Saturday, May 16, 2020


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, “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
     because in principle they cannot be known.
As a matter of logic, we can never know 
    what unobserved butterflies are up to.
As J. Krishnamurti put it,  “The eye cannot see itself.”

Kant demonstrated 300 years ago that 
    there is relatively little we can actually know.
But the realm of the unknown and the unknowable 
     is infinite.

20th Century 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 what we do know can block us from knowing 
    other things that might be knowable,
    how our knowledge creates a kind of box 
    that we can never think completely outside of. 

He and Ludwig Wittgenstein both 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” Rahner said, “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.”

Until recently, we didn’t know  whether the universe 
had a beginning or not -- but it was always something 
that could in principle be proven.
Today, we know that the Big Bang Theory is right.
That’s how the universe began.

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

Side note: When the Big Bang was proven,
the greatest philosophical atheist of the 20th Century, 
Anthony Flew, converted to believing in God.
We get clues about 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.”
The creation gives us reasons 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 these 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 take a different attitude.
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 fall in love with a woman
    because he cannot be absolutely certain
             what is in her heart.
Agnostics cannot love the mystery 
    because they don’t know enough about it.
They cannot love what they have not first mastered.

Atheists are another matter still.
I like atheists. They are good for us.
They smash our idols.
They take our too small ideas about God, the little gods
    we keep like genies in bottles to meet our needs.

They show us that our too small ideas about God 
      don’t make sense.
Atheists do us believers a good service 
       by debunking idolatry.
But most atheists, especially these days,
are intellectually arrogant and small minded.
You can see it in their sarcastic mean spirited writing style.

Atheists deny the existence of God
    because they can’t  find his footprints
    or get a picture of him at the Oscars.
They deny God because God is not 
on their 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 forever 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 empty.

A conquering general once marched 
    into the Holy of Holies
    and came out contemptuously announcing 
          there was nothing there.
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.”

Our images of God are always too small.
Rilke wrote,
“We must not portray you in king’s robes,
         you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.”
The greatest Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas 
    and the greatest Protestant theologian Martin Luther
    disagreed about everything else,
    but they both called God the “deus absconditus”
                 – the hidden God –
    because God doesn’t fit inside the human mind.
The human mind fits inside God.
As St. Augustine said, “If you understand it, it isn’t God.”

That’s why any religion peddling 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 simple minds.
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 draws us outside ourselves,
    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.