Acts 17: Imaging the Unknown God

Philosophers often ask the question:
How do we know what things are like?
Normally, we see them; hear, touch, taste, smell things. We use our five senses
But we cannot see God.
To our physical senses, God is invisible, inaudible, untouchable, untastable, and I doubt he has a distinct odour,
though at one time in the middle ages, super spiritual people smelt sweet aromas in prayer !
So how can we describe God?
how can we know what God is like?
Today we’ll meet two big ways to the knowledge of God

The Positive Way: Via positiva

We look around us, at nature, people,
things we know and love, and affirm them.
We say: God is like that, but much much more.
We run from a raging tsunami
and if we ran fast enough, we can say that God is even more powerful
God is intelligent like Albert Einstein, but knows heaps more.
God is loving like Mother Teresa, but even more compassionate
So by simply magnifying what we already know, we get a whole lot of ways to describe God.
And some pretty good pointers to God’s character
As Paul says:
“Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature –
have been clearly seen from what has been made” (Romans 1:20)
For the positive way, “the heavens declare the glory of God.”   Psalm 19:1
The world is a vast array of signs, images, metaphors, pointing to God, showing his character
God is ever-present, everywhere visible.
One writer put it like this:
“We simply take everything that the human race has discovered to be good, noble, beautiful, and true,
everything indeed that we admire…and apply it in infinite terms to the God we believe in. 
We have never seen God, but we have seen his face in good, generous, merciful, compassionate, human beings….
God is all of this, writ not just large, but vast, infinitely vast.” 
This is the ‘positive’ way of knowing God.

The Negative Way: Via negativa

But, some cry NO!
“God is God, not man writ large.
And we cannot speak of God merely by speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.” (Karl Barth)
Between us and God stands an infinite difference, an unbridgeable distance.
We can’t reach God by magnifying humanity.
God is Holy Mystery, Wholly Other.
Let us invoke God as inexpressible, incomprehensible, invisible and unknowable. 
Let us affirm that God surpasses all power of human speech;
that he eludes the understanding of every mortal intelligence;
that the angels cannot penetrate him;
that the seraphim cannot see him;
that the cherubim cannot grasp him. 
On the Incomprehensibility of God, John Chrysostom (347-407)
The negative way smashes all our idols
it rejects all our images of God.
For the negative way,
the only way to describe God, is to look at things we know, and negate, deny, reject them.
We say: God is not like that
Everything around us is changing,
so we say God is not like that: he is unchanging.
We are all mortal, we suffer and die.
So God is immortal, unsuffering, or undying
Unlike all the things we see,
God is unlimited, infinite, immeasurable, indescribable, uncontainable, unnameable, unspeakable. unknown
Some more ways to describe God.
This is the ‘negative’ way of knowing God.[1]

The Two Ways

Two ways to know God,
of everything we can say:
God is like this; but much much more – the “positive” way
Or God is not like this – the “negative” way.[2]
Of everything we can say: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou” (Charles Williams).
The positive way narrows the gap between us and God.
Author Phillip Yancey said he most senses God in nature, music and the love of his wife.
sunsets, symphonies, sex.[3]
– we can experience God in all these things.
He is intimate, close, personal.
ever-present, everywhere visible.[4]
Be praised, my Lord, by all your creatures
Especially by brother sun
By whom we are lightened every day
For he is fair and radiant with great splendour
And bears your likeness, O highest one.
Be praised, my Lord, for sister moon and the stars,
You have set them in heaven, precious, fair and bright.
St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
Where in creation do you most experience God?
Tramping is a great source of images for the positive way.
This photo was my first glimpse of Lake Rotoiti at Nelson Lakes National Park.
Clouded over, but in the distant valley, the sun was setting, shining out across the water.
A glimpse of glory.
Maybe God, heaven, is like that, but much much more.
Of course heaven is also not like that, as those great priests of the negative way remind us: sand flies!
The negative way expands the gap between us and God to an unbridgeable gulf.
God “alone is immortal and lives in unapproachable light”       1 Timothy 6:16
God is unlike anything in our experience.
never-present, nowhere visible
God is Holy Mystery, Wholly Other.
It’s harder to illustrate or talk about the negative way,
Because by definition, it is the rejection of images, the failure of our words.
But after years of searching, I have found one photo
I would even say, the definitive, the only, negative-way photo of God
Brace yourselves – the beauty, the power will blow you away
[blank black screen]
You should be speechless.
Imageless, speechless – that’s the negative way.
  Why no! I never thought other than
   That God is that great absence
   In our lives, the empty silence
   Within, the place where we go
   Seeking, not in hope to
   Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
   In our knowledge, the darkness
   Between stars. His are the echoes
   We follow, the footprints he has just
   Left. We put our hands in
   His side hoping to find
   It warm. We look at people
   and places as though he had looked
   At them, too; but miss the reflection.
Via Negativa,    R.S. Thomas, 1913-2000
Not a lot to hold on to.
The negative way can leave you alone, naked, hungry in the desert – sometimes literally

