Sermon: The Known Unknown

September 3, 2017
Acts 17:22-28
Season of Creation: Forest Sunday

In 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was giving a briefing at the Pentagon. Rumsfeld was known for saying memorable things, and fifteen years later, this one still echoes with me. He said:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

He didn’t create the notion of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. In 1955 two psychologists named Joseph Luft and Harrison Ingham developed a tool called the Johari Window to help people understand their relationship with others, asking them what knowledge they shared with others, what ignorance they shared with others, and how that might affect them.

I have no idea – that’s a known unknown – whether Rumsfeld, Luft, or Ingham had any familiarity with this story from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul had arrived in Athens, the center of Greek culture if not, by Paul’s day, its power. He probably didn’t want to be in Athens; he’d been asked to leave Thessalonica because of arguments in the streets over this new faith he’d been proclaiming. His companions Silas and Timothy had stayed behind to smooth things over. Paul was pretty much on his own until Silas and Timothy caught up to him.

Acts says that Paul was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols, which can’t have been a surprise. He’d lived in the Greek-influenced eastern Mediterranean all his life. But he took that as an opportunity to begin conversation with pretty much anybody he could find: fellow Jews from the synagogues, who would have had the best background to consider the message of Jesus, but also Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, whose religious upbringing would have been in the varied gods of the Greeks.

People got interested enough that they encouraged him to stand in the Areopagus, before the city council, and speak there. So begins our text:

“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.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Matt Skinner writes, “This sermon is like no other in Acts, because Athens is a cultural context like no other in Acts. In Acts 17 the gospel comes to one of the ancient Mediterranean world’s center of intellectual sophistication. There it endeavors to find a foothold.”

As a technique for evangelism, I stand in awe. Paul didn’t start hurling accusations, judgements, and blame. He began with affirmation, and he began with the place that they were. They were religious, earnest seekers after the divine. They were curious. And they were honest enough to know that there were further mysteries.

And so they had erected an altar to an unknown god.

For over five hundred years now, since the European Renaissance, Christians have engaged in a remarkable project to make the unknown known. Using the powerful tool of the scientific method, and using that tool to build measuring tools, and using the scientific method to understand what those measurements might mean, we now peer far out in space and back in time using telescopes. We have sequenced the DNA of a number of species, including humanity. We can infer the movement of liquid rock below the surface.  We can watch the storms approach from satellites hovering miles above the roiling clouds.

We have asked ourselves over and over again, what don’t we know? And then, how can we know it?

Just like the apostle Paul did nearly two thousand years ago in Athens.

One negative thing about that quest is that it has threatened a sense of mystery.

And it’s probably also given us an unhealthy dose of hubris.

The devastation in Houston this past week is horrifying. It seems likely that warming ocean temperatures contributed to the power of the storm, and the unprecedented amount of rain it delivered. Climate change didn’t create the storm, but it probably strengthened it.

It’s also likely that Houston’s aversion to land use regulations and enthusiasm for development made the flooding worse. For one thing, it meant that there were simply more structures to flood. But for another, every time people cover land with concrete, it means there’s less porous surface where water can go. A storm like Harvey would saturate any land, for certain. But if there’d been more land to absorb the floods, they wouldn’t have risen quite so high.

The scary thing is that both of those realities have been known knowns for some time. And still, people would not change their ways.

I think it might be a good time for a second look at Athens’ altar, to lay our hubris before a God whom we do not know as well as we think we do. Author Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Paul, now, he went the other way. He asserted that what you can known about this unknown God is the grace of Creation, and the love of relationship. Quoting the Greek poet Aratus, he said, “For we too are God’s offspring.”

That was a powerful statement in a culture whose gods typically didn’t express much care or compassion for human beings.

As we approach the communion table, let us come again with a sense of mystery, of a God who is more than we imagine, of a God who is greater than we know, of a God who is more loving even than we hope. And as a friend of mine said to me this week, let us come with this prayer:

“O God, I do not pray or come to you as I think you are, but as you know yourself to be.”

“O God, I do not pray or come to you as I think you are, but as you know yourself to be.”


The painting is Paulus in Athens by Anonymous – Düsseldorfer Auktionshaus, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on September 3, 2017

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