The first reading from the lectionary this morning was Acts 17:22-31. It is Paul’s address at the Aeropagus in Athens (sometimes called his Mars Hill address) where he delivers his famous “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” message using the altar “to an Unknown God” as his pretext. Within that passage, there is an interesting image.
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him [other translations have grope for him] and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”… Acts:17:26-28a
I had never thought about feeling my way toward God or groping for him. It is an image of a blind person or a person in the dark, trying to find God in the most rudimentary manner when the light of his revelation (we have the Greeks in mind here) is not available. The Greek word translated grope means to seek after something using the sense of touch. An interesting analogy Paul uses here, different from what he says about those who do not have the law (God’s revelation) in Romans 1 and 2, which appeals to the conscience.
What I find most significant about Paul’s imagery in this situation is its total lack, especially considering his audience, of references to reason, understanding, or any other intellectual process. Groping is not dependent on what drove the Greeks at all levels throughout their history, the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. It is primarily dependent on desire and a desire that expresses itself against overwhelming odds.
When I looked at the commentaries I had they all addressed the innateness of humanitys need to seek God, indeed Paul argues that God so made all mankind. They also pointed out that in this seeking there was a hope of finding him. In dealing with the feeling or groping aspect of mankind’s search for God the consensus was that we should be able to tell by the obvious characteristics of the material objects making up the world that they are not divine or would divinity inhabit them. God is obviously radically different from the created world.
Indeed, Paul argues as much in his condemnation in verse 29 of idols. But no one saw this as a slight directed at the Greeks propensity to argue and debate philosophy, at their rich schools of thought and perceived wisdom. However, that is what jumped out at me when I, for the first time, really thought about what Paul might be saying to them.
Contained in that passage is an important truth, for Paul is talking to unbelievers, to the great thinkers of his day. He tells them that mankind, which includes not only them, but all of their historic intellectual greatness, without God’s revelation is left to grope after Him like blind men, trying to fulfill their innate desire to know God bereft of the tools they imagined were so significant.
This is remarkable because this passage has a lot to say to our contemporary secular world that thinks that the wisdom and knowledge of science can find the answers to everything, even dare I say it, the mystery of God. Instead Paul chastises them, as he did the Greeks, telling them they are mere gropers, blind men at best while the simplest child availing themselves of God’s revelation has everything they need to find the God that they earnestly seek.
I am frequently taken aback by how when rereading a passage that you have gone over innumerable times, suddenly the Scripture comes alive with a new and breathtaking (at least to me) insight.
May God bless you this day and may you to find a useful insight in your reading of his Word today.