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The unknown God

We live in a time of spiritual exploration, in many respects not unlike that in the pagan world of the Greeks when Paul went to Athens, although today spiritual interests are likely a private matter, or a consumer item, rather than being concerned with seeking of truth through public debate as the Greeks might traditionally have claimed to be doing. In fact, in Paul's time they were a bit more like people of our day than that, for they had a great attraction to novelty, as we find in Luke's observation recorded in the verse before the reading for today from Acts 17:

In that regard Paul was then in the reverse situation to what orthodox Christians find themselves today. Rather than his message being rejected or not listened to because it was something they thought they had already heard, his ideas excited interest because they were new to the Athenians. His novel teaching came to their attention when he was presenting it in the marketplaces, so they took him into their principal place of debate to see what it might mean. The Christian message today is often kept out of the academy and rejected because people think they know it when often they don't, while in Paul's case it was to be heard because they recognized that they did not know it, although almost perversely you might say Paul spoke to them as if they in fact already knew it, without knowing what they knew: What therefore you worship as unknown this I proclaim to you.

Paul had seen an altar "to an unknown god", in a place where there were many altars to various gods and many idols, which he was distressed to see:

His response was "to argue with the Jews and devout persons" about Jesus and one God who is the Creator of all things:

His approach in this serious encounter with leading thinkers and rulers is interesting. On the one hand he started with their present understanding, referring to their religious practices (the altar to an unknown god, Acts 17:23) and their philosophers (your own poets, Acts 17:28) thus showing respect for their culture and traditions, while on the other hand he presented the message about Christ in an uncompromising manner even to the point of provoking scorn from them at the idea of Jesus being raised from the dead. It was indeed a very strong and dramatic claim that he was making, that he could name the one true God that they had been seeking in all their spiritual endeavours: that the Creator who sent Jesus into the world was the very same God whose relationship to humanity their philosophers had already grasped at times, and in part; indeed his quotes, from rather obscure philosophers, Epimenides the Cretan who had lived 600 years earlier, and the Cilician poet Aratus, which show an understanding of God similar in some ways to that of ancient Israel; and those quotes from the Greek philosophers, "in him we live and move and have our being" and "we too are his offspring" are often remembered as if their words of wisdom were Christian or Jewish statements of faith. Paul recognized that they had been searching genuinely for God, and knew something of God:

Paul argued, nevertheless, that they could not be satisfied with their present knowledge of God for they could not really think of God as like their various idols made with human hands: if "we are his offspring" and "we live and move and have our being" in him, then the Lord of heaven and earth cannot not live in shrines or be represented by idols. Rather he may be known by all people everywhere, for he has equipped people with the means to search for himself in creation, history and human life, and to find him. So someone might have put up an altar to give thanks for some blessing he had received from a god he could not identify, but Paul could say, this only points to the capacity in human hearts and minds to reach out and relate to the Creator; and what is more, God does not leave us to search endlessly, but he has reached out to us. He has come to us in particular in the man Jesus, the one who will be our judge at the end and whose special status was marked out by his resurrection from the dead. We can imagine that Paul would also have spoken in more detail of how Jesus had revealed the true nature of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who was largely unknown to them. So from "an unknown god" Paul would lead them to "the unknown God" whose name and nature was now revealed.

God the Father, Creator [See Trinity -- mystery and reality]

Many different peoples in all sorts of different cultures, living at very different times, and having a variety of religious beliefs and practices know something of God in the wonders of creation. Even when they do not talk of God as a person, they have some appreciation of a creative power behind the beauty and wonder of what they see. They know God the Creator through his works, and they have a sense of awe in regard to him. As we are reminded in the reading from Acts 17, when Paul went to Athens, where they worshipped many gods, he was able to direct their thoughts "to the unknown god" by speaking of a creator:

That kind of knowledge is available to all human beings even if they have not been taught about his special revelation of himself in the history of the people of ancient Israel and the person of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote to the Romans:

This passage has been viewed with some suspicion in recent decades by theologians who have seen the great dangers of the Gospel being compromised to conform with contemporary human wisdom and the dominant culture, but the simple point remains valid, that some sense of God the Creator is almost universal. While there are many images and forms of expression in different cultures the sense of a Creator remains.

