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The Name of God: Does It Matter What We Call Him?

August 20th, 2007
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First Things knocks one out of the park….

By Robert T. Miller

Monday, August 20, 2007,  7:07 AM

Tiny Muskens, the Roman Catholic bishop of Breda in the Netherlands, says that Dutch Catholics ought to pray using the word Allah rather than God
or its synonyms in Dutch. Muskens argues that it makes no inherent
theological difference in which language one prays, and he notes that
in countries where the word Allah is in common usage as a name for God, Christians already often use the word in their prayers. Adopting the word Allah,
Muskens thinks, will eliminate “discussions and bickerings” between
Muslims and Christians and so improve relations between the religions.

Muskens is right that, from a Catholic point of view, there is
nothing inherently wrong in saying “Allah” for “God,” just as there
would be nothing inherently wrong in saying “Miny Tuskens” or “Tuny
Miskens” for “Tiny Muskens.” The problem, of course, is Tiny Muskens’
name is Tiny Muskens, and anyone who called Tiny Tuny or Muskens
Miskens would be making fun of him. So, too, in theology; despite the
conventionality by which strings of phonemes get their meaning, once
names have been established, people who change them are doing so for a
reason, and the nature of that reason counts in determining whether the
change is reasonable or unreasonable, advisable or inadvisable.

In this case, even from a Catholic point of view, the name of God is
not a pure triviality. When at the burning bush Moses asked God for his
name, the Lord gave a very particular answer. “God said to Moses, I am
who am. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered
throughout all generations” (Exod. 3:14–15). Many devout Jews treat
this name, especially in Hebrew, with such reverence that they will not
speak it aloud. And when Christ appropriated this name to himself (John
8:58), everyone understood that he was proclaiming his own divinity.

On the other hand, some Muslims believe that the phonetic string
“Allah” is an especially appropriate name for God, in part because, in
their understanding, “Allah” has no feminine or plural forms. Thus,
even many non–Arabic-speaking Muslims refer to God as “Allah” and do so
for reasons of theological importance in Islam. Hence, it’s unclear
what might be at stake theologically in the unlikely event that anyone
were to take Muskens’ proposal seriously.

But debating the merits of Muskens’ suggestion misses the larger
point here. Muskens makes it sound as if the problems in
Muslim–Catholic relations were merely silly arguments about semantics
that distract from the truly important things on which we all agree. In
fact, there is a serious, substantive problem dominating
Christian–Muslim relations at the moment, the same problem that
dominates Muslim–Jewish, Muslim–Buddhist, Muslim–Hindu, and
Muslim–Orthodox relations, and that problem is that Muslim fanatics
keep murdering innocents of all faiths, including their own, in terror
attacks.

In Muskens’ own Holland, for example, a Muslim fanatic killed filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004—though killed
does not quite convey the full meaning here, for the perpetrator shot
van Gogh eight times, cut his throat almost to the point of
decapitation, stabbed him in the chest, and left two knives plunged in
his torso, one attaching a five-page note (text available here)
threatening the life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and railing against Western
governments and, of course, the Jews. And then there were the train and
bus bombings in London on July 7, 2005 (52 dead); the school massacre
in Beslan in North Ossetia-Alania on September 1–3, 2004 (334 dead,
including 186 children); the train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004
(191 dead); and of course the spectacular atrocities in the United
States on September 11, 2001 (2,974 dead). For that matter, just last
week Islamic terrorists in Iraq detonated four truck bombs, flattening
whole villages and murdering at least 250 Yizadis (the Yizadi religion
combines elements of Islam and pre-Islamic Persian religions).

I realize that the many responsibilities of a bishop can make it
difficult to keep up with current events, but I think Muskens must have
heard about these things. It is puzzling, therefore, that he doesn’t
see them as having the importance for Muslim–Christian relations that
most other people do. To be sure, there are other problems between
Muslims and Christians, but anyone with a normal sense of morality
recognizes immediately that such other issues pale in comparison with
the wholesale slaughter of innocents. Muskens’ suggestion is thus
strangely, even perversely, disconnected from real-world problems.

