Some Words about Words for God

I was combing through my library looking for a mis-shelved book when I ran across a forgotten book. The anthology Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, edited by Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., was published  in 1992 toward the end of the battle in several mainline churches to change or at least supplement the traditional Trinitarian language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with a variety of options, such as “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,” etc. The eighteen authors slice and dice the proposals and lay out the classical Christian reason why God, who is revealed in the New Testament as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be renamed willy-nilly by us, and furthermore, why the gods of other religions are simply not the same God.

I am reminded of this book for two reasons. First, I got shouted at multiple times in a Google+ comment thread about an American public school using Arabic lettering to help teach calligraphy. The lettering in question happened to be a Muslim prayer. In the comments the woman in question was vitriolic in her claim that praying to Allah is evil because Allah is not the Christian God.

I decided to troll her.

I observed that the term “Allah” does not actually refer to the Muslim God but rather is the generic name for a god in Arabic. It is roughly equivalent to Eloha (singular of Elohim) in Hebrew. Just as, when praying to God (including the Trinitarian Christian God) in another language, one uses the word for “god” in that language. In Spanish pray to Dios, the Greeks pray to theos, the English speakers pray to God, and the Arabic speakers pray to Allah.

Her response was quick and vitriolic: Praying to Allah is a great sin!!!!

I continued to troll by telling her that we prayed to Allah in my church, although we spelled it Ullah when we transliterated it from Arabic. (This is completely true, by the way, when we occasionally sing hymns in Arabic. It is a Syrian Christian Orthodox Church, of the Antiochian Archdiocese, after all.) She responded by saying that I clearly wasn’t Christian, and inher church, which was a Southern Baptist Church, they never prayed to Allah. (Not surprising, since I doubt they have a large number of native Arabic speakers.)

Fast forward to this week when we find out that Wheaton College (Illinois) is in the process of firing Larycia Hawkins, Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, for saying that the Christian God and the Muslim God are one in the same.

By the standards of the Ecumenical Councils and also per the arguments of the book Speaking the Christian God, Larycia Hawkins is simply wrong. The God of Islam is not Trinitarian; Islam does not believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human; Islam rejects the deity of the Holy Spirit. By Christian standards, the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are very different. Wheaton (Ill) is quite right to call her out on her mis-statement, based on their own statement of faith. (The matter of firing her for her beliefs is a rather different kettle of fish that I will not pursue in this essay.) (I also suspect that Wheaton College in Easton, Mass can’t even conceive of what the controversy is about. For you East Coasters, don’t get the two institutions confused.)

And so we have two very distinct issues. We can talk about and pray to the Christian God in any language, including Arabic. (Actually, I should say, “Including English,” because Christians have been praying to God in Arabic before the Anglo-Saxons invented the language we call English.) On the flip side, just because we use the word God, or Jesus, or Christ in our prayers does not necessarily mean we are praying the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The thing that differentiates the God of Christianity, and Islam, and Arianism, as well as the God of American civil religion, is not the specific words, but the content of what we mean and say when we use those specific words “God,” “Father,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “Holy Spirit.”

It’s worth thinking about our own private prayer life. Who do we pray to? Do we speak only to Jesus? Or does our prayer life include the richness of the Holy Trinity in all its implications? I close with the Trisagion prayers of the Orthodox Church: Holy God (quddusun ullah), Holy Mighty (quddusun ul-qawwi), Holy Immortal One (quddusun alladi), have mercy on us (la yamut irhamna). (3x) O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who is everywhere present and fills all things, treasury of good things and giver of life; come, and dwell in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.

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