A God By Any Other Name

I’m currently reading through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It’s a book I started for the first time about five years ago, but I didn’t get too far into it before I met the man who would eventually become my spouse and I got distracted. You know how it goes. In any case, I’m in the midst of some big life changes, specifically of the vocational variety, so I figured I’d give it another go. 

This time around, something struck me that I hadn’t noticed before. Something annoying.

Don’t get me wrong; I love this book. Every time I read even a small section of it, something good happens. Some sort of personal growth takes place, and, more often than not, I get a decent piece of writing going. But it’s not without its problems. 

What’s bugging me about it is the same thing that’s also been bugging me about what used to be my favorite podcast: the championing of the supposedly enlightened proposition that whenever people refer to “God”, what they’re really talking about is [insert generic idea about energy/life force/ineffable-but-benevolent-power-behind-the-universe here]. In other words, the idea that Person X’s “God” is always able to be switched out for Person Y’s generic energy/life force/power and nothing important is lost in the translation.

One example of this sentiment is found in the Introduction to The Artist’s Way. Cameron writes, 

When the word God is used in these pages, you may substitute the thought good orderly direction or flow. What we are talking about is creative energy. God is useful shorthand for many of us, but so is Goddess, Mind, Universe, Source, and Higher Power… The point is not what you name it. The point is that you try using it.

Similarly, in the podcast I mentioned above, the host--a former Evangelical Christian--has said a number of times in recent months that he believes (my own word choice, here and following) that when people, including Evangelicals, use the word “God”, they are ultimately referring to a force or energy that underlies and influences our world. If I remember correctly, he’s also said that what they mean is something like ‘the mystery’ behind things.

That’s a lovely attempt at some semblance of reconciliation between disparate worldviews, but it simply isn’t true. That’s not what Evangelical Christians are referring to, and this guy should know better than anyone. As for Cameron’s instructions regarding “the word God” that are quoted above, well, sure, a non-theistic person might use the suggested substitutions in the interest of making the Way work, but it’s also disingenuous to call the name God “useful shorthand” and to suggest that “God” is a name we give.

God is a name that is given to us to use; it’s a name that we are taught. I didn’t make it up or choose it, nor did I ever, ever use it as shorthand. When people say “God” with a capital G, they are referring to a distinct, unique being. That’s what--or rather who--I was always referring to, as were my fellow congregants. Not only that, but we would have been actively offended had you equated our God to a force or energy. Get out of here with that New Age liberal bullshit, Satan. 

“God” is God’s name. It’s not a common noun. Like any proper name, it’s a collection of sounds put together to indicate a specific individual, and you don’t just get to change the meaning of it in order to find some common ground with other humans who actually do believe very different things than you, or in the interest of unlocking some cosmic but nondenominational secret that will help a person figure out her life.

If you’re familiar with my work, you might be wondering why I seem to be so vehemently  defending and even angry on behalf of Evangelical Christians with regard to this issue. Do I really care about taking the Lord’s name in vain? Hear me out. 

What bugs me so much is not that a good number of Christians would be hurt or erased by this misidentification, but the implications and repercussions this bad habit has for the rest of us.

First, when we refuse to take those who believe in the ‘traditional’ Christian God at their word--when we refuse to be honest with ourselves about what it is they truly do believe--we are hurt, the world is hurt, because we sweep the toxic stuff under the rug in our attempt to present a tidy, objective world. 

When we say that what monotheists (especially those of the conservative Christian variety)  “really mean” by “God” is some impersonal, de-religionized force, it belies the fact that many of them do in fact follow divisive, even abusive doctrine. For many of these people, their God has very particular rules that need to be followed. For many of these people, their God will actually judge you and maybe outright reject you based on whether you followed those rules. 

So no, they do not really mean ‘flow’. They do not really mean ‘mystery’. They mean God, as in the actual being in the Bible. And it’s important that we stop offering them unsolicited (and definitely unearned) euphemisms just so we can feel better about what our neighbors are thinking.

Second, watering down or generalizing the meaning of “God” in direct opposition to certain Christians’ explicitly stated theology only adds implicit agreement to their habit of doing the same thing to those of us who aren’t believers. 

Any ex-Evangelical, ex-fundamentalist, or ex-Christian who’s been open about their departure from the tradition with those who are still in the fold can tell you what a maddening and dehumanizing experience it is to be told some version of either (1) you’re just lost/confused/doubting but Jesus is still in your heart so you’ll find your way back to the church someday, or (2) you must never have been a believer in the first place. 

Hearing either of these responses sucks because they both presume to know better than I do about what’s going on in my own heart and head. It sucks because it is someone else saying, “I know for a fact that you were or are wrong about what you yourself believe,” which denies my intelligence and autonomy.

While I wouldn’t necessarily mind giving Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians a little taste of their own medicine in this regard, I don’t think it helps the rest of us in our own pursuit of being respected in this way. I want others to operate on the assumption that I am capable of knowing what my own beliefs are, so I will offer them the same basic respect. It doesn’t mean that I agree with their beliefs; it means I believe that they believe them.

Maybe there is still a part of me that’s defensive on behalf of my old Christian self. She wanted to be taken seriously, too, and it takes a lot of effort not to judge her using information she just didn’t have at the time.

There’s also a part of me that does think, albeit presumptuously, that all religions are myopic human attempts to picture the same huge, invisible thing and “God” as a concept is one way of doing that.

So I get it. I get the urge to do what Cameron’s doing, what this podcaster is doing, what I’ve seen and heard probably hundreds of people do. There is a wanting to understand someone else’s understanding, a craving to find common vocabulary, a desire to put together the all-inclusive puzzle, to see how it all works. But isn’t that just as imposing as the monotheism you refuse to acknowledge as real because you don’t agree with it? Or, maybe you’re embarrassed by it?

The Christians who are fundamental about their God, the ones who are most certainly referring to a single being in the sky--they have their own puzzle, and it necessitates, for most of them, the death and resurrection of Jesus, acceptance of the inherent unworthiness of humans, the omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence of God, and so on. No matter your thoughts on how that belief system came to be or why, from a psychological- or anthropological-type standpoint, anyone would follow it, that is the truth of their perspective.

In light of that, can the name “God” mean anything we want it to? I’m not sure, but I am concerned that even if the answer is yes, we’re often too forgetful or dismissive of its most traditional (and still utilized) denotation in our culture.

All I’m saying its, let’s be honest about these things. How will we make progress in our debates, in our compromises, in our society (especially this American one that’s so heavily influenced by conservative Christians) if we are not aware enough and secure enough to acknowledge our reality for what it is?