September 7, 2007
"God doesn't care what we call him" — but do we?
— Daniel Kynaston
Recent comments by a controversial Dutch Bishop suggesting that "people of all faiths" call God "Allah" have not only caused a firestorm in his country and abroad, but also raised important questions about naming God. Drawing on the example of Christians in Indonesia, Catholic Bishop Martinus Muskens stated that calling God "Allah" would foster understanding between religions, since "God doesn't care what we call him." But, one has to wonder, is it really that simple? Are the names for the divine that arise out of our religious traditions interchangeable with those of other religions? I suggest here that naming God is a far more complex matter than Bishop Muskens takes into account, because the names we give the divine also disclose the semantic foundation from which our traditions spring. Thus, they cannot be summarily dropped, no matter the noble cause.
Two interrelated notions underpin Bishop Muskens' suggestion. The first is theologically rooted in the assumption that since God is, in the final instance, beyond all human conception and understanding, all names fall short of the mark. From this well-established theological ground, Bishop Muskens then draws the further inference that since all names are inadequate, they are interchangeable, and we can therefore substitute names without regard for our traditions.
However, far from being a matter of "bickering" within a religious tradition or between traditions, naming God discloses the theological heart of these traditions: the names given to God are pregnant with meanings that are part and parcel of the traditions from which they arise. Naming God is hermeneutical: an interpretive task that not only aims to symbolize certain understandings about God in se, but also embodies the intentions, presuppositions, hopes, and fears of those doing the naming. This is to say that naming God is laden with a semantic depth that reflects God and the community, and becomes the very foundation of tradition as such. A name for God cannot be summarily adopted from another context, for it would not reflect the community or its generative traditions, nor the experience of the community before God. Understood in this light, names for God are not interchangeable.
But what about the Indonesian Christians—and the Arab Christians in other Muslim countries— whose use of the name "Allah" for God arises from their own cultural context? Do not these examples, cited by the Bishop, undercut the point I have been making? In fact, I would argue that the Bishop's example confirms my analysis. Culture—and language—form a large part of the background from which the hermeneutic of naming God arises. Christians in Muslim countries, where the culture is dominated by a religious tradition whose very form is inextricably tied in with the language of Arabic, use " Allah" to name God not out of a desire for religious accord and understanding, though that may certainly exist. Rather, the name reflects a culture that grounds Christians as well as Muslims. The use of the name "Allah" by those Christian communities arises from hermeneutic conditions not present in the Christian West. Because of the deeply rooted hermeneutic dimension that Bishop Muskens overlooks, this example in fact underscores the impossibility of his proposal.
That said, Bishop Muskens should be applauded for the impulse toward religious tolerance and accord that undergirds his claim. The courage to offer unorthodox proposals at least draws attention to the seriousness of the problem of religious strife. But the importance and the complexity of what it means for a religion to name God cannot be reduced. Therefore, whatever forms the work to build understanding between religions may take, they cannot be ones that overlook the many differences between religions, differences that form the foundation of the traditions as such. The work of tolerance must occur in the face of differences, rather than in a forced, impossible commonality. So perhaps rather than focusing on adopting one name that would span a certain distance between two religions, we might foster the seeds of authentic understanding by genuinely recognizing the beautiful diversity inherent in naming the divine.
The Associated Press: "Dutch bishop: Call God 'Allah' to ease relations"
Catholic World News: "Pray to Allah, Dutch bishop suggests"
Daniel Kynaston is a PhD candidate in theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He teaches philosophy and philosophy of religions at Harper College and Oakton Community College.
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