The (Un)willing Zeus — Heraclitus, Hermeneutics, and Religious Expression

"The Wise [Zeus] is one only. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus."

For Heraclitus, the divine is a common Reality all human beings experience to varying degrees. His Greek contemporaries' use of the name "Zeus" to describe this system (what Heraclitus calls "the wise," "the one") is a cultural, personal concession, rather than the Wise itself.

We may ask what Reality Heraclitus was describing when using the term "Zeus." We may also ask what Reality we ourselves are describing by our own terms. Because ultimately this Reality, and our common experience thereof, are what matter, not the proprietary names we call it. In a similar way, we might use the English "apple" to denote red fruits we find growing on a tree. This doesn't mean other languages, lacking "apple," have never experienced (or cannot experience) that same fruit for themselves—or that they don't have a word of their own for it.

Heraclitus' terms were simply the most familiar words he could conjure, or which his home culture could give him, to describe a Reality which non-Greeks could also experience and describe in their own idiosyncratic terminology. Far from a blasé, New Age way of claiming "we're all talking about the same thing"—as if, say, Catholicism was a cryptic Buddhism, or vice versa—Heraclitus insists that the divine Reality is not exclusive because it can neither be gained nor lost, only realized, noticed.

Heraclitus' God (to use my own term) is that Reality which is so universally always already right under our noses, waiting for us to realize, like the vanishing point around which the whole of a painting arranges itself. If we share this common Reality, this God that is (un)willing to be called Zeus, why should we be surprised if others outside our circles might also know what we know about it—or something we don't yet know? And, being human and finite in perspective, why should we be surprised when we find this Reality is so much more than we first thought? Why should we presume our words can exhaust the Word? Who can drink the sea with just a cup? Were it possible, it would be a team effort.

Eastern Orthodox Christians have a lovely way of imagining this: each of us being made in the divine image itself, why should we fret when other cultures might know what we know, or even beat us to the punch? Why should we tremble when our words resemble theirs?

In Mormonism, it's described in different words, in the distinction between Jesus and Christ: Jesus is a particular person in history who embodied perfectly a universal Reality, accessible to us all—the Christ.

The Christ is inherent to every human being (Moroni 7:16); Christ is any truth which orients a good conscience (vv. 18-19). Far from an abstraction or metaphysics, Christ is reality: bodies, planets, moons, suns, stars; the breath, life, and body of the universe (D&C 88:6-13). Christ is the web entangling all existence, (re)uniting us with our bodies, with each other, and with the so-called "physical world" so much of our religious impulse tries to get away from (John 17; 3 Nephi 19:23, 29).

Christ is atonement, etymologically—at-one-ment. Christ is our state of always already being inescapably one with that Whole of which everything is a part. Jesus is the one who will atone or has atoned; Christ is that which atoneth, atones.

Christ is all that is real—Reality. The Reality of which we only like parts; Yes to this half of it, No to that half. Yet the half to which we are averse is just as inescapably real as that to which we are attracted; Christ is their whole and our mutual entanglement in the Whole.

In Mormonism, there are fundamentally two responses to this Christ: hardening ourselves in an attempt to cut ourselves off from those bits of the Whole we hate (people, circumstances, memories, worries, etc.), or breaking ourselves open in love and grace to the Whole. The former response is a fantasy never actually available to us, and is thus only a state of self-deception. The latter response is to stand in the presence of Christ, which requires both grace and work.

Regardless of whether one knows about Jesus as a particular person, I would imagine he would be more concerned with whether one knows about Christ. Moreover, whether one calls this Reality "Christ" or "atonement" is also largely irrelevant—It is (un)willing to be called such.



Image: “Heraclitus,” Johannes Moreelse (1603-1634)