Greek speaking people like to pride themselves on their rich cultural and historical heritage: democracy, medicine, literature, politics. The list is quite impressive. Actually, talk with some of my relatives and you’ll soon be coerced to believe that Greeks invented just about every modern convenience imaginable from the computer to the cure for cancer. Needless to say, family get-togethers usually turn out to be quite lively.
The one thing that Greeks are not given enough credit for though is the discovery of God. I know what you’re thinking. Here we go again. Another egomaniacal Greek now trying to tell us that they’re the ones that found God! Ridiculous, I agree. I know there’s hyperbole here but let me explain.
When the apostle Paul traveled to Athens, he observed something that was taken for granted by Athenians: life revolved around gods and goddesses. Monuments, altars and temples adorned the whole city. Household gods in the form of little figurines were sold like souvenirs and treasured like little talismans. Yet something was desperately missing. There weren’t enough gods to give relief from the daily anxieties of life. Knowledge and religion were flourishing, but so too were emptiness and an unquenchable thirst for a deity not made of stone and silver. What these Athenians needed was an unknown God. And St Paul knew exactly where to find him.
You see Paul didn’t go to Athens to see the sights, look at some buildings and maybe catch a show at the famous theatre. What he saw in Athens deeply disturbed him. All Paul could see were hollow lives longing to find another spirit to fill their God-shaped hole. And unlike us who travel the world and are intrigued by the junkyard of empty religion or the false gods of wealth and pleasure, Paul was determined to help these people. Paul wanted to show them a treasure worth dying for. So he went everywhere in the city talking, teaching, reasoning, pleading with anyone who would listen.
In his movements about the city, Paul noticed something that would change the lives of not only the Athenians but also the whole world. Let’s follow along with St Luke’s account in the Book of Acts:
So Paul, standing before the [high] council [of the city], addressed them as follows: [Athenians] I notice that you are religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an unknown God.’ This God whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about. He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve his needs—-for he has no needs. He himself gives life to everything, and he satisfies every need . For in him we live and move and exist (Acts 17:22-28 NLT).
You could almost imagine Paul, with his battered and bruised legs, jumping with a happy ‘Eureka!’ This, finally, was the answer to everyone’s prayers. The unknown God of the Athenians was the one true God. And Paul preached this unknown God to the Athenians and to people everywhere he went. This same unknown God is the one that Christians believe, worship, proclaim and die for. Whew! That takes care of that. But wait a minute.
Who is this God? Who is this unknown God that has touched all of world history? Who is this being for whom so much ink has been spilled trying to understand? Well, the answer is (and must be) essentially unknown.
Yes I know, Scripture has revealed God to be the Lord of all creation, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I know that God IS. But there is still so much I don’t know. This unknown God also chose to become a man and live among us, only to be spit upon, punched, ridiculed and violently killed—all because He loves me. This unknown God has a love for me that is so consuming that it is almost fictional. He is the same God that becomes so painstakingly personal that he even controls every hair follicle that falls off my head, only to then hide from me over and over again. He is the God who stretches his hand to save me more times than I can count, while at times purposefully allowing me to suffer just when I feel strong. He dies for me because he loves me enough to want to make me a god, but then expects me to risk everything I have, my life included, telling others about it. So yes. God has revealed himself to me, but do I really know him?
In the Orthodox Christian church, there has always been a painful awareness that we’ll never know this being we call God. We’ll never understand the workings of this I Am who we know so little about. Really, there is an incapability for us to understand and express all that God is. All we can do is repeat the words of John of Damascus: “God is infinite and incomprehensible and all that is comprehensible about him is his infinity and incomprehensibility.” But wait! There is more.
Throughout history this unknown God still chooses to give us glimpses of himself. And yes, they are mere glimpses. It isn’t like God is playing peek-a-boo with us. But there is this sense that just when we think we know something more about him, he forces us to rethink everything and humbly say “surely I spoke of things I do not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” For how can we know God? How can we know someone who even eternity cannot contain?
In the book The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous author counsels us with this advice: “Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the darkness which you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however godlike, is not God.”
Even so, there is this nagging feeling that there has to be yet more. Because right when I’m doubting God invites me to come before him, to join in his embrace and to get to know him. And that’s when I discover that the answer must lie elsewhere. And it does. But it doesn’t lie in suddenly understanding the workings of a sovereign God. After all, we know more about what God is not than what he truly is. Rather it all boils down to love.
In one of his short but beautiful letters, St John connected knowing God with love:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:7-8 NIV).
Did you get that? “Whoever does not love does not know God.” All our inner yearnings can be fulfilled in this one line from St John. We can begin to get a foretaste of who this unknown God is if only we love each other. Not in some romantic, emotional way but with the same love that God showed us by sending Jesus Christ to die for us.
Is this not what Jesus Christ, in his final hours here on earth, prayed for his disciples? Listen as he prayed that they might know the only true God:
Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:26 NIV).
What Jesus is saying is that the more we love the more we get to know God. The more we get to know God the more we are drawn into the fellowship of the Trinity. There is something supernatural that happens when we love God. Something utterly unspeakable changes when we love each other the way the fellowship of the Trinity loves each other. We too will experience for each other the love that the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father. And as we are drawn closer into this ring of fellowship we will get to know a being so wonderful and joyful and loving and peaceful—so indescribable—that our whole existence will be stunned by the glory of this magnificent God. Suddenly, familiarity and friendship will replace doubt and the unknown.
Listen to St Symeon the New Theologian burst into delight, as he was surprised with a foretaste of being before God:
I cried and lived in an effable joy, to have seen You, You the creator of the universe. You judged me, the prodigal, worthy to hear your voice. And now I converse with you, the Master, as a friend to a friend.
As a friend to a friend—if only to live a moment like this with such a God. Maybe we won’t know everything about this friend nor always understand him, but we will have a friend who will never desert us. We will have a friend who dies for us.
St Paul showed the Athenians that their unknown God is more glorious than any trinket made of stone. God is a friend who dies to be with us. Paul experienced God’s friendship and got a foretaste of God’s glory, which is why he lived as he did. Read his letters. Everything he formerly held in such high esteem became for Paul like manure. How could it be otherwise? Nothing of importance in this life can matter after you experience God like Paul and Symeon did. Now wouldn’t you also gladly give it all up if only to get to know this unknown God?
John Kapsalis is a graduate of Holy Cross Seminary.