How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Cleanthes’ “Hymn to Zeus” and the renewal of monotheism

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This is an odd two-part post. I came across Cleanthes’ “Hymn to Zeus” in Mike Bird’s Jesus among the gods: Early Christology in the Greco-Roman World. It’s an outstanding early example (third century BC) of the pagan instinct to identify a supreme god who created and now manages the cosmos rationally, by means of his “word.” “In the Stoic sphere,” Bird says, “the Logos was the ubiquity of divine rationality that holds all things together” (131).

The Greek text, with a translation and commentary can be found in E. H. Blakeney, The Hymn of Cleanthes, but I took the trouble of translating it myself, in my usual sub-literary fashion, keeping as close to the flow of the Greek as I reasonably could.

In summary, Zeus is not alone among the gods, but he holds the highest position. He governs all things by a “common word” (koinon logon), which permeates the whole cosmos; he brings order where there is disorder, he loves what is unloved. There is one universal logos or principle of rationality, even if it is shunned by the foolish and wicked. Cleanthes beseeches Zeus, as Father, to banish such ignorance, so that all people will honour him and “hymn the common law”—in effect, the law of nature that underpins the created order—“in justice for ever.”

This gratuitous but stimulating exercise led to further reflection on how we speak about God under modern intellectual conditions and to the production of a rather complicated and fanciful chart.

The hymn to Zeus

Most honoured of immortals, having many names, always all-powerful
Zeus, ruler of nature, governing all things with law,
Hail!—for it is right for all mortals to address you.
For we are a people (genos) from you, receiving a likeness (mimēma)
Alone among mortal creatures that live and move upon earth.
For this I will hymn you and always praise your power.

In fact, to you all this cosmos, encircling the earth,
Is obedient, wherever you lead, and is willingly controlled by you.
Such an under-worker you have in your invincible hands—
A two-edged, burning, always-living lightning bolt.
For beneath its blow all nature shudders,
By which you direct a common logos, which through all things
Roams, mingling with great and small lights,
So having become far-reaching, highest king through all (time).
Nor is any work done on the earth apart from you, daimon,
Nor along the divine ethereal axis, nor in the sea,
Except whatever bad people do in their own thoughts.

But you know even how to place superfluous things
And to order disorderly things, and what is not loved is loved by you.
For, in this way you harmonise into one all good things to evil,
In order that there may be one ever-existing logos of all,
Which all who are evil among mortals avoid,
Ill-fated, who always yearning to possess what is good
Neither see the common law of God nor hear it,
Being obedient to which in the mind they would have a morally good life.
But they rush headlong without grace each to his own thing,
Some making haste for glory, the cause of unholy strife,
Some bent on reckless gain,
Others to indulgence and sweet works of the body,
Hastening greatly the occurrence of the complete opposite of these things

But, Zeus, all-giver, cloud-wrapped, ruler of thunder,
Deliver people from baneful ignorance,
Scatter it, Father, from the soul, and grant (them) to obtain
Means of knowing, relying on which you govern all things with justice,
So that being honoured, we may give you honour in exchange,
Hymning your works continually, as is fitting
For a mortal person, since neither for humans is there any greater gift of honour,
Nor for gods, than to hymn the common law in justice for ever.

Towards a post-trinitarian synthesis

The chart (click to enlarge) is meant to highlight an analogical relationship between two periods of creative rethinking—first in the build-up to the age of European Christendom, then in the wake of its collapse.

It presents Trinitarian orthodoxy as the fusion of two monotheistic traditions (1): the enlightened pagan monotheism of an idealist Greek tradition going back to Plato (2) and the covenantal monotheism of the biblical-prophetic tradition (3).

It is worth pointing out that pagan monotheism barely features in the Bible, which is almost wholly concerned with the clash with polytheism (“You shall have no other gods before me”). Paul’s nod to the “unknown god” in whom “we live and move and have our being,” whose “offspring” (genos) we are, is probably the nearest we get (Acts 17:23-28; cf. Rom. 1:19-20).

The fusion happened on two levels: the historical level of kingdom (4) and the metaphysical level of divine rationality or logos  (5).

Covenantal monotheism contributed kingdom—the hope of Christ’s rule over the nations—as a major principle and the wisdom of the creator God as a minor principle. John’s account of the creative word which “became flesh and dwelt among us” directly links Jewish wisdom narratives and Hellenistic logos speculation.

