In seminary, I took a brilliant class on the Old Testament. The professor was comparing and contrasting the enlightenment idea of a nation-state with ancient Israel’s self-conception. It was highly enlightening to think of ancient Israel as conceiving itself like, say, late nineteenth century Germany.
But there was something else that fascinated me, too. My professor was a practicing Jew, grounded in his tradition. But he told us that he was an atheistic Jew; meaning that culturally he practiced but he did not believe in God.
My professor knows more about the Old Testament than I will ever know. He makes comparisons that I might never consider but comparisons that enhance my understanding. I still appreciate reading him. It’s always thoughtful, always thought-provoking, and always deepens my appreciation for scripture.
He also showed deep respect for scripture. Rarely have I encountered such a fundamental respect for scripture as a whole; for it’s history, for it’s way of inspiring generations. He made the excellent point that a tiny, no-name, easily forgotten, nation-state from 3000 years ago somehow produced the greatest work of literature ever known; one that created three of the world’s largest religions. The big boys on the block 3000 years ago, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, are not forgotten, but they exist only for historians to study. No one prays to Marduke anymore, no one is interested in practicing religion like Assyria, and few read the Avestra as sacred text.
So how is it that someone could have such deep respect for scripture, such deep respect for ancient Israel, be a cultural practitioner of a religion, but be an atheist, having no faith?
Let’s hear our scripture for today: Acts 17:22-31
Paul is speaking to the Athenians, some very wise people. Paul notes as much at the start of his speech, where he’s been invited to speak. The Athenians are very interested in Paul’s new religion. They might have been among the first to recognize that what Paul espoused was a new religion, for at this point Christianity was widely considered a new, and radical, sect of Judaism.
The Athenians love to study religion because they desire to fully understand the divine. They do not necessarily ascribe to one religion but think that, if they adopt the practices of other religions and build shrines, altars, and temples to them, they will come to fully understand the nature of religion.
It’s not a bad concept from an academic perspective. If the divine, what we could call God, is the source of all things and contains all things, then to lump all religions and beliefs together and study them would be to get closer to a full and complete understanding of who God is.
Perhaps you know people just like that. There are many today who practice Athenian religion. They make a piecemeal religion by cobbling together different beliefs they like from various religions. Sometimes, we call these folks spiritual but not religious, sometimes nones, but they, like the Athenians, are on a quest to understand God.
And aren’t we all? Paul says as much at the start of his speech. We all want to understand God. We want to know God. There’s a divine impulse, what Paul refers to when he says that people could “perhaps grope and find” God. Out of that impulse comes the need to study, to learn, to grow.
We go to church and learn about God. That’s something that happens through sermons. We might also go to Sunday School, where we learn more about God. In bible study, in small group, in personal study by reading books, in searching the scriptures, we learn about God. Those who have taken the Adult Confirmation Class or those youth who have gone through confirmation know that I teach that study is one of the spiritual disciplines. We want to learn about God so we can know God better.
And then I went to seminary to learn about God, religion, and the Bible, and now am two-thirds of my way through a doctorate in the Bible. There’s much to know. There’s much to learn. There’s much to consider. There’s much to come to understand.
Like the Athenians, we want to know what is unknown to us. They had built an altar to an unknown god. It demonstrates a level of humility, acknowledging that they did not yet have full understanding.
Paul, seeing those altar, makes an incredible claim: he knows what they’re trying to know. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth…”
Paul goes on to say much, for Paul liked to talk apparently, but the central claim is this: we all come from God, we are God’s offspring, God’s children, so “we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” This, Paul proclaims, is ignorance.
Rather, Paul says we must first confess, admit, that we come from God. Which means that we can never fully understand God.
So Paul is saying that he knows this God who can never be fully known. That sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it?
How can he, or how can any of us, know a God who can never be fully known?
At the start, I shared with you about my professor who was wise and full of knowledge about the Old Testament. I wouldn’t want to speak for him personally but I think it’s possible, and I think Paul points to this, to be full of knowledge about God and about religion and yet not know God.
That’s what characterized Athenian religion. It’s often the case with those among us who cobble their own religion together. They know about God, they know about religion, but they do not know God.
Because to know God is to experience God.
That’s Paul’s chief argument. In verse 27, he talks about finding God through looking for God, stating that we will find God because God is close at hand. That’s experience. In the Methodist Church, we would call that prevenient grace, which is a fancy way of saying the gift of knowing that God’s presence exists and that we have the opportunity to enter into relationship with God.
