When I began teaching, one of the recurring bad dreams I had was standing up in front of a classroom of students and either having forgotten my notes or not knowing anything about the subject I was supposed to teach. It would have been helpful if I had taken a tip from St Paul. In order to set everyone at ease, and to engage straight away with his audience, he compliments them. So, trying it out, I think you are a lovely mob of people.
What is unusual about Paul’s speech is that it is so unlike what we hear in his letters in the New Testament. The letters were written to churches, to his fellow believers. But the speech in Athens was to those outside the church, to pagan worshippers and people of the city. So Paul’s speech has special value for us, because in our culture it is so difficult to speak and be heard by non-believers today. Paul reaches out to his listeners in ways they would understand, just as we have to speak in terms our generation understands.
Athens in the first century had seen its day and was in decline, but it was a still a cultural capital. As he walked around the city, Paul saw lots of statues to many different gods. So far to me it sounds like Melbourne: we have lots of monuments to many gods: we call them corporate and financial headquarters, shopping malls, and sports stadiums, all of which make Melbourne a great city, but which can also draw us away from the first love which God desires of us.
When we become very devoted to something, it can almost become like a religion, or meet religious-type needs. There was a TV show a few years ago which featured a neuroscience expert. He put volunteer subjects into a CAT scan machine to observe how their brains reacted to various images shown to them. When sports participants were shown pictures of their own competitive sport, there was a rise in activity in the same area of the brain as when a religious person was shown a picture of the Virgin Mary or a crucifix. The conclusion seemed obvious: other things besides God can fill our basic human need for something to worship.
What this study failed to acknowledge is the amazingly good fun that sport provides, together with better health and socialising. So it must be a gift from God. It’s just a question of how we receive it, or any other activity, and whether they draw us away from the living God or towards him. The other thing the programme missed is that maybe we really were created with a god-hole inside of us, a need to have something that fills us with awe and wonder.
We can look in many different places for goodness, truth, and beauty. If we search earnestly, so much in life’s experience can be enriching and a source of fulfilment. St Ignatius, a 15th century Christian, wrote that all good things come ‘from above’, from their origin in God, as waters flow from their source, and rays of light from the sun. So, continuing Easter themes, as we look to the source in the Risen Jesus, he shows himself to us in a multitude of ways - in the beauty of the face of someone close to us, in friendship, in a sunny day, in art or poetry, in sport, or whatever is our interest.
As Paul looked around Athens he saw gods that were not gods. Paul observed that Athenians did not really know who they were worshipping – he tells them in his speech that he perceives that they are very religious. But that was a kind of damning with faint praise. It does us more harm than good to just go through the motions of worship, to cover all the bases as it were. Paul challenges his listeners’ superficiality in their worship.
Paul’s attention was particularly drawn to an altar inscribed with the words ‘to an unknown god.’ This could have been an altar on a desecrated grave, a kind of insurance policy to cover all the bases and pacify any disturbed spirit. Sometimes we do that with religious pictures, wearing a cross, or carrying a big bible. Paul saw such things as a way into the hearts of his listeners, saying he could tell them all about this unknown God. It’s something we could try if we know someone who wears a cross as a piece of jewellery.
Paul then gives us a wonderful description of God that Jews and Christians and maybe even with Muslims can relate to: God made the world and everything in it; he does not live in temples made by human hands; he is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything; he gives to all humanity life, breath, and everything. Human art and imagination cannot adequately conceive of him. Yet God is not far from each of us: in him we live, move, and have our being. And then Paul gives his explicit Christian affirmation that God has fixed a day for judgement by Jesus, his resurrection being our assurance that he will return.
In every generation worshippers need to let go of false images of the God we worship. As I reflected on these verses I became aware of a tendency in me to confine God to times of my religious activities, or a desire for him to working magically in my life; and how so unprepared I am to find him moment by moment in things of the day.
It is so easy to have erected altars in our hearts to the ‘unknown God.’ But thankfully God has placed a hunger in us for something spiritual; and he gives us a freedom to decide how we will satisfy that hunger.
St John of the Cross, a Spanish monk, believed the only way we could come to God was if everything else we rely on was stripped away. If we would really find him, we had to be stripped of reliance on concrete things, even though they might help us initially. Maybe we need a certain obscurity in our faith, and finally we may even need to leave behind pride in our own understanding, in order to come to God by love; because the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is more than our hearts and minds can ever imagine. In him we live and move and have our being.
Someone else has written this prayer:
Lord, I do not know you but I seek you. I have glimpses of you in the face of Christ. Sometimes I feel close to you in the sacraments and in prayer. I know you in dark times too: when I am in utter desolation, my heart tells me, ‘There must be something beyond this.' These glimpses are always a gift, a grace, a promise, a momentary lifting of the veil. Thank you, in Jesus’ name. Amen.