God. Just three letters in this word. But they sure pack a punch.
Countless people have died in the name of "God." Countless good works have been performed. Countless arguments have ensued over what this word signifies.
Dahlia Lithwick dives into this fascinating linguistic tangle in a Newsweek article, "Jesus vs. Allah -- the fight over God's secular title."
Pop quiz: which of the following names represents a non-sectarian, universal deity? Allah, Dios, Gott, Dieu, Elohim, Gud, or Jesus?
If you answered "none of the above," you are right as a matter of fact but not law. If you answered "Allah," you are right as a matter of law but not fact. And if you answered "Jesus," you might have been trying to filibuster David Hamilton, Barack Obama's first judicial nominee.
Hamilton ruled that prayer in the Indiana House of Representatives shouldn't use Christ's name because it favored a particular religion instead of being nonsectarian.
(For those, like me, who get confused about the difference between secular and sectarian: "secular" means worldly rather spiritual, "sectarian" means relating to a sect. So nonsectarian refers to a generalized religiosity, while secular is non-religious.)
It's hard to see how anyone could disagree with Hamilton's point: that "Jesus" is less universal than "God" or "Allah."
But Hamilton's ruling got him into a lot of trouble with fundamentalist Christians, even though he pointed out that the Arabic word "Allah" is used for "God" in Arabic translations of Jewish and Christian scriptures.
I face sort of a similar problem frequently on this blog. How do I refer to whatever (if anything) lies at the heart of the mystery of existence? "God" often sounds just fine to me.
However, the meaning I have in mind when I use this word is fairly close to how Spinoza and Einstein saw "God" -- as the sum total of the laws of nature, not a personal being who intervenes in the world from time to time.
Given this confusion between the various ways "God" can be used, the "One" is a word that has pluses to it. My favorite Greek philosopher, Plotinus, favored it. Along with "the Good." In his Enneads, he wrote:
But if the One -- name and reality expressed -- was to be taken positively it would be less clear than if we did not give it a name at all... Therefore, when you have said "The Good" do not add anything to it in your mind, for if you add anything, you will make it deficient by whatever you have added.
Meister Eckhart, a medieval Christian mystic, had much the same attitude. He preferred "Godhead" to "God," being a word that points to universality rather particularity.
God has many names in Scripture. But I say that if someone perceives something in God and gives it a name, then that is not God. God is above names and nature. We read of a good man who turned to God in his prayer and wished to give him a name. Then a brother said to him, "Be silent! You are dishonoring God!" There is no name we can devise for God.
For sure, since It seems that nothing is a lot closer to "God" than something.
Existence...what is it? Can't be something that exists within existence. Can't be the creator of stuff that exists. Existence is the root, existent things the branches.
That's why I like "the One" as a description of ultimacy. "Emptiness" is a pretty good word also, notwithstanding its Buddhist connotations. Also, "Wu." These terms are not only nonsectarian, they're also arguably secular. So, about as universal as you can get.