E s s a y s
EUROPE’S UNKNOWN GOD
A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of religion. The word God, that slumbered peacefully in our modern European discourse – so that we might even speak of the sweet linguistic death of God – is on its troublesome way back. There are those who would like the word to be included in the preamble to the European Constitution. Others commit dastardly acts of mass murder against civilians – even on European territory – in the name of God or God’s Will. Are they talking about the same God in both cases? Some of the Europeans who have got out of the habit not only of talking but even of thinking about God would seem to believe so; in the name of “political correctness”, the spectre of religion – any religion – must be driven out of the public arena! No muslim scarf, Christian cross or Jewish prayer straps may be allowed to evoke it. But where are the guarantees that this very measure might not allow some other god, some other religion, some other spectre to step into the vacuum, or that this new religion will be more benign or tolerant towards “others” than were the old ones?
The spectre of Communism – one of the godless religions – fortunately ended its perambulation of Europe not long ago, after more than a hundred years. It was the cause of more bloodshed and devastation – also in people’s minds and national mentalities – than the many religious wars of the past. The extreme version of “secular humanism” that strives to expel from Europe’s public space the dangerous old monotheistic religions, also has bloodstains on its historical balance sheet. The fanatical “struggle against fanaticism” during the French Revolution gave humanity the word “terror” and invested the word with a meaning that we must not trivialise in the light of Europe’s historical memory.
Europe’s future cultural space will continue to be inhabitated by people who speak about God and those who are silent about God. In what way will their coexistence be affected by the process of European integration, which is surmounting existing frontiers in the fields of politics, economics, administration and educational systems? Will the existing barriers between them also “soften”, or, on the contrary will it give rise to painful collisions? It would seem that mutual prejudice and suspicion between them has increased in the recent period.
Within the ranks of secular humanism’s advocates the suspicion is being voiced that those who speak about God – and actually demand that his language not be regarded as unbecoming even in the basic legal documents of a unified Europe – are potential allies of those who would like to turn the historical clock back to pre-modern times, and are potentially capable – out of hatred of pluralistic civilisation and its concept of freedom – also of asserting their sole truth by violence. Meanwhile, among believers, one can encounter the suspicion that those who say nothing about God and want to squeeze reminders and symbols of God out of public life are not only sawing off one branch of the spreading tree of European culture, but are cutting through their own roots and preparing the ground for Europe’s ruin.
These mutual suspicions need to be voiced. More than that, it is necessary to leave behind these two “pre-understandings” (in the sense of Vorverständnis) burdened with the traumas of the past, and gradually replace a “hermeneutics of suspicion” with a “hermeneutics of trust” or “methodological sympathy” – the art of seeing the world through others’ eyes and so broadening the horizon of our previous experience: trying to understand why some attach so much importance to “the mention of God” while others fear it. The tragic experience of Communism’s militant atheism and the abuse of religion by radical Islamists should rouse present-day Europeans to look for an alternative path – to look for the possibility of encounter and mutual understanding between secularism and belief between silence about God and speaking about God.
In these reflections I am not seeking a compromise at any price or a marriage of convenience between religious and non-religious people, but a instead a way of grasping anew what I am convinced is the “essence” both of our Europeanness and Western Christianity – and also a genuine opportunity for them. The fact that Christian faith and secularism have cohabited this spiritual space for so long, in various forms of “contiguity and conflict”, means that it is possible to “think them together”. This means not simply recognising this diversity – in the spirit of polite tolerance – as legitimate, but recognising compatibility in their diversity. Only when we realise that it is precisely in our difference that we need each other, can we start to seek practical solutions and a way out of the many blind alleys that our past onesidedness has led us into.
the interrupted sermon about the Unknown God
In his analysis of the results of a European Values Study, Tübingen theologian Peter Hünermann notes that “in the course of the modern era a fundamental change occurred in Europe: from being a self-evident, familiar God, God became an alien, unknown God”. I add: does this not present Christianity with an enormous opportunity, so far unused?
