US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Is it impolite to be on a first name basis with God?

By John Switzer | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

I often teach men and women who return to college later in life to complete a degree. It is not unusual that some of them are older than I am, and I often invite them to use my given name, John. Very few take me up on the offer. When I ask why, they say it just doesn't seem right. "You're the professor," they insist.

Some of these same dynamics may have been at work in the Vatican this summer, when the Congregation for Divine Worship directed that the proper name of God, Yahweh, not be used in any manner during the liturgy.

Not speaking the divine name is an ancient and venerable tradition predicated upon the Jewish belief that familiarity with one's personal name carried an implicit intimacy with the person. Like my adult students who can't quite bring themselves to call me by my baptismal name, this tradition suggests that it's not quite right to use God's name in the same way as one would the name of a peer.

As with other Semitic languages, Hebrew contains no vowel letters but can only be written with consonants. Thus the divine name in a Hebrew text is written YHWH, often referred to as the Tetragrammaton (literally, "four-letter word"). The word Yahweh, at best, is an informed guess as to its pronunciation. Pious Jews do not attempt to pronounce it, however, preferring instead to say Adonai ("Lord") whenever they encounter God's name in scripture.

This practice of putting a respectful distance between God's transcendence and our finiteness even transcends translation. I occasionally receive an e-mail from a Muslim or Jewish acquaintance in which they reference the divine reality as "G-d." The deference that they are attempting to demonstrate is admirable, especially in a world that sometimes seems short on such signs of respect.

Still, the Vatican directive applies only to the public prayer of the church. It does not attempt to prevent Christians from using God's name in their personal prayer. It will mean, however, that certain liturgical songs will have to be rewritten or no longer used.

Speaking only for myself, I confess that I'll miss the chance to join my voice in song with others as we confess the nearness and comforting presence of Yahweh. Use of that name does imply a sense of familiarity, but all familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt. In fact, if the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation isn't about intimacy with the divine, what's the point?

This article appeared in the February 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 2, page 41).