rejoices in our presence and in our joys. The ONE brings us gifts of grace, mercy, hope and forgiveness as we seek to be in relationship with one another and with God. May we know again and again the “unknown” living God in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.