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Hallow God’s name: stop saying God!

by on August 11, 2014
Jade Emperor.jpg

The Jade Emperor

At Canterbury Community Church we try to talk about Christian faith in plain english, in words people can make sense of. We try to avoid church jargon. It’s not easy!

Over time I’ve come to realise that one of our most problematic jargon words is ‘God‘. We say it as though everyone will know just what (or who) we mean. It’s just God’s name, right? But when you stop to think about it, it’s not as simple as saying ‘Pete’ to someone who knows Pete.  There is not a high level of agreement about who the person is that we refer to as ‘God.’ There are lots of gods out there, Sydney is full of people who think of one or more of them as ‘God’.

ANGLO AUSSIES think of a distant figure who lives in an alternate reality called heaven. He/she/it is minimally involved or interested in our lives. That’s my culture: when someone says ‘God’, that’s the God I naturally think of.

HINDUS think of a whole bunch of gods with various personalities and interests.

MUSLIMS think of Allah, the remote, absolute authority who demands submission.

EAST ASIAN people may think of God as an impersonal source of reality, such as Tao or TianOr else as a remote and powerful heavenly emperor-figure.

NEW AGE people think of an life-energy that is all around and inside us, that we can tap into. God = spirituality. Use the force, Luke.

ALMOST NOBODY thinks of the story of Jesus.

But it’s that story that we Christians have in mind (or ought to have in mind!) when we say ‘God’.

To borrow a definition from theologian Robert Jenson,  when we say ‘God’ we mean ‘Whoever raised up Jesus from the dead, having first brought up Israel from Egypt.’

‘Whoever’ indicates that there is at first an uncertainty about this person: we need to learn who he is. Rather than assuming we know. God is not automatically known.

The story about Jesus and about the exodus, then gives certainty to that uncertainty. It answers the question raised by the word ‘whoever’. We learn who God is because he revealed himself in time and space. The story tells us who the person is that is called by that name, ‘God’. That story is pretty much all we Christians want to say about the name ‘God’. In brief, God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But that’s the story no one much thinks of when you say ‘God’. So if we are speaking to anyone not confident about that story, then for them the word ‘God’ will not mean that person. They probably think they know roughly who God is, and when we say ‘God’ they will think of that god. Their god. That god will probably not challenge their thinking or point them towards Jesus.

In fact, even speaking to church people in Australia, the word ‘God’ may not do the job. We too are culturally programmed to think of the remote, uninvolved, all powerful figure that all Anglos think of.

So I reckon we need to discipline ourselves to stop saying ‘God’. Seriously. It’s probably the worst case of communication failure that we experience: of a gap, that is, between what the speaker intends and what the hearer understands.

You can have a whole conversation with someone about ‘is God to blame for the evil in the world?’ and the whole way through you are meaning one person by ‘God’ and they are meaning someone quite different, and the one name hides and perpetuates the confusion. And they end up none the wiser. The name ‘God’ isn’t helping us to ‘hallow God’s name’.

What can we say instead? What can we call God that will communicate better which god we mean?

Any name for God that helps people clue into the story of Jesus, even the tiniest bit, is good. In fact, any name that disturbs their assumptions that they know who God is, and makes them ask, ‘Who do you mean?’ – that’s gotta be better than saying ‘God’.

Even ‘The Lord’ is more helpful that just plain ‘God’. Or it could be Jesus’ father God. The name Yahweh is good: plugs you straight into Israel’s story, and people don’t know that name so it makes them stop.

A simple one I like to use is God our Father: that makes an arresting claim to close intimate relationship that raises many questions. Also leads very easily into talking about God’s son, and the gospel story.

Jesus is not always a good substitute name for God. Using it this way too much tends to distance Jesus from us in our thinking so we miss out on how close he is to us, that he is one of us. Makes it hard to think of Trinity. In the NT the apostles don’t usually do this.  Caution needed here, I reckon.

So here’s the challenge: let’s stop saying ‘God’ and make more effort in the way we talk to hallow the name of the Lord: the one who sent us his Son and Spirit so we could call him Father.

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