To an Unknown God

(Sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2011 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31)

I wonder what Paul was thinking as he walked the streets of Athens. I’m sure that the many-columned Parthenon was looking down on him from atop the Acropolis, as this temple of Athena had for nearly five hundred years. But no matter the goddess Athena’s appeal, down every street, Paul sees another crumbling monument to one deity or another. He studies them carefully. I imagine he finds statues of all the Greek gods and perhaps other ones from far off places, considering Athens’ booming tourism trade.

At one point on his walk, however, Paul comes across something he doesn’t expect. He stumbles upon an altar with an odd inscription: “To an unknown god.” Now, Paul is no stranger to being run out of town, but he is also never one to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So, after seeing the inscription, Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who this unknown God is.

God, he says, is not like the gods of these gold, silver, and stone monuments. God is Lord of heaven and earth. God isn’t bound to set roles like your local gods. God breathes life into all things. God doesn’t live in a special house somewhere. God is not far from each one of us everywhere. And yet, while Paul’s sermon is full of stirring and magnificent images of God, I can’t help but wonder if the phrase “unknown God” still applies more than any other.

Now, I’m going to warn you that we are about to wade into particularly deep and boggy theological waters. I confused myself thoroughly trying to write all of this down, so if your brain starts to hurt, you’re not alone. However, I have confidence that with some help from our friend C.S. Lewis and a stiff breeze from the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel, we will all come out on the other side of the bog with our minds intact. Are you with me? Good.

The Mythbusters try to pull apart two interlocked phonebooks

So two extremes play tug-of-war with this concept of our “knowledge of God.” In the case of the first extreme, I claim to have captured God, strapped the Divine to the operating table, and figured out what makes God tick. When I’m done with the exploratory surgery, I stuff and mount God on the wall just like a prize twelve-point buck. With my experimentation complete, I know just what button to push to make God act in my favor, and oddly enough, God disagrees with all the same people I do. This is the extreme where I have God pegged. Now, you might have spotted the flaw in this point of view. (Remember – we’re talking about extremes, so flaws are more common out here.) The flaw here is, of course, the delusion that God is small or mundane enough for me to figure out what makes God tick.

The other extreme is, naturally, the complete opposite of the first. In the case of the second extreme, I claim to have absolutely no ability to comprehend a God who exists for eternity in infinity. When I try to get a handle on God, I am at a complete loss for words and I must conclude that God is so unsearchably unknowable that I might as well give up. I’m an amoeba trying to read Shakespeare. But I make peace with my teeny-tinyness, and I go about my day trying not to have delusions of grandeur, in which I might rise to a level of intelligence that allows me to comprehend even a shred of what God is about. Of course, there’s a flaw here, too. The flaw in this extreme is the faulty thinking that God is too big and majestic to bother with an amoeba like me, no matter the evidence that God has been surprising humanity for millennia by encounters with the Divine, including one in which God sent his only Son to be an amoeba like me.

Now, each of us exists somewhere along the spectrum between these two extremes. When I really need something to happen – to get a job or pass a test or receive successful treatment – I might trend toward the first extreme, in which God comes at my beck and call. When something really terrible happens in the world – a huge earthquake or massive flooding or a category five tornado – I might trend toward the second extreme, in which God may exist in the ether of eternity but surely can’t be bothered with things here on lil’ ol’ Earth.

Do you see what’s happening here? My experience of God changes depending on my needs in the moment. I slide along the spectrum between the two extremes. The unique mixture of my appetites, yearnings, successes, failures, doubt, and faith paints a picture of the God to whom I address my prayers. And whatever else that painting may be, there is one thing that the picture surely is not. And that is an accurate portrait of God. This is why I wonder if the phrase “unknown God” still applies more than any other.

Now, as I tried to wade out of my confusion while writing this sermon, two questions struck me after that whole bit about the extremes. They might be on your mind right now, as well. First, if the God I’m worshiping isn’t really God, but rather my conception of God, then what’s the good of praying? And second, if I’m not really worshiping God, doesn’t that make me an idolater? This is when we need to call in one of the heavyweights.

C.S. Lewis wrote an incredible poem called “A footnote to all prayers.” He begins:

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable name, murmuring thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing thou art.

These Pheidian fancies are works of the Greek sculptor Phidas, the very statues of gods and goddesses that Paul saw in Athens. Lewis knows that, even when he tries to call upon God, the best he can do is some symbol that could never do God justice. He continues:

Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts…

Lewis poetically describes the same predicament we were in a minute ago: in prayer, we address the gods of our own “unquiet” thoughts and thus we blaspheme. But the poem is only half over, for Lewis continues: [we blaspheme]

…unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully…

Even someone of C.S. Lewis’ verbal skill aims his prayer-arrows unskillfully, always at some conception of an “unknown” god than at the one, true God. But, in the end, our story isn’t really about you and me. Our story is always and forever about God working in, around, and through us, no matter how unknown God may be to us. And God’s story is all about God’s “magnetic mercy,” by which God pulls our prayers to God, even though we shoot them far wide of the target. Lewis concludes:

Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

As we slide along the spectrum between the two faulty extremes of our conception of God, we can only speak in “limping metaphor.” But the true God, according to Lewis, speaks in “great, unbroken speech.” This is the speech that voiced light in the beginning and continues to sustain creation. This is the speech that speaks each one of us into being everyday, no matter the degree to which the speaker is unknown to us.

To tell you the truth, this unknown quality of God will be with us until God takes us fully into God’s glorious presence. Indeed, the unknown quality will keep us searching and reaching out and finding God in even the unlikeliest of places. And I believe that God redeems our lack of knowledge through God’s magnetic mercy. God translates our limping metaphor into the leaping speech of abundant life (even the words I’m speaking right now). Here’s the good news. In the end, our knowledge of God places a far distant second to God’s knowledge of us. As Paul says to the church in Corinth: someday “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

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