The Creator is known in our traditions as God the Father, but some people, even in our society with its Christian heritage, might speak more easily of Mother Nature and think of her as a creator giving birth, and it is true that there are masculine and feminine attributes of the Creator whom we have traditionally called God the Father. Some people pray to God as Mother or as both Mother and Father, but gender is not the point. Sex is part of creation not an attribute of the Creator; and it is important to distinguish between the Creator and creation.

God is present in creation but is separate from it. In these days of unbelief and do-it-yourself religion it is common for people to make a kind of false religion out of reverence for natural things. If you do not see beyond the image to the reality from which it came such religious attitudes to natural things can make a kind of idolatry in which the image alone is worshipped. It is sad that even in secular schools now children are often encouraged in that kind of idolatry with all the current concern for the environment which might otherwise be good, but it becomes in the absence anything more substantial a kind of alterative religion, even sometime presented as an established religion binding on all citizens. It just goes to show how deep the hunger for God is. If people close their eyes to him they will often transfer the devotion that naturally belongs to God to the things that he has made. We do not worship nature, whether it be thought of as Father or Mother, but we worship God who exists apart from what he or she has made. In spite of the all the error and idolatry, just the same, people are led from the wonder of nature to some knowledge of God the Creator. With the greater understanding of biblical revelation and apostolic teaching it becomes the faith we express in the Creed:

But Paul could not leave it at that, because he knew what God had revealed in the person of Jesus, the Christ. It was a great deal more than being in various ways distantly familiar with God, but more a matter of how people could become members of his very family, overcoming all that separated them from their Creator to realize the fulfilment of his purpose for them in creation, that they might be united with God through faith in Christ.

Christ the way [See Christ in creation .)

If God the Father can be known from Creation, even if imperfectly, what about Christ? Is knowledge of him really necessary? In Paul's letter to the Romans, "all they need to know" can be known from the things he has made. So, can Christ too be known from the things that God has made? What Paul was talking of in that word to the Romans is clear in its context to be concerned with what they needed to know for morally right behaviour, but they fell short of the standard they could have known. When they did not learn and failed to obey that message in creation, they needed to hear of the mercy of God in sending Christ. So we look to Jesus because otherwise we tend to lose our way, and especially when we know that we have lost our way. As we were recalling recently,

He is the one sure way to God for humankind who continually fail to learn what they could from creation and do it. So the knowledge of Christ is necessary in addition; but, still, can Christ be known from creation? Let me now just give an illustration. I remember Austin James, a greatly revered former missionary, saying that he never went into a village in India without feeling that Christ had been there before him. As John wrote, he was in the world ... he came to what was his own ...

The Word that became flesh in Christ may be encountered in creation, including the lives of ordinary people, even if they do not know his name. See Christ in creation. As Paul said to the philosophers in Athens

And he went on to speak of Jesus who was raised from the dead. That is the faith proclaimed by the apostles, that Jesus whom they had known in the flesh was the incarnation of the Word of God which had been expressed in many and various ways visible to all sorts of people, if they had eyes to see it.

That is why it was necessary for him to come in the flesh to show the glory of God in human life, even if it led to the cross.

To him be the glory.

Is the teaching of Jesus enough? [See What if Jesus had gone to Athens?]

Paul needed to tell the Athenians of Jesus in order for them the have access through faith in him to the perfect revelation of God for their good. They needed the Gospel because their eyes, like ours tend to be, were clouded from the vision of God in creation. But the good news of Jesus was not just the teaching of Jesus. Paul shared more than that with them. They needed to know who he was and what he had done - so Paul spoke, not of the wisdom of Jesus which was great, but of what happened to him, of how he died and especially of how God had raised him from the dead. This may be why it was part of the plan of God for Paul rather than Jesus himself to go to the centre of learning which had been paramount for centuries and would influence thinkers for many more generations. If the teaching of Jesus had been the way of discovery into the secret life of God, you might think that Jesus should have gone there himself and debated with the philosophers, as he had with the teachers in the temple when he was only twelve years old. There is no doubt that he had the capacity, and probably the interest to do it, but he chose to die and Paul went there later instead. Why was that?

