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)....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?
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.
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.