Words That Are Too Small

cow parody of MichaelangeloAmong people I’ve met, there are some who imagine God to be an old man with a long beard sitting on a throne. As one of the ancient Greek philosophers said, “If the cows had gods, the gods would look like cows.” But we beat the cows to it, so God has toenails instead of hooves.

It’s natural to the human spirit that we reach beyond physical existence. It requires no special imagination to question where we came from, and God knows we wonder where we’re headed. Even these perplexing mysteries, however, are oversimplified with their focus on ourselves. Where did the universe come from?

In the western world, most of the time the answer is that everything came from God. But what do we mean by the word “God”? Regardless of the language used (God, Dieu, Gott, Dios, Bóg, and so on), the idea is generally the same. God is an all-powerful deity who consciously created everything that exists in the universe, from butterflies to black holes. Within that western tradition, God is also all knowing, so that He knows what you were thinking about that time. And you know which time I’m talking about.

Keeping the focus just on the English language, we’ve taken the word “God” and extended it as a metaphor to other situations, as we might do with any other word. This may seem irreverent, such as referring to the God of rock and roll. Really, though, the word is more confusing, because we also have a lower-case spelling, god, meaning “deity” (which we might capitalize, as with any other word). Thus when we say “Mars was the Roman god of war” there is no connection at all to our capitalized word “God”, meaning the Christian deity. Yet isn’t it strange that we don’t have entirely separate words that don’t sound alike?

In strong contrast to a simple anthropomorphic use of “God” to mean a powerful old man who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, some strains of Judaism see the creator of the universe as too big, too unknowable, too vast to be described with a human word. A word, after all, is just a human social noise, and out of respect and awe for the creator of the universe, that creator cannot be reduced to sounds that humans make. This belief that God cannot be named is also a very different conception of what God is, so much more than merely a human image. For people with this belief, God’s name could not be pronounced, or by extension, written (I’ve had Jewish students who would would write “G-d” in their essays).

We are moving here away from looking at how we use the word “God” to considering an idea of what is out there, what the nature of “God” is. The idea of a deity too enormous for language is more abstract than an old man with a beard. If we move intellectually in that direction, we begin to consider an idea that may be more difficult, in part because of the abstraction, but also because this idea is less clear and possibly contains questions that are unanswered.

If we don’t believe the traditional western view of God, we may still have a strong sense of something beyond ourselves, something that inspires us, something that gives meaning and beauty to life. But this sense of something—what do we call it? The word “God” may invoke traditional religions and may not feel like the right word.

Or other words may be used: spirit, supreme being, life force, creator. Those who need to be more concrete may reach back to earlier religions and say mother earth. Or—if you can handle this—that spirit, that something that needs a name, might even be called thought. Use your imagination even: the breath of the universe. Traditional Christians may ridicule all this, believing that these words are just attempts to avoid saying “God”. I’d say they’re right, except that such a response misses the point that the language is attempting to describe a different view of existence. The ideas themselves reach toward something so mysterious that we surely can’t know it.

As to using the word “God” to describe something bigger than ourselves, I want to cite a few lines from a song by Iris DeMent in the song “Keep Me God”:

I don’t know if there’s a church
That deserves to take God’s name
I just know that when I look around here I see
The hand of someone or something
That is bigger than me
And I call that God

Or for a completely different approach, more of a “don’t worry about it” attitude, listen to Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be”. If you know of something more beautiful than this video, I’ll give you a hug for sharing it with me. Maybe I’ll even tell you God’s secret name. Or maybe not.



Filed under Language

2 responses to “Words That Are Too Small

  1. This article was interesting to me as i’m a Muslim and i always wondered the etymology of the word ‘god’ in english. So thank you for these informations.
    And don’t get it wrong but i just wanted to notice, that we call God in Islam, as you may know, Allah. It’s a word changed from ‘elah’ in Arabic which means ‘the adored one’ or ‘the one to adore’.
    Have a nice day 🙂

  2. Lyn

    Iris DeMent is probably my favorite songwriter!

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