There was a time, near the end (John 12:20-23), when some Greeks asked Philip, a Greek, to introduce them to Jesus. It might seem strange that Jesus responded by speaking of his death, and doing so as if it rather his teaching was like the sowing of a seed. What if the Greek visitors had wanted him to go with them to teach in the great centres of learning? Might he have chosen the role of a teacher of wisdom in the tradition of the Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle? After all he was a wise man and many thought he had interesting things to say. How do you think they would have received him in Athens, where debates of the philosophers still continued as we see with Paul? Was it not a great way of spreading his way of thinking? Paul did go there to speak and argue with the Athenians for Christ (Acts 17:15-33), but what if Jesus himself had accepted an invitation to teach at Athens, instead of taking that last fatal step into Jerusalem? Athens or Jerusalem? Was it real choice?

I have no doubt that something like the role of a teacher of wisdom in the Greek tradition was a real option for Jesus. We don't really know what the Greeks said or what they expected, but we do believe according to Christian tradition that Jesus was tempted "in every way as we are". It was not very different from the ways of worldly success that Satan suggested to him in his temptations in the wilderness. To survive and become a great teacher sought out by the wisest of men (and one who was even then willing also to teach women), that must have been a possible future for him, whether the temptation came with those Greeks or otherwise. What would the world be like if he had gone to Athens?

There are people who like to bracket Jesus with the wise men of old, like Socrates or Confucius; and why not, you might say. His teaching was as wise as any and in fact he would have been found to agree with many others in the things that are most important in human life. Perhaps if he had chosen that way Athens might not have been divided from Jerusalem in the way that it is in our culture. By and large Athens takes centre stage in our schools and colleges, and in many educational systems Jerusalem is kept out, either by law or tradition, or through just plain prejudice. What if Jesus had taught in Athens instead of going all the way into Jerusalem and being heard for a few days in the Temple before they took him at night and hung him on the cross. Well, we don't know, and it is even possible that they might have killed him in Athens just as quickly as he was killed in Jerusalem.

Yet there remains a deep tension between human wisdom and the way of Christ. Paul was playing both a dangerous and a necessary game when he entered into debate with the Athenians. On the one hand Christian scholars do feel the need to make a reasoned defence of the gospel, and there are great opportunities now in the time of spiritual exploration when "the unknown God" might be named and recognized. Neither is there anything wrong with a believer attempting to match wits with greatest thinkers in our universities. Sometimes, from the viewpoint of an academic, I think we are far too timid in that respect. We should be more ready to follow Paul's example. The culture will not be transformed according to the mind of Christ if we do not witness there as in all other situations. There is need today for an Erasmus or a Newman in the best universities, but if they were to be there as true witnesses to Christ they would have to talk about who Jesus was and what he did, not only about what he taught. No attempt to reduce Jesus to a mere teacher, however wise or courageous, will be true to him. As much as secular people would like to keep him within the bounds of well known human categories, he cannot be so limited. The unknown God will not conform to the patterns of human wisdom. No matter how hard people try to make him just another wise teacher, he will not fit that role. Believers know why: Jesus said to Philip at the time when the Greeks came to him: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Jesus knew why, but he had to make a choice and go through with it, and it was not an easy choice:

These are the words with which he shared his final struggle immediately after he encountered the Greeks. Whether or not their approach to him gave rise to the tension within himself, it was plainly there and keenly felt, and the outcome was decisive, for us and for all who are joined with him in faith. So we may rejoice that he was able to say The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. {24} Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

So the word Paul shared with the Athenians did not rest on a compromise with the wisdom of their philosophers, or in adding the sayings of Jesus to its partial truth, but it was a message which pointed to the person of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, the one raised from the dead. Some scoffed, some said they would hear more of it, and others believed. What do you think? Is he the unknown God?

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