It would serve us well to listen carefully to Paul today. Paul is telling us about a radical God that we don’t get to hear about very often. His words might have originated in Athens, from the place where Greek philosophers would gather to argue and debate ideas. But make no mistake, Paul is speaking directly to us. And there is a sadness in his sermon and there is a certain joy. The joy is the proclaiming the living God in whom we live – we move- and have our being. The sadness is in realizing that God is essentially unknown to most North Americans.
The place and people to whom Paul was speaking was not much different than our world today. The Athenians were careful folks who liked to hedge their bets when it came to religion. Scattered throughout the city would have been statues and temples to numerous Gods. To Greek Gods, Romans Gods, Persian Gods, and many more. Newborns would often be dedicated at each temple, just to make sure that all the bases were covered. Zeus, Athena, Mithras, Poseidon were all honoured just to be sure.
And just in case any gods had been overlooked, there was the statue to the unknown God. A coverall, so as not to offend any other gods out there that didn’t have specific statues or temples.
When Paul was in Athens, his purpose wasn’t to preach or evangelize. He was just visiting, waiting for his friends to re-join him while they preached in a neighbouring city. Paul, was more like a tourist than a traveling preacher. Yet, when he saw this statue to the unknown God, he must have seen an opportunity. An opportunity to address a culture that was quite concerned with covering their religious bases by doing the right rituals and keeping the right rules. The Athenian philosophy of religion was, make the gods happy and they won’t bother you,
The pluralistic religious system of the Athenians is not all that far off from our modern version of religion that is practiced today. In fact, sociologists have come up with a term for the most widely “practiced” religion in North America, and it is probably not the familiar name of a denomination. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This term was born out of study North American Teens and their views on religion. There was a surprisingly high level of agreement on what teens thought about God and the faith. There was no difference in views between those who were regular church attenders their whole lives to those with no church background at all.
These are the core statements of their faith:
1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
Good people go to heaven when they die
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is basically the belief that God sets out some ground rules for behaviour which is the moralistic part. The Therapeutic part is that God is a being who exists to make us feel good and solve our problems. Deism is belief in a God who just created the world and left it to its own devices, God does not have much bearing on the rest of our lives and doesn’t really engage us personally.
The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the God of Oprah, Hollywood and financial gain. It is the God of inspirational greeting cards, reality tv, music videos and consumerism. Making money, being self-centered and ignoring the big issues of life are also encouraged, because God wants to send us to heaven as long we are good people, which most of us are.
This distanced, self centered approach to religion is precisely what Paul’s words address today. And this kind of religion is exactly what our sinful selves wish religion to be. The pluralism of the ancient greeks and modern day Moralistic Therapeutic Deism appeal to us at our basic levels. They are religions were we get to be in control, and God gets to be a divine therapist and butler. They don’t demand anything of us, and they don’t intrude on our daily lives in any kind of real way. They are the perfect religion for a curved in on itself humanity.
As Paul walked around the Aeropagus, looking at the variety of statues he must have been asking himself,
What about sin?
What about evil?
What about death?
What about hope?
What about grace?
What about love?
For Paul, all of the greek Gods would have been unknown. His are the questions that none of the unknown Gods could begin to answer. These are the questions that sit below the surface when life is going well, but that rise up and force us to consider them when things go wrong, when life begins to hurt, to be painful. The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems pretty empty in the face of addiction, disease, divorce and separation, in the face of death. It seems pretty empty in the face love, beauty, sacrifice and wonder too.
In fact, the unknown gods of the ancient greeks and of our modern world are not really gods at all when compared to the God who washes, names, dies with us and raises us to new life all in the one baptism. These gods not compare to the One who feeds, forgives, joins and loves in communion. The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism does not compare to the God who was born, who lived with us, who died on the cross and rose on the third day in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul sees the opportunity with the statue of the unknown God, to show his audience that God is known. And even more so, that God knows us. As Paul preaches to the Athenians:
What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. God is known.
What a radical difference from what the Athenians knew. Paul does not just re-interpret the unknown God, but re-interprets the whole religious system. The God that Paul knows is the one who created all things. The God that Paul knows is the one who gives us life and movement and being — and does not require petty sacrifices in order to show mercy. The God that Paul knows, know us — knows what it is like to be born, to live, and die as one of us.
The who God knows us sees us — all of us. Sees our faults and failures, our imperfections and loses. Our confusion and blindness. Our intolerance and bigotedness. Our despair and frailty. Our successes and hopes. Our dreams and desires. Our joys and our loves. All of these God sees.
The God who knows us hears us — our pleas for help. Our anger and frustration. Our sadness and sorrow. Our celebrations and thanksgivings. Our happiness and our wonder. Our normal and everyday words. All of these God hears.
This God who knows us loves us — all of us. God loves all of us as a whole. All of us as individuals. All of us personally, intimately, completely. This God loves us despite our sinfulness and despite our faithfulness. This God who knows us simply loves us without condition.
The unknown Gods of ancient and modern times promise heaven for good behaviour.
But the God who knows us promises New Life to those that are dead. New Life for all creation. New Life for each one of us.
In a world that is often looking to cover its bases and for people whose best vision of what God could be is a divine therapist and butler, God offers so much more.
As Paul preaches to the Athenians and to us, the unknown distant gods that we try to make happy are not gods at all. The God of all creation, of all life, of all that moves of all that is. This God is known. This God is known because this God first knew us. As Paul preaches:
What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. This God knows us.