God of Many Names:

An Introduction to Dialogue with Other Religions

Robert C. Brow

Naming and Metaphor

The idea that naming distinguishes humans from the other animals goes back to the second chapter of Genesis. "Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field." [Genesis 2:19-20] It is certainly a characteristic of the human animal in all races that we keep inventing words for all sorts of purposes.

The history of science shows how naming systems can emerge. Modern Botany developed when a precise Latin nomenclature was invented to replace the common or garden names for trees and plants and flowers. Zoology was based on observing the skeletons of animals and classifying them into various species. In our generation we have seen how zoological classification, which used to be based on external structure, is being replaced by a naming system using genetic codes. Instead of an evolution of bone shapes, we now picture an evolution of genes located on chromosomes.

In each case the evaluation of a new naming system is in terms of its value for processing the information we need. As new naming systems are proposed, we try them out, and if they prove effective we eventually incorporate them into our language. The word atom (from the Greek atomos meaning indivisible) was invented for a basic unit of matter. And naming by atomic elements eventually replaced the older mediaeval naming systems that used words like phlogiston. A further development is that each atom can now be defined by its spectrum, just as every item in a supermarket can be named by a pattern of thicker and narrower lines. But defining atoms by a spectrum of colours or items in a supermarket by an arrangement of lines is again another kind of naming.

In modern physics atoms are no longer seen as individual units. We name their inner complexity by using words like electron, proton, and neutron, and every year names for new particles are being invented. We used to imagine that atoms corresponded to fixed entities "out there" or "in there," but now nuclear physics can be pictured more easily as complex forces interacting in time and space on a computer screen.

In the sciences, and in fact in all uses of language, the test of a naming system is whether it meets our current needs for processing and using information. The naming system based on relativity that Einstein proposed in 1915 was eventually adopted for many purposes in place of the older Newtonian physics. But it took forty years to filter down and become what Kuhn called "normal science" in our schools.

[This process of revolutionary change to upset what seemed to be the unalterable laws and facts of science was described by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962. Many have objected that Kuhn did not give a proper explanation of how science progresses, but he certainly reminded us that new paradigms are proposed, opposed, and some are adopted with the resultant new way of viewing the reality around us. In this chapter we are noting that all the names that are used in a new model or paradigm change their meaning from the ways they functioned in the older model. See the appendix on Models]

As Wittgenstein pointed out, language keeps changing like a city developing by the process of moving out, pulling down, and rebuilding according to current needs. [Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Philosophical Investigations, 1967, section 18] In this process of moving into new suburbs of our language, or pulling down and rebuilding the older parts of the city, new names are coined for new uses, and older words are given new meanings.

The way this is done is by the use of metaphor. Poets are assumed to be those who use metaphor most often, but in fact all of our typically human language is laced with metaphor. [The first serious attempt to grapple with the importance of metaphor in philosophy was Douglas Berggren's "The Use and Abuse of Metaphor," The Review of Metaphysics, 1962-63, pp.237-258 and 450-472. See Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982] The sciences pride themselves on their precise language with internationally agreed meanings. But even scientific names began as metaphors. The word atom was a metaphor to suggest something that cannot be cut open. Hydrogen was a metaphor to suggest water generation. Oxygen was from the Greek word for sharp to give the idea of acid producing. And modern physics uses hundreds of metaphors such as wave motion, particles, gravity, curved space, black holes, the big bang. The double helix was a metaphor taken from a spiral staircase to describe the way DNA was structured in a cell.

Once a metaphor has been coined and adopted into our language it takes on a fossilized meaning for a time in that particular context. But then we find the term is no longer useful for our purpose and we invent a new word, or we use an old word with a new metaphorical meaning. Which means that in science, as well as in literature, metaphors are continually outgrowing their usefulness. Whereas literary and scientific naming is in a process of constant flux, we will see how the religious and ideological metaphors that will interest us in this book have a much longer history.

Rather than replacing one another, as in scientific revolutions, religious and ideological models of reality tend to recur in human history and reseed themselves like hardy perennials. We might compare them to plants in an ecological habitat that compete with one another for the allegiance of men and women. And because they deal with the purpose of life, they inevitably generate powerful emotions and often result in deadly clashes. We might say that scientific naming systems and models are used to observe, classify, and predict what happens in the physical world around us. Religious and ideological models suggest how we should choose to order our personal and social life.

