Saturday, December 16, 2017

What's in a Name?

Last year I authored a Letter to the Editor of LNP (the Lancaster, PA, daily paper) in which I stated that Allah is simply the Arabic word for god and is used as such by Arabic-speaking members of all three Abrahamic faiths.  Some months later I was challenged on this by an acquaintance who insisted that Allah refers only to the god of Islam, who is not the same as the god of Christians and Jews.  Despite my best efforts in a rather lengthy conversation, I was unable to explain adequately the difference between a word for something and the name of something.  My letter made a statement about language usage; my interlocutor was making a statement about faith.
This exchange has set me to reflecting on how people of faith use language in reference to their deity or deities.  The subject has proven to be much more complicated than one might first imagine.  To begin, in English the word “god” functions as both a common and a proper noun, that is, as a general reference to any deity and as the name of a particular deity.  We recognize the difference depending on context and usage, and in print on whether or not the word is capitalized.  Determining what god is referenced when God is used as a form of address requires knowing the faith of the speaker or writer.
At some point in our schooling most of us probably learned the names of a number of gods.  For polytheistic faiths, those which worship more than one god, it is necessary for each deity to have a proper name.  Thus in ancient history, for example, Poseidon is the Greek god of the sea, Mars is the Roman god of war, and Loki is the Norse god of fire.  A major polytheistic faith of current times is Hinduism, which recognizes many gods while also stating that, at a fundamental level, all gods are aspects of the One.
Monotheistic faiths, the belief that there is only one god, developed later than did polytheistic beliefs.  One of the earliest records of monotheism is that of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BCE), who imposed on his subjects worship of Aten as the only true god.  This change in their religion was not well received by most Egyptians, who reverted to polytheism upon Akhenaten’s death. 
The history books of the Old Testament record how the ancient descendants of Abraham came to a strict monotheistic belief.  There are two prominent words/names used throughout the Old Testament to refer to this singular god of Abraham. One is Elohim, which appears first in the creation story beginning in Genesis 1:1.  Like the English word “god,” it serves a dual purpose, referring in the singular to the Israelite God and in the plural to the gods of other tribes and peoples. 
The other is the holy name יהוה (YHWH, pronounced Yahweh), revealed to Moses when he recognized God’s voice speaking to him in the burning bush. (See Exodus 3:13-15)  Unlike Elohim, Yahweh is always a proper name, often translated into English as I Am Who I Am.  Sometime after the seventh century BCE it came to be regarded as too sacred to pronounce, so the term Adonai, meaning “my Lord,” was substituted when scriptures were read aloud.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity makes determining a single name for God to be difficult.  I have heard it asserted that the Christian God’s personal name is God-the-Father-God-the-Son-God-the-Holy-Spirit, which is rather unwieldy, to say the least.  The word “God” by itself is usually thought of in connection with the creator, that is, the first person of the Trinity. The second person has the proper name “Jesus,” but that name rarely, if ever, is understood to refer to the complete godhead.  Jesus called the first person “Abba/Father,” which is a title rather than a personal name.
“Holy Spirit” is also a title or attribute rather than anything we would recognize in English as a personal name.  References to God’s Spirit (ruah in Hebrew) appear throughout the Bible.  Ruah can mean “breath” or “wind,” but can also be expanded in richly varied images of the life-giving essence of the deity moving among humankind.  Christians in worship and hymnody today use dozens of different words and phrases to refer to and address their triune God.
Unlike Christianity, which began as a movement within Judaism, thus having monotheism as a natural part of its doctrine and faith, Islam originated among tribes which were primarily animist in their beliefs.  That is, there was a multiplicity of gods animating all of nature.  The Prophet Muhammed’s message was a return to the single God revealed to Abraham and preached by the prophets of old, including Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.  Thus Islam established a very strict monotheistic belief, while at the same time developing a devotional practice honoring the ninety-nine names of God.
First on that list of names is Allah, the Greatest Name.  According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and other scholarly sources, the most likely etymological source of Allah is a contraction of the Arabic al-Il­āh, meaning “The God.”  Its origin traces to early Semitic writing, long before the founding of either Christianity or Islam, where it shares a root (-il or -el, meaning “god”) with the word Elohim found in the Hebrew texts, as described above.  And it is closely related to the Aramaic elah/eloi, which is familiar to Christians as Jesus’ cry from the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani? / My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
In both historic and current usage, Allah is a term used for God by Arabic speakers of all three Abrahamic faiths – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.  It is also used by members of the Bahá’i faith and several other smaller groups. In Arabic it has the same dual function that God does in English as both general term and proper name. As a common noun it has no theological content beyond that of denoting a deity, the object of one’s worship.  It gives no answer to the entirely separate question of whether the God, the Allah, being worshiped by any one faith community is the same as or radically different from that being worshiped by another. 
It is unfortunate that confusion about this usage exists today.  And it is doubly unfortunate that the confusion is manipulated by those who foment bigotry against followers of Islam.  Education is necessary so that everyone can use the language of their faith without being subjected to harassment and contradiction.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Resisting Hate

The recent invasion of Charlottesville, Virginia, by Neo-Nazis, KKK members, and other white supremacists, and the various response tactics by counter-protesters, have been the subject of intense examination in the days following.  This conversation is difficult and necessary.  Especially for those who espouse non-violence as the only moral response to hatred and injustice, serious questions have been raised and must at least be examined, if not answered.
My first thought was of the similarities between the current debate over tactics and the tensions of the Civil Rights era, exemplified by the competing views of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.  Both were sons of Baptist ministers, but their life paths took very different directions.  King was relatively sheltered from the worst abuses of racial segregation.  He had opportunity for education and became a minister himself.  Malcolm’s father moved the family from Nebraska to Michigan because of threats from the KKK, but their new home was burned and his father brutally murdered by whites.  During a stint in jail Malcolm was converted to Islam and became a leader in the Black Muslim faith, then later turned to traditional Sunni Islam.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

What Is Truth?

