“To An Unknown God” – From Athens to Morocco

Tomorrow’s first reading from the Book of Acts recounts when Paul stood up at the Areopagus in Athens and proclaimed:

You Athenians, I see that in every respect
you are very religious.
For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines,
I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’
What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and all that is in it,
the Lord of heaven and earth,
does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands,
nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything.
Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything.
He made from one the whole human race
to dwell on the entire surface of the earth,
and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions,
so that people might seek God,
even perhaps grope for him and find him,
though indeed he is not far from any one of us.
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’
as even some of your poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since therefore we are the offspring of God,
we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image
fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination.
God has overlooked the times of ignorance,
but now he demands that all people everywhere repent
because he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world
with justice’ through a man he has appointed,
and he has provided confirmation for all
by raising him from the dead.

During my winter school “Athens through the Ages” with Greek Studies on Site, I had the opportunity to visit the Areopagus where St. Paul spoke these words. My friend and I read the passage aloud as we stood before the pictured inscription.

The way St. Paul affirms the Athenians’ religiosity reminds me of the way in which John Paul II addressed young Muslims in 1985 when he visited Morocco. During his address, he affirmed Morocco’s “tradition of openness”, “as a meeting place of civilizations”, that has “permitted exchanges with the East, with Spain, and with Africa”, and where “there there have always been Jews and nearly always Christians.” 

Then he affirmed some common ground between Christians and Muslims saying: “Both of us believe in one God the only God, who is all Justice and all Mercy; we believe in the importance of prayer, of fasting, of almsgiving, of repentance and of pardon; we believe that God will be a merciful judge to us at the end of time, and we hope that after the resurrection he will be satisfied with us and we know that we will be satisfied with him.” John Paul II then affirmed universal human nature, equal dignity, and the nature of the person as being open to transcendence, saying: “Man is a spiritual being. We, believers, know that we do not live in a closed world. We believe in God. We are worshippers of God. We are seekers of God.”

And then, finally, like St. Paul, he directly and forthrightly gave witness to the fundamental difference of Christianity: “The most fundamental [difference] is the view that we hold on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. You know that, for the Christians, this Jesus causes them to enter into an intimate knowledge of the mystery of God and into a filial communion by his gifts, so that they recognize him and proclaim him Lord and Saviour.”

I hope to visit Morocco and read John Paul II’s address there just as I read St. Paul’s address at the Areopagus!

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