Pagan monotheism contributed logos as a major principle and government, in the person of Constantine, as a minor principle. Constantine’s political involvement in the events leading up to the Council of Nicaea meant that “kingdom” was not eclipsed by metaphysics at this point. For me, this was a compelling insight from Kegan Chandler’s book Constantine and the Divine Mind: The Imperial Quest for Primitive Monotheism. Christendom was both theology and government, metaphysics and history, reason and prophecy.

However, the intellectual consensus, centred on the creeds, by which western Christendom was sustained for fifteen hundred years, has now entirely broken down: the idealist tradition that gave birth to pagan monotheism has been comprehensively supplanted by the secular-humanist-scientific methodologies; and these methodologies have demolished the public credibility of the historical witness of the biblical-prophetic tradition.

So whereas the early church was travelling faithfully towards a public consensus—the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations, etc.—we are now travelling away from it (6). What lies ahead of us is not the kingdom of God in the biblical sense but the continued hegemony of the secular-scientific paradigm and probably a far-reaching climate catastrophe. Our eschatological horizons are very different.

But I wonder if we might not contemplate a reworking of the pre-Christendom process.

The term “common monotheism” (7) is not entirely satisfactory as a way of designating the sort of monotheism that arises out of the dominant intellectual tradition. But if the creator God is going to become a credible public postulate again, it may be that the a new alliance needs to be forged with an equivalent to Constantine’s pagan monotheism, derived not from Platonism but from a post-Enlightenment rationality.

A scientific monotheism would contribute a different kind of logos, and the post-Christendom church would bring to the union a wisdom chastened by its marginalisation and humiliation (8). But it may be possible to speak practically again of the creative word of God becoming flesh, gaining traction in human history at a time of great crisis.

At the other level (9), if the future is not the kingdom of God but the calamitous arrival of the Anthropocene, then perhaps the dominant vision arises from the convergence of a scientifically informed climate response—and a wider reflection on what humanity is becoming—and a prophetic re-engagement with history, with some manner of divine “judgment” in view.

In this way, we preserve the essential dynamics of the original process, but we also take into account the massive historical shift from the ancient to the modern world. Perhaps it will be possible to identify a stage of consensus formation analogous to the Council of Nicaea (10). Perhaps some sort of post-Trinitarian synthesis will emerge—a further re-braiding of the bundle of strands, biblical and philosophical, that is the story of the God who we believe has chosen us to serve him as a priestly people throughout the ages.

I don’t know, but it seems to me that our theoretical speech about God should be publicly meaningful; and as the early church found, that is likely to stretch our imaginations.

Keith Wansbrough | Fri, 02/03/2023 - 19:02 | Permalink

The chart didn’t appear for me until I right-clicked on the blank space and chose “open in new tab”.

Thanks, Keith. It was working fine on Safari, but not Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge. No idea why. I’ve changed the file format and it now seems to be OK.

Looks good now, thanks.

The question is what the “common monotheism” (7) might be. Perhaps something like the Gaia hypothesis, coming from a “green” / environmental / spiritual consciousness?

Wouldn’t Gaia count as pantheism, with a focus on the planet, rather than monotheism? My sense is that what matters is the restoration of the reputation of the God who created all things and who may be known through contemplation of the natural world. Perhaps the Gaia hypothesis feeds into that in some way, but I think that a modern “pagan monotheism” would have to serve our interests more directly.

I don’t see the hypothesis as “deifying” the Earth ecosystem so much as providing an analogy that points to limits the dominant species needs to respect if it is to continue to prosper (or perhaps even to survive). One might argue that the hypothesis provides a present-day application of the Romans 1 dynamic of idolatry —> darkened understanding —> bad decisions —> bad outcomes, including death.

Human hubris in exploiting rather than stewarding a fragile ecosystem may imperil the future of civilisation or even, in extreme scenarios, of the human species itself.

The Gaia Hypothesis (well, not the Hypothesis itself, but the realities that we face, that the hypothesis provides a way of thinking about) might provide present-day basis for forms of prophetic-priestly service, a point that you have made repeatedly under the language of “the church facing the Anthropocene epoch”.

 We have reached an “end of an Age”; God knows what comes next.

Agreed. Gaia provides another way of taking about the planet, as a complex organism—a model for the created order. It does not give us a different language or grammar for speech about the one God who created—a neo-pagan monotheism; though I could see it arising out of a similar scientific imagination.