Saturday, August 23, 2008

What's in a Name?

Does it matter what names we use, particularly when referring to the deity? This issue has arisen several times in recent conversations around here. I consistently refer to “God,” which Hugh believes unfairly biases the matter in favor of one tradition. For instance, as he wrote here:

You [have] been misled by the fact that Christians call their god, God. The gods have many other names... you might as well call it Allah, Zeus, Huitzilopochtli, Osiris, Hanuman -- the list is endless. Why not just call it Steve (or to avoid sexism) Pat?
At the time, I responded that the name isn’t the important thing, that even Christians have used many different names for the same God:
Ultimate reality is what it is. It isn't as though different religions each follow different gods which all exist side-by-side; rather different religions make claims about what ultimate reality is (some of which are mutually exclusive, but that's a separate matter)....

It isn't a matter of choosing Yahweh or Allah, as though both exist and we must choose between them (or as though neither exist and we are just making things up). Rather, we are all trying to determine what God is like, so we ask whether the Muslim claims about God are more accurate than the Christian ones, or vice versa, or whether some aspects of God are better understood by one group, and others better by another group.
All of which is true, but as Hugh has since pointed out, I continue to refer to the deity as “God” and (illegitimately, he implies) assume that my experiences point to this particular deity, when they could just as well point to any other. Does this not contradict my insistence that what matters is not what one calls God, but what one believes about him (and even more importantly, whether one trusts him)? If “God” is just a name, as arbitrary as any other, why not use a different one. Why not pepper my speech with all manner of names and titles for the deity, rather than unfairly biasing the conversation by using the Christian term? Why not speak variously of Allah, Shiva, Cthulhu, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if names are not important?

The answer is simple, really: Though names are, ultimately, arbitrary, they acquire meaning with use, and the meanings associated with those other names for the deity are very different than the meanings which are associated with the term “God.” Since I have no interest in maintaining those meanings, I have no reason to use those names. If I were to occasionally refer to the deity as Cthulhu, what purpose would that serve except to bring to mind an image of an enormous and wicked sea monster? Since I do not believe this is what the deity is like, why should I use the term?

Just because it is a brute possibility that, had history played out differently, the things now associated with the Christian “God” might have been applied to a different term, does not make it helpful or necessary to dispense with it for another. You can call the deity “Pat” if that's helpful to you, but for me and many others, “God” carries the meanings and associations that we attribute to the deity in ways “Pat” does not (though, presumably, could have, had our history been different). On the other hand, most other names for the deity (particularly those from other religious traditions) carry for me different connotations such that if I were to use them, would imply beliefs I do not maintain. Thus, though it is not the name itself that matters, my history and the history of those in my tradition who have gone before me have shaped the meanings of these terms in certain important ways.

Perhaps an analogy will help: I call my father “Dad,” not because there is anything inviolable about that particular set of phonemes, but because I happen to have been raised in a particular English-speaking culture which employs that term. “Dad” is, therefore, what I have always called him and because of that history the term now carries for me connotations of our whole long experience together. No doubt, if I had been raised in some non-English speaking culture I would call him by a different name and that name would carry those connotations for me, but whatever the name, it is the person and our relationship that matters. To insist that I instead call him “Man” or “Pat” on the grounds that names don’t matter would be absurd and a violation of my history.

On the other hand, for some people whose experiences with their own fathers have been less positive than mine, “Dad” might carry associations that are not helpful for them, and I certainly would not insist that they use the term. Similarly, strangers who have not had the same parent-child relationship with my father obviously would not call him “Dad,” as I do, nor should they. And so it is with the deity as well.

Based on my long experience, I have come to associate many things with the name “God,” and in using the term I respect that history. Moreover, as the usual Christian term, “God” also serves to call to mind other meanings and associations with Christian theology, many of which (though not all) I also affirm, for reasons that I have explored in many other posts (and so will not rehearse here). But I recognize that for some people that term may not be as helpful, and I would not expect them to conform to my usage. In the end, whatever name a person uses, what matters is whether the meanings and associations they tie to that name are right and true.

