This is one in a collection of Definitions of terms I use on a recurring basis in writing Seems Like God. – David
One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. … The LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? … He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.’ Then Satan answered … But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.’ The LORD said to Satan, ‘Very well, he is in your power.’ - Job 2:1-3 (portions, NRSV)
This supposed conversation between “God” and “Satan” is a prime example of what I mean by the term “Zeus-God.” It paints a picture of “God” as nothing more than some sort of metaphysical king who holds court in the same way that an earthbound king of the ancient world would do. Worse, it tells us that God is vain, petty, and subject to the most superficial manipulation. When “Satan” taunts “God” in front of the “heavenly beings”, “God” hands Job over to “Satan” without a second thought just to prove a point.
That is not God.
The gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon were exactly like the “God” depicted in Job. They were subject to the same emotions as human beings; the same anger, the same vanity, the same jealousy. And they dispensed prosperity and calamity on humanity on the same sort of whim as “God” does with Job.
Theos – the Greek word in the New Testament that we translate as God – is not Zeus. Theos is better understood as Divinity. Theos encompasses “all the things of God.” In other words, God is part of everything in Creation. Theos is that in which we “live and move and have our being.” Theos is immeasurably more than Zeus.
And yet the image persists.
In everything from Michelangelo’s image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to Homer’s encounters with God on The Simpsons, we perpetuate the idea that the Creator of all things is just some old guy in sandals and a white robe who can shoot lightning out of his fingertips.
I realize that, for the most part, our image of Zeus-god has mellowed over the last few decades. Out is the hellfire and brimstone judge condemning most of humanity to eternal damnation, in is the “loving God” whose ghostly hands reach out to support us in time of need.
But it’s still the image of a fickle old man who plays favorites. It leaves us asking questions like “Why does God ‘allow’ suffering?” or “Why was one person saved from disaster while another died?”
Zeus-god satisfied our needs for millennia. There’s a reason that Yahweh and Zeus sound so much alike. They were attempts to describe God by people who thought the world was flat and that “God” lived on a mountain. And indeed, “He” may have been sufficient to watch over an island like Greece, or even a desert kingdom like Israel. But he’s not up to the task of managing a universe that encompasses inconceivably vast galaxies of stars and particles so small that we can barely recognize they exist. Zeus-god can’t handle evolution or the medical knowledge that reveals “demons” to be chemical imbalances in our brains.
For that we need Theos.
In his commentary for this excerpt from Job, John Shearman draws on John Shelby Spong:
To restore the balance in creation, we must redefine our theology, its definition of God and our relationship to God. We have misread our scriptures, Spong claims, and should now begin to search the Bible anew for a different, more appropriate and yet valid definition of God. – John Shearman
We don’t, in fact, have to search far to find a “more appropriate and yet valid definition of God.” The Zeus-god of the Old Testament was a product of the time and place and culture in which “he” was defined. So too was the “God” of the King James Version a product of the society in which that translation came about.
Our society has changed. Humanity has changed. We are, willingly or not, being drawn into a global civilization; a civilization that must recognize the diversity of Creation; one that must acknowledge the interconnectedness of all things; and one that must strive for equality and justice for not only all people, but for all elements of the world.
Theos helps empower us to do that.
Unlike the Zeus-god of traditional Christianity, Theos isn’t sitting on a mountain waiting to zap us when we slip up in doctrine or dogma. Our relationship isn’t defined by reward and punishment the way Job’s was.
Zeus-god justified war and genocide and the exploitation of the earth for our own desires. Zeus-god lent credibility to the myth of “us” vs. “them.”
Theos is both within us and beyond us and is continually encouraging us to broaden and deepen our relationship to one another and to all of Creation. Theos tells us that there is no “them,” there is no “other.” There is only “all.”
I have one quibble with Spong. We cannot redefine “God” because we cannot define God. God is beyond definition.
But we can outgrow the definitions of God that we have accepted in the past.
We no longer worship Zeus in his temple in Athens.
We no longer expect God to hang around the Temple in Jerusalem.
Theos is with us always and wherever we may be.
A global God for a global civilization.