This is part SEVEN, where we ask “what is language?” and look at its relationship to God and the liturgy.
Part ONE of the series, which will served as an overview and introduction to the ideological issues at hand, can be found HERE.
Part TWO, where we talk about the concept of liturgy itself, can be found HERE.
Part THREE of our series, which will trace the development of our Prayer Book, can be found HERE.
We also have a part 3.5, found HERE, which summarizes the third part and talks a bit about the ethos of Prayer Book revision in The Episcopal Church.
Part FOUR, where we look at the notion of “inclusive and expansive language” as it pertains to the doctrine of the Trinity, can be found HERE.
Part FIVE, where look, at brief, at a few Biblical terms for God, is found HERE.
Part SIX, in which we trace a trajectory of linguistic development throughout the twentieth-century, exploring how we got to “contemporary language,” is found HERE.
It is at this juncture that we ask the next important question: what is language?
The members of the rector’s forum (from which these essays arise) answered this question by saying that language is a means of communication, a means toward community, a tool necessary for our survival, the ability to reason, to cooperate etc. And this is all true and accurate. Language is a technique we humans evolved and is indeed a gift.
I spend a fair amount of time at Walt Disney World. One of our favorite rides is Space Ship Earth at EPCOT, which traces the history of human communication—starting with humans coordinating in order to take down the mastodon and all the way into the development of personal computers. First we spoke, then we drew pictures, after that we started writing, followed by printing, and then typing. It’s an inspiring story told through animatronics and the voice of Dame Judi Dench. But it gives us a lot the “hows” of human language, but little in the way of “why.”
Many animals have language. Dogs and cats, for instance, communicate through a combination of vocalizations and pheromone dispersal. Dolphins and whales have various clicks and musical tones. And so on.
But language for humans is something beyond this sort of rudimentary utilitarianism. Language, for us—and intrinsically to us—reveals deep relationships between the ways in which we think.
For instance, consider the word “cat.”
But in Mandarin Chinese, the name for this animal is “mao.” This is because “mao” is what the cat says (we’d say “meow” in English). Effectively, the animal gets to name itself.
This raises interesting questions about the ways in which different people think about a common thing. What’s the relationship one has with an animal if they allow the animal to name itself? What’s the relationship with applying a name onto an animal? What’s the relationship when that name comes from recognizing qualities of the animal? How do we see it?
In terms of expansive and inclusive language, knowing all these names for the animal known to us as a “cat” allows us to have a richer experience of that animal. For the one who only knows it because of vocalizations, seeing “feminine” qualities in the animal is important. For the one who’s only ever known it by the name projected onto it, considering that the animal might have a say in the matter (no pun intended) is also important.*
This is a brief introduction to the study of linguistics and how it begins to overlap with philosophy and theology.
Let’s take it a bit further and consider the word “God.”
Every now and then I’ll see someone write “G-d” instead of “God.” This, in my experience, is a Jewish discipline rooted in respect for the Divine Name (and is a thing that I’ve also seen among liberal Christians**).
Writing “G-d” is in keeping with a well-established tradition of not saying יהוה (the English equivalent is YHWH). This is known in Hebrew as “HaShem,” or “The Name,” and is the name given to Moses at the burning bush. It is often translated into English as “I AM WHO I AM” in Exodus (but rendered as “Lord” elsewhere in the Old Testament). Here’s a little lesson in Hebrew:
The Hebrew language is an ancient language, characterized by its lack of vowel characters. Vowels in Hebrew are, traditionally, understood through context (this is still the case with Modern Hebrew). It is almost musical in that vowels are the sounds made between notes.
A group of Jewish scholars working between 6-10 AD known as the Masoretes added a system of points and marks to denote vowel sounds. But when they came to יהוה they did a couple of things.
Before I continue, I should mention that Jewish scribes believed in the sacredness of The Name to the extent that they would bathe before and after writing those four characters on the page. This is in keeping with the commandment: “Do not take my name in vain.” So, The Name always received reverential treatment.
For the Masoretes, working in this paradigm, the choice was made to avoid rendering this name pronounceable so that it couldn’t be used in vain. It also clued in the reader that another pronunciation should be made. Often, they would substitute “‘adonai.”*** Nowadays, you might hear “HaShem.”
Getting back to “G-d,” we find ourselves with an interesting question: does it make sense to remove the vowel from “God?” It does if this is the name of the one we call God.
But here’s the dilemma: God’s name is not “God.”
God is an English word that comes from a lengthy linguistic lineage beginning with a “Proto-Indo-European" word: “ghutom” (rooted in the word for “to call or invoke”).
There are a number of Hebrew words translated as “God” in English. One of the most prominent is the word “Elohim.” This is the word that appears in the first chapter of Genesis.
Elohim is a plural word. The singular word is “El” and is borrowed from the Canaanite language (and was likely the supreme deity of ancient Canaanite religion)†. It is a word for power.
Ancient Jews did something interesting with this name. It seems that “elohim” was used in the Canaanite religion to denote something similar to the Greek “Pantheon,” or the collective term for all the deities. When Canaanites referred to “elohim” they were talking inclusively about all the powerful beings in the heavens. But the Jews, following what was revealed to them through Abraham, came to believe in a single divine being.
Without getting into the arguments about biblical authorship, some of the earliest compilers of the biblical stories preferred to use the Canaanite language for this deity. Their belief, in effect, was that “Elohim” was an all-inclusive deity. There was no need for many “gods” because this One encompassed them all.
Now, we have to remember that “el” is word for power. So “elohim” means “powers.” Or, “all-powerful.”
“God,” the English term, is a word for “one who is invoked.” “Elohim” is a biblical term for an all-powerful being.