20 comments:

Timothy Mills said...

Well-said, Ken.

I suspect you're feeling like I did when I wrote this post.

It's useful to occasionally remind ourselves of the arbitrariness of language, and to allow that, often, different people use different terms to refer to the same thing (or, perhaps equivalently, to the same properties). But we need to remember that all words' meanings are derived from how they are used. If we dismiss any arbitrary meaning as unimportant, we dismiss all meaning and undermine communication itself.

Okay, rant over. I'm a linguist, and this is one of my pet rants.

In Hugh's defense, I do feel that it would be useful if the Christian god were given a name other than "God" - it would avoid certain ambiguities of intent that might come up. But that's language - arbitrary, and bearing deep traces of its cultural history.

Ken Brown said...

Thanks Timothy!

As for the ambiguity of "God," in some ways I consider this a good thing. The history of Western civilization has given the term to evoke many beliefs that I hold about the deity, making it appropriate for my use. But too often the same term also carries many associations that I would not accept--as a distant and angry Father, or a violent and bloody dictator--and for the sake of those for whom such associations are decisive, I wish I had a better alternative.

Which is why I am glad that "God" is still amorphous enough to leave room to clarify what I mean by it, without being so unknown that I have to start from scratch. Just imagine the confusion first-time readers would feel if I suddenly replaced all references to God in my posts with "Pat" or even "the deity." Would I have less explaining to do, or more?

majorsteve said...

Saying "Pat" instead of "God": Clarification or manipulation?

Hugh said...

Just about names?

Ken Brown, Michael Phelps, Barack Obama? What's the difference? Just different names for the universal Man?

Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, Christian God? Just different names for the universal God? The confusion of using capital G, without the qualification of Christian, misleads those using to think that the Christian God and the universal God are one and the same, whereas the Christian god is just one among many. It's like calling Ken Brown, Man, instead of a man.

An additional complication with the Christian God (and others, no doubt) is that there are public versions and private versions. About the public version, as recounted in the Bible and defined in the creeds, we have an objective point of reference. In the case of the Ken Brown version, we are kept guessing and He/She/It has a capacity for adapting his/her/its characteristics to meet any objections.

Why does He/She/It bother about trivia and not dispatch a subordinate. Oh, well, He/She/It is just like that, saith Ken.

Hugh said...

many associations that I would not accept--as a distant and angry Father, or a violent and bloody dictator Ken Brown said
------------------------------

Exactly. You look at the tradition and make your own god out of it.

Ken Brown said...

Hugh,
Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, Christian God? Just different names for the universal God?

Yes, because unlike Michael Phelps and Ken Brown, these particular divine beings are each claimed to be ultimate. Since only one being (or none) can be ultimate, the claims made about each of them are all, rightly or wrongly, made about that ultimate being, if such exists.

The confusion of using capital G, without the qualification of Christian, misleads those using to think that the Christian God and the universal God are one and the same, whereas the Christian god is just one among many.

You seem to forget that "God" is an English term that rose to use in a Christian context. With a capital letter, for several centuries, it was used almost exclusively to speak of the Christian God in particular. You can deny some or all of the claims Christians make about that God, and are welcome to continue using it even then, but it simply is not the case that the word was once used generically of the Universal Power but has since been co-opted by Christianity. Rather the English term (capitalized) was first widely used by Christians to express their own belief about ultimate reality, and has since been extended for use in that more generic sense.

Since language can change, it is entirely legitimate to use the term "God" in non-traditional ways, and we both do so when we distinguish between "God" and "the Christian God", but you don't get to decide for all of Western society that those traditional claims cannot be legitimately associated with the term. You might check out Timothy's post above for more on that (he is a secular humanist, so perhaps you'll find him easier to agree with).

An additional complication with the Christian God (and others, no doubt) is that there are public versions and private versions. About the public version, as recounted in the Bible and defined in the creeds, we have an objective point of reference. In the case of the Ken Brown version, we are kept guessing and He/She/It has a capacity for adapting his/her/its characteristics to meet any objections.

