October 30, 2009
Melvin, Jesus, and Harvey
(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)
Some readers may have noticed that I write god with a lowercase initial letter instead of the more conventional way as 'God'. Once in a while commenters take me to task for this, saying that it should be capitalized because it is a proper noun and wonder if I write it my way in order to gratuitously poke believers in the eye.
It is a deliberate policy of mine to do this but not in order to have a dig at believers, though I am surprised they care about this, especially since it does not seem to bother god at all (at least he has not told me anything so far). I do it because I am trying to change the conventional practice. I look on the word 'god' either as an explanatory concept or theory (like evolution) or a generic name, like cat or giraffe, and not as the name of a specific being. I am hoping that my approach will catch on and the practice spread. Of course, I know that I am fighting an uphill battle on this one. The publishers who put out my work have their style manuals that currently require them to capitalize the word. But I am hoping this will change with time.
After all, it used to be the case that third person pronouns for god also were capitalized as He and Him and His, but only the very religious do that anymore. At an earlier time all nouns (not just proper nouns) were capitalized. You can see for yourself that Isaac Newton's classic book Opticks (1704) followed that old practice. But that is no longer done in English and I see no reason why my approach should also not become standard. For the moment, I have to be content to advance the cause by using this style on my blog.
The problem is that there are many gods around, so just saying god does not specify which one you are talking about. At least the Hindus do us the courtesy of giving each of their various manifestations of god a name like Krishna, Vishnu and so on. So do the Greeks with Zeus and Thor and the rest of the gang, and the Egyptians with Ra and Horus and Isis and the rest. The Old Testament god of the Jews has the name Jehovah/Yahweh. The name Allah is simply the translation of the words 'the god' in Arabic and was the name of one of the desert jinns worshiped by the people of the region and chosen by Mohammed to be the one and only god (Huston Smith, The World's Religions, p. 225). At least in the western world it has come to be seen as the name of the Muslim god, so there is no ambiguity as to who we mean when we refer to Allah.
But Christians have not given their god a name. You would think that at some point during the past two thousand years someone would have noticed this deficiency and said, "Hey! How come only our god does not have a name?" and they would have rectified the situation. But that has not happened.
It is also not clear how many gods Christians have. For example, Christians have an ambivalent attitude to their relationship to the Old Testament god Jehovah. They often refer to 'the god of the Old Testament' in contrast to 'the god of the New Testament'. So are they the same god or different gods? The problem is further confounded because Christians have more than one manifestation of the NT god and it is not clear to whom they are referring when they simply say god. This is the famous paradox of the trinity, the three-way split of the father god, the son god, and the spirit god. So which one of the four gods is being referred to when Christians use the term god?
The official Christian line is that the OT god is the same god as the other three gods (father, son, spirit) but in practice the connection is highly tenuous and often easily abandoned by them. If you speak with a Christian, he will initially that say he believes in the entire Bible and in one god but if you then ask him how he can justify the appalling crimes committed by the god in the OT (the genocide of Noah's flood, the torturing, the commands to his followers to deliberately massacre people, the commands to stone people to death for all manner of transgressions), he will quickly disavow Jehovah and say that the god they worship is the god of love of the New Testament. So does that mean that the NT god is different from Jehovah? Or did Jehovah also have a come-to-Jesus moment and change his nature from a ruthless and bloodthirsty tyrant to a nice guy?
All kinds of ambiguities arise when Christians simply use the generic word god without specifying which one they are referring to. But I have a solution, and that is to give each of the Christian gods a name. The OT god remains Jehovah. For the father god I suggest the name Melvin because it is a good name, worthy of an omnipotent and omniscient deity. The son god is of course Jesus. For the spirit god, I suggest the name Harvey.
Some may object that the spirit god already has a name, the Holy Spirit. But that's not much of a name, is it? It is more a description. It would be like calling someone Tall Guy with Grey Hair or Blonde Woman with Glasses. It doesn't seem polite somehow. I think the name Harvey is better.
Christians can then reframe their deep theological questions by asking whether Jehovah is the same as Melvin and/or Jesus and/or Harvey, and how the last three could be the same entity even when they are each separately present simultaneously. (See, for example, Luke 3:21-22.) They are unlikely to arrive at an answer because the nature of the question is the same as the proverbial number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, but at least the question under discussion would be clear.
I hope the naming system I suggest sticks. That would also solve the issue of when god should be capitalized.
POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and the trinity
Even Melvin and Jesus have trouble figuring out how the two of them relate to each other in the trinity. And that is even without Harvey to complicate the picture. Harvey is quite a mysterious figure, never seen or heard, whose actions cannot be easily traced back to him. He's like a secret agent.
As Voltaire said, "The son of God is the same as the son of man; the son of man is the same as the son of God. God, the father, is the same as Christ, the son; Christ, the son, is the same as God, the father. This language may appear confused to unbelievers, but Christians will readily understand it."