Novelist Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 short story called "The Nine Billion Names of God" describes a Tibetan monastery where the monks are convinced that when they finally collect and transcribe all 9 billion of God's names, the world would come to an end.
I remembered this story while following reports of recent religious strife taking place in Malaysia over one of God's names: Allah. Some Catholic groups in Malaysia are using the name Allah in their literature and sometimes in their Malay-language worship services, infuriating the Muslims. The government had banned the Christians from using the name Allah, but the Malaysian Supreme Court overturned the ban on New Year's Eve. Now churches have been firebombed, and tensions are very high.
One struggles to know what to write about this. Some will automatically conclude that no Christian should ever use the word Allah as any form of respect. They would ask why these Christians would use the word Allah when the Old and New Testament already supplies so many rich names for God.
But it is not that simple. Most of us have never lived as a religious minority and do not understand the pressures, subtle and otherwise, that might make a person of a minority faith incorporate some of the practices and terminology of the dominant religious faith. The church in Malaysia has argued that Allah is the only suitable word for God in the Malay language.
One also can't help but wonder why the Muslims would be so fanatical about this. Isn't God by any name large enough to share? Apparently some Muslims are concerned that their followers will be confused if a competing faith uses the same word for God.
Of course, firebombing a church is wrong. But as we seek to understand what could possibly motivate these hyper-sensitive Islamists, remember how important names can be. Consider what might happen if somebody began a new professional football team in south Georgia and called them the Packers, Falcons or Steelers. People would be outraged that somebody was using a highly revered name. The issue would end up in court.
David James Duncan, in his book, "God Laughs & Plays," puts the issue like this:
"It is necessary to define words. It is also at times necessary to undefine them. Out of all the words I have heard in my time, 'God' is in my view the one most grievously abused by humans; the one most deserving of an unsaying." (p 17)
One wonders what God thinks about this. Is it possible that some angel is telling God, "I told you billions of years ago that you needed to seek a highly skilled intellectual properties lawyer. I also clearly remember suggesting to you that you copyright the name God and Allah and Yahweh and "I AM" and all the other 9 billion names people use for you. But you decided to trust the humans instead."
Contact columnist minister Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.