Worse, in saying that the things that divide Muslims and Christians
are products of human invention, Muskens seems to imply that, on
fundamentals, there is no difference between Muslims and Christians.
The prevalence of Islamic terrorism refutes this simpleminded notion,
but there is an even larger point here. Chesterton explained it well long ago:

There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and
again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: “the religions
of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what
they teach.” It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions
of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly
differ in what they teach. It is as if a man were to say, “Do not be
misled by the fact that the Church Times and the Freethinker
look utterly different, that one is painted on vellum and the other
carved on marble, that one is triangular and the other hectagonal; read
them and you will see that they say the same thing.” The truth is, of
course, that they are alike in everything except in the fact that they
don’t say the same thing. An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton looks
exactly like a Swedenborgian stockbroker in Wimbledon. You may walk
round and round them and subject them to the most personal and
offensive study without seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat or
anything particularly godless in the umbrella. It is exactly in their
souls that they are divided. So the truth is that the difficulty of all
the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that
they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the
opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth
works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars,
sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching;
what they differ about is the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and
Eastern pessimists would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories
would both have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other
both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other
both have guns.

That freethinking secularists can fail to see that there are
critically important differences between religions is unsurprising;
such people are notorious for their inability to understand any point
of view other than their own. That a bishop of the Catholic Church,
however, might make the same mistake is much more disturbing. Bishops
are still expected to know something about theology.

Our blessed Lord told his disciples that he was sending them “out as
sheep in the midst of wolves” and so they “should be as wise as
serpents but as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10: 16). I am happy to
acknowledge the innocence of Tiny Muskens, but he is exactly the kind
of sheep who, if he ever met a wolf, would likely get eaten by it.

Robert T. Miller is assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.

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Categories: Roman Catholicism
  1. roberta schouten
    August 20th, 2007 at 20:39 | #1

    This is a very important message. There is a world of difference between the two religions. Jesus came in peace, as do most Christians today. Mohammed came as a warrior, as do the Islamist terrorists. Christianity is a religion of peace: Islam, of war. Someone ought to tell that to President Bush and Tony Blair

  2. Ted
    August 20th, 2007 at 22:52 | #2

    Not only is this an important message, but it’s absolutely hilarious. Bravo!

  3. Joanne
    August 20th, 2007 at 23:40 | #3

    I understand that the Arab Christians use Allah as their word for God. If that is the case, I’m sure Arab Christians referred to Jesus as the Son of Allah and to Jesus as Allah for 500 years before the Profit came with his armies of rapacious peace. And, of course, for the 1400 years since.
    Although borrowing words from the Arab Christians may not be the best way to avoid the wrath of the moslems, the Arabs still have much to teach us about surviving 1400 hundred years of subjugation.
    The Bishop of Breda should look to the Arab Christians for the way to a calm acceptance of Dhimmitude. Keep your head down. Stop ringing your bells. Let the Moslems take your big churches; you have so many. The small churches will do; save what you can.
    Peace will come when you stop struggling and accept your new masters. Resistance is futile.

  4. Rev. Allen Yount
    August 21st, 2007 at 12:25 | #4

    I read the MSNBC news article about this nonsense from the Bishop of Breda to my Sunday evening Bible class and told them we should do the exact opposite, as we have done in the past. For example, when some people demanded the breaking of the wafer when consecrating the elements in Holy Communion, we confessional Lutherans made a point of NOT breaking the wafer for the sake of proclaiming the true teaching of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood, rather than doing something connected with the false teaching that the bread and wine are merely symbolic of His body and blood. In this case, we ought to call God by His other, more specific Biblical and Christian names – i.e. Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity, Christ, YHWH, etc. – for the sake of standing up for the truth.

  5. August 21st, 2007 at 13:27 | #5

    This was quite excellent.

  6. Christine
    August 21st, 2007 at 15:18 | #6

    Considering the sorry state of Christianity in Holland, is anyone at all surprised to hear of this kind of nonsense coming out of there?

  7. Rev. Mark Reiff
    August 21st, 2007 at 15:26 | #7

    I completely agree with the comment that the Bishop’s commnet are nonsense. But then to mix it up with communion and to tell a complete falsehood to boot: I have to comment predecessors of the LC-MS in Germany took the breaking of the bread at eucharist very seriously especially so after the Prussian Repression. Lutherans knew they were in a Lutheran Church not one of the King’s Calvinist church precisely by where and when the bread WAS broken in the communion. Lutherans broke it after the Lord’s prayer, a Catholic practice Luther retained, Calvinists broke after the words “he took the bread and broke it.” People actually got up and left a church if the bread were broken at the wrong time and place in the liturgy. It was all these Lutherans had left to them…since the black Geneva gown was forced on all and there was now a homoginized service…the breaking of the bread AFTER the Lord’s Prayer meant the pastor was Lutheran and communion could be received. Please don’t invent a history that didn’t exist. The fraction has always been by true Lutherans. What Luther did do was use white or amber wine also to distinguish Lutheran practice from Calvinist emphasizing the the wine was Jesus blood and not representation.

