The Unknown God

Written by Devon Miller for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2020.

Acts 17:22-31

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

As one who is interested in the way other peoples relate to creation and the Creator, I have long been fascinated with this passage in Acts in which Paul dives headlong into cross-cultural understandings of the unknown mysteries of creation. My first real encounter with this passage occurred back in the late 1980s in Don Richardson’s book, Eternity in Their Hearts, as I was preparing for work among the Oji-Cree First Nations of Northwestern Ontario, Canada. In his book, Richardson gives the contextual background concerning the monument to the Unknown God Paul references in Acts.

As the story goes, five centuries prior to Paul’s visit, the city of Athens was in the midst of a plague in which thousands of people were dying. Their leaders inquired of an oracle who informed them that the plague was the result of  a curse placed on the city by a certain god that was unknown. To alleviate the severe scourge on the city, the oracle advised the leaders of Athens to send for a foreigner, Epimenides, a philosopher, poet, and prophet from the Island of Crete. History tells us that Epimenides responded to the invitation, and when he arrived in Athens, he asked his leaders to perform a test. He requested that a flock of sheep be brought to Mars Hill, and in the morning when the sheep were hungriest, be turned loose. Those that laid down rather than ate were to be sacrificed on altars built to the “Unknown God.” All went as Epimenides predicted, and once the animals were sacrificed, the plague lifted immediately from the city.

Is it too much of a stretch for us to imagine that Paul was aware of this story while he debated with the Athenians in the Areopagus? Paul was an educated leader; he was influenced by the Hellenistic world; and at one point, Paul quotes Epimenides the poet. In his letter to Titus, Paul warns of the brutish nature of the Cretans Titus would encounter by quoting what has come to be known as the Epimenides paradox, “All Cretans are liars!”

All of this may have little to do with what I want to talk about, except that, like our world today, the Athenians were in the midst of a epidemic. And as some still do today, they viewed the pandemic as being a curse from some god. That might be the easy way out, except the Athenians were humble enough to admit that maybe their understanding of who God was was limited. Our problem today seems to be that we think we know everything needed about God and that  a loving God would not place a curse on the whole world. I want to say that maybe there is still an unknown element of God that brought about the epidemic in Athens as well as the current pandemic.

As I read through this passage several times again over the past few weeks, I was struck with the awareness Paul had of the larger world beyond his own Judaism and the influence Greek philosophy had upon him. In today’s passage from Acts, Paul leads up to several quotes from Greek philosophers with this: “From one man he (God) made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). These are not thoughts unique to Paul. They are universal beliefs that we of Western thought have abandoned. I was reminded of this recently as I was reading Geronimo’s Story of His Life in which he says, “For each tribe of men Usen (the Almighty One) created, He also made a home. In the land created for any particular tribe, He placed whatever would be best for the welfare of that tribe” (Geronimo). Likewise, Largo, a Miami chief, when dealing with United States Commissioners on the fate of his people’s land in northern Indiana during the 1820s, told the commissioners, “You point to a country for us in the west, where there is game. We saw there is game there, but the Great Spirit has made and put men there who have a right to that game and it is not ours” (United States 1826). We could spend all summer talking of the ways in which Europeans have violated such boundaries, but that is not my purpose this morning. I am in pursuit of this unknown god of whom people around the world seem to have knowledge. 

Paul’s words steered my attention to an obscure and (extra-)biblical text that I have been sitting with throughout this winter. I first became aware of it as I was preparing for our worship series on the ecological crisis during Lent. It is a text from the Book of 2 Esdras, part of what we refer to as the Apocrypha, books between the Old and New Testaments which are typically not included in Protestant Bibles. These books are filled with beauty, wisdom, history, and poetry.

Second Esdras falls into the category of apocalyptic literature, meaning that it is revelatory, or unveils what is not obvious. In contrast to the Book of Job, which tries to explain why bad things happen to good people, the writer of 2 Esdras is trying to explain why God’s people ended up in Babylon in exile. Second Esdras is an explanation of why cataclysmic events occur on a large scale.

