Friday, March 20, 2009

The Nine Billion Names of God

There's a great Arthur C. Clark story by that name; you should read it. I was thinking about the story recently, and then I thought about this: does it matter what name you call God?

Of course I don't think it does, because I'm an atheist. But I'm genuinely interested in what a Christian would have to say to this question.

I can imagine arguments using ritual, intention, or linguistics. Let's start with a linguistics experiment. If I changed the Lord's prayer and instead of "Our Lord" I say "Allah", and instead of "amen" I end with "Allah aqbar", does God still receive my prayer? What if I change it to "Elvis" or "Odin", or "Satan"? How does God know when to accept my collect call, so to speak? I concede that I'm putting it in a flippant way, but it's the clearest way of making my point, and I'm genuinely interested in the Christian answer to this.

If saying a different name can affect which account gets the prayer deposit, how about just prononcing it differently? If I say Chesus instead of Jesus, does that make a difference? If Chesus is okay, what about Chesush? I imagine a deity with my prayers approaching at increasingly wide angles until finally - whoops, 3 phonemes different, outside the goal posts! 3 phoneme-strikes and you're out! If the name you use can affect whether the prayers stay on target, what about the name translated to different languages - there are certainly languages whose speakers can't pronounce the name properly for no reason other than the circumstance of their birth - it wasn't my fault I wasn't born speaking Aramaic. And to that end, do you really think you're saying the name "Jesus Christ" the way He said it?

So far I've been assuming that I could do these experiments; but does a "real" Christian (however you define that) have to say a prayer for God to hear it? If so, does that mean God can't hear an atheist's prayers, or just doesn't respond? Does God hear and respond to the prayers of a Muslim, who is praying to a false god with a different name and different characteristics? Maybe there's confusion there because we're still dealing with the god of Abraham; fine. What about in the unambiguously separate ancestry of the Hindu god Shiva, or an Amazon animist's jaguar spirit?

Maybe all these questions about language are irrelevant. So maybe it's intent that matters. In other words, if a Christian with a lot on her mind somehow has a slip of the tongue (as a genuine accident; admittedly unlikely, but for the sake of argument) and says Mohammed instead of Jesus in a prayer, but she meant to say Jesus, does it make a difference?

Finally, I can imagine an explanation of how you know prayer is recognized as such by framing with the appropriate rituals. That is, it's only a prayer if you put your hands together, or do it in a church, or cross yourself, or at least silently address God in your mind. This raises the seemingly smartass but again, sincere question for me as a nonbeliever. Let's say without thinking about it I put my hands together (or do some other part of the ritual that presses SEND on the prayer broadcast) while talking to someone in a business meeting. Would God suddenly hear among his followers' many prayers "at the data from Q306, the Argenomix NDMA antagonist had a horrible safety profi", like when you inadvertently call someone from your car by sitting on your cell phone, and without your realizing it your friend Jenny is treated to you singing along to Megadeth. (Not that this ever happened to me.)

If you're a professing Christian, then there are other questions inherent here. Specifically, what relationship do people within those other religions, who are sincere about those religions and may even explicitly reject Christianity, have with God? The possibilities are: their other gods actually exist (unlikely for a Christian to believe, but I don't know so that's why I want to ask). Or, as has been suggested in earnest, these people are atheists, whether or not they know it. Or, also suggested in earnest, these people are actually Satanists, whether or not they know it. Finally, an interpretation appearing in the Christian world only in the last three centuries is that in fact they do have a relationship with God, although an imperfect one muddled by their attributing inaccurate characteristics to Him through their incorrect religion. For those who believe atheism is a religion - could we fall into this category?

Christian readers, please chime in - I'm genuinely curious what you think. Atheist readers, feel free to ask these to your Christian acquaintances and comment back here.

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