Acts 17:10-34 To an unknown God

In his speech to the Athenians, Paul begins to make the unknown God known. Beyond that, he makes the clearest statement of the purpose of human existence in all of scripture. Gerald May writes:

As far as I know, only one place in the Bible explains why God created human beings. The apostle Paul, preaching to the Greeks in Athens, says that God created us “so that we might seek God and find God”…According to this theology we are not only born with God at our center, but we are also born with a heart full of desire for God. This yearning is our fundamental motive force; it is the human spirit (1).

Being a spiritual seeker myself, it makes sense to me that this seeking is fundamental to my nature. But Paul says that we’re also created to find God, and that’s a little more challenging. History is full of people who have claimed that they have found God, that the unknown has become entirely known to them, and many of these people were violent, terrible, and oppressive. Once we’re sure that we know God, it’s easy for us to attack and vilify those who don’t agree with our certainties.

The problem lies with our modes of knowing. If we think that knowing God means assenting to a bunch of theological ideas, we can quickly become bigots and attack those who don’t hold share those ideas. But what if believing isn’t about assenting to certain ideas, but is, instead, about giving our hearts to God? What if belief is based on relationship, and not intellectual knowing? Fans of Marcus Borg will know that his book The Heart of Christianity is the source of this idea. In it, Borg takes apart a lot of our understandings of belief, showing that they stem from the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and intimating that they would have surprised Paul. Borg writes:

That Christian faith is about belief is a rather odd notion, when you think about it. It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads—as if “believing the right things” is what God is most looking for, as if having “correct beliefs” is what will save us. And if you have “incorrect beliefs,” you may be in trouble. It’s remarkable to think that God cares so much about “beliefs.” Moreover, when you think about it, faith as belief is relatively impotent, relatively powerless. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power (2).

Instead, Borg suggests, faith and belief have been about relationship instead of intellectual assent for most of Christian history. We find God by being in a steady, ongoing relationship with God in our lives, which doesn’t mean that we always “get it right” or understand everything perfectly. Paul knew this. The person who stands in front of the Areopagus in Athens is the same person who will tell the Corinthians that we see through a glass darkly. He is calling people into relationship with God, and that changes how we might think about judgment. He very clearly thinks that all of history is about calling the nations into this relationship, and we will be judged by the terms of the relationship. What matters isn’t that we get everything absolutely right, but that we foster relationship with God and allow it to transform us. In this understanding, seeking and finding become the same thing. If we are true to the purpose of our created nature, then what we must do is seek God. God is right there, so finding God is easy. Yet we must continue to find God as we grow in our relationship with the divine, day in and day out.

 

(1) Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul

(2) Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity

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