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34/40
From the desk of Rabbi Brian

 

NOTE: This article is part of an ongoing God-beliefs investigation. (This one is about God’s name.) It’s good for intelligent adults to have an intelligent understanding of these things. – RB
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While it might seem obvious to some, it’s not to everyone: God does not have a particular name.

Naming
something is to have dominion over it. (I wish I could come up with a better word here other than dominion — it seems so stilted, but awkward language is the
least of our problems as we try to understand what we mean by the word God.) The logic is that if God
had a true name, then saying that name would imply the ability to
control God. Therefore, God can’t have a name and we ought to be
careful whenever we use any name for God.

I
want us to look at a fascinating truth about God’s name that we find in
the Bible. In Exodus 3:14, Moses straightforwardly asked God what he
should say God’s name is, should the Pharaoh of Egypt ask. God replies
in an untranslatable phrase, translated in the King James Bible as, “I
am that I am.” No name. Just something that the creators of the Popeye
would later co-opt. Other translations have the equally enigmatic – but
more grammatically accurate according to the Hebrew – phrase, “I will
be what I will be.”

(Did you notice the Hebrew is in the future tense and the King James translation is in the present tense? Martin Buber
wrote that this phrase in the future tense teaches that God is willing
to offer comfort in the future to those who will need God to be there
for them.)

Erich Fromm,
a twentieth century German-American psychologist and humanistic
philosopher, believed that God, is just a placeholder for our highest
ideals and has nothing to do with the supernatural. He wrote:

“God” is one of many different poetic expressions of the highest value in humanism….


The
point is that the English, three-letter word consisting of “gee,” “oh,”
and “dee” is just a placeholder in the same way that these letters in
the opposite order are a placeholder into which we place our collective
concepts of canines. In Hebrew, the letters “yod,” “hay,” “vuv,” and
then another “hay” – also known as the Tetragrammaton
– are a different placeholder for the same concept. (Jehovah is an
attempt to say this name – YHVH – aloud; traditionally Jews will
substitute “Adonai,” the Hebrew word for Lord, instead.)

Think
about it: would it matter to God, to the universe, or in the grand
scheme of things what placeholder you use? Of course not. That
particular groups have different names for God is interesting, but
please remember, they are all just arrows that point to the same
destination. The arrow isn’t the important, the destination is.

It
does not matter what you call God – Tao – Allah – The Force – HaShem –
Ram – Jehovah – Jesus Christ – Mother Nature – Sally Johansen-Peterson.
It doesn’t matter if everyone around you is calling God by the title
“Higher Power” and you feel more comfortable with the Aramaic word for
father “Abba.” (Aramaic is the language Jesus spoke; Abba is also the name of a fabulous, Swedish rock group.)

So
why do we use the word God when we refer to God? Look at it this way:
the person on the aisle, three rows behind you in a movie theater – his
or her name doesn’t matter that much to you because you’re not likely
to refer to them. For God, well, we often require a convenient
reference, so a name helps.

Moreover, and
this is worth remembering, within all monotheistic traditions more than
one name placeholder is used for God – God, Lord, Almighty, etc. – and
no one thinks this is polytheism, nor are there holy wars within a
group over how God is referred.

I use the
phrase “(the) God (of your understanding)” to describe God. It allows
you, the reader, your own interpretation – which, as you know, I think
is very important.

Let me restate the point
here: We use the word God as a placeholder. Words are linguistic
conventions, containers for ideas. The topic of God is greater than its
particular word container.

And to not use the word would lead to greater confusion.

To paraphrase Lewis Carroll in The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, when I say God, I mean nothing more and nothing less than what I mean.

There is room for everyone’s understanding of God and all of those understandings are God.

It
doesn’t matter to me if you believe God is “out there,” “in here,”
both, or neither – I just want us all to be comfortable understanding
that the word God means all of those things. The word God is a
placeholder for different people quite possibly meaning different
things for each.

I want to make a special
note to people who don’t believe in an active, external deity. Please,
please, please use the word God to mean what it is that you mean when
you use the word God. The reason is that if the only people who use the
word God are the people who believe in an active, external deity, then
people will only be used to hearing the word God to mean an active,
external deity. If, on the other hand, more and more people with active
spiritual-religious lives use the word God to mean their highest ideals
(or whatever they use the word God to mean) then people will get the
sense that the word God can mean something beyond the limited notion of
an active, external deity.

To reiterate: I’m
not saying whether or not you should believe in an active, external
deity. Just that we need to understand that we all have, can have, and
should have different understandings of what we mean by the letters
gee, oh, dee.

Here’s something I have found that might help to explain this:

Science : Truth :: Art : Beauty :: Religion : God.

We
know that truth and beauty are concepts. Try to define them and, well,
you can’t. We know that each is an ideal, something in the distance
that can never be contained. The same can be said about God.

Truth
is the goal of science. Beauty is the goal of art. Similarly, God is
the goal of religion. What we call the goal doesn’t matter. And, for
that matter, it also doesn’t matter if we believe that reaching the
goal is attainable.

What matters is that we are facing in the right direction and moving forward.

And, we are.

Spiritual-religious advice for the week: face the right direction.

 

With love,

Rabbi Brian

Rabbi Brian

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The 77% Weekly

The 77% Weekly: The Religion-Outside-The-Box Newsletter
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