Mounted on the front of the pulpit of St. Paul's Church is a piece of rock – it looks like marble to me – which according to the inscription was brought from the Areopagus in Athens. The inscription calls our attention to the address the apostle – a Jewish Christian philosopher – delivered to the Athenians who gathered there in the marketplace to discuss ideas.
When I was nineteen I sat on a rock on the Areopagus with a small New Testament and read Acts 17:22-34, which records the apostle's words. In that address Paul takes note of the altar inscribed “to an unknown god”, and proceeds to make the startling claim before his Gentile pagan audience that this “unknown god” is the God who is revealed to Jews and in the person of Jesus Christ, the “man appointed” who is now raised from the dead.
St. Paul's boldness to proclaim the resurrection has the effect of causing some listeners to scoff and walk away. Their gods are immortal, after all, and the idea of a god subjected to death is to them too strange to entertain.
The speech is remarkable in too many ways to recount here, but I do want to emphasize the claim made by Paul that this God created all the inhabitants of the earth and the order of nature in which we live in order to provoke a spiritual quest. The speech in Acts has Paul saying that God created humans
...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.
Paul seems to be saying that this “unknown god” is unknown precisely because this god is too close to us.
Commenting on this text, Tomáŝ Halîk remarks: “He is unknown not because He is too far away but because He is too close. After all, we know least of all about what is closest to us, what we take for granted.”
Halîk gives as an example our face, which is close to us, but which none of us have ever seen. We only see its image in a mirror, and we can only see God as though in a mirror.
The Athenians had many gods with many names – and yet some impulse led them to erect this altar to an unknown god. That impulse, I imagine, had to do with the abiding sense of mystery left after the stories of their gods were told. Paul seized on this sense of abiding mystery as the beginning point for his proclamation, which is that this mysterious God drew close to us in Jesus. So close did God come that God was subject to the suffering that is the lot of so many victims of human cruelty and injustice and became subject to the death that is most inevitably our common lot.
Some in Athens scoffed and walked away when they heard this radical claim from the lips of Paul. Others said “we will hear you again about this.” Dionysius and Damaris and others became believers.
We're a lot like the Athenians. We have many gods, if by gods we understand the truth of what Martin Luther said, which is that whatever people assign the greatest value to is their god. Once you start listing the various gods to which we bow, you can really get a list going. Money is for many a god. Power over others becomes a god. Fame becomes a god, or fleeting youth or beauty becomes a god. Nationality can become a god. We all worship gods, and the commonality among all these gods is their service to some false notion of who we are and what our life is for. Understood this way, atheism is indeed impossible.
And – if we're honest – I think we can admit that we religious believers who claim to believe in the God revealed in Christ share in the lot of all human beings. Paul describes us as created “so that they might search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” We grope around like everyone else, and in our groping – which is a lifelong process – we get it at least half wrong at best, both in terms of our conceptualizations of God and our practice of God's presence. Humility before the mystery of God is of the essence, and humility before those who do not yet believe and who are seeking is of the essence. Paul, after all, did not go barging into Athens as a monotheistic Jew and make some rude assault on Athenian polytheism. If he had we'd have never heard about this speech. He found instead a common ground and began his discourse there.
We urgently need common ground as Christians and as citizens. The deep divisions and rancor of our time are the product of anxiety. The anxiety is rooted in fear. I get it. I was as horrified as anyone else when Sharon and I speechlessly and tremblingly watched television the morning planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and America entered into the modern age.
I get it that some people retreat into bastions of false religious security in order to wall themselves off and demonize the other. I get it that some writers rage against religion as the root of all evil, constructing straw men gods in order to easily knock those gods down. I get it, but I'm not buying either extreme, because neither is faithful to the God proclaimed in Paul's speech in Athens.
God is close to each of us, Paul claims. We cannot see God, as all good theology asserts. But Paul is telling the Athenians that they are right to intuit a god beyond their stories of gods. God is the one in whom we they live and move and have their being. God is the depth of their lives; the being in whom they have their being. God is closeness itself.
This is true for us. And it is true for our neighbor. And Jesus – God close to us - tells us who our neighbor is; it is the other we fear; the other whose suffering we would easily pass by on the other side of the road to avoid. God is the one in whom our neighbor lives and moves and has their being. God is the depth of our neighbor's life; the closeness that sustains the life of our neighbor.
The way ahead is charted for us in this understanding of things; an understanding that engenders humility and patience in us, and at the same time empowers a proclamation that God is love and a discipleship which follows in the way of Jesus.