I would recall the well-known scene in the Acts of the Apostles that describes one of the first – not particularly successful – encounters of youthful Christianity with the ancient Greek world – Paul’s preaching at the Areopagus in Athens. Is the fact that the apostle starts his sermon by referring to the “Altar to an Unknown God” simply a sign of Paul’s oratorical quick-wittedness, or does it mean something more? Personally I see it more as a paradigmatic scene: “the Altar to an Unknown God is precisely the most appropriate “topos” for proclaiming the Christian message. For Paul, as a Jew and a Christian, the only true God is the God that can’t be portrayed, one hidden in mystery; a known god is no god at all. It’s not surprising that the ancient world – a “world full of gods” – for centuries regarded the Jews and Christians as atheists.
But let us meditate for a moment on Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus. What did the apostle say and what was he perhaps intending to say at the moment he was interrupted? Paul first praises the Athenians for their devoutness in erecting altars to so many gods, so that they even remember “an Unknown God” whose altar had particularly intrigued him when strolling through the holy garden. Bible commentators continue to argue over whether these words of praise for “pagan idolatory” – quite unusual from the lips of a devout Jew – were a rhetorical “captatio benevolentiae” or instead an expression of caustic irony.
Paul proceeds to interpret this “Unknown God”: “In fact, the unknown God you revere is the one I proclaim to you.” This god is not one of the gods that was perhaps forgotten and so is to be honoured just to be on the safe side, to prevent him showing anger and taking vengeance; it is the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth. Immediately afterwards there comes Paul’s critique of idolatory – this God does not dwell in material temples and requires no human rituals; after all divinity is not some man-made material object. Idolatory, Paul says, is an expression of ignorance, an immature attitude to God that God has long tolerated, but now the situation has changed radically and the time has come to repent. It is remarkable that Paul talks about the Greeks’ worship of gods in a similar spirit of censure and irony as used by the prophets of Israel or by the ancient philosophers when criticising primitive religious anthropomorphism. Nonetheless he finds for them a certain time-contingent tolerance; maybe he implicitly accepts the “period of ignorance” – the era of pagan religions – as a kind of pedagogical preparation for the coming of Christ, rather in the way he refers in his letters to the Mosaic Law. Here he speaks about the true God, the one unknown to the Greeks, more in philosophical categories and in terms of poetic piety, than in terms of religion as a cult. His speech to the Athenians, with its references to the Greek poets, might even recall a certain sort of pantheism or, at the very least, panentheism: “he is not far from any of us,” Paul says, “since it is in him that we live, and move, and exist... We are all his children.” Paul, however, proclaims God the Creator – this God created the world and its order (“he decreed how long each nation should flourish and what the boundaries of its territory should be”) – in order to provoke people’s religious search “so that all nations might seek the deity and, by feeling their way toward him, succeed in finding him”. This is a very powerful assertion: that the purpose of creation is a religious search!
But there are some other things we should note: the “Unknown God” is not a distant God. On the contrary he is incredibly close to us: “it is in him that we live, and move”. God is, as it were, an essential part of our Lebenswelt. His unknownness is not due to his distance, but rather to his extreme proximity. After all, we know least of all about what is closest to us, what is our very own, what we take for granted. None of us has seen our own face – we only see its image in a mirror. And we can only see God in a mirror; elsewhere Paul states in so many words that during our lives we see God only partly: “a dim reflection in a mirror”, but after death we will see him “face to face”.
Paul wants to show the Athenians the “face” of the unknown, too close, God, as mirrored in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, above all his paradoxical end/non-end: cross and resurrection. But that actually doesn’t happen. When Paul says the words “resurrection from the dead” some of the Athenians start to sneer, while others walk off, having lost interest: they have understood the resurrection as something they were naturally familiar with, whether as an absurd fable, or as a frequent image in the mythology of the surrounding nations, where gods frequently died and rose from the dead; the Greek gods, however, enjoy one – and often only one – privilege not accorded humans, and which sets them apart: their immortality.
