In Acts, chapter 17, the text set for this Sunday, there is a lovely reference to God, ‘the One in whom we live and move and have our being.’
Luke, the writer of Acts, has Paul quote these words in his speech at the Areopagus in Athens. They come from the 3rd century BC Greek poet, Arastas. (They were originally written in honour of the Greek god, Zeus.)
Taken from another religious tradition, these words have found a place in the Christian tradition and resonated over the centuries.
St Augustine used them into this beautiful prayer;
‘Almighty God, in whom we live and move and have our being,
You have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.’
Augustine has incorporated them into a poignant meditation about a life lived out within God’s presence.
There is a poetic quality in Arastas’ words.
This poetic quality points to mystery; to a reality that defies definitive statements, a mystery that is alluring yet unknowable.
God is much, much bigger than our statements, doctrines, opinions and individual experiences. God is also constituted differently; God is whole and organic. Our views are standpoints, claims, and attempts to assert the shape of life.
The world in which we live is beset by claims about what matters, and the choice is overwhelming. With so many assertions, our own feel less secure.
Some are drawn to strong, definitive claims about God and ‘true faith.’
Others find solace in their own private worlds, where they can safeguard their experience of the sacred.
Albeit unwittingly, we may be colluding in the notion that religion is relevant only to the private sphere.
We struggle to speak about the mystery of God in the public arena.
How shall we discover, and name, the sacred in the public sphere without resorting to shouting?
It helps to look for a language, for words, for ways of speaking that are both religious and contemporary. An important source is biblical stories. By inhabiting them, we fund our imagination. We can ‘live and move and have our being’ inside these stories.
It also helps to look for particular frames of not knowing, of silence to give expression to this mystery.
In Acts 17, Paul adopted an inscription ‘to an unknown God’ to launch his appeal to the learned philosophers of Athens
He quickly proceeded to give definition and shape to this ‘unknown God.’
I wonder what might have happened if, after referencing the unknown God, Paul had paused…, wondered, pondered, left a space, a gap?
What might have been the response of those who listened? Anxiety, a sense of Paul’s inadequacy… and, just maybe, the sense of a space to surrender to, to have their being within
Paul opted to speak of God’s judgement.
That presumably had merit then.
It has less now. With so many voices shouting, disparaging others’ views, and discrediting those who speak them, we don’t need more.
What we point to is vast, generous and life-giving. It doesn’t need to be shouted. It simply is. We don’t have to create it or even buttress it.
All we need to do is find some words.