The parallel existence of two concepts of perfection, one strict (“perfection,” as such) and the other loose (“excellence”), has given rise — perhaps since antiquity but certainly since the Renaissance — to a singular paradox: that the greatest perfection is imperfection
so the apostle paul is meeting up some people in the middle of this square called the areopagus in athens. this was a place known by the locals as the place where philosophers went to talk about the latest fad. it was the center of popular beliefs and gossip, even spiritual fads too. one of the known features of this particular geographic was this pantheon or hall of gods. just to be safe these greek followers of zeus placed this one statue right amongst the others and gave it a name: the unknown god.
the god who is a mystery, to the greeks has a name. irony? i think so. in fact, i think this whole episode is dripping with greek irony so much so that shakespeare might have wished he would have written this encounter. because i don’t think paul is attempting to change their beliefs, i also don’t think he is attempting to convert them in any way. i think that view trivializes the apparent sarcasm that is prevalent throughout the narrator’s explanation along with the nuances of this supposed conversation. take for example, when paul over-emphatically proclaims to his audience that they are ‘very religious’ (another translation uses the word superstitious).
i don’t think paul is being a door-to-door salesman here and trying to manipulate them with nice rhetoric, which christians have been blamed for doing in the past. rather i think he is doing something even more subversive, he is taking them to the end of their conclusions. he is sarcastically leading them through their belief system, again, not condemning it, but rather demonstrating the weakness of causality. he is saying: if you are this religious, then this ultimately is where it will lead you. in a sense, i think he is defending their unknown god. the greek word here for unknown is the same word we use for agnosticism.
a tear in the natural order of knowing. a gap. a wound. a scar. a place where we cannot know.
then he starts to quote their philosophers, who in turn were speaking about zeus (EX: …’we live and move and have our being’…) but he uses the term God as we have it recorded to be. but he never once condemns their belief. he simply uses the term/title that he understands god as. his audience would have caught onto this. another reason why i think he was being sarcastic is the undercurrent of greco irony which displaces not only the character (the hall of gods;truth;knowledge – in this narrative) but the idea of fluidity or the militant claim that perfection has only one definition.
and so in this conversation we see paul pushing the boundaries of belief so far that he begins challenging his audience with their own beliefs. which again this wasn’t foreign to the greek philosophers. they would been more than okay with this approach. and so his over-identification of God (saying god has created everything and etc.) although it might be true in theory is more of an ideological catch-22. and in this moment is when the wheels begin turning, because paul is indirectly speaking back into the belief of this unknown god.
paul is speaking of this gap. this unknown.
and for me, this is the centerpiece of his conversation, not the god itself but rather the need for the unknown. for agnosticism. this is why he also says god cant be a statue. god is fluid. god is untouchable (this is different from claiming that god isn’t relatable). this is why ultimately things like theology, doctrine, dogma and etc. don’t work, because taken to the end of our conclusion we are left with nothing more than a system of beliefs and no god left to worship. paul i think is claiming the same thing. that they can believe in all kinds of different things and be into the latest fads (for christians, it might be the emergent church or open theism and so on), but ultimately we don’t know. and the irony that i think he is playing on here is that the unknown is the closest we get to faith. that unbelief is belief. that denial is acceptance. i am not naive enough to think that we can simply get away with absolving ourselves from community. for it is in the evolutionary development of religion that we find beliefs are created to pose a sense of community. i posit we don’t need beliefs to create community, but rather we need each other to create community.
we need to believe in each other to solidify this community. before i get called a heretic. let’s talk about hegel for a second. he once thought that the holy spirit was God emptying his/herself into humanity. the human bond. let’s go with this for this discussion. if hegel was right, then once we create ‘knowns’ we create distance between us and the holy spirit (remember, this is hegels’: human bond) and so ultimately beliefs actually don’t create community, they distance us from community.
they dismantle it.they destroy it. i am not saying we don’t need beliefs, but i am saying that if we truly desire community (some people term this church and etc.) then we must be willing to walk away from beliefs, no matter what side of the fence we’re on….
think about this on a social level…it is our superstitions that keep us from knowing each other. it is those things that create to keep ourselves safe from the unknown – the other stands in the place of the unknown. and represents that thing we fear the most. and so to dissociate ourselves from the other we are forced to betray the notion of loving our neighbour (the other) by including ideological barriers that keep us from connecting with the one we are meant to love. beliefs are violent. they separate us from the object of our desire.