So at this point Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus and this entire early attempt at “inter-religious and inter-cultural” dialogue comes to an embarassing end, and we can only surmise how it might have continued. Should Paul maybe have used another, less loaded metaphor for the uniqueness of Christ’s story, than “resurrection from the dead”? Was it the issue itself, or was the cause of the misunderstanding an inappropriate image or term? It is hard to decide. Paul – insofar as we can guess the possible continuation of his sermon – would probably want to show that in the mirror of Jesus’ Easter story, the God who is “unknown” yet near, proves himself to be a God of paradox. His most typical feature is that he turns weakness into strength, death into life, defeat into victory, folly into wisdom and wisdom into folly. That is why he is mysterious, unpredictable, ambiguous, cannot be “groped for”, but instead opens the mystery of his heart precisely in that story about the man Jesus, who humbled himself, assumed the condition of a slave and was obedient right to the moment of his ignominious execution – which is why God raised him on high. The Kenosis of the Son of God, his self-surrender, self-emptying, self-frustration, his submission – this is the true face of the Unknown God.
The God in which we live, move and are is an inexhaustibly mysterious reality, brimful with meanings, like life itself; attempts to squeeze him into rational systems, cut to the measure of the limited capacity of our human reason and experience, is doomed to failure from the outset. We can only see and understand him (albeit “only partly”) in the mirror of stories, which are – like our dreams – paradoxical (and therefore often shocking). Such is the story of the man Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the “slain God”, who went through the hell prepared by people in order to open the world of people to “the New Jerusalem prepared by God”.
Is it therefore so surprising that God, who is so close, should remain unknown to so many, when he escapes into mystery even from his closest children (“We are all his children”)? When even his Only-begotten Son calls out in the hour of his death that he has been forsaken? When he reveals himself in stories that are “an obstacle to the Jews and sheer madness to the gentiles”? Is it really so surprising that sermons about him tend to be interrupted under all sorts of pretexts and not heard out? Or that when heard two thousand years later, it is still not fully understood in certain respects?
a new Areopagus?
Yes, if anyone wants to preach the Good News of the paradoxical God of the Bible he has to find the “altar to the Unknown God”. To speak about Christ at the altar of known gods would be blasphemy or risk even greater misunderstanding than on that occasion at the Athenian Areopagus. The world is full of known gods. Martin Luther rightly said that what is of greatest value to people is their god; and the Bible itself speaks of people whose god “is the stomach” (Phil 3.19).
No, I don’t intend at this point to indulge in the rhetoric of the usual Christian critique of the idolatory of the consumer society, or alternatively, the idolatory of political and media “stars”. I have in mind something more serious and dangerous – I can’t help certain misgivings about whether we Christians have not in the course of history constantly fallen prey to the temptation to exchange the paradoxical God of Christ’s Easter story for a “familiar god” always in keeping with human notions and the expectations of specific epochs.
And if this has happened, and our Christian thinking is burdened with this legacy, then is not the entire complex phenomenon that we call secularisation, criticism and undermining of religion, atheism, etc. – or at least certain features of this phenomenon – a blessing, an opportunity for discernment, by cleaning and opening up a space in which we may hear anew Paul’s message? Is not the situation in which, for a large proportion of Europeans, God is an unknown and alien god, a summons to a “new Areopagus”
The Madman and his dys-evangelium
Let us now leap 18 centuries of history in which Christianity had countless opportunities to take root in European culture, and turn our attention to a story that is in some ways similar and in other ways quite opposite to Paul’s sermon in the Areopagus at Athens. Paul, as we heard, left the Aeropagus having persuaded most of the crowd that he was a madman. To another crowd, in another marketplace, comes another madman to speak about an unknown god. The man, searching for God in the daylight with a lantern, like Diogenes searching for man, arrives (in the chapter entitled Madman (Der tolle Mensch) of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Gay Science”) – but, unlike Paul, he comes among those who do not believe in God. This detail in that well-known and celebrated text is often overlooked: the Madman, who comes as a herald of God’s death, comes to provoke not believers but unbelievers – Nietzsche uses his message to make their matter-of-course atheism once more a problem. The people mock the seeker after God, because they have long ceased to seek him. “Is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage?”, they scoff at the mad seeker, sure in their belief that “there is no God”. And they cannot understand his plaintive message about why there is now “no God”: “We have killed him, you and I!”
Those for whom God simply does not exist, who is not and and never was, and those for whom – with equal matter-of-factness – God has “existed” from the beginning of time as an unchanging metaphysical entity, must necessarily find the message about the death of God equally mad and incomprehensible as the Athenians did Paul’s message of the resurrection.
