What’s in a name?

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Words, the glorified sounds we use to describe our thoughts, are always a matter of interpretation.  For the most part we are able to communicate our ideas accurately enough to have meaningful conversation.  However, language also changes over time, definitions evolve and words find new uses from their original uses.  Language is seldom (if ever) as simple as black and white.

Things get especially complex when we take ideas written in one language and try to translate them into another language.  It is exponentially more difficult when the original language is now archaic and the exact inflection or intentions of the words lost to time.  Certainly there are clues, languages follow patterns or hints from context and translators follow these leads like detectives.  But there’s always that left which remains open to interpretation.

Is it a description or is it a name?

Biblical descriptions of “God” present a challenge.  Here’s the attempts of various translators to take writing in an ancient Hebrew book and convert it to English that illustrate the point:

“And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?”  (Judges 13:18 KJV)

“He replied, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.  (Judges 13:18 NIV)

“Why do you ask my name?” the angel of the lord replied. “It is too wonderful for you to understand.  (Judges 13:18 NLT)

“And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?”  (Judges 13:18 ESV)

“The angel of God said, “What’s this? You ask for my name? You wouldn’t understand—it’s sheer wonder.  (Judges 13:18 MSG)

So, according to the King James translation, we either have an angel named “secret” or an ‘angel’ with a name that is beyond our words.  I would go with the latter judging by the context as I see it.

Taken together different translations give us wonderful, too wonderful to understand, beyond understanding, secret and means “incomprehensible” according to Strong’s concordance.  I do get the impression the meaning is truly incomprehensible, truly something beyond words or human naming and mysterious.

Can God be properly named?

The three letters ‘G’ and ‘o’ and ‘d’ have come to represent the supreme being and divine entity of the Christian Bible.  It is a noun, used like a proper name and a word loaded down with preconceived ideas.  One of those ideas is that something that is the secret mysterious beyond comprehension power behind the entire universe is something that can actually be named.  It is certainly useful to have a placeholder name or common description, but any word used is an infinite understatement.

This is why God was not named openly.  Naming potentially lowers this dimensionally unlimited and timeless being that can be understood with our finite minds.  But it is not blasphemy that concerns me.  What bothers me is that words evolve, words can begin to carry new meaning or different assumptions and be misconstrued.  It seems better that we leave God something beyond comprehension than to ignorantly ‘box in’ the infinite.  At very least we would be wise to see a God beyond our own understanding of a three letter word.

God is not a noun, not a verb or a man…

“God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?”  (Numbers 23:19 NIV)

That “not human” in verse above is rendered “not a man” in another common translation and ome have taken issue with the New International Version for the departure from gender specific descriptions of God.  But that’s straining on gnats (Matt. 23:24) and making God the equivalent of a homo sapien male is giving men infinitely too much credit and God way too little. 

No, not that I’m saying the Spirit (or Word) of God could not fill the form of a man like a hand in a glove or an avatar becomes a representation of a human being on an internet forum.  But making God just a man is also a vast understatement.  Humanity may bear the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27) and yet we aren’t the beginning and the end, omniscient, sovereign or infinite.

God of the paradox...

Western thinking likes binaries.  The logic of this is true thus that can’t be true is natural for us.  A person can either be alive or dead from our perspective and never both.  Yet, as science takes us to the furthermost ends of the universe, to realms of the almost incomprehensibly large to the infinitesimally small, our normal scientific assumptions break down.

The most brilliant scientific minds of our time have established with convincing theory that both logic and reason taper into oblivion at the bookends of time and space.  On one end a brilliant flash of light, energy and expansion from a source beyond human comprehension.  On the other end black holes both infinitely massive and infinitely small.  At either end there is what appears to be irrationality of something from nothing returning to nothingness.

Matter itself is a mysterious and seemingly impossible duality when brought into focus.  Not only is there is less and less as we zoom in to the level of quantum mechanics, but what is left that remains is a seemingly impossible duality where clearly distinct categories of particle and wave merge into a seemingly irrational both.  It is a paradoxical dualism that demands we look beyond normal scientific assumptions.

There is something incomprehensible.  There is something beyond my understanding and beyond the collective understanding of humanity.  We try to name, explain, categorize the universe.  We attempt to peer around the corner of space-time with theories, mathematics, scientific instruments, reason and logic.  But in the end we live in the mystery of our own existence and we also can live beyond it.

