The Unknown God Acts 17:22-31

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
May 14, 2023

The Unknown God
Acts 17:22-31

If you attended public school as a child, you probably remember taking a standardized test. For kids of my era, state testing was done using long scantron sheets with a hundred rows of bubbles marked ABCD with a number two pencil – multiple choice questions to make it possible for a machine to grade the tests instead of a teacher; standardized assessments to be able to track student progress each year, and compare across schools, cities, and even the country.

Maddie took the MCAP last week – Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program – the second of two weeks of testing. Instead of a scantron sheet, she took her test on a computer: a sturdy little Chromebook furnished by the Baltimore City Schools. End of year tests for ELA and Math will also be given on her laptop, using apps that tailor the questions to her answers, supposedly giving an accurate assessment of her progress. Technology has changed the way we learn.

If testing has changed over the past few decades, what has happened this year is extraordinary. Professors I know have totally shifted their testing strategies – moving from take home, open book exams to in-class presentations and moving back to blue book tests written out longhand in the classroom. Who can guess why? The rise of AI! Chatbots like ChatGPT mean students have a world of knowledge not just readily accessible – complete essay answers can be generated with one click, essays that may be hard to identify as plagiarized. And sometimes, as with many articles on the internet – the answers sound correct, but they’re riddled with misinformation, slanted with bias, or even just completely wrong. Teachers are wrestling with a core question – how do we know what we know?

As tech companies race to outpace each other in the AI game, scientists and engineers who developed the technology are speaking out, cautioning us to consider the potential misuse and danger of AI, and its implications for job security, misinformation, and … you know, the complete destruction of humanity.

I don’t necessarily understand all of those implications – how different a random language generator is from previous iterations. But I know that colleagues have used the technology to create passable sermons that point toward God and make me wonder if my role, too, might become obsolete. Now, ChatGPT won’t visit you in the hospital, won’t be able to break bread at the table. But call any airline, any customer service department, and it’s hard to find a human to speak with. The change is already here, and part of the ongoing concern is that the technology is evolving and changing so quickly, it’s gone beyond our control and ability to predict and anticipate. It’s troubling.

When Paul arrived in Athens, he travels around the city and observes its people.  Athens was the city of Aristotle and Socrates; the academic, cultural and artistic center of the Roman empire! It was where scholars came to debate the latest ideas; the text tells us that all who lived or visited there spent their time in nothing except the telling or hearing of something new. And everywhere Paul goes, he sees idols – people worshipping a plethora of pagan gods. And to Paul, a man devoted to the One True God, this is troubling. So lacking the tools of TikTok and Substack, he goes down to the town market and begins to engage in friendly debate with passersby, sharing the gospel of Jesus. His arguments intrigue the Athenians, and they want to hear more – so he’s invited to speak to their council at Mars Hill.

Now the mark of a true intellectual in ancient Greece is their keen powers of observation and debate. So Paul plays to his audience. He begins by naming what he has observed in their city – the prevalence of idols. He uplifts the altar to an Unknown God – Then, using their own rhetoric and quotes from their own philosophers, Paul purports to reveal who God is- “what you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you” – then he lays out the case for Jesus. Essentially, Paul asks: “How do we know what we know about God?” – We know, Paul says, because when we seek God, we find them: in creation, in community, in our very selves. And – We know God because of the life and work of the resurrected Christ.

Tertullian, a father of the early church, famously asked “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”  What do science and philosophy have to do with God’s revelation?  What does the academic pursuit of knowledge have to do with the mystery of faith?  And until Paul shows up in Athens, the answer was – NOTHING.  Willie James Jennings writes that to Athenians, Jerusalem was a closed door.  Pagan Gentiles, with their idol worship and idle philosophizing could never know or be in relationship with the God of Abraham and Sarah.  But Paul arrives and opens the door.  The good news of Jesus Christ is for Jews and Greeks, enslaved and free, male and female – for you and for me, it’s for everyone.

In an op-ed about the new AI technology, a Columbia University professor asks “What would Plato say about ChatGPT?”[1]  Apparently, Plato was suspicious of written language because it would supplant students’ reliance on memory.  Our trepidation about new technologies is as old as time, apparently.  My college chaplain, John Williams, liked to remind us: “God gave us brains and expects us to use them.”  It’s a good rule of thumb.  I think it’s what Paul is reminding the Athenians, and it’s a way to approach new AI technology as well.  Our curiosity about the universe, our ability to learn and assimilate information – is a gift!  The more we know about the world that we live in, the more we appreciate the mystery and complexity of its creator.  The more we understand about the social and political contexts of the early church, the better we can translate the life and teachings of Jesus to our own time.  The more space we make for doubt and questions, to learn and grow, the stronger and more durable our faith becomes.  It is God’s will for us to be seeking and searching – and that is why God makes Godself available for us to find.  The pursuit of knowledge; our capacity to uncover the mysteries of the natural world and the complexities of history and politics; the beauty of poetry and art – the gift of self-expression – are gifts of a loving God, whose revelation is made clear in and through our learning.

The problems that we face in a rapidly changing world are complex.  As people of faith, we can’t shut the door on Athens.  We must follow Paul’s lead and open the door – observe what is happening around us with curiosity and look for how and where God is at work – and using all of the tools at our disposal to join in.  As AI eliminates jobs, that might look like advocating for the right to work and basic human income.  And trusting that God is present and will be found in and through our seeking.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Tufekci, Zeynep, “What Would Plato Say About ChatGPT?” Opinion piece in the New York Times, December 15, 2022.