I certainly grew up in a culture that valued knowing God and, in particular knowing that you were saved. “Do you know what will happen to you after you die?” was not an infrequent question in high school and young adulthood. I confess that I never knew quite how to answer it. Somehow it seemed if everything depended on something I knew, which seems to me quite a different thing from something in which I had faith.
That’s why I love the passage from Acts that is the first reading this Sunday, Acts 17:22-31.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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.’” (vv. 1-2)
Paul then goes on to state some very important parts of a Christian worldview—that the one God is the creator of all, that God is beyond imagination, that the one God is the God of all, that God has made all the peoples of the earth of one blood, and that God’s creation encourages all of God’s creatures to reach out and search for him. In other words, the searching is more important, much more, than the knowing.
Here’s the key, though, in my opinion. Nowhere in the passage does Paul use exclusively Christian language. Nowhere. Jesus is not mentioned. Christ is not named. Instead, the commonality of all is affirmed as God’s ultimate plan. That which divides people from one another, including religious language, does not serve God’s purpose.
Now, I am a Christian. I do not believe in any other God but the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel (et al.!). I believe God made Godself known to the Hebrew people and revealed Godself uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth. As I said in last week’s reflection, I believe no one comes to the Father but by him.
I do not believe God is so small, though, as to be defined by details of what people call God. Paul suggests as much in his speech to the Athenians in which he refers to the smallness of shrines of human origin are incapable of holding the living God.
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (vv. 24-25)
The names by which we know God are just words, products of imprecise human language incapable, even in poetry, of doing anything more than point to the truth about God, but never containing it, most certainly not in its fulness.
And before we Christians get too self-righteous about what we know and what we don’t know, perhaps we should remember the Gospel reading that accompanies this passage from Acts this coming Sunday. “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (Jn. 14:21) It’s not about knowing names. It’s about loving with substance. The form is far less important. By the standard Jesus stated, I suspect we’re all missing the mark.
That’s why the work of Love Must Act, to meet Jesus in relationship with the poor has nothing to do with names. It has to do with loving and acting. It’s why our meetings begin with this prayer:
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth. May our work together be to tear down walls; to erase the idea of us and them, ours and theirs; to make education a matter of justice and not of charity; to transform the world by transforming ourselves; and to love so that we might live. To you, O God, by whatever name you are known and whether you are known by any name at all, we pray. Amen.