Twenty years ago, the Nickelodeon television network aired a brand-new animated children’s program called Dora the Explorer. It featured a little girl named Dora Marquez who followed maps to find small treasures. When our children were quite young, they enjoyed the show – until they outgrew it. Our son George let us know he was beyond Dora with this criticism. “She turns to the camera and asks us to help her find something,” he said, “when it’s right there.” What’s engaging and interactive for three-year-olds becomes less appealing once you discover the obvious.
In a way, the Athenians who hear Paul’s sermon in today’s reading from the Book of Acts are more like the younger children who still enjoy Dora the Explorer. They don’t know that what they’re searching for is right there, accessible and obvious. And for that matter, so are you and I – what we’re searching for so often has been right there all along. So much of life seems to be made up of searching. Some of us will say we’re searching for meaning; some are searching for joy. Some say that all they want is health and happiness, as elusive as those concepts might be. Some look for family and a sense of belonging, while others are seeking peace and solitude. Some people – as we see from the abundance of talent-search programs – are searching for fame, while others want nothing more than quiet anonymity. Some people want to be rich in money beyond their wildest dreams, while at the same time there are websites, magazines, and professional de-clutterers devoted to downsizing, simplifying, and having less.
I believe that at their core, all of the longing, all of the searching, is really a desire for God. That’s why I say that the Athenians who are Paul’s audience are like the young viewers who play along with Dora the Explorer – and so are you and I. We put so much energy and effort into seeking God as though God is elusive, missing, hard to find and challenging to acquire, when the truth is that God has always been right here all along.
In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, Paul begins his sermon with a mock compliment, praising the Athenians for their deep devotional practices, as witnessed by the many temples, shrines, and statues he has observed. In Paul’s day, the city of Athens was widely considered – especially by those who lived there – the world’s center for wisdom, philosophy, intelligence, and culture. As an outgrowth of those multiple streams of thought, images of gods and goddesses could be found on every corner, each responsible for a specific part of daily life. Athena for wisdom. Hera for mothers and families; Demeter for farming and harvest. Nike for victory; Hypnos for sleep. And so on. And so Paul is gently mocking these people who so enjoyed discussion and debate and hypothetical situations, as a way to invite them to a new truth. And then he drops the clincher. As I went through your city and looked at your objects of worship, I found an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.”
In other words: you’re searchers. You dive deep looking for new thoughts, new ideas, new philosophies, new truths. You try god after god, acquiring the whole pantheon, but even then you’re not satisfied that you’ve covered all your bases, and so you include an addendum for all the other stuff. To an unknown god.
Paul has just told a city full of people who pride themselves on their wisdom, book-learning, and debate smarts that they have acknowledged that they don’t know it all, that they can’t have all the answers, that no matter how much they know, there is still a hole they can’t fill.
The idea of the God-shaped hole originates with Blaise Pascal, a sixteenth-century mathematician who was also a physicist, inventor, author and theologian. He writes: What else does this craving … proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there, the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.
Or as Saint Augustine put it more concisely, Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.
To search is not a bad thing. At the very least, it signifies caring about a deeper meaning. But so often we find ourselves devoting our passion and energy to easy searches that produce only transient and shallow results. What happens to you and me – and as a result the people we encounter – to dwell in the God who is not far away, not unknown, but who has been right by our side all along? Our inward searching leads us to observe the places in our souls where God is at work, cultivating unique gifts in each of us and patiently tending those gifts – while at the same time nudging us to be aware of those gifts and how we can use them to serve God.
And instead of devoting our energy and our passion to restless acquisition, we find that we have no need to worship at the altar of an unknown God. We find that all that we need – an abundance of what we need – has been right here all along. The peace, the happiness, the belonging, the meaning, are all there, poised to go forth into the world. Within our hearts, ready and waiting for the moment when, like Dora the Explorer, we actually find it. Amen.