Since the aspects of my beliefs about God which you most disagree with--eternality, creator, perfectly good and loving--are ones that I share with that tradition, I'm afraid I don't see your point. Everything I am saying has been said before by many Christians, and the tradition is not so monolithic that it doesn't have room for my positions. For that matter, even the creeds are not universally accepted by Christians, nor have they ever been. But we all, rightly or wrongly, make our claims about the same being.

Why does He/She/It bother about trivia and not dispatch a subordinate. Oh, well, He/She/It is just like that, saith Ken.

I have only said that it has been my habit to refer to the one who seems to have taken an interest in my life as "God," because that is what my own Protestant tradition has taught me (and, I might add, whether I am right or wrong to do so, he/she/it has never objected). I have never claimed the right to do this on my own authority. Christian scripture from beginning to end is filled with prayers and expressions of credit and thanks addressed directly to "God" (and several other names, such as "Lord," "YHWH," "Jesus Christ" etc.), so I stand firmly within that tradition when I continue to do the same. I am, however, entirely comfortable with the possibility that I am mistaken, and that all this time I have in fact been interacting with a subordinate. Either way it is ultimately God who deserves the credit, and either way I can confidently say that it is possible to have a relationship with a good and wise being who answers to the name "God."

many associations that I would not accept--as a distant and angry Father, or a violent and bloody dictator Ken Brown said
------------------------------

Exactly. You look at the tradition and make your own god out of it.


I claim allegiance to a tradition which has always left room for much disagreement. We are all seeking to find our places within (or outside) it. But those particular associations rejected above are not affirmed by any of the creeds, and have been rejected by many thoughtful Christians from the beginning, so I have no need to apologize for denying them.

majorsteve said...

You don't understand that Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the same single God. What's different is that each religion claims that God is saying something different to them. Each religion attributes certain things to God and they can't all be true. Some, if not all of them, has to be wrong about ome things. It's not that there are several different gods,just that different people around the world percieve It differently.

Hugh said...

Ken's God
From what you have said about what you regard as key meetings with him, he sounds more like somebody's Grandmother than the Ultimate Being. While it must be flattering to have the Creator drop in personally, it really seems an odd use of even infinite time to tell somebody not to have sex before marriage and to respect their father.

You may bestow titles as you like, even though The Ultimate Being might be a better name for a pro-wrestler than the piffling god you have fashioned to be your personal life coach. I don't imply that you have made this god out of nothing. The gods are a collective effort and don't spring fully-formed out of the mind of a single individual.

It's not the case that all gods are vainglorious enough to claim to be The One and Only or, simply the Greatest. This is the monotheistic tradition. Allah and the Christian God are just such religious imperialists.

Polytheistic and syncretistic traditions are more accommodating.
The essential point is that it is you who has exercised your human judgment on the character of the gods and consider that your inner voice is that of a 'good and wise being' Opinions as to what is good and wise differ. I notice Stalin is enjoying a revival in Russia and the (highly religious) Vladimir Putin is said to greatly admire him and regard the gulags, show trials and massive death tolls from botched policies as not detracting from the essential wisdom and rightness of the Great Leader. I think we may reasonably contest this opinion.

It's not by their names or titles that the gods are to judged but by what they say and do. God Brown may be quite a nice chap but he's a very small figure in the universe. To consider that God Brown is the Universal God, is the same error as would be made be seeing Michael Phelps and Ken Brown (and everybody else) as one and the same person called Man.

Hugh said...

You don't understand that Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the same single God.majorsteve said...
---------------------------

The evidence for the existence of a Big God manipulating the lesser gods like puppets and making them say contradictory things is even flimsier than that for the existence of the lesser gods themselves, Christian God, Jewish God and Muslim God.

Ken Brown said...

Hugh,
I am part of a tradition that teaches that a relationship with a good and personal God is possible for any who seek, and upon seeking I have found just such a relationship to be possible. If you are looking for proof of those claims, good luck. All I can do is tell my story.

jeb said...

it really seems an odd use of even infinite time to tell somebody not to have sex before marriage and to respect their father.

