To the Unknown God (and the Unknown America)

Men who think they can build heaven on earth usually build hell instead.

Anonymous, “St. Paul in Athens,” 19th century
Anonymous, “St. Paul in Athens,” 19th century (photo: Düsseldorfer Auktionshaus/Wikimedia Commons)

Acts 17 speaks of St. Paul’s arrival in Athens. After encountering various philosophies and worldviews in a “city wholly given to idolatry,” he encounters in the Areopagus an altar dedicated “to the unknown God.” Paul sees an opening and proceeds to tell the Athenians about the “unknown god” that idolatrous city included in its pantheon of worship … and they laugh him out of town.

The Athenians were extraordinary “broad-minded.” They were “searchers” for the “truth” (but, like today’s Don Quixotes, they didn’t seem to believe that quest might have a terminus). They were willing to be titillated by new ideas (as long as they did not collide with the broad strokes of their ideological correctness).

The “altar to the unknown god” showed that the Athenians were spiritual, although not religious. Because being on the good side of the deities redounded to the municipal weal, worship of the state gods was expected and impiety punished. Being polytheists (and something of proto-Pascalians), while putting their money on Athena and Zeus et al., they are sufficiently “tolerant” (and willing to engage in spiritual covering of a lower part of the anatomy) to wager it might be good to be on good terms with any other “unknown god” lurking out there who might benefit them. Athenian religion was not religion in the Christian sense: it was a spiritual insurance policy to placate beings more powerful than themselves to their advantage, including those that might not be known.

From a Christian perspective, the altar to the unknown god, while letting St. Paul introduce the Christian message into the Athenian marketplace of ideas, is not an unalloyed plus: it exhibits the relativistic confusion in which a city “wholly given to idolatry” found itself. So “tolerant” was Athens it was even ostensibly receptive to the true God … until it actually heard about him. Then it was something else.

I bring up this episode from Paul’s life in light of an op-ed in the Aug. 4 New York Times, “We Need a Monument to the Unknown America.” Where Christianity sees Paul’s altar-tucked-in-the-corner as a mixed bag, Ed Simon suggests it’s something America should aspire to.

Simon opines about our “iconoclastic summer,” mob-and-politician driven demolition of statues from Columbus to Confederates, from Serra to Jefferson (but only qualifiedly Sanger).

The contemporary Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski warns that our most dangerous fault line is not the West versus the rest but within the West itself. The real abyss, he cautions, lies between those who claim the Greco-Roman-Jewish tradition of antiquity and seek to sustain it versus those who coopt that tradition’s terms and values while vesting them with meanings diametrically opposite from what that tradition bequeathed. These modern, “Western enlightened” types use the roots of our civilization to undermine it, swapping in cuckoos’ eggs for values like “liberty,” “freedom” and “dignity” as inherited by our culture.

Simon makes a case for the iconoclasts by trying to use Christianity against itself. Iconoclasm was ultimately a heresy in Christianity, not an alternative Christianity. He even trots out “apophatic Christianity” (a theological tradition that tried to define God negatively, i.e., what he is not, something Meister Eckhart was perhaps the best example) to try to convince us that the “way of negation” is not so bad.

So what’s he do with it? He argues we need an altar to an “unknown America.”

See, all those generals and warriors and discoverers and saints have clay feet. They’re not the “America” we aspire to. That America is still coming. We’re still waiting (like Godot) for it. So perhaps we should build monuments to that “unknown” America.

What amazing intellectual legerdemain!

I call it bait and switch because Simon practically cancels out original sin, substituting Rousseau’s vision (subsequently run with by people like Hegel, Marx et al.) of boundless vistas of future progress. The future will be better than the past.

Well, no it won’t … because the future is still going to be made up of men and women who are sinners, who have moral warts and clay feet.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it is bent towards justice” only by the power of God. Men who think they can build heaven on earth usually build hell instead. Those who reach arrogantly by their own power and pride for heaven wind up with a “diversity” called Babel. We will not and never “make heaven a place on earth.”

Christianity’s resistance to iconoclasm lay precisely in the need to ground sensible man — human beings with senses — in the sensible world of space and time. Aware of the realistic limits that all people of all times and places will always face, it celebrated the particular, the historical, the incarnate, the visible. In that sense, Christianity counterpoised itself to all gnosticisms that would limit man to the notional, the “spiritual,” ideas divorced from two solid feet in this world.

Christianity is not a “notional” religion. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

Can a country be “notional?” There is a certain intellectual trend in America that views the United States as an “idea” more than a land, a people, or even a common history. Simon’s argument is, arguably, the zenith of that notion: America as an “idea” ever in front of us, never quite attained.

Once upon a time people had heroes. Sometimes their stories were sugar-coated, like Parson Weems’ on George Washington. Catholics often treated saints as heroes. And while perhaps some might have been quite ethereal, the saints that appealed to most people trod this earth with two solid feet on the ground.

Can a community — church or state — prosper without heroes?

What are we telling people when we say those who came before us “never quite measured up.” Neither, then, will we. Simon seems to think this is a way of always remaining faithful to our “ideals,” clinging not to a “mythic great past but … a utopian future.” I confess it reminds me more of Dante’s vestibule of hell, where souls uncommitted to anything run inexorably and frantically after a flag they can never catch.