God who is both/and…

Both skeptics of religion and the religious are guilty of creating a God in their own image.  If you’re concept of God is an equivalent to a ‘flying spaghetti monster‘ then you have a small god perspective.  If your idea of God is limited to descriptions and language found in the Bible then you too have a small God perspective.  God is more than the information used to attempt to define God.  God cannot be reduced to mere attributes or human moral constructs.

God is incomprehensible.  Yet, God’s work is also personal, knowable and…

“Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names…”  (Philippians 2:6-9 NLT)

…a sheer wonder of a paradox beyond mere human words.

Mennonite Millennials and the Good Samaritan

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Jesus was a great story teller.  Those raised in conservative Mennonite homes and communities are very familiar with his stories. 

Ask any of us about ‘the parable of the good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:25-37) and we will tell you of a man who was traveling, who was attacked by bandits, left for dead, ignored by two passersby and finally helped by a good man.  The man, a good Samaritan.

Some of us might even be able to explain how the Samaritans were looked down upon by the audience Jesus was addressing.  And also that those two who passed this man in desperate need of help (even crossed to the other side of the road) were important religious leaders and might have not wanted to risk defiling themselves by touching a man who by appearances was dead.

The moral to the story is in the question it answered.  Jesus was being questioned by a person identified as an “expert in the law” who was asking initially about how to gain immortality.  Jesus asks him what the law says and the man quotes the part of their law where it says to love God and your neighbor.  But, when Jesus tells the man he’s correct the man (being a legal expert) needs further definition of terms, he asks:

Who is my neighbor?

The typical definition of neighbor is those people who live next door to us.  Those people with the annoying yappy dog who you might wave to while pulling out of the drive.  Good Americans where I live and the kind who will offer to help push when your car is stuck in the snow.

But Jesus uses the parable to extend the definition of neighbor.  When he finishes the story he asks which of the three was the neighbor and the expert tells him it was the one who had mercy.  So, simple, cut and dried, we help a couple people with a broke down car or give a twenty to some homeless guy, pay our taxes on time and we are a good neighbor, right?

Well, maybe, maybe not…

Samaritan today means a helpful stranger.  The Samaritans when Jesus spoke were despised people and an enemy to those listening.  I think the parable might be told differently today. 

If Jesus were speaking to a conservative audience he might have the story of the two responsible gun owners, the stupid irresponsible traveler (who got what he deserved) and a good illegal immigrant.  If he was telling it to a liberal audience it could be about the two politically correct professors, the aborted black inner-city child and a good redneck.

More interesting is that the enemies of Israel today, Palestinians, have Samaritan blood.  So even after two thousand years the story is relevant in the place and religious setting it was originally told to.  In today’s language it could be told as the story of the good Palestinian or good Muslim. 

It could be any scenario where a person who has a historical grievance lays it aside to care for the ‘privileged’ person who may have previously treated them like dirt.  It is a story for a downtrodden and unimportant person helped a stranger when the people who should’ve helped didn’t.

So what does this have to do with Mennonite Millenials?

It is a quirky thing, but we probably have an easier time flying to the opposite side of the world than we do with being neighborly with our actual neighbors.  We may travel to some far away place to spend a week or two cleaning up from a typhoon.  It is exciting to experience a new culture.  The more dedicated may even spend years in a remote village somewhere or some other exotic outpost.

Yet, if we were asked to do something we personally find dull or undesirable, if there were a task we considered beneath our abilities, would we do it?

The men who passed by the beaten man were probably men with vision.  They had important tasks to do that could not be compromised by the needs of a person who probably should’ve known better anyhow.  They were missionaries, the equivalent of church leaders and had big things on their minds.  They also lived in a world of abstraction or theory and neglected practical application.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40 NIV)

Who’s least or greatest changes with cultural context.  We probably don’t think of a Samaritan as being lower than us.  We may not harbor animosity or a superior attitude to other races.  But we still do have our prejudices.  We still have our own religious rites or rituals that take precedent over practicality.  We still look too far down the road.

Think globally, act locally!

This generation is better equipped with technology, has greater access to information and the world.  But it is also a very narcissistic and self-absorbed generation.  With some of us the problem is not fear, the lack of opportunity (like prior generations) or the complacency that is common today, but for us the problem could be arrogance.  We need to be reminded that there is nothing too small for us to do.

Don’t be too important to do little things.  Indeed, sometimes it is a small amount of humility that does the world more good than the grandest of visions or best of experiences.  Don’t be aloof, don’t be a religious idealist, don’t be prejudicial against anyone, be a neighbor!