The Unknown God

Daily Devotional for Monday, February 15, 2021 from Rev. Eric Douglass

For our Monday meditations, we have begun a series on ‘early church life,’ as found in the Book of Acts.

Meditations on the Early Church: The Unknown God
Acts 17:19-23: So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 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.’

It all began as a joke. Two of my friends—Alexander and Callistus—thought it up during one of our late-night meetings. I remember that evening. Alexander was in one of his creative moods, when he came up with the idea:
“Let’s create a god who is unknown…it’ll be a laugh.”
I joined in: “Let’s build an alter to it.”
Callistus, not to be left out, added: “And engrave on it: ‘To An Unknown God.’”
“And set it up for the commoners to worship,” Alexander smirked.
Now, I should stop for a moment and tell you that we are all Stoic philosophers. We believe that there is only one god—universal reason—and that this god permeates everything. So we reject polytheism (that there are many gods). Indeed, we poke fun and smirk at the common Greeks, who believe in all sorts of crazy gods.
Now, you may think that I am kidding about ‘all sorts of crazy gods,’ but I assure you that I am not. The Greeks do believe in a few major gods, like the ones you’ve heard of: Zeus, Hera, Hades, and so on. But they also believe in a myriad of minor gods, of which there are hundreds. They include the god of weddings and the goddess of rainbows, the god of beekeeping and the goddess of flowers.
A god of beekeeping! Have you heard of anything so stupid? I suppose it comes from their fears. Some random beekeeper had a bad season, harvesting little honey to sell at the market, and so started a cult to the beekeeping-god. Then, by offering prayers and sacrifices, they hope to ‘gain the favor’ of their made-up god.
Oh, and these gods are also jealous of each other. If you give sacrifices to one, then the others send plagues because you did not choose them first! For example, if your bees all die, it is because you gave gifts to the goddess of flowers, and the god of beekeeping felt slighted. Can’t you see how irrational this is?
Of course, we Stoics know better. We see rationality in the universe, and so our god is the universal reason that governs all things. We have nothing irrational, like gods fighting or gods being jealous…or like an unknown god, wandering around causing havoc because you have ignored him! Hence our little joke.
So, Alexander and I found some large stones, while Callistus borrowed a chisel and engraved “To the unknown god” into the stone’s face. It was an adolescent joke. Honestly, we didn’t think anyone would take it seriously. But the next day, when we went to observe our work, there were three Greeks, bowing and waving grain in front of it. Unbelievable! It has been the same every day since.
It was not long after this ‘unknown god’ incident that we were listening to a lecture, when several of our philosophy brethren brought a man named Paul to the group. We quickly pushed the current lecturer out—he was both long-winded and quite the bore—and dragged this new man to the stage. He looked like a Jewish rabbi, and so we expected to get a good laugh out of his quaint ideas…a nice way to enliven a fairly dull morning.
Only this Paul didn’t talk like a rabbi. Instead of putting on a reverential look and stating that the Jewish God is the only God, he said that our people were surprisingly religious! Of course, we would not disagree. But then he started talking about our little joke—the alter to an unknown god—as if it were real! The three of us start to laugh and giggle, like teenagers who put a thumbtack on our teacher’s seat. We made ready to enlighten Paul over this ‘unknown god’ issue.
But then he said something that resonated with me: “God made the world, and so does not need to live in temples…indeed, God does not need anything from humans.” Now this is something I have been saying for some time now. After all, if God made all the grain, then why does God need a grain offering! Perhaps this is what Paul means when he talks about an ‘unknown god’…for we don’t really know what God wants of us. We get little glimpses of God in nature, but our picture is inadequate. In stating that we ‘know God’, we have only revealed our ignorance.
Later that night, at home, I keep thinking about God as ‘an unknown God.’ My god is impersonal, like a logic-machine that doesn’t care a whit about human emotions or pain or suffering. But if God created our emotions, then aren’t emotions good? Even valuable?
I suddenly realize that I’ve been missing something…that I’ve been missing any serious engagement with my joys and sorrows and griefs and angers and regrets. I’ve built walls to contain my emotions so that nothing hurts me. And now I don’t feel anything…not even any joy. I feel like a dusty old book, full of letters and words, but with no passion. This is where my made-up god led me.
A tear wells up in my eye as all of my feelings come pouring through the breech in my walls…as I experience having a heart…and it hurts and it is painful and it is joyous…but most importantly, it is genuine. The unknown God has come home. And I go to bed wondering what I will learn from Paul tomorrow.

Our Lord:
We have too often created our own gods,
designed to meet our own needs and our own hopes,
but futile and weak
as they have no real power.
Damaging and hurtful
as they care for no one.
Now is the time to condemn our make-believe gods.
Let us return to the house of the Lord,
for he cares for us, and looks out for us,
and stands beside us.
Hand in hand, let us ascend the hill of the Lord,
For our God’s house is not far…
It is in our hearts.

About the Author
Eric Douglass is the covenant pastor at New Hanover Presbyterian Church, where his work emphasizes adult education. Writing meditations is a natural extension of this. During the current pandemic, his goals have been to ensure that the folk at New Hanover see the deep connection that they have to God and the community, even though the community can’t meet in person. This connection is not just one of continued fellowship, but of God’s presence in the community. God stands with us, no matter what path we are on. In this way, God acts like the father and mother who refuse to abandon their child, no matter how wayward that child, or how difficult the situation. Psalm 23 captures this perfectly: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Eric is a graduate of the University of Missouri, initially earning a degree in biology, and then his medical degree from that university’s Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he earned a Masters in Divinity and a Masters in Theology from Union Theological Seminary, here in Richmond. Since that time, he has authored two books, frequently delivers papers at the Society for Biblical Literature, and is an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon College. But the work he enjoys the most is teaching at New Hanover. Whether in casual discussion during the coffee hour, or a structured Sunday School class, or a Wednesday night special event, this is where he finds authentic people engaged in living out their life with God. Eric lives in Mechanicsville, VA, with his wife (Felecia). He enjoys doing fine cabinetry work and hiking. He has two children, Michael and Daniel, who both live in the DC area. His family is especially fond of playing board games, through which they have whittled away many a winter’s evening.