Thursday, October 24, 2013

Who is “God”?

What is a word? Many years ago I created a guideline that has helped many students of the Bible navigate their way through the maze of interpretations and translations facing them every time they open their Bibles. I call it “The Law of Language.”

A word is a symbol or group of symbols with an attached bundle of associations. Those associations are a product of the author’s culture, historical time period, geographical location and personal experiences.

The two things we must understand are:

(1) The symbols are the letters of the word.
(2) The “bundle of associations” is the meaning that we have for the symbols.

Let me use this example to help make my point. A group of people, who all speak different languages, are assembled in a classroom and asked to write the word they use for this animal.

These are the words they wrote (courtesy of Google translator).

(1) perro (Spanish)
(2) σκύλος (Greek)
(3) chien (French)
(4) cane (Italian)
(5) mbwa (Swahili)

None of them wrote the symbols “dog,” but they all had the same “bundle of associations” attached to their symbols.

Now consider what would happen if they all wrote the same symbols, but had different “bundles of associations” for those symbols. They would all be writing identical words but thinking different thoughts.

This will help you understand what I meant when I asked the original question – Who is God?  What I want to know is:

What “bundles of associations” are attached to the symbols “G+O+D”?

“God” is a theologically loaded word because of the conflicting “bundles of associations” people have attached to it – for example Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

(1) For most Christians, their “bundle of associations” is “Jesus is God.”
(2) The “bundles of associations” of most Jews and Muslims does not include “Jesus.”
(3) For most Jews, their “bundle of associations” is “YAHWEH.”
(4) For Muslims, their "bundle of associations" do not include "YAHWEH."
(5) The “bundle of association” for Muslims is “Allah.”
(6) The “bundles of association” for most Christians and Jews do not include “Allah.”

However, in spite of the above facts, the American media uses the word “god” as if it is a reference to all of the options above. Some groups find this unacceptable in their countries. A recent case in Malaysia makes it clear that Muslims are aware of the above facts and believe that the way the word “God” is used in the media may have significant consequences:

Allah can no longer be used by a Christian newspaper in Malaysia to refer to God after a landmark court ruling on Monday, reversing a decision made four years previously that maintained the term transcended different faiths.

“It is my judgment that the most possible and probable threat to Islam, in the context of this country, is the propagation of other religions to the followers of Islam,” said chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali, announcing the change.

The panel of three judges was unanimous in their decision that the use of Allah by the Roman Catholic Herald newspaper constituted a threat to the sanctity of Islam, as defined in the federal constitution.[i]

If media would report the “bundles of association” instead of the generic symbols “God,” it would transform the way their stories are understood. It would also place the actions of those who hold those “bundles of association” in the spotlight for what they do – good or bad. Sorry, I didn’t mean to get off track.

In the series of Bible studies that will follow, it is important for you to be aware of the way we understand the answer to the question – Who is God? The correct answer, for the purpose of our studies, is this – it is the author’s “bundle of associations.” When we read the verse below, our goal is to discover what “God” meant to the original author.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.[ii]

When we discover what “God” meant to the author, we can then compare our “bundles of associations” to his.

(1) If they are the same, then we have achieved a successful communication experience.  

(2) If they are different, then we must consciously make sure to use his “bundle of associations” to interpret his words.

(3) If they are different, we should find out where our “bundle of associations” originated and why.

One of the major challenges for translators is to avoid ethnocentrism, a term applied to the cultural or ethnic bias—whether conscious or unconscious—in which an individual views the world from the perspective of his or her own group, establishing the in-group as archetypal and rating all other groups with reference to this ideal.[iii] This form of tunnel vision often results in:

(1) an inability to adequately understand cultures that are different from one’s own

(2) value judgments that preference the in-group and assert its inherent superiority

Now we are ready to study our Bibles and find out what it says about who we are. I think we all know that life is getting more complicated, but if we use the linguistic principles that teach us how words work, the “Bible” part of our life will quickly become much less complicated.

I believe that we are all looking for ways to live a meaningful life, and for a lot of us, the Bible plays an important role. When we apply the principles above to our studies and meditations of the words of our Bibles, a very distinct path begins to emerge. It is a path that places the control of our spiritual destinies in our hands – not in the control powerful competing religious institutions.

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Shalom & Be Empowered!

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