This is the text of the message
I presented at our Kirkin' o' the Tartan on Sunday, November 16,
Carson C. Smith, FSA
Phone (317) 319-3712
Van Ness Place Indianapolis, IN 46240-4703
To An Unknown God
The Book of Acts provides us with an account of the
spread of the Christian faith, from the ascension of Jesus of
Nazareth, following his death, burial and resurrection, to the death
of Paul the Apostle. The narrative is developed in widening circles;
from Jerusalem in Chapters 1-7, through Judea and Sumaria in Chapter
8, and the uttermost parts of the known world, from Chapter 8 to the
end of the book. Peter and Paul are the two (2) prominent characters
in the Book of Acts.
Acts Chapter 17,
Luke the Physician, a companion of Paul, and author of the Gospel
account which bears his name, and of the Book of Acts, writes in
Acts Chapter 17 Verse 16,
While Paul was waiting for (Silas and Timothy) in Athens, he was
greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he
reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks,
as well as in the marketplace, day by day, with those who happened
to be there.
The events of Chapter 17 of the Book of the Acts,
took place during Paul’s second missionary journey. His adventures
in Greece occurred in approximately 53 AD. He arrived in the city of
Athens where Luke adds, parenthetically, in Chapter 17 Verse 21,
(All the Athenians and the
foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but
talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
One is tempted to suggest that the city of Athens
sounds like any college campus, anywhere in the world. Notice that
Paul is described, not as decrying the religious systems that he
found in Athens, or as making inflammatory statements to them about
their “false gods,” or launching upon a one-man campaign whose
ultimate aim was to rid the city of idols. Luke writes in Acts
Chapter 17 Verse 17,
He reasoned in the synagogue with Jews and the
God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace, day by day, with
those who happened to be there.
Observation Number 1: Paul reasoned with his
listeners. This suggests that he sat down among them, that he
identified with them, that he sought to understand
precisely where they were in terms of their own spiritual quest, and
that, rather than driving them to accept his conclusions or
face the torment of judgment eternal, he sought to lead them
to a new understanding where they, too, could share his vision of
the faith that he professed.
Observation Number 2: Paul launched his missionary
effort in Athens in the synagogue, with those identified as Jews
and God-fearing Greeks. Saul, later known as St. Paul, was
himself a Jew, and not only was he a Jew, he had been a member of
the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem. He began in
the synagogue, knowing that his audience shared the same religious
worldview, same religious literature, the same
religious language, the same religious points of reference
and, because he drew upon the Old Testament scriptures as his means
of demonstrating the authority of his message, he understood that it
was here that he was most likely to find his most receptive
Observation Number 3: Paul did not remain within the
relatively secure environment of the synagogue. So determined was
he, in the pursuit of his ultimate objective, he went out into the
marketplace. Furthermore, he went into the marketplace day by day.
Neither sun, nor heat, nor physical fatigue would hinder him in the
attainment of his goal. Finally, he reasoned with anyone who
happened to be there. He did not make distinctions with regard to
who might be deemed more likely to accept his message, he was not
hindered by the fact that his listeners might be totally unfamiliar
with his spiritual points of reference, nor did he, in any way, seek
to diminish the intellectual capacity of his audience to comprehend
Acts Chapter 17
And how was Paul received by the citizens of Athens?
In Acts Chapter 17 Verse 18, Luke the Physician writes,
A group of Epicurean and Stoic
Philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is
this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be
advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching
the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
One of the most wonderful details of this narrative
is that Luke the Physician identifies the philosophical schools of
The followers of Epicurus were fond of luxury and
sensuous pleasure, especially that of eating and drinking, whose
credo can be summarized as, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow
we die.” The Stoics derived their name from the fact that their
teacher, Zeno, had taught in the open, under a porch or colonnade,
which in Greek is called a stoa. They held that all things
are governed by unvarying natural laws, and that the wise should
follow virtue alone, obtained through reason, remaining indifferent
to the external world, to passion, or to emotion.
The Epicureans, who celebrated sensual
pleasure, and the Stoics, who sought to repress all sensual
pleasure, represented the opposite ends of the philosophical
spectrum. Nevertheless, both appear to have been equally
hostile to the message of Paul.
Paul was taken to a meeting of the Areopagus, which was the supreme
court of justice in Athens, where in Acts Chapter 17 Verses 19 and
20, Paul is asked,
“May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You
are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know
what they mean.”
Acts Chapter 17
And in the response that follows, Paul’s opening
remarks, in Acts Chapter 17 Verse 22, provide me with the central
theme of today’s message.
