October 22, 2008

God Language

Back at the beginning of the summer, I was utterly delighted to hear about the decision of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that we are no longer to use or pronounce the divine name during worship.

This made me happy because I have always felt that the pronunciation of the divine name in contemporary songs and alternative psalmodies was disrespectful not only to God but to the whole Scriptural tradition, kept alive by our Jewish brothers and sisters, of not pronouncing the name. A couple of times since this came out, though, I've gotten into conversations with people who don't approve.

Mostly they mourn the loss of Dan Schutte's beloved setting of Psalm 139, "You Are Near." This I understand. It's a laudably Scriptural song, people love it, and it's catchy. Maybe the words can be changed, but otherwise this is a genuine loss. Other alternative liturgical texts, more spurious in origin, will also have to be scrapped, and good riddance.

In any case, when I've been in conversations about this point, I've noticed a real lack of good sense about the nature of the words we use to refer to God, and what sort of words they are. Someone will say, for example, "How come we can say 'Lord' or 'God' but we can't use this particular name for God?"

The reason is, I think, because "Lord" and "God" are not names. To say "Lord," or Adonai or Kyrios for that matter, is to pronounce a title, not a name. These are titles for God that replace the divine name in the case of the Old Testament, and titles that migrate to the Risen Lord in the case of the New.

To say "God" is not to pronounce someone's name, but to point to a concept, an idea. To say "God" is not to address someone by name but to attempt to signify the Deity. This is why it is misguided for missionaries to replace the word "God" in the Scriptures with the proper name of the local deity.

Even to say "The Father" or "The Son," using the signifiers that Jesus reveals for the Holy Trinity is not really to use a name but a description of a relationship. There isn't really such a person as "God the Father," but the relation of Source and paternity within God.

In the end we have to recognize that most of our efforts to refer to the divine Mystery take the form of titles and descriptions, not names. There are really only two proper names for God, the divine name revealed to Moses, which no one may pronounce, and Jesus Christ, the name of the Word of God become human, whom we may and must address by name precisely because of his Incarnation.

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