Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Sixth Sunday of Easter

The altar to an unknown god

May 17, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

This week, I've been focused on Paul's awareness that the Athenians' altar to an unknown god gave him room to introduce them to divine mysteries they had not yet experienced.



History & Culture

Artifact: The altar to an uknown god

Photo of artifact in Palatine Museum

Palatine Museum, Rome

Image of the altar to an unknown god, currently exhibited in the Palatine Museum.

Reflect on this artifact as a metaphor.

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Science & Nature

Why science demands a leap into the unknown

Dr. Uri Alon

TED talks

Uri Alon, PhD in Physics, speaks about what he learned about the importance of the unknown when he juxtaposed his experience in science with his experience in improvisational theatre.

Consider times when you have discovered point C when you have entered into the cloud.

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How is living with so much uncertainty opening you to new experiences?


Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’
–from Acts 17:22

Recently, we had the good fortune of participating in a family reunion that moved online in these no-travel days. While initially it felt like a cross between a work zoom and a Saturday Night Live skit about zoom calls, we eventually settled in and found a rhythm. It really did work.

Perhaps the most striking common thread in the conversation was how unknown the shape of the future is to each of us. There were those who had been furloughed or had lost jobs due to the pandemic, those who had anticipated moves now postponed indefinitely, those about to carry out plans to move and unsure how that would go, those who were not sleeping well for no apparent reason, those with new concerns about their security or their safety, and those leaning into a new rhythm of life realizing they may never return to their former patterns. Not one person could assert plans without qualifying them.

The unknown is our new constant companion. The illusion of certainty is gone. And in its place is a heightened awareness of the truth that all we really have is each present moment.

It is striking to note that Paul recognizes the altar to an unknown god as the most accessible entry point for introducing the Athenians to the presence of God among them, God who cannot be confined in shrines of our own making. Because they held space for the unknown, the Athenians could entertain the possibility that the divine was coming to them in a form they had yet to recognize. The altar to an unknown god was their way of holding space for what they had not yet experienced.

In our current reality, we find ourselves approaching the altar to an unknown god on a daily basis.

We are confronted with an experience beyond our grasp. We are required to acknowledge we are at the altar of a god we do not recognize, do not have a name for, do not know how to enshrine or please.

The gospel tells us there is good news to be found in our predicament. Perhaps this altar we now approach is, as it was for the Athenians, the entry point through which we can discover the God who cannot be enshrined by our own efforts. Perhaps we are at the threshold of a new spiritual awakening. One in which we will find freedom to name our not knowing as gift. One in which we will practice beginner’s mind more often. One in which we will listen to others as if their words might lead us to some enchanted forest. One in which we might live as if life were truly the most tender sweetness and the most fascinating adventure.

In today's science and nature lesson, physicist Uri Alon describes a place call the cloud, his name for the boundary between the known and the unknown. He says in order to discover something truly new, at least one of our basic assumptions must change. This, he says, requires scientists (and I would say all of us in these days) to do something heroic: to bring ourselves to the boundary between the known and the unknown and face the cloud. This act can lead us to something much more profound, he notes, than the outcome we had anticipated.

What might we discover if we could approach the altar to an unknown god not with trepidation but rather, with curiosity? Perhaps, the cloud at the boundary between certainty and mystery beckons us to come further.