Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening the Spirit in Everyday Life

Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening the Spirit in Everyday Life

by Sam Keen; Bantam, New York, 1994; hardcover, 308 pages.

The ancient Athenians erected a sacrificial altar adorned with the cryptic inscription "To an Unknown God" lest they run the risk of offending the pride, thereby incurring the wrath, of some unnamed deity inadvertently omitted from their local pantheon. The author of the Act s of the Apostles informs us that when Saint Paul preached to the Athenians, he sought to use this device to his evangelical ad vantage: "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (Acts 17.23). Paul's aim, however, was not to add to that Pantheon, but to displace it altogether by identifying Jesus Christ as the One True God and as the proper name of the Ineffable Principle (Logos).

But as Joseph Campbell, Sam Keen's longtime friend, observed, from the pagan point of view Paul's more extensive attribution involved "an elementary mistake; for the Ineffable is not named or by anyone proclaimed, but is manifest in all things, and to claim knowledge of it uniquely is to have missed the point entirely." This confuses the merely unknown with the genuinely unknowable: that which is beyond all names and forms, yet is to be directly experienced through fully awakening to the deepest rhythms of the ordinary acts of daily life.

The "Unknown God" of Keen' s title, then, refers to that unnameable object of mystical experience which is nevertheless absolutely ubiquitous, manifest in and throughout the world. This is Eckhart's Godhead, the God beyond God, which is also present in Boehme's pewter cup; it is the eternal Tao that cannot be told, the nameless source of the mother of the Ten Thousand Things; it is the primordial Buddha-nature of enlightenment in which all things participate. "God is not an object to be known or a problem to be solved by human intelligence," Keen writes, "but is the ground beneath our capacity to understand anything, the totality within which we live, move, and have our being" (69 ).

Only by "getting rhythm and tuning in to the music of the spheres" (5) can we approach this Ground of Being, which is also our own ground, our very soul. Through song and poetry, art and myth, and especially through conscious participation in the rhythms of relationship-relationship to friends and enemies; to family members and lovers; to animals, plants, and soils; to our own soma and psyche -we experience the truth of the spirit. Keen's mysticism is thus light years away from the inward-turning, world-rejecting variety.