Monday, May 20, 2019


When St. Paul brought the gospel to Athens,
            he found a wonderful point of contact.
All around the city were altars to Zeus, Athena, Hermes, 
            Aphrodite, Ares and the rest of the gods.
But in one Athenian temple, 
            Paul found something mysterious 
            -- yet somehow familiar to him as a Jew.
He saw an altar dedicated to the unknown God.
So when Paul was given a chance 
             to explain his new religion,
he told the Athenians he worshiped the unknown God.

In my line of work, people sometimes ask me,
            So how do you know there is a God?
And I always think silently, 
            How do any of us know anything?

Bear with me, 
          I have to review just two minutes of philosophy. 
The father of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant, 
            divided reality into two categories.

One category was everything we know 
            or, at least in principle, might someday know.
The other category was the mystery, all the things
            that we do not know and will never know.
As a matter of logic, we can never know 
            what unobserved butterflies are up to.
As Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti put it, 
            The eye cannot see itself.

Kant demonstrated 300 years ago that 
            there is relatively little we can actually know.
What we can know is limited 
             to our own subjective experience, 
            but the realm of the unknown and the unknowable 
                        is infinite.

20thCentury physicist Werner Heisenberg discovered 
            that Kant was right even in physics.
Some things just can’t be known.

Around that time, philosopher Martin Heidegger showed 
            how the things we know create a kind of box 
            that we can never think completely outside of. 
He and Ludwig Wittgenstein also observed 
            that we think in language
                        and the very structure of language 
                        limits what we are capable of thinking.
In short, the mystery is vastly larger 
            than the little piece of reality 
            we can see, hear, touch, and measure.

What does that have to do with God? 
Short answer: everything.
Roman Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner said,
            (human) knowledge is only a small island in a sea 
            that has not been travelled. . . . 
            The question is: 
            Which do (w)e love more, 
            the small island of (our) so-called knowledge
            or the sea of infinite mystery?

Religion is our attitude to that sea.
Protestant Theologian Gordon Kaufman says that 
       God begins where our capacity for knowledge ends.
The knowable world rests on a foundation of mystery.
It comes from mystery.
This is what Paul means when he says,
            In God we live and move and have our being.
How can we expect to comprehend 
           that which comprehends us?

Whether the universe had a beginning or not
            is something we didn’t know until very recently
but it was always something that could in principle be proven.
Now it has been and we know that 
              the Big Bang Theory is right.
That’s how the universe began.

But what was there before the universe?
What happened five minutes before the Big Bang?
Who lit the fuse?
That is beyond the reach of human knowledge.

We can get hints of what the mystery is like
            from the things we can know and experience.
The Anglican poet T. S. Eliot called our religion 
            hints and guesses.
There is some reason to believe the mystery
            is creative and generous, kind and merciful.

We may be wrong. 
But spiritual masters through the ages and around the world
            have believed those good things
                        even though they cannot prove them.
Those who gaze in awe at the mystery, those who love it,
            call the mystery God.

Agnostics are a little different.
Intellectually, they are absolutely right.
God is not a thing you can prove or disprove.
They are intellectually right.

But emotionally, they are like a man 
            who cannot let himself fall in love with a woman
            because he can never be absolutely certain
                        what is in her heart.
Agnostics cannot love the mystery 
            because they don’t know enough about it.

Atheists are another matter still.
I like atheists. They are good for us.
The good thing about atheists is they smash our idols.
They take our too small ideas about God
            and show that they don’t make sense.

So atheists do us believers a good service
            by setting us free of idolatry.
But some atheists -- especially the pop atheists
           writing books for general consumption -- 
are intellectually arrogant and small minded.
You can see it in the mean spirited style of their writing.

Atheists deny the existence of God
            because they can’t  find his footprint 
            like that of a Sasquatch
            or get a picture of him at the Oscars.
They deny God because God is not 
            on our little island of knowledge.
God is the sea on which the island floats.
God does not dwell inside the box of things we know.
God is the air outside the box extending infinitely into space.
The problem with atheists is they worship the box.

Paul, as a good Jew, knew that God is mystery.
That’s why the God of Israel had no name and no image.
You could not say God is this or that.
You could not carve a statue of God.

In the Jerusalem Temple, the Ark of the Covenant
            served as God’s throne.
But the throne was apparently empty.
A conquering general once marched into the Holy of Holies
            and came out contemptuously announcing
            there was nothing there.
Other nations who had a pantheon of little gods
            called the Jews atheists because they had 
            no god with a name and a statue.
What the other nations didn’t get was that 
            Jews were worshiping the unknown God.

The greatest Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas 
            and the greatest Protestant theologian Martin Luther
            both called God the deus absconditus
                          – the hidden God –
            because God does not fit inside the human mind.
The human mind fits inside God.

That’s why  any religion that claims to have all the answers
            is to be avoided at all costs.
Such religions are mind killers and soul shrinkers.
True religion stands in awe at the shore of oceanic mystery.
We don’t have all the answers.
We have very few answers.
But we have a warehouse full of marvelous questions.

Our doctrines are not platitudes to satisfy the simple mind.
They are puzzles and enigmas 
            – a God who is three and one;
            a savior who is fully human and fully divine;
                        a God powerful enough to create the universe
                        but vulnerable enough to hang on a cross.

Whatever we say about God is not to define God, 
             to pin God down,
            but to make us shake our heads
            and know that we do not know.

What is the point of a religion that stands in awe
            rather than certainty?
The point is that it leads us outside our selves,
            outside the walls of what we think we know,
            beyond the prison of our pride
            into something larger, vastly larger, 
            than all the ideologies,
            all the self-help guides to fixing our own lives,
 all the programs and platforms humankind can imagine.
It leads us into wonder, inexhaustible wonder.