Paul then stood up in the meeting
of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way
you are very religious. For as I walked around and observed your
objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO
AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown, I am
going to proclaim to you.”
Paul begins by commending the men of Athens for their
pursuit of the knowledge of God, stating that, “in every way you are
very religious.” And, as Paul walked about the streets of Athens he,
no doubt, saw altars and statues that had been erected to honor the
entire pantheon, or all the of Greek gods and goddesses.
Zeus the king of the gods
Poseidon the god of the sea
Demeter the goddess of agriculture
Dionysus the god of wine
Ares the god of war
Artemis the goddess of the hunt
Aphrodite the goddess of love
and, perhaps the most interesting of all, the patron
Athena the goddess of crafts, domestic arts, and war
(The image of a warrior goddess will appeal to our
own Celtic warrior women.)
And it would appear that, as a means of covering
every possibility imaginable, and to avoid offending any god that
might have been overlooked, the men of Athens had erected an altar
TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.
In a moment of divine inspiration, and uncommon
genius, Paul seizes upon a point of reference that was already known
to his audience, assigned to it a new meaning, and provided them
with a new lens through which to view the world, and launches into a
presentation of the Gospel, or the Good News, which is one of
the most profoundly simple explanations of Essential Christianity
found anywhere in the New Testament.
I will simply read it verbatim, because it cannot be
“The God who made the world, and
everything in it, is the Lord of heaven and earth, and does not live
in temples built by hands.
And He is not served by human
hands, as if He needed anything, because He himself gives all men
life, and breath, and everything else.
From one man He made every nation
of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined
the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.
God did this so that men would
seek Him and, perhaps, reach out for Him, and find Him, though he is
not far from each one of us.
For in Him we live, and move, and
have our being.
As some of your own poets have
said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Therefore, since we are God’s
offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold,
or silver, or stone; an image made by man’s design and skill.
In the past God overlooked such
ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent.
For He has set a day when He will
judge the world, with justice, by the man He has appointed.
He has given proof of this to all
men by raising him from the dead.”
Luke writes that, when they heard about the
resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We
want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the
Council. And a few men became followers of Paul, and believed.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine accepted the
Christian faith in 312 AD, persecution was ordered to an end within
the empire, and Christianity spread throughout Roman government
circles. Patricius or Patrick, later known as St. Patrick, was born
in Kilpatrick near Dumbarton, Strathclyde, on the west coast of
Scotland in 390 AD. He was the son of Calpurnius, a Roman tax
collector, and a deacon among the Romano-British Christians of
Patrick was captured by pirates before the age of 16,
and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he was forced to tend sheep.
He escaped 6 years later, and made his way to a ship bound for his
home in Scotland.
He returned to his mother and father in Scotland, but
was called in a dream, to return to Ireland. He entered the
monastery of Lerins, located on a small island opposite Nice, on the
coast of France. Patrick was ordained a priest and, because he was
already familiar with the people, their language, and
their religion, he returned to Ireland, following the failure
of another missionary, one Palladius.
The success of Patrick’s missionary efforts in
Ireland is attributed to the fact that, rather than sweeping aside
the traditions of the Celts, he sought to adapt pre-Christian
symbols, images and holy sites to his ministry. Recall our earlier
example of Paul, as he addressed the men of Athens. Rather than
seeking to destroy what he found there, he seized upon a point of
reference that was known to his audience, assigned to it a new
meaning, and provided them with a new lens through which to view the
Their native generosity; their celebration of the
natural cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth; their belief that
the visible world, in which they lived, was part of a much larger,
invisible world; their view of themselves as passing through this
life on their way to another; was entirely harmonious with the
In point of fact, the Celtic cross arrived in Ireland
ahead of the Church. When examined closely, the Celtic cross is an
equidistant cross, superimposed over a circle, and mounted on a
shaft. It represents the earth and the four points of the compass,
the marriage of Father Sun and Mother Earth, and the four elements,
(Earth, Air, Fire, and Water).
Following the arrival of Patrick in Ireland, the
Celtic cross was reinterpreted to represent the triumph of Christ
over the world. And as new crosses were erected, they began to bear
the image of Christ, with his arms outstretched, and their bases
were carved with images from the Bible.
One of the more remarkable achievements of the Church
was the imposition of the blessing of three persons of the Trinity,
(Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), one of the more controversial tenants
of Church tradition, over the four points of the compass, (North,
South, East and West).
