You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
What’s in a Name?
I was watching an episode of Masterchef Australia where a woman was talking about why she decided to join the competition. She said that she had been trying to have a baby with her husband for many years and when that did not work out, she thought that the “Universe” was trying to tell her to move on (or words to that effect) and so she decided to join the competition.
Obviously she does not quite literally mean that the “universe”, as a collection or system of particles, is really trying to tell her something. She quite obviously means “God”, yet she did not feel comfortable using the word “God” and had to resort to this virtually meaningless and obviously wrong term “Universe”.
Thus, it seems important to us to spell out in more precise terms how she is using the term “Universe” before we proceed.
Between a Swear Word and a Pious Invocation
Firstly, it is quite clear that she is not using the word “Universe” as a swear word like “By Jove!” or “Oh my God!” or “Good Lord!”, etc. She does mean something by the word “Universe” and it is not a mere emotional or reactive reflex. However, it is also not a term used in a intentionally religious or spiritually/theologically laden sense in a “Thus saith the Lord” manner. She is obviously not claiming some insight into divine revelation or any divine voices whispering into her ears.
Well, what does she mean? How is she using the word “Universe”, which function was once performed by the term “God”?
I would argue that she is simply using the term in the non-religious providential sense to refer to the circumstances of her life which exist upon the boundary of her agency and control. She is simply speaking and postulating a common sensical inference that given the circumstances of her life and the limits and barriers which her endeavors have been met with, i.e. the failure to get pregnant, therefore the “forces beyond” her human agency indicates that it maybe prudent for her to seek some other goal or purpose in life than that of childbearing.
The God of Nature
There was of course a time when many people would have been completely comfortable using the term “God” to speak of such a convergence of events and circumstances. I have seen this non-religious “providential sense” at work before many times. When I was in JC, I remember a classmate of mine, who was not particularly religious or spiritual or whatever, telling me about how she thought or felt that God was guiding leading her to choose Tampines Junior College as her school of choice on the basis of a certain convergence of events.
She was clearly not using the word “God” here in the specially religious sense, as some kind of spiritual insight or esoteric spiritual experience. Nor was she using it in any burdened theological sense. She is using it in the completely “natural” way, the way that most people throughout history and in most cultures have been using it: the sense in which human lives, actions and agencies are finite and limited, and many a times our choices and decisions are guided by empirical events or external circumstances in our lives beyond our control. The configuration of such empirical or “natural” events in our life is simply due to “God”. Thus the term “God” is, rightly in my opinion, used to refer such natural and empirical occasions in our lives anterior to, and sometimes as a guide for, our human agency.
The God of the Supernatural
However, the discomfort which we currently feel at using the word “God” to speak in this non-religious but providential sense has a lot to do with how we have “supernaturalised” or “hyper-spiritualised” the word “God”. The word “God” has become a term we use in a hyper-spiritual sense to denote a specially religious conviction or theological certainty into the secret teleological counsels of God, especially with regards his supernatural purposes or ultimate ends. Thus, the word “God” has been invested with very personal significance and burdens, to refer strictly to final or ultimate realities or some special personal relationship with God leading to spiritual insight into God’s secret counsels and purposes to the events in our lives. Thus we feel uncomfortable using the word “God” to talk about ordinary or natural events because we feel that such things are cannot bear the weight of God’s notice, and we must only speak of God in relation to ultimate ends or theologically heavy or hyper-spiritualised contexts.
While of course we do affirm that the empirical penultimate order (the penultimate refers to the things before the “ultimate” or final ends or purposes) is subject to God’s eternal predestination and will revealed in Christ who is the true End of History and the focus of reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth, we however cannot let the ultimate overcome the penultimate. We still need the “non-religious” or “providential” sense of the term “God” to refer to his ordination of penultimate realities and contingent empirical circumstances and events not directly linked to ultimate destinies or final realities nor possessed of such absolute spiritual weight or theological significance.
Letting the Ordinary be Ordinary
While the contemporary Reformed attempts at “sanctifying” the ordinary via their “drink orange juice to the glory of God theology” is commendable, however it has resulted in a hyperspiritualisation of the ordinary by attempting to directly relate it to ultimate spiritual ends and things. Such attempts feels phony, artificial, a mere religious posturing and affectation. Much wiser is the approach of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who refuses to hyperspiritualise the ordinary. Observe how here he speaks of marriage:
… to put it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases God to allow us some overwhelming earthly happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself and allow our happiness to be corrupted by presumption and arrogance, and by unbridled religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God gives. God will see to it that the one who finds him in earthly happiness and thanks him for it does not lack reminder that earthly things are transient, and that it is good to attune one’s heart to what is eternal, and that sooner or later there will be times when one can say in all sincerity, “I wish I were home.” But everything has its time, and the main thing is that we keep step with God, and do not keep pressing on a few steps ahead…
–Letters and Papers, 168-169
Thus, Bonhoeffer’s point can be generalised in that it is not necessary to link all things “to the glory of God” or to search out the place of every empirical event in this world in God’s ultimate plan for the next world. It is enough for us to appreciate this worldly empirical events for what they are, events or occasions directly ordained by God to us and for us, without necessarily possessing some ultimate or hyperspiritual sense or meaning.
Conclusion: A Name for the God of the Ordinary
In the third commandment, it is interesting to observe that God censures the use wrongful use of his very specially revealed name, YHWH, which is certainly a name specially given to the Hebrews to invoke in fear and trembling, bearing with it God’s ultimate and supreme presence and authority.
Yet the Hebrews have a separate name to refer to God in more ordinary circumstances which they can use to speak of him without fear of blasphemy or dishonouring the name of God, “Elohim” or simply the Mighty One.
We of course cannot change the connotations of words at will but can only use or accept them as we find it in our society. For better or for worse, the word “God” comes now with hyperspiritualised burdens and to refer to specially revealed teleology or religious connotations. It is a very “personalised” word which has more or less been monopolised by religious contexts.
Therefore like the Hebrews, we need another word to speak of God’s activity in this world, especially with regards to ordinary empirical events, sans the burdened theological or religious connotations. To that end, I think the words ‘Fate’ or ‘Heavens’ is a more “impersonal” use of the term God, sufficiently distant from God’s personable will and purposes, to refer to his ordination of completely ordinary events.
Thus, from the ordinary microevents in our lives like our car breaking down or us receiving a job, to macroevents like the rise and fall of nations and the victory and losses of battles, we may not be certain as to their place in the will of God in Jesus Christ, but we can certainly speak of those in decrees of the Heavens or simply of Fate. Events beyond our agency directly ordained or decreed by God and subject to him, yet not directly related to his reveled will or his intentions or purposes.
By this move, we reconcile without obliterating the proper distinction between the God of the ordinary and the God of the ultimate, and we remind ourselves that our lives are still subjected to the same supreme one and that all things occur by his counsel and decree. This is known to both Christians and pagans. While to Christians who have received the faith of the Gospel, their eyes are lifted up from the ordinary and hidden counsels to God and by faith without sight or understanding, they believe that the ordinary will find their paths and meaning in the ultimate End of History, and that these threads will be woven and the pattern of history revealed at the end.