[Logical Positivism was a philosophy that denied meaning to aesthetic, moral, and value judgements. Unless propositions could stated with scientific precision, they had no meaning. And that by definition excluded all our assertions using words like God, love, beauty, and justice. The swan song of this philosophical theory was Alfred J. Ayer's, Language, Truth, and Logic, 1936. Since the linguistic revolution philosophers have seen that the most precise sounding of scientific terms are also metaphor laden and context dependent.]

With that by way of introduction to the function of metaphor in the creating new names, we now begin to explore how the word God is used. As we proceed we will see that in different religions and at different times the word God functions in many different ways. But first we should note the importance of the words we use to praise and evaluate aesthetic or moral values. Compared with the language of science such language seems imprecise, and it lacks the predictive ability that scientists expect, but it is extremely important for humans and humanity.

On a beautiful day in the Rockies between Banff and Lake Louise I could hear a tourist couple talking just in front of me. She was admiring the sun on the snow covered mountains, the glacier coming down, and a sparkling lake below us. He grumbled "It's just a pile of rocks with water at the bottom." If he wanted to use scientific language he could have said "It is just an arrangement of atoms and molecules." But whatever other naming system he used, the fact that he rejected the language of praise and valuation indicated a vast gulf between him and his partner. This suggests, and we will return to this later, that the kind of naming we choose or reject might even define the kind of person we are.

In the next chapter we will use a method for analysing an individual's pattern of religious or ideological explanation. Each model will have its own metaphorical use of words. And the most important word for our purpose will be the word God. The problem is that in itself the word God has no meaning until we give it a context. We might compare the sign of holding up one's hand. What does it mean? We can only begin to guess by specifying the situation. Used by a policemen at an intersection we assume it means "stop." In a classroom it might indicate a question. In an auction we discover that holding up one's hand becomes a bid with a contract to pay a certain amount for the white elephant in question. In a committee meeting it could be the deciding vote to unleash a war or accept a reconciliation. We use the sign to call a taxi but in other contexts it could merely be a friendly wave to say "hi".

Words like God or Love, Justice, or even Energy, are also signs which have no more content than holding up one's hand. Given the particular situation, when we see a hand raised most of us can catch the meaning and respond correctly. Similarly we can guess from the context whether the conversation is about romantic love, lust, long term married love, the love of a mother for her child, good Samaritan love, friendship love, or the love of ice cream. We also know that "Oh God" may mean no more than "Oh how awful," unless the words come at the beginning of a genuine believer's prayer.

But the context alone is still insufficient to clarify meaning. If we saw ten people praying in the same church we might assume that they are talking to God. But we could only know what they meant by asking what kind of a God they were praying to, and their reasons for praying at that particular time. Similar problems emerge with words like beauty and beautiful. Artists and musicians have notoriously different ideas on the subject. Like God or Love, Beauty functions as a sign that is empty of meaning until we give it a context and indicate some metaphors that connect with it.

If the word God is used in the context of emperor worship we imagine that we are talking about the supreme power in a large area. But we still do not know what to do with the word until we flesh it out with some other metaphors. Is God a ruthless despot who will chop off our head if we fail to obey him? Is he a benign leader who can be approached for help and justice? We might need to include the idea of worship by the need to bow down or offer incense to a statue.

In one form of Monism our world is viewed as a living organism and the name God is a metaphor for its soul. But we need at least one more metaphor to explain what this soul does. If it means no more than the force that brought our world into being, then it would be impossible to be an atheist in that religion. Obviously something brought our world into being, and if that is called God nobody could deny God brought us into being. If however the world soul is pictured as capable of being influenced by our prayers, we could try to pray in the right way, or we could be atheistic by denying that anything in our world can be influenced by such means.

In the next chapter we will sharply distinguish Theism from Monism. By the metaphors of theistic faith God is pictured as a creator and our world as a creation. But if the act of creation is merely another term for whatever began our universe, then again it would be difficult to claim atheism. In the theism of the first chapter of Genesis the metaphor is of a creator bringing a masterpiece into being. Like an artist he or she steps back and is pleased with each stage of the work. That suggests that the writer views God as an artist who belongs to a different dimension from our world. The metaphor also implies that God is in some sense personal.

