The Nine Billionth Name of God
MSNBC reports that a Dutch Catholic Bishop "has proposed people of all faiths refer to God as Allah to foster understanding". Wizbang comments "it's been accepted that Christianity died in Europe a while ago, but if it still exists even in a small part, that will be wiped out soon enough with this attitude."
The Bishop claims it doesn't matter. "Bishop Tiny Muskens, from the southern diocese of Breda, told Dutch television on Monday that God did not mind what he was named and that in Indonesia, where Muskens spent eight years, priests used the word "Allah" while celebrating Mass. Allah is a very beautiful word for God. Shouldn't we all say that from now on we will name God Allah? ... What does God care what we call him? It is our problem."
Of course the Bishop is no longer in Indonesia but in the heart of Western Europe; and granting the name used to represent God is arbitrary then there's no logical reason the choice cannot go the other way -- that mosques in Europe shouldn't use the European word for God instead of the Arabic Allah. After all, "what does God care what we call him?" God may not care, but certain human communities might. And I think the Bishop took one glance at his pacific flock and then at the visages of those preferred a particular, but different name that God should be called and decided that it was better to face down his flock.
Once upon a time people believed that proper notation did matter even when it came to words. Words were not only arbitrary audible waveforms, they were objects modified by the cultural context from which they were minted. "To coin a word to refer to a thing ... But that word can transmit that meaning only within the language's grammatical structures and codes ... Codes also represent the values of the culture, and are able to add new shades of connotation to every aspect of life." Thus God and Allah might be an identity in the abstract, but written as they are in different languages, the human mind will compile each differently, depending on the language.
Arthur C. Clarke's Nine Billion Names of God makes the more extreme argument that the literal name of a thing actually does matter. His short story (full-text here) describes the efforts of Tibetan Monks to find the One True Literal Name of God in order to bring the universe to perfection and hence, to its end. Here's the Wikipedia summary.
This short story tells of a Buddhist monastery whose monks have long sought to discover the one true name of God. The monks create a writing system in which, they calculate, they can encode all possible names of God in no more than nine characters, with the same character not repeated more than three times consecutively.
They purchase a computer capable of printing all the possible permutations, and they hire two Westerners to install and program the machine. The computer operators are skeptical, but the monks believe that when the computer has printed all the names, existence will lose all meaning, and God will "wind up" the universe.
The operators engage the computer. After three months, as the job nears completion, they fear the reaction of the monks when existence will fail to end. The men decide to flee the monastery some hours before the computer finishes its task. After their successful escape, they pause on their way back to civilization at about the same time the computer prints the final name. And then, "overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."
And that in a way, perfectly describes what has transpired in the post-everything world of Europe. The names of God did not matter to the jaded intellectuals until the last. Allah is the nine billionth name of God. And now the stars, without the slightest fuss, are going out.