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Sunday, 21 May 2017

An Unknown God

Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 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, “For we too are his offspring.”
‘Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17.22-31)
Nothing I like better, I'm afraid, that some one with a career in sales or a degree in media telling me, on the basis of my Archdruical pointy hat, that science has disproved religion. I like to dig out the handbag my Oxford degree in Chemistry (special subject Quantum Chemistry, since you ask) and say "well I'm not sure I agree." They won't be bright enough to be worth arguing with, after all. Not because of their degree or their careers - after all, Trump is basically in sales and he's done all right - but because their foolish question has shown up their uncritical acceptance of third-hand arguments.

Of course I don't just leave them empty-handed. Reaching into the special "other" section in my handbag, I pull out a sachet of instant "spaghetti monster" pasta bolognaise, squeeze it out into their hand, and say "behold your noodly god."

Their reasoning hasn't reached as far as Paul, off the cuff, in Athens 2,000 years ago. They deserve nothing better than being patronised and a handful of mince.

What's one great thing that the existence of religions, of science, of magic teach us? Even the existence of magical thinking? It's that human beings constantly look for explanations and meaning. In a wild world, we want to know how and why things happen, and ideally what will happen next.

And so when the wind blows through the trees and the trees move - the Greek thinks of Aeolus, sending the breezes in the forms of horses. The Christian is reminded of the Spirit of God, who breathes on the waters of creation and breathes life into every human. And the meteorologist tells us about high and low pressure areas, then tells us there certainly won't be a hurricane.

Paul is in Athens and the Greeks are the number one searchers for meaning. They have scientists. They have mathematicians. They have many schools of philosophers - at least one of which is already denying the gods exist. They have hundreds of gods - big gods, small gods, household gods, tree-gods, lake-gods. As if they didn't have enough gods they would, when encountering other nations, find out about their gods - sometimes they would work out which of their own gods they equated to. Sometimes they would just add them in. That's the great thing about polytheist paganism - always room for one more up top.

So Athens is as littered with shrines as Central London is with posters advertising leftwing rallies.

And Paul starts with praise - and never slips into anything other than a reasonable discussion. "I see you are very religious" - ironic, though, as the people of the Areopagus - of Mars Hill - are inclined to sit around dispassionately discussing the latest new religious idea.

They must be so religious, they even worship the god they don't know. They're probably thinking that's just the sort of god you don't want to get all upset with you - one you don't know anything about. How will that god respond if you don't make him or her offerings? You don't know. That's the problem with unknown gods.  So up goes another altar.

Paul says - let me tell you about the unknown god. He's not so unknown to the Jews. In fact, he's even told us hims name.  Though we cant say it....
By Юрий Рудницкий - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

He's the God who made the heaven and the earth - and all the things you ascribe to your gods - the cycles of the seasons, the wildness of the sea, the wind - they all ultimately go back to him.  In fact - all your gods are just ways of coming to a limited understanding of what God is like - but full marks for trying. Your greatest god of all - Zeuss - one of your poets said "in him we live and move and have our being". And in doing that, your poet was actually managing to understand what the true God is like. God is not a separate god, like an outsized human being, like your gods. He doesn't live on a mountain, though we say the lightning comes from him as it does from Zeuss. Because even the mountains, the lightning, the heavens and the earth come from him and totally depend on him at all times.

This is why no scientific evidence could ever be found for God, why no scientific experiment could ever reveal God. Because "in him we live and move and have our being" - even our science depends totally on God.

But, says Paul - there's more. The Greek gods occasionally came to earth.  This normally happened when Zeuss was full of the joys of spring and decided he wanted to become the father of a few more demigods. But it happened. Well, this God I am telling you also came to visit. You won't find God in a stone statue, in a bronze idol - you won't trap God's essence in a stream or a hill or a tree or all the other places you look for gods. The true God came to earth as a human being - died - and God raised him from the dead. Now you've got a short time to decide whether this is the true God or not. Because he's coming back.

Presented with this, we know, the Greeks of the Areopagus said "thanks, that's very interesting.  We'll have a good think."

But it's a challenge for us today. Where do we put our worship? Into the society we live in - into political creeds - into our own pleasure, our own belongings, our own self-image? Do we create our own unknown gods - because we don't know that they are gods? Or do we put all our hope in the God who made everything, in whom we live and move and have our being - who does not exist just as a philosophical concept or a reason to sing pretty hymns and burn incense, but exists as the force behind the universe, and as the man who died on a cross to show us what he's like?

That unknown God has made himself known. If we gaze on Jesus, we will know him more and more.

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