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  • Fr James Power

The altar to an unknown God - the Areopagus

Some reflections on the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 17:22-31 set for this Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Easter



To continue to declare that this remains a fundamentally Christian country, often against significant opposition, is not to exclude others – far from it: at the heart of the Christian Gospel is the quality of hospitality. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s PR guru, infamously declared, “We don’t do God”. It’s something of a cliché when journalists and politicians preface what they are about to say with the phrase, “Of course, I am not religious…..”

What do these people mean? Is it that they genuinely don’t believe in God, or is it having turned their back on traditional religious teaching they have encountered an aching void? I find it quite fascinating that the British Humanist Association on its own website advertises itself as “the foremost provider of humanist and non-religious weddings and civil partnerships, baby namings and funeral ceremonies in England and Wales.” I would contend that a ritual is a religious act: faced with the mystery of human love which underpins all human relationship, faced with the arrival of new life in the birth of a child, faced with the loss of a loved one at death, having turned their back on what they consider to be religion, humanists have discovered that they need some ritual to make sense of these ordinary events which confront us with the extraordinary mystery of being alive, being a Human Being. Our sense of loss, at the moment, in being faced with having conduct these “rites of passage” with significantly reduced numbers witnesses to how important these occasions are to us. Modern liberal humanists live under the misapprehension that they have turned their back on irrational religion; instead, like the Athenians in today’s reading from Acts, they have set altars to “unknown gods.” Far from rejecting religion, they have demonstrated the absolute need of religion to make some sense of life.

St Paul challenges the Athenians to contemplate creation. He engages in what is called Natural Theology – a branch of theology that contends God reveals himself through the created world. Alister McGrath holds the chair of Religion and Science at the University of Oxford. He is one of our foremost modern Christian thinkers – a frequent opponent to Richard Dawkins, author of the God Delusion. McGrath has published an important book on natural theology entitled “The Open Secret.” That Open Secret, St Paul suggests is not far from any of us:

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, …….. gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. ……… he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’. Acts 17:24-28

The great 19th C century writer, recently recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Henry Newman writes, “A man who is religious, is religious morning, noon and night…He sees God in all things.” That same insight is communicated in George Herbert’s hymn, Teach me my God and King, when in the second verse he writes

A man that looks on glass,/ on it may stay his eye

Or if he pleaseth, though it pass,/ and then the heaven espy.

When you look out on the world do you merely see the window or perhaps the raw elements of the created world, or do you perceive the wonderful works of a creator God. To quote Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God and firmament his handiwork.” For me, it was fascination with the atomic world revealed through a study of Chemistry which led to a deepening of my faith. Science was a route for a greater appreciation of the wonder of God’s creation and not in any sense a challenge to it.

Often when I have asked those whom I have prepared for confirmation what their motivation is for being confirmed, they tell me that they wish to “get closer to God”. Unlike those secularists and humanists who have sought to empty religious ritual of its content, they desire to deepen that content, to give the ritual enhanced meaning, to allow the ritual to take them into a deeper relationship with the “one who commands all people everywhere to repent”. Acts 17:30

It is just that “drawing closer” which is the miracle of God revealed in Christ – Christianity is not some interesting philosophical theory but a real relationship with the divine source of our very being – the one who abides with us, the one who comes to us as the Spirit of truth. John 14:17 This is the one who confounds all our accepted views of existence by raising his own incarnate self from the dead. Our normal boundaries of meaning are challenged and stretched just so that we may enter into the mystery of existence. There can be nothing more exciting!

We are “doing God”, we are owning up to being “religious” and as such we are acting with greater honesty and integrity that any politician or journalist who claims otherwise. We are making known the unknown God, “24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth.” Acts 17:24

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text © St Mary's Church Harrow on the Hill 2020      images © S Foster & N Ford 2020

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