It was possible to remind the Athenians that divinity was the most intimate part of their Lebenswelt, so close and commonplace that they don’t even notice it any more, just as we are unaware of the smell of our home when we are in it all the time. Europeans on the post-modern market-place would be told that they no longer live in the sacrosanct – God’s absence (concealed by unthinking conventional atheism or conventional religiosity) has become so axiomatic to them that its cause and effect need to be demonstrated dramatically. “All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? [...]Whither are we moving?” 
The dys-evangelist of Nietzsche’s parable does not come in order to bring about his listeners’ conversion to atheism, to turn them into atheists, but instead to arouse in them responsibility for the unacknowledged or forgotten reason for their atheism. The Madman (and Nietzsche in his guise) is not seeking to “propagate” atheism and bring about the death of God in the minds of his listeners, but instead he has come to spread the news that this event has already occurred and to explain its meaning; he wants his listeners to realise how fundamentally this event concerns them. They are the joint-victims and joint-perpetrators of God’s death.
Let us leave one side for now the tricky exegesis of Niezsche’s idea of the death of God, of which there are several versions both in The Gay Science and in Thus Spake Zarathustra that are hard to reconcile. In the Madman chapter the ambivalence of the outcome of God’s murder is only hinted at; the deed is “too great” for its perpetrators to accept and to grasp its shocking implications either as a fault for which they must accept responsibility or even as a liberating opportunity that they have to seize; they are quite simply incapable of understanding the message at all. The Madman is mad because he came too early – in the words of Niezsche, who definitely identified with this figure whose prophecy was ahead of its time; it is hard to say how much he suspected that were he to come less than a century later he wouldn’t need to light a lamp at noon, but could happily lecture about the “death of God” without any fuss at most Christian theological faculties in the western world.
The gospel in a dual context
Let us ask ourselves another question: how can the story of Jesus of Nazareth be told within the horizon of axiomatic religiosity, and at a time and in a situation wherein this entire horizon has been wiped away, when the horizon and naturally shared (albeit often unthinking) experience is the absence of the sacred – or at the very least the abandonment of the sacred in its traditional form?
In a culture in which the world was “full of gods”, Paul had the find “the Altar to the Unknown God” in order to find a space within this rift in into the general religiosity,wherein he could speak about God and his son Jesus Christ in an authentically Christian way. Maybe in these secularised times it is necessary to seek again islands of the sacred, so that this “Altar to the Unknown God” might once more be a bridgehead for the intelligible exposition of the same gospel of Christ?
Maybe, but not because faith and religion, or Christianity and “the sacred” must necessarily always go hand in hand. In my view, the message of the cross and resurrection is unique particularly because it expresses the ambivalent and paradoxical nature of human existence in relation to the world and to God, and because it must always be proclaimed at the interface of religion and atheism. The right place for the Christian kérygma is precisely the intersection of the sacred and the secular (as implied by the dogma of the Incarnation), and nowadays the intersection or “knife edge” between religion and “secularism”.
God above being
Strictly speaking, we cannot answer the question as to God’s existence with a simple “yes” or “no” (either “there is a God” or “there is no God”), but if we are to think and speak responsibly we must, in view of the many meanings of the little word “is”, interpret our answer. A number of of significant contemporary Christian and Jewish thinkers have returned to the idea of the mystics (particularly Master Eckhart) that God’s absolute transcendence stands above being and non-being. Emmanuel Lévinas literally states that “God and being cannot be thought together”.