To know God, for Paul, is not to know about God, but to experience God in our lives.
A simple way to think of that is this: it’s the difference between knowing a thing and knowing a person. I know a lot about history. But I know Dana. Those are two very different things.
So it is with God. To know about God is very different from knowing God; to bring learned about God is very different from being in relationship with God.
I have known many people who know all sorts of things about God but have no relationship. Maybe you can think of some, too. But before we get judgmental of others, let us pull the plank out of our own eye. We, and I include myself in this, can tend to equate knowing about God with knowing God. We think of our faith as understanding seeking faith; the more we understand about God, the deeper our faith will be.
It’s understandable because we’re raised by our education to think that way. The more we understand about something, the more we are either committed to it or not committed to it. We might think of political convictions that way. The more we understand about economics, say, the more committed we become to capitalism.
But God is not a concept. And understanding does not create faith. The Athenians, my professor, and others show that to us.
Too often we lead lives of understanding seeking faith, trying to create faith based on what we understand about God. But faith is blind, child-like. Faith must come first.
Understanding, knowledge, cannot create faith. But faith, when we choose to believe before we understand, can lead us to a rich and deep knowledge of the God who loves us.
We must ground our search, our seeking after, God in our experience of God. All that we believe, all that we confess, all that we understand, must begin in our experience of God. Otherwise, it’s rote academic knowledge alone.
Experience is the grounding of our faith; an experience of God’s love, of God’s care. Perhaps we know this best during the dark times of life. When we are in grief, despair, anguish, anxiety, hate, fear, or anything similar, all the head knowledge in the world matters not. We seek to experience God’s comfort, not know about it. We seek to experience God’s compassion, not know about it. If we’re feeling convicted, we seek to experience God’s forgiveness, not know about it.
Experience of God, experience of knowing that we are God’s offspring, as Paul says, God’s children as we would say, beloved of the Father, brothers and sisters with Christ, heirs to the Kingdom of God, is what deepens faith.
And it begins by confessing that we believe Jesus Christ is Lord. There’s no faith without first believing. No amount of argumentation will ever convince someone to be a Christian. No amount of proving our beliefs will ever convince someone to join any religion.
Think of it this way: we’ve all had visitors from other religions knock on our door and try to convince us to convert. We’re here today so we’re clearly unconverted. I learned all about buddhism while in school and never converted. I have since learned about many other religions and am still a practicing Christian.
Why? Because that’s where my experience is. I know God’s unconditional love, which is very different from knowing about God’s unconditional love.
This does not mean we don’t study. That’s important. Study, understanding about God and our faith, makes our faith more robust. And it guards us against believing harmful things. But it is not what creates faith. Only experiencing that God is close at hand, wanting relationship with us, loving us, can create faith.
So, in pulling the plank out of our own eye, which is true of you: do you know about God or do you know God?
Paul, in his letter to Corinth, says that if he knows all the mysteries of the universe but doesn’t love, he’s simply a resounding gong; only so much noise, meaningless. To know God is to know unconditional love, to experience it, and thus to be able to give it away.
In my own life, all my study, all my understanding, all my searching, is for this purpose: to make God’s unconditional love known to others. That’s what’s made the difference in my life. All of the ways I lead the church, all of the pastoral care I give, all the things I do are ultimately grounded in that personal mission.
Because I’ve had that experience of God.
What experience of God have you had?
Have you had an experience of God? Or do you simply know about God?
When practicing your spiritual disciples, do you experience God? Or does it simply function like school, teaching you more about God but with no experience of God?
If your spiritual life has gone dry, it’s time for a new spiritual discipline. The first and foremost thing a spiritual discipline should do for us is cause us to experience God. Let’s consult together about that. I’m sure there’s something that can help you find your way.
And if you’ve never had an experience of God, I invite you to search your soul. When have you known abiding love? Peace? Joy? That’s God. When have you had an inkling that God is out there? That there’s more to this life than just our little corners? That’s prevenient grace, the gift of God making himself known to us so that we can find our way to him.
My guess is, if you search your soul, you’ll know that God is there with you. Confess that you believe God is there and experience the inpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Spend time regularly in disciplines that cause you to experience God’s love and presence.
For to know God is far superior to knowing about God. Faith leads to understanding, not the reverse. Experience, not knowledge, is the grounding of our faith because our faith is based in a relationship with a person, not in knowledge of a concept.
God loves you. God wants relationship with you. Do you experience that?
How do you experience God?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.