To An Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31

Luke’s record of the Apostle Paul’s foray into the philosophy of religion/apologetics (Acts 17:22-31) portrays an approach to evangelism that differed significantly from Paul’s typical practice. Earlier in the chapter, Luke recounts Paul’s visits to the synagogue in Thessalonica, where “as he was accustomed,” Paul argued for faith in Christ based on his interpretation of the (Old Testament) scriptures. Similarly, when forced to flee Thessalonica, Paul and his entourage went to Beroea where Paul again taught in the synagogue.  Because Paul’s Thessalonican opponents sent reports to Beroea, Paul had to flee again, now to Athens, the center of Greek learning and religion. Paul, concerned by the rampant idolatry in the city, began speaking, not just in the synagogues, but also in the open marketplace. Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who heard Paul there dragged him to the Areopagus (“Mars Hill”) an informal forum for philosophical debate, demanding that he give account of himself and his doctrine.

In this setting, Paul could not appeal to Hebrew Scriptures as an authority.  Greek philosophers would not have recognized it as such. Paul’s rhetorical strategy, as Luke records it, relied, rather, on appeals to the created order, Greek philosophy itself (Acts 17:28, a quotation of the Stoic Aratus), the fundamental unity of humankind, and the logical inconsistencies of polytheism and idolatry.  Like Abraham before him (cf. Gen 14, where Abraham identifies Melchizedek’s “Supreme God” by the proper name of Israel’s God), Paul exploited as his point of entry the possibilities inherent in the Athenian cultic object dedicated to the “unknown god.” Apparently, the Athenians were, as Paul observed, extremely religious, so religious, in fact that they did not want to risk offending some god of whom they had not yet heard.  Therefore, they erected a “wild-card” altar where they could appease any god who might feel neglected.  Incidentally, according to Luke’s account, Paul’s rhetoric produced only limited results.

Paul’s decision to invoke the altar to “the unknown god” raises interesting questions for me. Ironically, because early Christians practiced an austere religion (with little pomp, and no hierarchy – at first), because they permitted no physical representations of God, and especially because, as a variety of Judaism, they insisted that there is only one God, their pagan neighbors often characterized them as atheists.  Logically, after all, the trend from belief in many gods to belief in only one god ultimately extrapolates to belief in no god at all.

Two thousand years after Paul, many seem to have made such a transition.  I read and hear daily about those who are “spiritual but not religious” or those who are religious, but amorphously so, the “nones.” These varieties of unspecific spirituality seem at least akin to venerating an unknown, and presumably unknowable, god if for no other reason than just to be on the safe side.  Of course, the mistrust of “organized religion” that underlies these sentiments is justifiable in many respects. Clergy sexual abuse, the identification of the interests of the church (the same statements could be made of synagogues, mosques, etc., perhaps, but I write as a Christian) with partisan politics, the selfish focus of many churches evidenced by their budgets, and the apparent determination of many churches to contribute to the continued marginalization of the marginalized, to name but the most prominent phenomena, merit criticism and mistrust.

Amorphous spirituality also embodies a number of the less-noble characteristics of the times, however.  Because it adheres to no doctrine and does not involve membership in any community, it perfectly suits the hyper-individualism that infuses contemporary culture.  Similarly, it asks for no ethical commitment, embodies no values, and defines no ultimate good.  It asks nothing of its “adherents.” It is believing without having anything to believe.

In fact, it may be more accurate to say that we have entered an era in which believing in, committing to anything beyond ourselves is difficult.  Based on the evidence of public attitudes toward climate change science or toward data on immigration trends (legal and illegal), for significant segments of the population, individual opinion “trumps” any coherent worldview.  Levels of trust in practically all of our institutions, public and private, register at historic lows.  We do not trust any of the branches of government, the political parties, public education, science, marriage, the church, or one another.  Apparently, many of us feel that we can only trust ourselves. Loyalties and values reflect self-interests.  Increasingly, these self-interests, writ large as national interests, mask greed and intolerance behind the “public” (read majority) good.  The nation becomes the ego usurping God.

Which brings us back to Paul at the Aeropagus. The monotheistic critique of polytheism hinges on the unity of reality, as Paul argued.  Who settles the argument when two gods both claim authority over the weather? The cosmos did not originate from many wills, monotheists contend. Human beings all need the same food, water, love, and meaning. A harmonious order underlies all of reality.

Admittedly, I am a Christian believer, a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Yet, I cannot fathom what spirituality without religion can mean other than amorphous self-worship and desperate self-reliance. Whether because God created us for relationship with God and one another (as I am convinced) or because human beings have evolved as creatures who need transcendent meaning, selfishness does not and cannot sustain healthy personhood and community.  Devotion to me and mine above all else can only lead to chaos and conflict.

Paul concluded his presentation to the philosophers by calling them to faith in the Resurrected One, God’s announcement to the world and individuals in it that the world is not fundamentally chaotic, that we need not rely on ourselves as the source of meaning and purpose for our own lives. Could it be that this era of mistrust and unbelief, of egocentrism and self-reliance hungers for this message, too? Can the church, repentant of its errors, model life lived in response to the one God who authored all that is, including the one humanity to which we all belong? I believe so.