Unknown gods

For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” (Acts 17:23)

So what is an unknown god? Is it a god who is so distant and inscrutable that he is unknowable? Is it a god who is so indistinguishable that she’s simply overlooked? Or is it a god of whom we are unaware, but want to be sure that we have all the bases covered—just in case?

Regardless of the reason that god is unknown, the fact of the matter is that great numbers of people today do not follow, worship, or pay attention to the God of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity). Perhaps as a result of fundamentalisms in all three, rigid and unloving stances on social issues, the rise of secularism and materialism, the loss of awe and mystery—for these and many other reasons—there’s a growing number of people for whom the very idea of God is either irrelevant or nonsense. They aren’t necessarily aggressive, evangelical atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. Religious devotion is just not a part of their conversation, experience, or practice.

Although surveys in the United States indicate that a majority claim to be Christian, the reality is that fewer and fewer of them attend church on any regular basis. 

This is very different from the ancient world where the idea of God was almost unquestioned. When Paul toured the city of Athens, he saw the objects of worship everywhere, including the altar to an unknown god. The First Century was so filled with deity—that Paul was able to take advantage of the situation: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” 

That’s not to say that there aren’t gods that people worship functionally. But for many people in our time the very possibility of God is questionable.

O, we have idols galore that we worship with our time, our energy, our devotion, our resouces: public figures, sport, Hollywood. Each has it’s own liturgy. Each provides an array of gods and goddesses for our worship. Even if we don’t follow their examples, their every word and action is followed on social media and cable channels.

What grabs my attention right up front is that Paul, seeing objects of Athenian worship on almost every corner, did not turn it into an occasion for a tirade against polytheism and idolatry. But, rather, he asked what might be beneath this particular idol, and how could he bring news of Jesus to bear.

So it has often been among us Christians. Rather than always objecting to the predominant culture, we’ve adopted what we could and then brought our message in a way that could be understood within that culture. Passover and Pentecost were Jewish festivals.

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, held in late December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: for example, masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.” Obviously, we baptized Saturnalia and renamed it Christmas.

When St. Patrick went to Ireland he saw circles painted and engraved everywhere he went. They were the symbol of the Druids. Did Patrick try to erase and obliterate the circles? No! He drew a cross through each one, thereby creating the Celtic Cross and honoring the culture that he encountered.

Although our conscious world of the 21st Century isn’t filled with divinity on every corner, I do believe that we can learn from Paul’s methodology. Rather than condemn, we might first take his cue to listen carefully to the culture and to discern the deeper longing. What hungers do the idols feed? 

  • Do they reflect our deep desires for completion and fulfillment? 
  • Do they reveal our fears and insecurities? 
  • Do they show a profound anxiety that our lives lack purpose and meaning?
  • Do they expose an intense nostalgia for the way things were—an aching sadness and grief over an imaginary past? 

I’m convinced that we are spiritual beings. I’m just as certain that Jesus provides a way to God, as Paul told the Athenians: “In him we live and move and have our being.”  

But the Church has lost the ability to reach many, perhaps because we’ve stopped listening. We continue to expect folk to come to us at our regular times and services. But the way we do things and the language we use doesn’t connect to them. Obviously, it works for us (or most of us), else we wouldn’t be here. 

Rather than sit around bemoaning the past, having a pity party, and feeling bad . . . or blindly hoping that somehow current trends will change, we need to move out, because that’s where Jesus and his Spirit are leading. 

I encourage all of us to take the initiative to engage, to start a listening process and possibly a conversation. 

Summer is almost upon us. Graduation season is here; end of the school year; Mother’s Day will be quickly followed by Memorial Day. I’m almost finished planting my garden as are some of you. Warm nights; aromas of grills and barbeques are in the air. Baseball is fully underway. 

Many of our children and grandchildren’s teachers will soon be giving out summer assignments—reading lists, worksheets, projects to complete before returning for the next school year. What follows is my proposal for your summer assignment.

Summer is a time for many to re-connect with neighbors as we spend more time out-of-doors. It’s also the season for vacations and family re-unions. It’s a grand opportunity to listen – that deep listening to the hearts and thoughts and fears and joys of those around us. 

  • What excites and what saddens them?
  • What is it about their experience or perceptions of organized religion that don’t attract them?
  • Where do they find hope and joy? 
  • What feeds their spirits?

You may be having these conversations already in one way or another. What I’m suggesting is to do it more intentionally . . . listening to others.

Just as Paul walked around an unknown city and paid attention, so I invite you to take that walk, listening and pondering carefully.

There’s no expectation that you file a report or share your findings in a formal way. But perhaps you’ll learn some things that we as a community can benefit from as we explore our own communities in our day and time. What can we adopt, or re-baptize, or change in order to bring news of God in Christ?  Who knows, maybe we’ll even discover new altars to unknown gods whom we can name as one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” 


About The Author

Scroll to Top