What’s Up with Spelling God “G_d”?

Cornucopia_of_Emptiness-Chati CoronelI’ve received quite a few inquiries about why I spell God “G_d”. It’s not something I thought about a lot. It just came to me one day and I continued the practice. In the beginning, it was just a suspicion about how, unless we’re hyper-conscious, when we name something we make it dead. That is, it becomes an object of our awareness. We have a category for it, so we stop experiencing the thing we’re naming as, for example, a vessel for the Wholeness that is animating all of life. At one level, the overuse of the word “God” objectifies whatever we mean by that word.

Owen Barfield says that an idol is an image on its way to becoming an object. It no longer participates in, or is participated, by Life. But we keep acting as though the idol is alive. We give our attention to the idol, not realizing that we’re just “flapping our gums” about a dead thing (thanks to Meister Eckhardt for that image).

It’s worth saying that naming is not in itself a bad thing. In fact, it’s necessary for the thing to have life.  But again, Barfield, who was a respected linguist, points out that in the modern world, words have lost their connection to the life they represent. Medieval scholars, for example, paid a lot more attention to words. The university curriculum consisted of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic. Often, these appeared allegorically in plays and poetry, as persons. That’s because names still meant something. More than this, they embodied the thing they were referring to. They weren’t “mere” names. They evoked what it was that the named thing participated in—namely the Word. Theologically, just as the Word proceeded from the Father, so words proceeded from memory. “Proceeded from it, yet remained one with it.” The words were the thing itself. They were alive with the thing.

Think of it like this: when you first fell in love, remember how exhilarating it was to say the name of your beloved? The name evoked the essence of your beloved. You loved saying her/his name. It evoked wonderful feelings, primarily the Mystery that is the essence of your beloved. Over time, however, (again, unless we remain conscious), the name deteriorated into a “mere” name. It lost the magic. That’s what happened, says Barfield, in the modern period. Prior to this, words actually evoked the interior presence of the thing named. There was a direct correlation.

I may have mentioned the story of Helen Keller before, who was blind and deaf. At first, she would learn words by simply memorizing them, but she had no understanding. They didn’t mean anything. Then her teacher, Anne Sullivan, used a different technique. One day, she held Helen’s hand under a water pump and while water was running over one hand, she spelled the word “water”, at first slowly and then faster on the other hand. This is how Helen Keller describes the moment that she understood the word “water”.

“As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then WaterPump
rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”

The word actually felt like the thing, water, that was also its name.

Jesus didn’t use “God” as a name for his experience of Ultimate Mystery. He used “Father”, “Abba” in his native tongue Aramaic. Aramaic, like Hebrew, (and indigenous languages) is a more guttural, throaty language. The sound of the words themselves convey the actual experience of thing referred to. The word in truth is the thing. The sound of “Abba” is the heart of the Mystery in which Jesus lived his life.

So, coming full circle, my use of “G_d” may be no more evocative of the Reality I am referring to than “God”. But try saying “God” without a vowel and maybe you get a little closer to the unnameable Mystery I know to be and know is ever-becoming. Maybe it’s a transitional word that is intentionally unpronounceable.

The other reason that I started using G_d is that when we unconsciously use “God”, we can start to believe that God is a thing, like other things, an object like other objects, a super-part, rather than the Whole that is not a part of any larger whole, but presenced by every part.  Maybe that little em dash signifies the emptiness, the space, which is no-thing. G_d is no-thing, but not nothing. Rather G_d is the no-thing out of which all things arise, the fontless Font, the sourceless Source, the Wholeness that can be known, but never named as a thing among other things.

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