Moses & Monotheism

So let’s visit the Middle Eastern desert, sometime around 1500 BC.
Weeks ago, their eccentric leader disappeared, up the mountain, vanished into the cloud.
He may have led them out of slavery in Egypt, but where in Pharaoh’s name was he now?
he talks about some strange God, with a weird, almost no name.
“I am what I am” hardly answers the question “who are you?”
An invisible faceless unknown God.
Here, abandoned alone in the desert, what help, for Isis’ sake, was that?
this Yahweh seemed as absent as Moses
They remembered the gods of Egypt.
Good honest tangible deities that you could touch and see.
“We can’t cope with this nothing.  Give us an image!” – something to hold on to
So, they got all their gold, melted it down, poured into a mould, and the golden calf was born
They cried “here is your God O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.”
They bowed down, and worshipped.
Meanwhile, a few hours tough climb above, deep in the cloud, in the fire, atop Mt Sinai, this unknown God was speaking:
 I am the LORD thy God, who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing
that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water below.
 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God
(Exodus 20)
This God was high and holy, 
to merely touch the mountain of his manifestation,
to even glimpse his face,
was to die.
40 years later, Moses drove it home:
You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Mt Sinai out of the fire.
Therefore watch yourselves carefully,
so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape….
19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars…
do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping
(Deuteronomy 4:15-20)
This teaching was new.
The surrounding nations had many gods
many idols, of gold and silver, wood and stone and clay .
Many forms of worship.[5]
The God of Israel was One
Holy Mystery, Wholly Other,
incomparable, untameable, indescribable, uncontainable.
It would take the Israelites a thousand years or more to learn this,
the golden calf was the first of many failures
Time and time again, the Old Testament prophets cry out with implacable hostility,
idols are: detestable, filthy, vile, abominable, shameful
idols are worthless:
“Their images are but wind and confusion” (Isaiah 41:29)
“Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak” (Jeremiah 10:5)
idols dishonour God:
My people have exchanged their glory, “the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass”   (Psalm 106:19)
“exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Romans 1:25)
idols degrade people:
“They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.” (Jeremiah 2:5, 11).[6]

Dangers of the Two Ways

This is the danger of the positive way.
Slipping from “this is like God”, to “this is God” – idolatry
Collapsing the difference between creator and creation.
Leaving God not much different from us.[7]
Do we ever do this by slipping into treating Jesus as just my best buddy?
God as just a cosy comfort?[8]
On the moral/ethical level,
The danger of the positive way is hedonism, worship of pleasure.
God gives us food and friends, sleep and sport, nature and novels, to be enjoyed.
But not to be worshipped.
Do you ever cling to God’s gifts like they are gods?
The negative way sees these dangers.
But it can go too far the other way.
Instead of pleasure-worship,
It flees all pleasures in ruthless self-discipline, self-denial:
One desert monk would rip up any flowers growing near his cave, in case they distracted him from God.[9]
Maybe that was right for him, but it seems rather sad!
Zealous Christians can still burden themselves trying to be too spiritual.
At times in the past, I felt guilty reading books other than the Bible –
maybe not so different from that monk?
Instead of bringing God too close in idolatry, the negative way
can push God too far away.
With every image shot down in flames
we can say, know nothing about God
And are left in agnosticism,
or practical atheism.[10]
So both ways have dangers:
The positive way risks pleasure-worship and idolatry.                
Overemphasizing that things we know are like God
The negative way risks life-denying legalism, and agnosticism.
Overemphasizing that things we know are not like God
It has been said “every human soul leans to one of these two ways” (Evelyn Underhill)
If that’s so, which way do you lean?
Which is the biggest risk for you?[11]