There’s a bit of a complicated bit of history to consider. First, we have to remember that English-speaking peoples were evangelized by the Latin-speaking Western Church. This Church used the Vulgate as their Bible, which was a Latin translation of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament that was standard for Jesus and Saint Paul, among others) and the Greek-written gospels and letters of Jesus’ disciples. Latin borrowed “Deus” from the Greek “Theo.” Both of these terms were used to refer to the Elohim of the Old Testament.
So when English-speaking people first heard of “Deus,” they needed to understand what that word meant. The simplest way to convey a message between languages is to look for cognates (words that share the same root) or synonyms. Like with “cat.” You point at the animal and say “cat” and a Chinese person will point and say “mao.” So, when trying to introduce the Christian religion to Anglo-Saxon pagans, the word being used for the supreme deity was “god.”
And so, here we are.
But now we have to ask ourselves if these are actually equivalent words.
Again, “God” refers to one who is invoked. On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this term. But it does expose, perhaps, some of our relationship to this deity in the English-speaking West. If we worship someone “who is invoked” does this not speak to our propensity to treat this being as someone we largely turn to when we need something—only when he is invoked or called upon?††
And while there is biblical language for “calling upon the Lord,” this is only part of what the Bible says. Elohim refers to power, a multi-faceted kind of power. The All-Powerful One.
So, in a word, no, “God” and “Elohim” are not equivalent terms. There’s a reason that the Hebrew scriptures have a multitude of names for the One we call “God.” Not titles, mind, but actual names.
This underscores the importance of fostering expansive and inclusive language. For starters, it’s consistent with the Bible. It also helps us have a broader view of the One we worship. Yes, we call upon Him. We also recognize that He is all-powerful. That He is all-merciful. That He is Lord of Lords, above all rulers and authorities.
Now, we talk a bit about the relationship between liturgy and language.
A few years back, a couple of my clergy peers were discussing the Eucharist and we got into the discussion about who the prayer is for. One person noted that it was a prayer and, therefore, it is directed at God. Another person said that it didn’t really make sense because there’s all this stuff that God already knows being said, like the words of institution and bits of historical narrative.
This perfectly encapsulates the nature of the liturgy. Remember, liturgy is an offering. In the Eucharistic prayer we even refer to it as “this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” The word sacrifice, by the way, is a Latin word that refers to “a sacred performance.” We associate it with the ritual slaughter of animals, but that is only one form of sacred performance.
The English theologian Catherine Pickstock, in her book After Writing: On The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, says that language finds its fulfillment in liturgical expression. In other words, language was given to us by God so that we could direct it back to Him. Which is the nature of every gift from God—given in order to return, so that it could be given back.
We come to Him the way my children come to me and recount the fun things we’ve done together, the things I’ve done for them. I remember them (I was there!) but I delight in hearing them tell me the story.
Language is given so that we can have a relationship to The Holy One, the Creator. And not only that, language is given so that we might be able to worship Him. This we do whenever we gather as the body of Christ, sharing words and actions that are directed to His presence, a performance for and about God.
* Further, if the “feminine” aspect of “cat” is accurate, then it also reveals some interesting discussion on what “femininity” is all about—and does this reveal that a man made this determination? And does this effectively “other” anything that is female?
** But I suspect that that is more rooted in “liberal” pluralistic/relativistic thinking/theology than it is in traditional Jewish theology. But I could be wrong and dismissive here…
*** This leads to an interesting quirk. Some of the Masoretes would add the vowels for the word “adonai” to YHWH so that the reader or chantor would be clued in to substitute “adonai” in that spot. But when you combine those vowels with the consonants YHWH you get something that sounds like “Ye-HO-vah.” Later English translators made the error of saying that “Jehovah” was a name for God. In Hebrew, this would be seen as kind of nonsense. So, now you know that “Jehovah” is not an accurate name for God.
† “El” has a couple of interesting heritages. First, it is also the root of “elah,” another singular word for a deity. This made its way into Arabic as “Allah.” “El” is also part of Superman’s Kryptonian name (Kal-El). This is because Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, were Jewish and wanted to infuse some of their heritage into the character. The name is reminiscent to the Hebrew Qal-El, which would be “Voice of God.”
†† This also reveals our tendencies toward triumphalism. The Anglo-Saxon notion of “god” speaks to tribalistic beliefs and the representative “gods” that are called upon in the day of battle.
EXTRA: At this point, it’s probably good to talk about pronouns for this One. There is a tendency to rely on “God” as a substitute for “Him.” Instead of saying “God is in His holy temple,” our more “progressive” liturgies might substitute “God is in God’s holy temple.”
But this is awkward, right? We wouldn’t say “Chuck is in Chuck’s car.”
Proponents of this approach rightly note that our supreme Being is beyond gender. At the same time, the Bible always refers to The Holy One using masculine pronouns. Additionally, we Christians believe that The Holy One is decisively revealed through the man Jesus Christ. Jesus is The Holy One. So when we speak of the Being often called “God” we are speaking of Jesus and vise versa.
You may notice that there’s a tendency to capitalize the pronouns used for The Holy One. This is rooted in a longstanding custom to denote reverence for God. But I get a little weird with it, personally.
When I write “He” instead of “he,” in my mind I’m denoting the distinctiveness of The Holy One. He is not either “she” nor “he.” Rather, He is “He.” Now, I know that this doesn’t satisfy the auditory sounds and it’s still technically a gendered pronoun. But, for me, this is one way in which I make a distinction about God.
I have good friends who refer to “Sister Holy Spirit” and pretty much always use “She” when referring to that person of the Trinity. I even do that sometimes. Using “She” to refer to The Holy One is still odd for many (including women!). It will take time, perhaps.