Because the religion of the Celts was nature based, they often
gathered in what were considered to be sacred places, which as often
as not, were in clearings in the forest. The image of the sacred
grove is preserved in the interiors of Gothic chapels and
cathedrals, whose columns are often carved so as to resemble tree
trunks and whose vaulted ceilings imitate the intersection of tree
limbs. And thus it becomes evident, to anyone who is paying
attention, that the Western Church, and the Celtic Church in
particular, has become the means by which many pre-Christian images
have been preserved to us.
Today, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with corned
beef, green beer and parades, but the question must be asked, “How
interesting would St. Patrick’s Day be, were it not for the Scottish
Pipebands?” And when the question arises, “Why is it that the Scots
show up on this most ‘Irish’ of holidays?” you can answer with
absolute authority, “The kilt and the bagpipe came to Scotland from
Ireland, but Patrick came to Ireland from Scotland!”
The most famous of the Irish missionaries to arrive
in Scotland was Columba, later known as St. Columba, who was born in
Ireland in 521 AD. He was a Christian abbot and missionary trained
in Irish monasteries, who established himself and 12 companions on
the island of Iona, not far from his native Ireland. From Iona he
evangelized the Scottish mainland, establishing several monasteries
on nearby islands. Like Patrick, Columba drew upon pre-Christian
points of reference throughout his ministry. He is credited with the
declaration, “My druid is Christ, the Son of God!”
And that is so remarkable, I will say it again, “My
druid is Christ, the Son of God!”
Among the pre-Christian Celts, the druids,
meaning people of true vision, were men or women who had
undergone intensive training, in order to understand the workings of
both the visible, and invisible, worlds. They functioned as
teachers, healers, counselors, lawyers, judges and priests. There
were schools for the training of the druids, which could be attended
for 20 years. At the end of their training, the druids were
considered so wise that their decisions were never questioned.
As a matter of fact, the druids were held in such
high esteem that they could stop a war, even once battle had
actually commenced. The Romans observed that, when two armies had
come together, with swords drawn, the druids could step between the
battle lines, and stop the conflict as though they were holding wild
animals spellbound. But because they were keepers of an oral
tradition, there is no record of their actual teachings. Their
image, however, has been delivered to us in person of Merlin
of The Legends of King Arthur, Gandalf the Grey, Later
known as Gandalf the White, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of
the Rings and, more recently, Dumbledore of J.K.
Rowling’s Harry Potter. But what did Columba mean when he
said, “My druid is Christ, the Son of God!”
Druids functioned as teachers.
Jesus is our Teacher!
(John Chapter 13 Verse 14)
Druids functioned as healers.
Jesus is the Great Physician!
(Mark Chapter 2 Verses 16 and 17)
Druids functioned as counselors.
Jesus is our Wonderful Counselor!
(Isaiah Chapter 9 Verse 6)
Druids functioned as lawyers.
Jesus is our Advocate and Defender!
(1 John Chapter 2 Verse 1)
Druids functioned as judges.
Jesus will one day judge the living and the dead!
(Acts Chapter 10 Verse 42)
Druids functioned as priests.
Jesus is our Great High Priest!
(Hebrews Chapter 4 Verses 14 through 16)
Druids could cause wars to cease.
Jesus is the Prince of Peace and He, alone, will cause all wars to
(Isaiah Chapter 9 Verse 6)
“My druid is Christ, the Son of God!”
Have you suffered at the hands of the Christian
“Fundamentalists?” Are you put-off by the money-grubbing excesses of
the Television Evangelists? Do you imagine that you have become too
sophisticated, too jaded, or too lost to find your way back?
Do not be deceived and do not be misled.
You were bought with a price, freed to follow, and
saved to serve. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Jesus is the Way. And there as many paths leading to the Way as
there are men and women seated in this place. Let nothing stand in
I, like Paul, Patrick and Columba, have come to you
today, poor messenger that I am, to proclaim to you, what may have
been, prior to this moment, AN UNKNOWN GOD. My hope is that I have
provided you with a new lens though which to view the world.
And I will declare, with St. Columba, “My druid is
Christ, the Son of God!”
Let us pray.
We thank you, Father, for the Freedom made available
though Jesus Christ, the One True King. We thank you for the words
of Luke the Physician, and for the examples of Paul, Patrick and
Columba. We ask you to make real to us, the declaration that, “My
druid is Christ, the Son of God!” Remind us that we were bought with
a price, freed to follow, and saved to serve, in Jesus’ Name we
For further reading, many of us have “found our way
back” through the study of Celtic Christianity and, to that end, I
recommend Anam Cara, or in the Gaelic, “Soul Friend,” whose
author, Irish Catholic scholar John O’Donohue explains, without
apology, that it is Jesus who is our “Soul Friend.”