The Emerald Necklace

If it still seems a bit abstract, try this:
Suppose your wife, girlfriend, the one you love, would really like an emerald necklace.
And, because giving is your love language,
For months, you work overtime to save the pennies; you scour every jeweller’s store in town.
At last, you have the perfect emerald necklace.
in a lovely little casket.
One evening, you take her to a restaurant by the sea, get a window seat overlooking the waves,
A candlelight dinner, violins playing, so romantic.
You offer the gift to your sweet beloved.
She opens the lid, and…
Here folks, the story forks:
Ending 1:
… she gasps, gazes on the glistening gems,
Fastens it around her neck, contemplates the mirror,
Takes it off again, admires it some more.
You’re pleased.  It was all worth it.  She likes it.
10 minutes later, she’s still gazing at the emerald necklace.
1 hour later, you’re still forgotten.
2 hours later, the candles have burnt out, the fiddlers gone home, the waiters closing up,
Hours, days, months, years,
And not a glance for you, not one word
All she notices, all she loves now is that emerald necklace.
Well, that was a bit of a tearjerker, let’s try
Ending 2:
as the violins sing, moonlight shimmers on the rippling waves, she opens the lid and…
… chucks it out the window
You hear a splash.
She turns to you and says “what a piece of junk!  All I want is you!”
Which is the biggest risk for you?

Paul’s Sermon in Athens

Acts 17:18-34
50 AD
the city of Athens.
Once the centre of civilisation, democracy, of philosophy, learning, sculpture, drama
Now sadly declined, but still an intellectual, university city
and very religious
full of temples and statues to all sorts of gods – “A junkyard of idols”.
Some said it was easier to meet a god than a man
idolatry – the fallen positive way
Paul was an educated Jewish religious leader
Steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures and their abhorrence of idolatry which we just saw.
So Paul was greatly distressed, provoked at Athenian idolatry
He suffered in Greek a spiritual paroxysm, a convulsion, a fit,
This same word described God’s outrage at the golden calf idol.
So Paul first spoke to the Jewish community who shared this reaction
Then he met Greek philosophers.
A few centuries earlier, the philosophers Socrates and Plato lived in Athens.
Religious mystics who sought God.
Socrates stressed his ignorance, but believed philosophy was a way of life, to be lived.[12]
A reverent agnosticism.
But now, for many
“the old questing spirit sickened into curiosity, and the search for truth into cynicism.”  (EM Blaiklock)
Philosophy was just idle speculation, mental acrobatics, empty chatting.
The philosophers called Paul
a mere babbler, an intellectual magpie, retailer of scraps, picker up of learning’s crumbs, third rate journalist, airhead.[13]
perhaps better describing themselves.
An arrogant, apathetic agnosticism
the fallen negative way      
But Paul’s teaching sounds a novelty, “a new slant on the gods”, so they are keen to hear it.
To a Jewish audience, Paul preached from the Hebrew Scriptures to show that Jesus fulfilled them.
Acts 13 records Paul’s sermon to a synagogue in Antioch.
But here, he starts from Greek religion, and quotes their own poets.
Amongst the plethora of idols and altars, he found one dedicated to an unknown God.
A God they worship agnostically.
The philosophers would have agreed with most of Paul’s sermon.
They were often sceptical about popular polytheism and idols.
They knew God does not live in man-made temples:
a great Athenian playwright had said
“No house built by craftsmen could enclose the form divine within enfolding walls.”[14]
they know God made us, not we god.
Epicureans knew God needs nothing from us. (25)
They were like secular humanists today.
Quasi-atheists – everything was just material atoms.
So death was nothing to fear – just extinction with no afterlife or judgement.
Life was about pleasure in moderation
A restrained positive way, but today “Epicurean” means hedonist.
Stoics knew God was the source of life and breath and everything. (25)
Indeed “in him we live and move and have our being” (28) – Paul quotes Stoic poets
Stoicism was pantheistic: A bit like new age today
God is the world-soul in all of us
A good Stoic was disciplined, self-controlled, self-sufficient, and indifferent to hardship
the negative way.
The philosophers listened until Paul mentioned resurrection of the dead.
This was their outraged paroxysm.
Greek philosophers despised the body.
This filthy flesh was the prison of the immortal soul.
Socrates rejoiced in his death – at last his spirit would be free.
But Paul wants to bring back the body?![15]
So as elsewhere, Paul’s gospel divided people.
Unlike the last cities he was in, no one tried to stone him –
here in Athens they just scoffed.
Like for us today.
But a few believed.
The first was Dionysius the Areopagite.
He traditionally wrote the mystical books that first coined the terms via positiva, via negativa,
First described the positive and negative ways we are talking about.[16]
Only at the end of his sermon, did Paul come to Christ.
The incarnation, the becoming flesh of God in Jesus, is the pinnacle of the positive way.
Amongst all the flawed and fallen images of God that we are,
2000 years ago one flawless unfallen image of God walked the earth.
Unlike all others, a visible image of the invisible God in no way needing negation
He zeroed the gap between us and God.
God is far more like us than we thought.
Dunno about you, but being a bit intellectual, sometimes the incarnation just hits me… wow!
And yet, Jesus Christ is the supreme image-destroyer, the zenith of the negative way
Think again of the words for God we had at the start.
Invisible, inaudible, untouchable, untastable, unsmellable,
Unchanging, unsuffering, undying, infinite, immortal
indescribable, uncontainable, ungraspable, un-nail-downable,
Jesus shatters almost every non-moral description we give to God
Doesn’t your mind boggle? 
Dionysius called God a “dazzling obscurity… outshining all brilliance with the intensity of his darkness”.
No wonder the philosophers in Athens couldn’t cope!
So in first century Athens, were people of almost every religious persuasion:
the Epicureans, quasi atheists,          – no God
the Stoics, pantheistic,                        – everything is God
probably the majority – Polytheist – many gods
and the Jewish monotheists                               – one God
Not to mention, a good shot of agnosticism – don’t know whether there’s a god
Arrogant agnostics – don’t know and proud of it
Apathetic agnostics – don’t know and don’t care
Reverent agnostics – don’t know but do care
Not that different from our multicultural, post-modern world.
Despite his gut level revulsion at idolatry, Paul doesn’t charge in: chop down your idols, burn down your altars!
Paul connected to their beliefs, and found something to affirm.
It’s great: “you Athenians take your religion seriously.”
He says, okay, there’s some stuff that is not too good, but here is an altar we can build on.  (22-3)[17]