Some folks would "reasonably contest" the assertion that it's an "odd" use of infinite time in the least.

I suppose we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Hugh said...

All I can do is tell my story.
_________________________________

Ken,
I take you at your word, just as I believe those who are told to fly planes into buildings believe they were told by their god to do it.

You have heard a god and have passed judgment on him. I don't doubt you have judged him to be good. I don't doubt those who have committed atrocities because their god told them to do it are perfectly sincere.

I don't know what's going on in your brain or in that of the billions of other believers of the many different religions but I can form an opinion of what they say their god says. You assess your god to be a good god but nobody is bound to agree with your judgment.

Hugh said...

Some folks would "reasonably contest" the assertion that it's an "odd" use of infinite time in the least.jeb said...
_________________________________

Tell us more. Does he tell people the best dish on the menu when they visit a restaurant? Does he tell you the necktie to select in the morning? I would suggest that people who proclaim that the Creator of the Universe is their personal lifestyle coach have insanely inflated egos.

majorsteve said...

"The evidence for the existence of a Big God manipulating the lesser gods like puppets and making them say contradictory things...."

Hugh I never said that God manipulates lesser gods like puppets and makes them say contradictory things. What I said was that PEOPLE claim to know what God is saying. PEOPLE put words in God's mouth and therefore make it seem like God is saying contradictory things. There has never been a single word, written or uttered, in any language, that can be attributed to God without dispute. Even the ten commandments can be disputed because the entire story of the tablets can be disputed.

jeb said...

You assess your god to be a good god but nobody is bound to agree with your judgment.


cool. and by the same token, nobody is bound to give a whit about whether or not you agree with them, or about anything you think, say, or do for that matter, at least on this little slice of the internet. same applies to me, so we're in the same boat, bro <3

Tell us more. Does he tell people the best dish on the menu when they visit a restaurant? Does he tell you the necktie to select in the morning?

Who knows? Maybe.

I would suggest that people who proclaim that the Creator of the Universe is their personal lifestyle coach have insanely inflated egos.

since we have already established that an omniscient and omnipotent Creator of the Universe would be more than capable of being the 'personal lifestyle coach' of six billion individuals with virtually no effort required on his part, i would suggest there's nothing particularly egotistical at all about that assertion. :D

Hugh said...

an omniscient and omnipotent Creator of the Universe would be more than capable of being the 'personal lifestyle coach' of six billion individuals jeb said...
___________________________________

What's he saying to Osama Bin Laden?

Ken Brown said...

Hugh,
What's [God] saying to Osama Bin Laden?

How are we to know? I don't need to prove that everyone who claims divine guidance or sanction is right (particularly when they claim it for such destructive policies). I don't even need to prove that my own claims are true, nor do I have such proof to offer. All I can say is that, in my life, trust in God has resulted in good. And since I am not so egotistical as to think myself special, I must conclude that similar experiences are possible for anyone.

jeb said...

What's he saying to Osama Bin Laden?

"Stop killing people, you crazy 'tard!"

Of course, not everyone listens to God's voice, so...:'(

of course, maybe i'm wrong. then again, maybe i'm not. i suppose we'll have to wait and see, won't we? <3

N. Adam said...

I don't even need to prove that my own claims are true, nor do I have such proof to offer. All I can say is that, in my life, trust in God has resulted in good. And since I am not so egotistical as to think myself special, I must conclude that similar experiences are possible for anyone.

Could you qualify that. Do you believe that trust in God is possible for anyone or do you believe that the good life is possible for anyone regardless of whether or not they are theists?

Ken Brown said...

Do you believe that trust in God is possible for anyone or do you believe that the good life is possible for anyone regardless of whether or not they are theists?

Both and neither. I believe that anyone who trusts in God can have the kind of relationship that I have had, and that it will do them "good." Whether that translates into "the good life" is quite another matter, which is likely to vary from person to person (rumor has it, some who trust in God become martyrs).