Our colleague Jeff Dunetz suggested so, semi-jokingly, in a post on Wednesday at The Lid.
His proposal was to change God’s name to Bob: something simple, unifying, non-off-putting. Jeff’s thesis is that changing the name might enable Obama to urgently defend the religious rights of people other than Muslims.
But it’s an intriguing question on a more serious level. Another way of putting the question is this: will the nature of the time we live in drive us to change what we call God?
It just might. My purpose here isn’t to go into the profound implications of that. It’s way too big a subject for one blog post. But I do think the discussion is going to arise, and we wouldn’t be wasting our time to start framing and scoping it.
Calling God “God” – in whatever Western, European language we use – is, after all, an artifact of a sifting process in cultural factors. “God” is just a generic word for deity, anglicized from the Germanic “Gott.” It’s comparable to the derivatives of the Latin deus (from the Greek theos) used in Romance languages: Dieu, Dios, Dio. When capitalized, we are using it to signify the one, Almighty God claimed by Christians and Jews – but the generic word, uncapitalized, is also used to refer to gods in concept, whether mythological or metaphorical.
The interesting thing is that Allah is one version of a word found in Middle Eastern languages – including Hebrew and Aramaic – that serves a somewhat similar function. Allah means “God,” to some extent in the same way that Gott, God, Deus, or Theos mean “God.”
In Hebrew, “El” serves in this role. But Hebrew is a telling case, because it crystallizes the important difference between the conceptual meaning of “El” and the conceptual meaning of “theos” or “gott.” The latter were words created by people who did not claim to have revelation from a singular God, but who had a concept of “god” and “gods.”
“El,” by contrast, is generic more because the name precedes the informative and detailed revelation outlined in the Old Testament, or what Jews call the Tanakh. It is an ancient, less informed, pre-systematized word for the same God who later did reveal more of Himself, through the Law and prophets.
And that point matters when we consider the use of Allah – a derivative of the same ancient root word – by Islam. Advocates of a syncretic viewpoint emphasize the common root of Allah and El. But, as many Christians and Jews are quick to point out, “Allah” doesn’t convey the same things about God that Christians understand when they call Him “God,” or that Jews understand when they call Him by the names of the Old Testament – e.g., Elohim, El Elyon, El Shaddai – or by the colloquial referent “HaShem” (alluding, obliquely, to “the Name”).
In a sense, the naturalness to us of calling God “God” is a cultural artifact of Christendom: the kingdom of Jesus Christ among the gentiles. It’s logical to the civilizationally dominant West that a God who revealed Himself first to the Jews, and then to the gentiles, should fulfill the longing of all peoples for God by inhabiting the name each of the Western peoples had systematized to refer to Him in concept.
Over long and painful centuries, the differences that arose between Christians and Jews over this linguistic development receded into the background. Christians stopped killing Jews, and each other, over theological questions, including what God is to be called. It became cost-free for the Western peoples to adopt, for the most part, a culturally unifying norm, one that didn’t imply a mandate for theological conformity simply because of the use of a word.
Some of the norms of Western culture became so pervasive that modern people have rarely encountered any other norms that seemed to push back against them. Calling on “God” is one of those norms. Christians mean very specific things when they talk about God, and they may refer to Him as Almighty God, or the living God, or Father God, or in a number of ways that reflect specific revelations about Him. But the comfort and naturalness of simply calling Him God is as perfect as that of calling parents father and mother. “God” is embedded deep in our cultural consciousness, imprinted with what we believe about the one God of the Bible.
It is a measure of the portentous nature of our time that the Islamic eruption across the Eastern hemisphere should be challenging that. In a one-dimensional sense, “Allah” can be considered comparable to “God” – from a solely linguistic perspective. But the superficial is far outweighed by the essential and meaningful in this matter. The God of the Bible bears little resemblance to the Allah of the Quran.
How do we sort out the trap one of our basic cultural comforts has laid for us? The important argument that the person of “Allah” is not the same thing as the person of “God,” as Christians and Jews understand Him, seems to demand a change in perspective.
The change is not in how we see Allah or Islam. It’s not in how we see God or the Bible. It’s in how we see the comfortable artifacts of Western culture. Are they what matters? Or is it God Himself, who transcends even the civilization that owes its existence and late, lamented power to centuries of acknowledging Him?
This question basically has to arise, because God has another name. Outside of seminaries, Christendom uses it now mainly in poetry and specialized rhetoric. It’s the name He gave Himself: YHWH, or “I AM.” English speakers transliterate and pronounce it as “Yahweh,” and adopted it into English as Jehovah.
But we don’t use it routinely for prayer, worship, or instruction. It’s an interesting question why not; Christians don’t see themselves as unauthorized to address God by this name.
It has a meaning larger than even God, or Elohim, or what Muslims mean when they say Allah. YHWH transcends the very construct that implies deity to the limited mind of man, and sets God above everything we are capable of defining or understanding. Unlike other names, which relate God to definitions that are of benefit to men, YHWH means He is ultimately beyond definition. He exists outside of our definition-demanding reality.
It may be that Christians, in particular, will have to reach for this name to refresh their understanding of God, as the earthly civilization that has served them as a harbor for so long loses its value to God’s own purposes.
It may be that, if God-v.-Allah is too confusing for people, it’s time to go with YHWH. This isn’t a stretch for Jews, I think, in the way that it may be for practicing Christians, who don’t reflexively hear the imposing syllables “Yahweh” in their heads when they think of God, but do go around talking to God as if He’s sitting next to them.
(This observation reminds me of something the marvelous author and humorist Florence King wrote about Southerners: that a certain class of them always had a portrait of Jesus framed and hanging in the living room, as if he were a member of the family. My gut response was a half-laughing, “Well, yeah. And your point?” Reverential respect doesn’t necessarily imply ritual formality, for many Christians in their relationship with God.)
Nothing like this can be done by mandate. It has to happen because people see the necessity for it arising, and begin looking for something that works better than what they’ve been accustomed to.
I don’t think the culture – the common habits of a secularly defined public – will be driven to this particular search. But I also think that’s because the culture won’t have the same power as a shibboleth that it has had in the age we are passing out of.
It will be practicing believers who look for the better solution for naming God – mostly Christians, whose freedom from a singular link with an ethnic history is both destabilizing and beneficial. YHWH is the name of God about which false syllogisms cannot be developed, or insinuating claims made. It’s the name that isn’t tied to Western civilization or the ancient linguistic roots of Middle Eastern peoples. Appreciating it doesn’t depend on knowing human history, or even – nearly as much as other names – on understanding human words.
Maybe this name is the one that says about God what we now need and mean to say about Him. Maybe this titanic inflection point of human history is the time when we should start using it as a matter of course. Maybe it’s the time in history when we will.