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AUDIO: Among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, What is in the Name of God?

Father Ryan delivers the McGinley lecture on Naming God.
Photo by Dana Maxson

While “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” is a fundamental commandment, scholars said on April 9 that care should be taken in the use of the name of the Divine regardless of the intention.

Fordham’s spring McGinley Lecture, delivered by Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., the Laurence J. McGinley professor of religion and society, examined the role of the Divine name as a living part of three faith traditions.

In “Naming God: a Quandary for Jews, Christians and Muslims,” Father Ryan took an etymological approach to the Divine name, parsing ancient uses and meanings culled from the Hebrew bible, the New Testament and the Qur’ an. Rabbi Daniel Polish, Ph.D., spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Chadash, and Amir Hussain, Ph.D, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, offered responses to the lecture.

Regardless of the language or the text from which the name was taken, Father Ryan presented multifaceted viewpoints of the name that included considerations of tense, historical context, plural or singular meaning, and gender.

The Hebrew name Elohim, Father Ryan said, could refer to “the utterly singular God of Israel,” or “the gods of the nations” depending upon the word’s corresponding verb. Such a distinction, he said, could hint at the early Israelites’ “exclusive worship of one God without denying the existence, power and even threat of other gods.”
There is also a unique name for God from the Hebrew Bible that is connected with the story of Moses and the burning bush. That name “belongs to no category of common or proper nouns and is said to be the third person singular form of the name God gave to himself,”— Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, or “I AM WHO I AM.”Greek translations of Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh provide yet another layer of meaning to the original phrase. The Greek Ego eimi ho-on could mean “I AM THE ONE WHO IS” or “I AM THE EXISTENT ONE,” with the third and final translation from Greek to English providing yet another layer of interpretation.

Certain Divine names do not assign a gender to God’s Self-naming, said Father Ryan, who examined gender specific pronouns, or lack thereof, in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He also addressed the gender significance of the two the most prominent of the 99 names ascribed to God in Qur’ an, Rahman andRahim.

“For any human being to speak about God—even for the Scriptures to speak about God—is to stammer,” said Father Ryan.

Rabbi Polish noted that when Adam gives names to the animals, he was given dominion over them. As there is a power ascribed to any name, the name of God holds particular resonance, which is why Jews avoid too casual an encounter with that power.

Among people of the Jewish faith, there exists a “reticence about using His name.” There is even hesitancy, he said, in making the name explicit in print; in English, the word often appears as G-d.

“Jews don’t talk about God a lot because they are introspective about God,” he said, but the name still has “great valence in Jewish life.”

Even a phrase as casual as “Thank God” is to be avoided, replaced instead by the phrase “Baruch haShem,” meaning “Blessed be The Name.” Making the train on time, handing in a report that the boss really liked, and negative tests from the doctor, can all be celebrated with, Baruch haShem–and not “Thank God.”

Hussain noted the parallels between Muslim reverence and reverence among Christians—in particular with Pentecostal Christians who fully embrace the use of the name of Jesus with such fervor as to be enraptured.

He showed a short clip from the actor/writer/director Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, which features an unabashed celebration of the name Jesus in a call and response prayer.

“The clip helps me understand the power of that name,” said Hussain, who noted that devout Muslims add similar phrases of blessing after uttering the name of Muslim prophets.  “In the academic world we often dismiss the southern Pentecostal culture, but the use of Jesus’ name is how the demons are cast out. It reasserts the power of the name.”

According to Father Ryan the problem with talking about God is that “we flatten God out by speaking about God in the third person.”

“God is to be addressed as You or Thou, not He, She or, It.”


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