The Two Ways in Our World

We are called to do the same for our world today.
Every belief, every heart, somewhere has an altar to an unknown God.
But often hidden – Paul had to walk around, look and think to find it.
This concept of positive and negative ways to image God excites me
Because I think it helps us see what to affirm in others.
Helps us find those hidden altars to unknown gods.
For example, who has an atheist or agnostic friend?
Do you know why they don’t believe in God?
What is the image of God they reject?
Sadly, some have only unworthy, ungodly God-images.
Rejecting these may be their negative way towards knowledge of God,
a spiritual purification
far better than affirming a false god.
Maybe making room, one day, for the true God
When I started at Auckland Uni, the atheist club had a noticeboard right next to the Christian club.
With stuff to read.
You know, I often thought – that’s right!
I don’t believe in that god either!
I too reject their image of God!
Some of you at uni will meet post-modern philosophy.
At its worst, an apathetic or arrogant agnosticism – the fallen negative way, like the Athenian philosophers
But at best, a “reverent agnosticism”.
PM dethrones human idols.
like what Luther called the “bitch-goddess human reason”.
Many PM philosophers consciously draw on the mystical negative way.[18]
They may leave more, not less, room for God to reveal himself.[19]
every heart hides an altar to an unknown God
We’ve seen the positive way can fall into pleasure-worship.
Grabbing the gift, forgetting the Giver.
Living for emerald necklaces.
Maybe this too is people you know.
Pleasure-worshippers may seem far from God,
but remember, “The man who knocks on the door of the brothel is knocking for God.”
G.K. Chesterton
However deeply buried, every heart hides an altar to an unknown God

Your Heart and Mine

When Jesus looks at your heart, what does he see?
Does your heart hold many altars, to many gods?
Are you in love with an emerald necklace?
Are you knocking on any sort of “brothel door”?
Remember the negative way.
an emerald necklace is Not God.
Idolatrous images must be rejected.
But you may already be travelling the negative way.
In the darkness, with no signs or images of God’s presence.
knowing only that all you know is not God,
For you the negative way is not just a concept, but an experience.
It can also be worship.
Right now it may be your way to build your altar to an unknown God
One day you may find that the darkness itself was your emerald necklace.
Wait.  Don’t throw it away.
So how do we describe the indescribable?
how do we see the invisible?
How do we know the unknown God?
We worship in the light of knowable images
The God who is ever-present, everywhere visible.
the positive way.
We worship in the night of the absence of images
The God who is Holy Mystery, Wholly Other.
the negative way.
Two ways to worship, two ways to know,
two ways to build your altar to the unknown God.