  8. Michael Zamzow
    August 21st, 2007 at 19:38 | #8

    The fractio panis was forced on Lutherans in Kurhessen by Landgrave Moritz (1592-1627)a part of his Verbesserungspunkte. Lutheran pastors were imprisoned and exiled because they refused to break the bread. To this day in North Hesse, breaking of the bread is a sign of a Lower Hessian Reformed tradition. They even have communion wafers which look almost like a dog bone. They are broken apart during the distribution. We should not be so rash in accusing others of falsehoods. Oliver Olsen has an interesting essay on the significance of the fractio panis and the struggles regarding it. While I am against the fractio panis, having lived in North Hesse, I am wise enough to know that the issue has different meanings in different geographical and historical settings. I find your description of the situation in Saxony interesting. I am curious enough to look into it and understand it better. Let us save the term falsehood for treacherous Calvinists.
    Pomeranus

  9. Rev. Allen Yount
    August 21st, 2007 at 20:32 | #9

    Rev. Reiff,
    My apologies. My intent was to cite an example of how when a practice is attempted to be forced on the Church, one that has certain significance because of its being associated with doctrinal controversy, the proper response for the sake of the true Gospel is to do the opposite. My information came from Klemet Preus’ book The Fire and the Staff: Lutheran Doctrine and Practice (CPH, 2004; pp. 116-117). You clearly have access to more detailed historical sources than I did.
    I feel that non-Arabic speaking Christians calling God “Allah” would be a practice that might give the impression that they were confessing Islam along with or instead of the Gospel. Hence my post.

  10. Lulu-London,UK
    September 7th, 2007 at 05:58 | #10

    Greetings Pastor Paul T. McCain and may Jesus(as) bless us all, Amen/Aamiin. Speaking from the Love of Sufi muslim wisdom we tend to overlook the simple thread that connects us all. God/Allah/Yahweh/ Supreme Creater/Heavenly Father whatever term one wants to use is OK depending on their level of faith and Interfaith knowledge and wisdom.
    In this day and age where muslims and christians are awaiting for the return of our beloved Jesus(as) I think there is a room for debate especially with the muslim intellectuals and sufi teachers to bring the christians and muslims together.
    Mary our beloved mother may God’s peace and blessings be on her should guide us with her love. The Light of Jesus(as) guiding our hearts towards the wisdom of Love and Compassion should be a gift that we should nurture. After all Jesus(as) said that He is the Way and for us the road to the Way is many but the Way itself is the true door that we all go through. The Key to this door is also with Jesus(as).
    Muslims believe in the light and guidance of angels and we should allow the Light of the Angles to guide us also.
    Let peace and love be on earth. Church leaders have a greater role in bringing peace and love for all humanity just like the sheep that is mentioned in the above article. The real wolves are known by their actions of evil and destruction and normally do not hide for that long.
    In this day and age we need more cohesion and support between people of Faith as there are more challenging problems be it wars, corruption, HIV/Aids, global warming, destitute poverty, lack of education in poor countries and above all teenage drugs and other problems which are too many to count.
    Leaders of Faith need to reach out to one another and should not work in isolation after all two hands are better than one. I hope the Churches play a greater role in promoting world peace and harmony and keep Love as the Key to compassion for all.
    Peace and Love through Jesus(as).
    Lulu

  11. Matthew J. Surburg
    September 12th, 2007 at 09:19 | #11

    “But you others, listen. Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who. That’s why there can never be any quarrel between them. Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.”
    You know how sad your own dog’s face can look sometimes. Think of that and then think of all the faces of those Talking Beasts – all those honest, humble, bewildered birds, bears, badgers, rabbits, moles, and mice – all far sadder than that. Every tail was down, every whisker drooped. It would have broken your heart with very pity to see their faces. There was only one who did not look at all unhappy.
    It was a ginger cat – a great big Tom in the prime of life – who sat bolt upright with his tail curled round his toes, in the very front row of all the Beasts. He had been staring hard at the Ape and the Calormene captain all the time and had never once blinked his eyes.
    “Excuse me,” said the Cat very politely, “but this interests me. Does your friend from Calormen say the same?”
    “Assuredly,” said the Calormene. “The enlightened Ape – Man, I mean – is in the right. Aslan means neither less nor more than Tash.”
    “Especially, Aslan means no more than Tash?” suggested the Cat.
    “No more at all,” said the Calormene, look in the Cat straight in the face.
    “Is that good enough for you, Ginger?” said the Ape.
    “Oh certainly,” said Ginger coolly. “Thank you very much. I only wanted to be quite clear. I think I’m beginning to understand.”
    - from “The Last Battle” by C. S. Lewis

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