Ish made some good points last week on the subject of God-language, and we’d like to comment on them and perhaps use them as a jumping-off point for a short series on theology.
Firstly, to provide a caveat to the dismissal of the idea of religion being about stories…
It is certainly true, as Mr. Hawkins pointed out, that conservatives tend to fetishize stories to the point of idolatry, and liberals tend to deflate religious narratives with an aimless eclecticism that seems to say “it’s all just stories, so one story is as good as any other.” However, it is important to remember that there’s a middle ground in recognizing the emotional power and spiritual meaning that certain stories and images convey better than others, without unintentionally elevating those stories to the point that they become objects of worship themselves.
Secondly, to concur with the importance of clarifying what we mean by God, theos, etc.
The difference between God—as uncaused Creator—and created beings, who might for whatever reason be called “gods,” is of critical importance. In fact, the distinction between the uncaused Cause of the universe and things in the universe subject to causation is quite arguably the most important distinction one can imagine, and yet it is a distinction carelessly glossed over in our religious and philosophical discourse by professionals, laymen, and anti-religious polemicists alike as we lazily lump together everything bearing the label “god.”
The distinction is particularly important to AUR, however, as our theology is aligned with what biblical scholars would call the Father-and-Son “binitarianism” of the early Church. However, we reject that this is binitarianism at all because it draws a bright line between the uncreated God and the created Logos.
Although the Logos is often also called “God” by some turn-of-the-millennium theologians, it is clearly distinguished from the unbegotten Father from whom all things came, being the only-begotten Son, “firstborn of creatures” (Letter to the Colossians 1:15) through whom all things are created.
Often, as in the Gospel of John and the writings of Philo, the two are distinguished by the use of the definite article: the uncaused Cause is “The God” and the Logos merely “God.” The Logos is also distinguished by subordinating terminology, being called the Word of God, the Face of God, the Image of God, the Name of God, the Angel of God, the Presence of God, the Hand of God, the Son of God. As manifest in person, the Logos is Messiah/Christ (מָׁשִיַח/Χριστός) the “Anointed” representative of God.
We have concluded that this theology was the position of the Church before Trinitarian innovations, and the position of early non-establishment Judaism (like that found in Philo, as well as certain Targum commentary on the Memra) uncorrupted by the Josianic purges and the Deuteronomic redactions of Jewish scripture. Moreover, it is a theological vision independently reflected in many other religions, including Hinduism and Sikhism, in which God has both a transcendant (nirguna) and immanent (sarguna) aspects, and Taoism as analyzed by Holmes Welch, in which “The Tao” is the Nameless inner aspect from which the outer “Tao,” in which all things are reconciled, emanates.
It does not matter that these are different cultural traditions expressed with different language. After all, the crucial influence on one’s soul is what you believe spiritual entities actually are, not the linguistic and cultural idioms used to discuss them. Calling your car an “automobile” (or calling it a سيارة or 汽车 or coche) doesn’t change anything; what matters is how you think about it and approach it.
Applying this idiomatic understanding of religious terminology to the Judeo-Christian tradition, AUR asserts that El Elyon (אל עליון), the “God Most High” of Semitic culture, refers to the uncaused Creator, and Yahweh (יהוה, meaning “He Causes to Exist”) refers to the created and creative agent of God. These two were conflated by the Deuteronomic faction of King Josiah of Judah, their relationship corrected by early Christians maintaining the traditions of non-Josaic Jews, after which they were confused again by Roman/Nicene Trinitarians.
As Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians (8:6) “there is One God … from whom everything exists … and One Lord … through whom everything exists.” However, despite the presence of two entities, this view is not “binitarian” because it consists of one uncreated Source of existence and a created Agent which is subordinate to that Source.
In contrast, Trinitarianism claims that there are three uncreated and co-equal persons in a multipartite Creator. If the theos in -theism is used to refer only to God proper—that is, an uncreated being defined as the Source of the universe—and not merely to any creature that happens to be called “god” by virtue of its powerfulness or divine ancestry (after all doesn’t the entire Creation have divine ancestry?), then Trinitarianism is quite likely the only truly polytheistic religion.
The so-called binitarianism of the early Church was, in reality, a unitarian/monotheistic theology with some excusable ambivalence in its terminology, as is any religion that might use the word “god” or its linguistic equivalents to refer to a host of divine creatures yet still recognizes the unique Creatorship of a single, uncreated God.
Again, the important thing is what we believe something is, not what we call it. If words were the key to salvation, all English-speaking Christians would be heretics for using the Anglo-Saxon word “God” instead of the Hebrew “El.” What is important is not which word you use, but what you mean by it. Likewise, using the word “god” in multiple ways is not what makes one an idolater or polytheistic; it is the meaning behind the word that matters.
The absurd focus on the word “god” is not only illogical from a rational perspective, but it is also idolatrous from a theological perspective. God the Creator is what is important for true religion, not “god” the word. This fetishism of language stinks of the “Ol’ Time Religion” sort of ignorance expressed in the old joke: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.”
For serious believers, this sort of carelessness is inappropriate and unacceptable.