Another metaphor that connects with that in Christian Theism is of humans in the image of God. That opens up all sorts of creative visions of what we are made for in our relationship to God and to one another. It should be obvious that such metaphors can never give us the logical clarity of a mathematical system, or even Einstein's metaphors for his model of relativity. Metaphors can also be strangely paradoxical. Beauty is skin deep, beauty is a matter of character, and beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, can all be equally true if we understand what is being said.

What then is an atheist? It could merely be a choice not to use the word God. In the same way one could conceive of someone who refused to use the word beauty or love or justice. But a militant atheist is usually someone who wants to deny the existence of God. An agnostic tries to claim he does not know whether or not God exists. Believers then try to persuade both atheists and agnostics by proofs that God does exist. The difficulty for both atheists and believers is that it makes no sense to say colour exists, love exists, justice exists, or that God exists. It is also nonsense to deny these vacuous assertions.

[ After centuries of trying to prove the existence of God, philosophers now mostly agree that none of the proofs work. And if they did work, they would only get us to God as a word devoid of any useful content.]

What an atheist can reasonably do is to take one governing metaphor for God, as used by a particular believer, and then deny that the metaphor is appropriate in that particular context. "I understand what you mean by God as the Artist, but I deny that our world is in any way a work of art or shows any sign of a personal creator." In actual fact what most atheists seem to be rejecting is not atheism in this sense but rather the appropriateness of the metaphors that suggest that God is good or loving. "If the world was indeed created by a personal being, he has made such a mess of it and behaved so badly that I cannot view him as good let alone loving."

This book is titled God of Many Names because the number of metaphors used to give meaning to the word in different religions is immense. In Christian Theism for example God is Creator, Father, Judge, Light, Shepherd, Spirit, Love, Fire, Redeemer, etc. In other forms of religion some of these words are also used. Creator and Judge are important metaphors in Islam. Fire and Spirit occur in most North American Indian tribal religions.

We know that about 1800 B.C. in the vast area from Europe to India many early Indo-European tribes used the same word for God (theos in Greek, deus in Latin, dev in Sanskrit). But he was also addressed by a variety of names. Some of the earliest Hindu hymns or Vedas were addressed to the Sun, others to the Sky, others to the Sacrificial Fire. The first western scholars who read these hymns assumed that these early Aryans were therefore polytheists. Later scholars called the practice of prayers to different names henotheism. It is however much simpler to say that the early Indo-Europeans used a variety of metaphors to fill out their concept of God. And the most modern of Christians have to do the same.

There is however a distinction between Theism and Polytheism. Among the early Greeks the names given to God took on different personalities and they began lusting and fighting against each other. As we will see later the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not polytheism, neither is it the use of different names for the same God (a heresy called Sabellianism). It is a theistic oneness of three persons united by the astonishing power of unconditional love.

With such a variety of metaphorical options are we forced into total relativism? If God is merely the product of a set of freely chosen metaphors, how can we say that one religion is better than another, let alone claim it to be the correct one? Such questions will occupy us throughout this book. At this point we merely note that some kinds of valuation are already possible.

The interesting thing about the word God is that the metaphors which belong to it in a particular religion also tend to govern the metaphors we assign to men and women. In emperor worship we can become either privileged members of his court or cringing slaves. In one variety of monism individual distinctions are viewed as a condition from which we must escape into the absolute. That picture might suggest that our own feelings and aspirations, and therefore those of others, have no ultimate significance. And that in turn will have huge social consequences.

Some forms of Theism by their metaphors can make us into cringing slaves. By the use of other metaphors we see ourselves as beloved children who are thereby brothers and sisters of all others in the family. And then again, as we will see, we can view all of humanity as having access to the love of God or we can use metaphors that require us to earn the right to God's love by joining a sect, believing some doctrines, making a decision, performing some rituals, or being sufficiently good. The metaphors of atheistic ideologies also have implications for behaviour and our attitudes to other human beings.

In addition to context and metaphors, we need to see how the metaphors of different religions and ideologies are organized. Even among Christians who all agree that God is love, we will find some will say that God is first our Judge, and we only becomes his children and experience his love after we have met certain conditions. Others picture a God of unconditional love who relates as Father, Son, and Spirit to anyone of any nation however ignorant or bad they may be. We therefore need to know the sequence and relative position of the metaphors in any believer's explanation. In the next chapter we therefore try out a method of analysing the way believers structure the metaphors which they choose to live by.

Chapter 2...