If we profess with St Paul that in Jesus who lived on this Earth and died on the cross “in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily”, then we must insist that the New Testament story of Jesus is a corrective interpretation of our judgments about God, and the nature and existence of God. Or to put it more precisely: the Gospel story and teaching about the nature of God are joined in a hermeneutic ring – they interpret each other, in the same way as the gospel and our lives,, and our concept of God and our experience of the world are joined in a hermeneutic ring – they interpret each other. That means that there is always a difference and a tension between them; they are not interchangeable but also they cannot be kept apart and experienced in isolation – they must be “thought together”, or to borrow the terminology of the Chalcedonian Christological dogma, we must perceive them “inconfusedly and inseparably”. Ancient and mediaeval theology took the bold, and in its way, extremely intelligent step of marrying “the God of the Bible” with “the God of the philosophers” and this union would still be conceivable, so long as the theologian realised that in both cases – in the Biblical narrations and the philosophical theories – the truth about God is given in the form of two currents of metaphor that can mutually interpret and correct each other. When the static version of Aristotle’s concept of the the Prime Mover began to dominate philosophical concepts and when only suitable scriptural quotations, proofs and “arguments” were selected as ornaments for this “scientific concept of the Bible”, the paradoxical God, who was the subject of the Biblical narrative and of the mystical experiences of those for whom theology was still meditation and the philosophical adventure of the quest, was long “dead”. However, Nietzsche and his Madman came to proclaim the death of his substitute, that metaphysical and moral concept of God.
For a long time I was undecided whether to accept the standpoint of dialectical theology (of Barth, Bultmann and particularly Bonhoeffer), that “religiosity” including “natural theology” (and the philosophical search for God) is an obstacle to an authentically Christian faith, or the view of Jean Daniélou that true Christianity always presupposes a natural religious experience and culture and takes it as its starting point. It took me a long time to realise the real cause of my hesitation: I had long sensed intuitively what I have just stated plainly: namely, that both these seemingly contradictory positions are right, but they are right only if they are thought together and if they are mutually corrective.
To speak of God with naïve matter-of-factness, in terms of material reality, is impertinent and idolatrous; whether the ancient world was a paradise of permanent and immediate contact with the world of the gods is something we cannot know – we only know that if it was, we were banished from it (and the story of the banishment from Paradise and Nietzsche’s story about the murder of God remind us through symbolic allegory that mankind is not without blame or responsility for the situation). A mystic who, through the depth of his experience, anticipates the situation when“God will be all in all”, experiences God both in radiance and darkness, in all his paradox. In this his faith differs from sentimental pietism and de-ideologised faith of the “religious opium” variety, but also from the sort of belief that is unaware of the night of faith and instead, with a fixed smile pretends to itself that faith is a bed of roses without thorns of uncertainty, problems and critical questions.
To say that “there is no God” is stupid – God certainly does not exist in the sense in which things exist, at which point the statement is banal, and God certainly does exist, at the very least in our language and our thinking; but who, nowadays, would make so bold as to separate our language and our thinking from “the rest of reality”? Long gone are the days when we could regard language and thinking as simply a “tool of the subject” for dealing with the (“objective”) world and we didn’t know that instead they themselves were that world, in which and through which everything else (albeit “at the same time” and indivisibly from our language and thinking) is received. There is no going back to the days before Kant or Wittgenstein.
Only if we take seriously the paradoxical and ambivalent nature of the “absolute mystery” that we call God and maintain both poles of the paradox, can we read the Gospel without censoring all the “inapplicable” parts as we unwittingly did previously when we read it with the eyes of Christian or materialistic fundamentalism – in those days we (figuratively speaking) took absolutely seriously either death or resurrection, either the humanity or the divinity of Christ. I can recall the liberating sense of realisation when I first read the Easter story in such a way that I no longer perceived the cross and resurrection as two separate, strictly consecutive events, but in the spirit of St John’s gospel, saw the cross and resurrection as two aspects of the same event, and was aware of glorification as the meaning that is already shining through the events of the Passion. I remember when the eyes of my heart were opened to Jesus’ words (in John) “whoever has seen me, has seen the Father”, and I realised that to describe Jesus’ humanity as “a window through which we see God at work” does not at all mean forgetting Jesus’ words: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”; Gethsemane and Golgotha are the window into God’s darkness, and Mount Tabor and the Easter morning are windows into God’s radiance, which allow John of the Cross to declare that darkness is actually a dazzling excess of light. Both are “the truth about God” – but only together.
