The Unknown God

Saint Paul, who has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, was quite a traveler.  And he seems to have adopted, in his travels, the attitude that when in Athens, one should do as the Greeks do – up to a point.  

Paul is seldom given credit for a sense of humor, but I think we see it on display in this passage related by St. Luke of a speech that Paul gives to a group of Athenians as he stands on the Areopagus, or Mars Hill.  ‘How religious you Athenians are!’ he tells them.  ‘As I walked your streets, I found an altar with the following inscription: To an Unknown God.’  How very religious indeed, to erect a shrine to we know not what – just to be on the safe side.  Paul is being a bit facetious here.

Of course, in our own day and age it has become a popular sport to level a similar observation at people of faith.  How religious we are, are critics cringe.  We gather here week by week and day by day – the thinking goes - to sing our hymns and read our stories and say our prayers and offer our thanks to a God who is virtually unknown to us or to the world, who is figment of our collective imaginations, a God-delusion that makes us feel better about ourselves and the world but which doesn’t even spur us on to good works very often.

In the minds of many people these days (most of whom seem to want to write books about it) we Christians, and people of other faiths, are as deluded as the ancient Athenians who would take seriously an altar to an Unknown God.  And we are no better off.

Considering the world we live in, it is not surprising that many ask whether or not the God we worship is anything more than a delusion.  Considering the state of affairs among nations, and the degradation of the planet, a person could wonder whether the God we praise is any more involved in the world than some Unknown God.

The Unknown God really is the Just-in-case God, who is worshiped in an effort to cover our backsides.  And as such the Unknown God is a largely undemanding God – after all what could he require of us, since we don’t even know who he (or she) is?

And it might be fair to ask whether the Unknown God is worshipped today in many churches.   After all, when in Rome or Athens or America, do as the locals do.  And this is more or less what our parents did, or what the nuns taught us to do.  And don’t worry so much if you begin to wonder that the God we worship is really an Unknown God.  Brunch will be served soon enough.  For many of us, the Unknown God – susceptible as he is to the delusion critique – is still not such a bad God, and maybe just about all the God we want, since, after all he doesn’t require much of our time, money or energy.

But notice what Saint Paul tells the men and women of Athens.  See that he does not denigrate the Unknown God, and he does not even argue against the pantheon of Greek religion.  He doesn’t even write a book!  What Paul says is this: ‘I know who the Unknown God is.  He is the God who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth.  He does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself give to all men life and breath and everything.  I know who the Unknown God is!’

All these centuries later, and so far from Athens, we live in a world of Unknown Gods.  Half the time we seem almost ready to worship at their altars.  We could almost imagine every single ATM in this city as an altar to Unknown Gods; then we’d know who or what we worship since there is no surer indicator of what’s important to Americans than what we spend our money on.  These Unknown Gods do require very little of us – except our regular visits to their altars of cash dispensation.

But are we left wondering whether or not the atheist book-writers have a point?  Do we sometimes wonder if we are deluding ourselves?  Have we followed this path of faith just-in-case?  Do we live in a world of Unknown Gods because there is no real God to know?

It may be the case that the way to answer this question is the same way Saint Paul answered it.  That is, we may find that there is no way to assure ourselves that God is not a delusion  other than to discover (perhaps to our own surprise) that we know who the Unknown God is.

Perhaps we have come to know this because we see how much has been given into our hands: the blessing of a child, the love of family, the benefits of wealth, even dominion over so much of this planet.  Or perhaps it is because of a sin forgiven – one we thought we could never live down.  Perhaps it is the on-going encounter with beauty that we cannot explain any other way.  Perhaps it is that tiny spark of hope that lifts us out of despair in the face of the death of someone we love.

In all these ways, and countless others, the living God makes himself known to us.  And most profoundly, for us, in something as simple and ordinary as a morsel of bread, and a sip of wine, God is known and among us day by day.

For us, living in a world of Unknown Gods can become a daily exercise in discovering that we know who the Unknown God is!  There is no proof of this, of course.  There is still room for doubt and delusion, for error and uncertainty.  There is only the Way that follows Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he loves us, which means with every ounce of our being, and with all humility, as we wash one another’s feet.  And that Way leads us past many altars: some at which we feel right at home, some to strange Gods, some that spit out cash as long as you have your card and your PIN number, and some to Unknown Gods.

Having walked this Way for some time now, I have been past a lot of altars, and so have you.  And we have seen a lot of evidence of Unknown, Just-in-case Gods, as well as the people who suspect that these are the easy Gods to serve.

And perhaps we should follow the example of Saint Paul.  What is the point in denigrating these Unknown Gods of the world we live in?  What is the point in arguing against the pantheon of secularism?  What is the point of writing a book about it?  As Saint Paul knew, when in Athens, do as the Greeks do, and when in America... what else can we do in this land of Unknown Gods?  

We can only follow the Way of Christ’s commandment of love, which leads past this altar, whose simple offering of bread and wine reminds us that we know who the Unknown God is!  He is the God who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, who does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needs anything, since he himself gives to all people life and breath, and everything!  

He is the God who sent his Son into the world to save us from sin and death, that we might have life and have it abundantly.  He is the Lord of Life who died for our sakes and who gives us his body for food and his blood for our salvation.  He is the Light that continually dawns in the east, and the new life that rises up from the grave.

He is the God who knows us each by name, and even the number of hairs on our heads, who once would show nothing more than his back to Moses but who now delights to dwell by his Holy Spirit among us, living, breathing, and working in each and every one of us.

Yes, we live in a land of Unknown Gods, but we rejoice, because we know who the Unknown God is.  Thanks be to God!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
30 April 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 28, 2008 .