Not unlike the Athenians, but with a difference, the writer of 2 Esdras sees catastrophes as being the result of people’s sin. This seems to be the human response when natural disasters occur, whether hurricanes, tsunamis, disease, famine, drought, or flood. This was the Athenians’ response 2500 years ago to the plague that spread through their city. This was Europe’s response to the Bubonic plague during the 14th and 15th centuries. This was the world’s response to the flu epidemic and World War I in the early part of the 20th century. This was the response of some to Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005. This was the response to the earthquake in Haiti in January of 2010. Let’s take one of these as an example: the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death in Europe.

The Bubonic Plague arrived in Europe in 1347 on a ship filled with rats infested with fleas which carried the disease. Of course, the people of that time did not realize the cause, but as many as half the population of Europe lost their life to the plague. The disease affected the glands in the groin and the armpits, filling them with pus and then slowly turning black, thus the Black Death. After the initial wave, there were subsequent and significant outbreaks in 1363, 1374, 1383, 1388, and 1400. No family, royal or peasant, was left untouched except for those who lived in a few remote areas which had little or no interaction with the main population of Europe.

Because Europeans did not understand the cause of the disease, they looked for answers. Europe was at the height of extravagant living. Impressive Gothic architecture was born just prior to the plague. The elite were building expensive cathedrals throughout Europe, often in competition with each other to see  who could build the most elaborate and impressive structure. Many conjectured that the plague was a judgment upon the extravagant lifestyle Europe had become accustomed to.

Europe never returned to “normal” after the plague. Literature, the arts, politics, the economy, and religion remained changed forever. Nowhere is this more evident than in literature. Up until this time, literature’s primary focus, as was the rest of the arts, was grounded in religious topics. After the plague, literature embraced the common people and their problems. Pieces such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the story of a group of pilgrims on a journey to pay homage to a martyred saint, gives us a glimpse into a cross-section of society including milkmaids, judges, and priest—the first of its kind. It is difficult to imagine what our world would be like today had the Bubonic Plague not occurred. 

However, the Bubonic Plague was not a lone actor. There were other factors that contributed to the upheaval experienced by Europe during that period. Between the years of 1000 and 1300, the population of Europe had doubled, creating overcrowded conditions in many cities. Furthermore, Europe had just come through a famine in 1316 and 1317 which was caused by a drought. Unbeknown to Europeans, a volcano had erupted in Indonesia thousands of miles away, sending up a cloud of ash so large that the sun hardly ever shone during those two years causing widespread crop loss. This, combined with the fact that the world was in the middle of a one hundred-year cooling period led to many crop failures, making it very difficult to feed the burgeoning population. In many ways, Europeans had begun to step over the “boundaries and times” spoken of by Paul, and Geronimo, and Largo—and 2 Esdras.

This is precisely where 2 Esdras differs from other doomsday prophets. Beginning with the great deluge in Genesis, the writer explains that, yes, the flood was the result of sin, but that the sin was not immoral behavior, as we might think of it; rather, it was people stepping over the boundaries of what the earth could endure. I will let the writer tell it in his own words:

“From [Adam] sprang nations and tribes, peoples and clans without number. And every nation walked after its own will, they did ungodly things in your sight and rejected your commands, and you did not hinder them. But again, in its time you brought the flood upon the inhabitants of the world and destroyed them. And the same fate befell all of them, just as death came upon Adam. But you left one of them, Noah with his household, and all the righteous who have descended from him” (2 Esdras 3:7-11).

My impression is that the emphasis in this text is on the “without number” rather than on the “ungodly things” as being the cause of the flood. This is partly because in the very next verse the writer reiterates, “When those who lived on earth began to multiply, they produced children and peoples and many nations, and again they became more ungodly than were their ancestors” (2 Esdras 3:12). Sure, he brings up ungodliness again, but I get the feeling it had more to do with overstepping boundaries, and here is why I say that.

The writer gives a glimpse into what those boundaries include. In a descriptive exchange between the writer and an angel sent by the Lord in a vision, the angel tells the the writer, 

“Ask a woman’s womb, and say to it, ‘If you bear ten children, why one after another?’ Request it therefore to produce ten at one time.” I (the writer) said, “Of course it cannot, but only each in its own time.” He (the angel) said to me, “Even so I have given the womb of the earth to those who from time to time are sown in it. For as an infant does not bring forth, and a woman who has become old does not bring forth any longer, so I have made the same rule for the world that I created” (2 Esdras 5:46-49).