It is possible to say quite simply that God in a certain sense “is not” and in a certain sense “is”, but the truth of this opinion is lost the moment that we adopt an agnostic, impartial and aloof stance vis-à-vis those two positions; we experience this truth only if the two viewpoints are welded within us and we can bear to stand at the focal point of that weld. Unlike the catechism and systematic tracts of traditional Bible theology that seek to tailor the truth of God to the rules of Aristotelian logic, the narrative of the Gospel offers the chance to observe God and the world both from the standpoint of Good Friday and from that of Mount Tabor or the sending down of the Spirit at Pentecost – to see God as something absent and the world as darkness and chaos, or to experience the closeness of God and the harmony of creation – and understand that both of these standpoints are truthful, but they are truthful only together. I regard myself as part of the tradition of Nicolas of Cusa, Pascal and Kierkegaard, men who valued Christianity as a “religion of paradox”. However, I mean by this something other than the essentially banal statement that the wealth of Scripture embraces and expresses various poles of human experience. Even Beethoven’s Ninth – and indeed every great work of art and every powerful myth – express in their way the truth that life has both dark depths and radiant heights. In my study of the two currents of Revelation, Scripture and tradition, and particular in my meditations on the mystery of God’s “triunity”, I have discovered within Christianity – the cardinal message that truth happens when we enter the heart of the paradox.
Just as no single moment of life exhausts the entire truth about life, so too Scripture must be perceived as a multifarious whole (beware of those who base their arguments on individual quotations!) that leads from the onesidedness of individual perspectives to fascination with a mystery that cannot be bound by the logic of sylogisms. How can anyone talk authoritatively about life, the world or even God if they have not drained at least the cup of their own own life? – that was my understanding of God’s riveting speech at the end of the Book of Job. The God of the Bible is the one who, in shocking fashion interrupts the explanations of those who are too sure of their truth and leads them to do what Job eventually does: I say no more; I place my hand on my mouth.
In professing this to be the core of my experience of Christianity, I have absolutely no intention of making a monopoly of this interpretation of belief. I do not submit it as some kind of rival alternative to traditional theology, rather I offer the possibility of philosophical reflection on faith that opens up a certain type of understanding of man and the world and possibly also of the mystery that we call by the name of God. My only criticism of traditional metaphysical ontotheology, however much it regarded itself as the authoritative “science of God”, is that it played down the paradoxical character of the gospel and the “mystery of faith”, that it transformed the God who again surprises us by pointing to the frontier of being and nothingness, death and life, nearness and remoteness, into “a familiar God”. Perhaps that god had to die to engender hope that we will see God again. We can always take up again the mirror of the Easter story and place our hand on our mouth for a moment. Perhaps in this gesture of reflection and expectation we can bring together both those who use the word God and those who are silent about God. Perhaps only then can scope be created for a much profounder conversation about whether and why and when to speak or remain silent about God.
One wise old man had the following inscription carved on his tombstone: “Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit” – bidden or unbidden (named or unnamed, invoked or uninvoked) God will be here.
Written in a hermitage in July 2004 and delivered at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna, in November of the same year. To be published in “Vzýván i nevzýván” [Bidden and unbidden] in November 2004 by Lidové noviny publishers, Prague.
 Hünermann P., Der fremde Gott – Verheissung fur das europäische Haus, in Gott – ein Fremder in unserem Haus? , p 204 ; likewise the same author in his commentary on a European Values Study, which found that 4 % of Europeans describe themselves as atheists, but only 35 % believe in a “personal God”(18 % don’t know and 35% believe in a “higher power”): “For two thirds of Europe’s population, God is an alien God” - see Hunermann P., Der fremde Gott. Eine theologische reflexion, in: Pauly S. (Hsg.), Der fremde Gott in unserer Zeit, Stuttgart 1998 Cf.. Acts 17. 15 – 18.1
 Cf. Luther M., Der grosse Katechismus, 135
 Cf. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp181-82
 Ibid.  Cf. Levinas E., Etika a nekonečno, Praha 1994, p 176. Emanuel Levinas speaks about God’s absolute transcendence, transcending being. For him God is “excluded from both being and nothingness” (Cf. Levinas E., Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence, Paris 2001, p 236). Jean-Luc Marion called one of his most important books God Without Being (Chicago, 1995; Dieu sans être, Paris 1991).
 Cf. Daniélou J., Prayer as a Political Problem, London, 1967, pp 96-100.