Saturday, October 29, 2005

Altars to an Unknown God

“I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” remarked St Paul to the Athenians. “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god’” (Acts 17:22-23). Paul was pleased to find people who were seekers of God, but he wasn’t content to allow them to remain in the darkness of their ignorance of the true God revealed in and by Jesus Christ. For he had personally experienced Him who is the Light of the world, and he was commissioned by Him to “be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15).


St Paul
continued his discourse to the Athenians. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth…gives to all men life and breath and everything. And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (17:23-28). Paul was masterfully opening up the Mystery to them, beginning with creation and providence, and speaking of God’s transcendence and immanence. Yet he had not quite gotten to the “punch line,” for he was still speaking in more or less general terms.

He went on. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (17:30-31). Now he has made his point. The God whom the Athenians sought but did not know was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! They were not exactly overjoyed to hear this, being loath to accept the teaching on the resurrection of the dead (far too coarse a notion for their Platonic idealism!). But some did believe and began to follow the path to salvation that Paul preached.

It is easy to perceive today that many people are indeed very religious (though the preferred term is “spiritual,” which lacks the unwanted dogmatic or institutional connotations). It is also not difficult to find altars to an unknown god in the souls of many who may be sincerely seeking God but have not accepted the revelation of which St Paul speaks.

In a rather popular spiritual book I came to the following passage: “I still find something mysterious in such occasions, as if something unknown, finding us worthy, has used us just as we are to be an instrument of healing.” Such passages are not rare. Must it be “something unknown” that finds us worthy to be instruments of healing? Why not the God who has publicly revealed His everlasting love for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Because of the revelation of Christ, the power and wisdom and reality of God should no longer be regarded as “something unknown.”

Some people tend to seek spiritual experiences but may be too impatient or immature to live by faith. The long haul of daily faithfulness in spiritual life lacks excitement and stimulation, so they are on the lookout for loopholes and shortcuts. There are plenty of offers of spiritual experience out there, but they may not lead to the true God. It is convenient then to erect an altar to an unknown god. At least they keep their options open! Others like to be perpetual seekers, but they would prefer not to actually find the Truth, because then they might have to make a commitment or accept something that may be contrary to their own current beliefs or preferences. Up goes another altar. Dealing with an unknown divinity (or at least one that can be manipulated or does not make them accountable) tends not to cramp their style so much.

Still others would like the resurrection without the cross, seeking the rewards of spiritual life but avoiding its demands, perhaps employing the “a la carte approach” to belief and practice. If it suits their spiritual taste, fine; if not, forget it. They tend to conceive of and relate to God on their own terms without acknowledging His absolute rights on their lives, without accepting any authority outside of their own intelligence or intuition. Subjective experience often wins out over objective revelation. The true and manifest God is still not attained, but the unknown one will do fine for now.

It is inevitable then that altars to unknown gods will be going up everywhere, because people need to transcend themselves, to connect with a reality greater than themselves, to encounter God (or, as the case may be, something which they will end up calling God).

By word and example we need to proclaim as did St Paul that we know the God whom many are seeking without the knowledge which comes from the true faith. While it is true that God is beyond the concept of any human mind and cannot be wholly confined in any human institution, no one should have to build altars to an unknown god. For “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made Him known” (Jn. 1:18).