Each year as we gather for the Readings for Holy Week services, I find that one or two verses stay with me for days and weeks after Easter.  This year it has been Pilate’s probing question during his interrogation of Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38a)
Indeed, what is truth?  It is a question which is as relevant and urgent today as it was two thousand years ago.  When called to testify at a trial, one is required to swear or affirm to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  Is truth limited, then, to statements that are admissible in a court of law?  Hardly.  There are many things we know in our lives which cannot be proven true or false by the standards of our justice system.
Neither is truth simply the recitation of facts.  To be truthful facts must be accurate; but without context, plain facts can be deeply misleading.  As an example, consider the old Cold-War-era joke regarding a foot race between the top U.S. runner and his counterpart from the U.S.S.R.  The American won the race.  The next day the Soviet newspapers reported that their runner had come in second, and the U.S. runner had finished next to last.  The facts are accurate.  The manner of stating them is contrived to convey a false understanding of the results of the contest.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Beatitudes

The Gospel reading for the last Sunday in January was Matthew 5:1-12, the passage which is generally referred to as The Beatitudes.  The title comes from the Latin word “beatus/-a” which means “blessed” and reflects the first word of nine of the twelve verses, sayings of Jesus which begin “Blessed are …”  It’s a beautiful and familiar section of scripture, and our worship leaders built the whole service on it.  The minister preached on it.  The choir sang a setting of it from the Russian Orthodox tradition.  The hymns echoed the thought.  It was a good reminder that in the midst of the chaos of the present time, we are all blessed children of God.
In the days following the service, I continued to ponder the Gospel lesson, and in doing so, recalled that there is another version of The Beatitudes recorded in the Gospel of Luke.  Unlike the very familiar reading from Matthew, we rarely, if ever, encounter the Lukan version in worship.  Comparing the two is an interesting exercise.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Shouting Defiance and Hope

The seed of the idea was planted in a Facebook conversation.  In response to the link to my latest letter to the editor of the Lancaster newspaper, a friend commented “shouting defiance and hope.”  I recognized the phrase immediately as coming from the song “Compassion Piece” by Carolyn McDade and replied that, in the coming months, that would be my theme song.
A few days later, as I drove into Lancaster to meet another friend for lunch, the final page of the song was humming in my mind.  “I ask you, will compassion walk past shadows deep and many miles long, shouting defiance and hope?”  That evoked anticipation of the thousands of women planning to march in Washington and other cities on the coming Saturday, shouting defiance of the bigotry, hatred, and abuse that marked the actions of the incoming administration, and hope that women and men, children and elders, would rally to build a nation grounded in justice, equality, and embrace of diversity.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

What God Showed Up?

On Christmas Day our congregation worshiped by praying the Christmas liturgy followed by a service of Lessons and Carols adapted from the historic Service of Nine Lessons and Carols presented each Christmas Eve by the choir of Kings College, Cambridge, England.  In our slightly shortened version, seven scripture lessons tell of the Incarnation in the birth of Jesus.  A familiar Advent or Christmas carol is sung in response to each lesson.  The entire service is a moving declaration of the foundation of the Christian faith – Jesus, the Christ, was born among us and recognized by those who heard the good news as Immanuel, God with us.
A few days after Christmas I saw a post on Facebook quoting the Rev. Franklin Graham as saying that Donald Trump’s win was the answer to the prayers of many: “Trump won because ‘God showed up.’”  I found this troubling because what I have learned of Trump’s words and actions so far seems to be at odds with the God who is described in the liturgy and scripture lessons we had read in church just two days before.  Thus I undertook a comparison.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Demand Honesty; Preserve Our Republic

I wrote the following letter to the editor on 11/29/2016. It was published in the 12/09/2016 print edition of LNP, the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, daily newspaper.

How do we live as a nation among nations with a Head of State whose word means nothing?  To Trump down is up, dark is light, the grass is purple, and the sky is orange.  Then tomorrow he will contradict everything he said today and declare that he never said anything different.  Truth means nothing to him.  Facts are irrelevant.

He has said that he will pull the U.S. out of the Paris Accords on Climate Change.  He has named climate change deniers to critical positions on his staff.  On Sunday (11/27) his prospective Chief of Staff Reince Priebus stated that Trump “has his default position [on climate science], which most of it is a bunch of bunk.”  His disregard for the basic principles of science is stunning in its ignorance.

Trump’s words and actions are the tactics of an abuser.  They threaten the safety and well-being of our country and of our world.  The worst of the damage resulting from his inaction on climate change will not become evident until after he leaves office.  The harm to our international relationships will be much more immediate.  Our allies will lose trust in our ability to keep our word and to fulfill obligations.  They will quite likely diminish or withdraw their support and cooperation.  Our adversaries will delight in the uncertainty, taking advantage of the confusion and mistrust to further their own ends with little restraint.

We must be vigilant.  We must refuse to normalize Trump’s behavior.  We must demand honesty in our government. We must struggle in whatever way we can to preserve our republic and to insist that all our elected officials respect and adhere to the provisions of our Constitution.  The generations coming after us deserve no less.