I find this to be a striking passage. For one, it speaks of the earth in terms of a mother with a womb. Second, it it speaks of a world with rules and boundaries that have consequences when violated.

Later on in the book of 2 Esdras, the writer has a vision in which the angel further explains how the limitations and boundaries of the earth work. These limitations, these boundaries, these foundations were set in place long before humans came along. And, speaking of these foundations, it is said that when they are violated they will “understand” and “will tremble, for they know that their end must be changed” (2 Esdras 6:16). It does not say that the foundation’s end will “come,” but that that their end will be “changed.” Furthermore, it will “come through me (the Lord) alone and not through another” (2 Esdras 6:6).

Is it possible that these rules, these limitations, these boundaries, are part of a God that we do not know, or at least do not recognize? I get really uncomfortable when people begin talking about population control. There is a lot that can go haywire when we as humans begin to tinker with such matters. Yet, I feel like we have overstepped our boundaries and our times. We have intruded on other peoples’ land, in other peoples’ space, in other peoples’ places. But, at least according to 2 Esdras, that is up to the Lord to handle, not “another.” When people have overstepped their boundaries in the past, the foundations of the earth have trembled with floods, plagues,  famines, and other natural occurrences—a god foreign to our concept of compassion and mercy.

Biologists say that the earth is biological, not passive as we are accustomed to think of it. And since it is biological, it has “rules” and “foundations” built into it that “tremble” when violated. Just as our bodies have immune systems that respond to foreign substances, so the world has mechanisms built into it that protect it from complete destruction. The ancients spoke of these mechanisms in terms of curses and punishments; today, scientists might refer to them as checks and balances.

As Europeans looked at their accomplishments of grand architecture and elaborate living, so today we have achieved a state of globalism never seen before in the world. The modern world takes great pride in having reduced the world to a phone call, a single flight, a single television signal away. But have we overstepped our boundaries? Have we broken the rules of mother earth set in place from the creation of the world?

I find passages and stories such as Noah, 2 Esdras, Acts 17, John 14, 1 Peter, Psalm 66, and even John 14 to be ecological texts more than doomsday texts. I also find them to be hopeful, not for me necessarily, but for the created world that we live in.

Recently I have been watching the Netflix series called Medici. It is about a powerful banking family in the city of Florence which had tremendous influence on the arts and religion during the 14th and 15th century throughout Europe. The family was always led by one of the men whose work it was to preserve and maintain the Medici family’s influence, not their own personal well-being. In a scene in which Cosimo de Medici, the head of the family, is waiting in jail to be executed for treachery by his adversary, the young Medici’s wife tells him, “We have to get you out of here. The family cannot survive without you.” Cosimo responds, “It can and it will. I have repented of my sin and I do not fear death. All that matters is to win back Florence.” But his wife, not convinced, argues “There is no [Medici family] if you are gone,” to which Cosimo declares, “If the Medici are going to shape history we must live beyond our own lifetimes. The whole tree does not die because one branch falls.” 

It must have soaked in, because soon afterward when Contissina, his wife, was being lured away to escape with a former lover, she retorts, “There are causes greater than our own happiness.”

Until we are freed from fear of our own death and the pursuit of our personal happiness, we will be inhibited from truly loving the world as Jesus loved the world. Jesus told his disciples,  “I will leave you an advocate—the Spirit of Truth. The world cannot accept him because it neither sees him or knows him. But you know him for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). Jesus lived beyond his own lifetime. He did not fear his own death, for he knew that through it the world would know how to be saved.

I am not claiming to have the answers. But if we think we can save the world from an ecological crisis through our own wisdom and greater technology, we will most likely die. If we are willing to lose our own lives and happiness for the benefit of the human family, there remains some hope.

Published by Florence Church of the Brethren Mennonite

We are an Anabaptist community that welcomes all people to join us in the work of local, national, and international peace and justice.

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