[1] The anonymous author of a classic 14th century English work, epitomising the via negativa, wrote:
In working to know God himself we will not be able to depend on our senses.  The uncreated God has none of the qualities that come to us through creation… We cannot measure God.  We cannot see him, smell him or taste him… God is no thing… we cannot locate him.  He is not some place.  God is no where.  We can never, through our reason alone arrive at the knowledge of uncreated being, of what God alone is.  But in our inability, and our failure, we can indeed know God.  As St Dionysius said: ‘the truly divine knowledge of God is that which is known by unknowing’.  Cloud of Unknowing (ca 1350).
[2] In two of its classic statements, Hinduism recognises both ways: of everything, we can say “Thou art That”, but also, always God is “not this, not this”. 
[3] The Divine Comedy by the Italian poet Dante (1265-1321) is a classic of the positive way: falling in love with a woman (Beatrice) leading to love of God, her radiant beauty an image of God’s.  In Dante’s “romantic theology”, romance becomes a “way of the soul”: “the Beatrician vision” leads to the Beatific Vision.  See my essay, Divine Desire: Dante’s Pilgrimage to God.
[4] “Everything tastes of God and shines forth God”…  “the more your love grows, the more vividly you will see the beloved everywhere and in everyone…Look deeply into things and discover God there… equally present in everything”  Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328).
[5] So Moses commanded the Israelites to destroy all foreign idols and places of worship (Deuteronomy 12:2-3).
[6] Isaiah mocks and condemns the absurdity of making idols (Isaiah 40:18-22, 44:16-20) , as does Habakkuk 2: 18-20.  Another writing from between the Old and New Testaments captures the tragedy of idolatry:
“For health, he appeals to a thing that is weak.
For life, he prays to a thing that is dead.
For aid he entreats a thing that is utterly inexperienced.
For a prosperous journey, a thing that cannot take a step.”
(Wisdom of Solomon 13:18).
[7] Idolatry has been defined as “misdirected worship”.  The following passage describes first the failure of the positive way, and then how it’s supposed to work:
For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature;
and they were unable from the good things that
are seen to know him who exists,
nor did they recognize the craftsman while
paying heed to his works;
but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air,
or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water,
or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world.
If through delight in the beauty of these things
men assumed them to be gods,
let them know how much better than these is their Lord,
for the author of beauty created them.
And if men were amazed at their power and working,
let them perceive from them
how much more powerful is he who formed them.
For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.
(Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-5)
[8] Like artists, once in love with beauty, now admiring only their own works.  Theologians who once delighted in God now entranced by their own systems, their intense need to understand leading them  To worship “clear images of something which however good, however beautiful, however godlike, is not God”  Cloud of Unknowing (ca 1350).
[9]  “Set aside everything that is not God himself, Even his most beautiful creations… Although it can be helpful from time to time to reflect on the wonders of God’s creation, it can be a distraction. Everything we might reflect on that is not God himself stands between us and him”. Cloud of Unknowing (ca 1350). 
Paul opposes extreme asceticism, criticising “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created…  For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” 1 Timothy 4:2-4.
[10]Author Charles Williams, close friend of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, emphasises that what he calls the way of negation of images, and the way of affirmation of images, need each other.  He notes that even the 16th century John of the Cross, who explored the negative way in his Dark Night of the Soul, admitted that he liked asparagus! 
[11] Both ways can be God’s calling.  Great Christian saints have taken both routes.  And both ways can lead away from God.  The world is full of signposts pointing towards the New Jerusalem.  Evil has two big strategies to stop people following them: Hide, destroy the signposts, so we never see them – the fallen negative way.  Or divinise, idolise the signposts, so we mistake them for the destination – the demonic positive way.
[12] It got him executed, accused of corrupting the youth of the city, of introducing foreign gods, or even of atheism.
[13] Alternative translations from different versions and commentaries.
[14] Not unlike Solomon’s words at the dedication of the temple: “Will God really dwell on earth?  The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you.  How much less this temple I have built!”  (1 Kings 8:27).
[15] This is why the early Christian creeds say “I believe in the resurrection of the body” – because many didn’t.
[16] About 1500 A.D., they discovered these  books were really written about 500 AD, so the author is often called “pseudo-Dionysius.”  And being kinda weird, nearly heretical fringe, few would’ve read them if they hadn’t thought the author was Paul’s convert – the power of a pseudonym!  Pseudo-Dionysius was a major inspiration of the 14th century English Cloud of Unknowing, which is quoted above.
[17] Paul’s final challenge (30-1) might be paraphrased: Jesus is always merciful to those whose only images were false, but one day he will return to shatter all idols, and woe betide those who were offered a better image of God, but rejected it.  We already tried to escape his judgement by killing the judge, but he didn’t stay dead.
[18] Especially the Jewish philosophers Jacques Derrida and Emanuel Levinas.
[19] As I see it, orthodox Islam is perhaps the religion par excellence of the negative way: One God.  Utterly transcendent, with no images.  So the only unforgivable sin is idolatry or shirk: the association of any visible or finite thing with God, giving God human attributes, the denial of his oneness.
Depiction of any human or animal form? – no images.  Christ, the image of God? – no images.