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The Unknown God

The Reverend Ben Brown

‘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… I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god” (Acts 17:22-24).


So begins a remarkable sequence in The Acts of the Apostles. We will return to it more directly in a moment. Before we do, I’d like to reflect on the difference between a known God and an unknown God. A known God is perhaps a revealed God. Words and qualities have been attributed to God as if we know God. God is good and wise and eternal. In certain traditions, certain churches, God becomes a space where all notions of goodness are placed. This also happens with Christ. Jesus is merciful, forgiving, loving, inclusive. However, terrible danger awaits us as we shower the known God with our names. God risks becoming a house-hold god, the ineffable becomes the cliché. If you don’t believe me have a good long look at some of our religious language.


What is fascinating about the sequence in Acts is how Paul stresses the nature of divine transcendence. ‘The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands’ (24). Paul is underlining the unknown in God, the that which cannot be contained within the shrines of our minds and our hearts. ‘For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said (28).


This reflection then is a reflection on the importance, indeed the indispensability, of the unknown when it comes to God, and it applies also to our language about Jesus. Who has not grown sick to the back-teeth and beyond the back-teeth when we have heard of a cuddly, loving, bouncing, boring, horrible Jesus who comes and delicately offers you humous when you are lonely? Who has not grown ill with a vision of God that has lost all of its mystery, depth and fearfulness and become like a smiling solution to a problem or a silly sky-god father who lives in a palace in the sky?


No, we want, we need, the living God, the God beyond all our liberal and conservative day-dreams (that doesn’t mean we won’t reach for God through our conservative or liberal biases, we will, but we need to be careful that we don’t simply cover up the living God with our projections).

In The Cloud of Unknowing the wise anonymous monk who wrote it, draws attention, again and again, to how the real God is a transcendent reality and is beyond any amount of conceptual knowledge. The living God touches us through love rather than through knowledge. This is the wisdom that the mystics have taught, and it is a wisdom, when discovered, which brings real freedom to our growth into God. Because with God we are always growing into the depth of what is not known, into the mystery which can never be fathomed. That is how we know the living God from the idol of the house-hold god. When in some real, subtle sense we learn to encounter the God beyond our knowing.

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