Experiencing the “Unknown God”
By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London
In my tradition, we pray a prayer at the beginning of Sunday worship called a Collect (COLL-ect), which gathers together (“collects”) our thoughts and prayers and sets the theme for the day. The Collect assigned for this Sunday describes a God whose goodness is beyond our understanding and whose promises can be obtained through love.[i] This idea of experiencing the incomprehensible God through love rather than knowledge is expressed in a Christian tradition known as apophatic theology, which insists that God can never be truly known through human intellect. The apophatic tradition reminds us that all our thoughts, images, and ideas about God are just that: about God, not actually God. In fact, our attachment to ideas about God can easily become idolatry. Surprisingly, this rich tradition of apophatic theology has roots in Paul’s address to the Areopagites in Acts 17.
As Paul waits for his missionary partners in Athens, he notices how crowded the city is with idols and discovers one altar dedicated to an “unknown God.” Because Paul is a gifted evangelist, he knows that all cultures have within them seeds of the Gospel that need to be affirmed, watered, and grown.[ii] So Paul starts preaching and telling people that this “unknown God” is really the God who has made himself fully manifest and accessible in Christ.[iii] Eventually, Paul is brought to the court of Areopagus, where he essentially says, “You Athenians have an altar to an unknown God and I’m here to tell you that this God has been made known in the Risen Christ, through whom we can tap into the divine source of being and participate in resurrection ourselves.”[iv]
The lectionary unfortunately leaves out the Athenians’ response, which is mixed: some scoff, some want to hear more, and two listeners become convinced that Paul is speaking truth: a woman named Damaris and a man named Dionysius (17:32-33). Although Dionysius doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Bible, church historian Eusebius claims he became the first bishop of Athens.[v] But more importantly, Dionysius evolved in the Christian imagination as the great spiritual icon for experiencing the God who is beyond all human understanding. In the fifth century AD, a Syrian monk used this biblical character’s name as a pseudonym in writing books about accessing the God beyond all knowing. The author chose this pseudonym because he imagined that Dionysius had been deeply persuaded by Paul’s teachings about the “unknown God,” a phrase that inspired the author to formulate the foundations of apophatic theology. Today, this Syrian author is referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysius” and is considered one of the most significant theologians of church history. Most theologians since the 5th century have been influenced in one way or another by Pseudo-Dionysius, who is also referred to as “Psuedo-Denys,” or, as I prefer, “Denys the Menace” (because he laced his apophatic theology with a not-so-healthy dose of Neo-Platonism).
One theologian who is particularly indebted to Pseudo-Denys is an anonymous English author who wrote a text called The Cloud of Unknowing in 14th century Nottingham, the old stomping grounds of Robin Hood. Although the apophatic tradition does not conflate images with the divine, the Cloud author uses images to describe the human relationship with God. He explains that between ourselves and God, there is “a cloud of unknowing,” which we cannot penetrate with our thoughts, but which we can penetrate through humble love. The Cloud author invites us to “shoot humble impulses of love” like arrows through this cloud. He offers a practical way to do this which has come to be known as “Centering Prayer.” This prayer practice involves using a sacred word like “God” or “love” or “Christ” to help quiet the mind and to detach ourselves from our thoughts. This sacred word is meant to be repeated as a kind of mantra, an anchor in the stream of consciousness. Whenever we find ourselves getting carried away by our thoughts, we return to the sacred word. By returning to the sacred word, we return to our love for God, through which we can pierce through the cloud.
I have personally found this prayer practice to be deeply beneficial and transformative as it helps me develop a healthy detachment from my thoughts. This healthy detachment has all kinds of secondary benefits: decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure, and deeper sleep. However, the primary benefit I receive as I let go of my thoughts and try to be present to God through love is a direct experience of God as my very being. The Cloud author says, “God is your being…and God exists in all things, as their cause and their being.”[vi] In Acts 17, Paul says something very similar when he preaches, “In him we live and move and have our being” (17:28). Paul and the Cloud author invite us to experience the “unknown God” by being present to the simple reality of our existence because it is by being present to our existence that we are actually being present to God. Richard Rohr paraphrases the Cloud author when he says, “Offer up your simple naked being to the joyful being of God…Don’t focus on what you are, but simply that you are!”[vii]
Although it is unlikely that Paul would have ever identified as an apophatic theologian, his prophetic words to the Areopagus provided the soil out of which apophatic theology could emerge and grow. From that soil, we have inherited the wisdom of Pseudo-Denys and the contemplative prayer practice of the Cloud author, both of which invite us to directly experience the God whose goodness is beyond our understanding and whose promises can be obtained through love. By accepting this invitation, we can come to experience the “unknown God” as the One in whom we live and move and have our being; and indeed, as the One who is our being.
The Rev. Dr. Daniel London is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka California and author of Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel (Fortress Academic). He enjoys exploring the pristine beaches, gentle rivers, and stunning redwoods of Humboldt County with his wife Dr. Ashley London Bacchi. He tries to practice Centering Prayer, but admits that he often sips coffee during contemplation.
[i] “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 225.
[ii] Christian Missiologists sometimes refer to these “seeds of the Gospel” as logoi spermatikoi. See Justin Martyr, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 23 – 72.
[iii] Even though the fullness of God is indeed revealed in Christ in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), the apophatic tradition insists that our human and finite vision is certainly not wide enough to comprehend the infinite and ineffable God.
[iv] My paraphrase of Acts 17:22-31.
[v] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, translated by Kirsopp Lake. LCL 153 (Cambridge MA: Harvard, 1998), Book III.iv, 197.
[vi] Author of The Cloud of Unknowing, The Book of Privy Counseling, translated by William Johnston (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 139.
[vii] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (New York: Convergent, 2019), 224.