Friday, August 17, 2007

The Name of God

A Dutch Bishop has stirred some interest with his call for people of all faiths to refer to God as Allah, as reported on the ABC website. Bishop Muskens suggests that God doesn't mind what name he is called, and during an eight year stint in Indonesia celebrated the Mass by referring to God as Allah. It's an interesting and fraught notion.
First, to suggest that it makes no difference to God what we call Him might be stretching matters a bit too far. It is one thing to find a culturally-relevant way to express faith, yet another to suggest that all such expressions are universally relevant and transferable. In some senses, to name God is to reduce Him, to give power over God by the one who names. The great Hebrew name for God can be loosely translated as to avoid that type of limitation: "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be". God defined by Godself.
The response of Gerrit de Fijter, chairman of the Protestant church in the Netherlands, is enlightening and revealing in many ways, "Calling God 'Allah' does no justice to Western identity. I see no benefit in it."
...the fact that Allah doesn't do justice to Western identity is both a strength and a weakness: in one way countering the blind spots of our own understandings of God, and at the same time potentially denying aspects we would wish to affirm.

An underlying concern is the embracing of a view that we must all see God alike. I'm not sure that is true of any two people. Words have the power to create meanings as well as reflect them. If we are to affirm that the God we worship is greater than us all, we have to affirm the limitations of a particular and therefore culturally endowed understanding. But we must also, as Christians, affirm the notion of incarnation - that God is revealed in particular contexts. Determining the relationship of the universal to the particular and vice versa is an ongoing challenge for us all. But I do believe we are impoverished if we reduce God (or life for that matter) to a one-size-fits-all view.

A possibly complicating issue in this matter is that Islam as a faith does not generally accept the notion of cultural and contextual knowledge, at least in relation to revelation. It is founded on the belief of the timeless and eternal truth of the Koran and the prophet Mohammed. To adopt the term 'Allah' for God in the christian church may be seen either to embrace or to insult Islam, depending on whether we are seen to be seeking to turn the notion of Allah towards Western frameworks.

It was C S Lewis who once said that anything we say about God is a lie, inasmuch as it is not the full truth. A Western view of God, as much as an Islamic view, is both enlightening and limiting, opening up to new vistas, and closing of others. While the Bishop's suggestion is worthy of discussion, it is no panacea.

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