Dear Donagh,

We used to hear a lot about false Gods, but not a word now for ages.  Have they all gone away, or is it that they all get a free pass now?  Are people afraid to talk about false Gods now because they want to be pc?  Are you a bit pc yourself?  Fergal

Dear Fergal,

Not pc, I think - just polite!  I'm reminded of the man on his deathbed who refused to renounce Satan when the priest invited him to do so.  “Politeness costs nothing,” he said, “and this is no time to be making enemies.” 

The question of false gods doesn’t go away, because the question of where we direct our lives doesn’t go away.  There are more wrong directions than right. 

To change the metaphor: an unskilled forger of notes is no problem; the troublesome fellow is the one who is able to produce something very like the real thing, which of course is not the real thing.  Some gods are so false that no one could really take them to be God; when St Paul told the Philippians that there were some whose god was their belly, neither he nor they imagined that those bellies were being worshipped.  Likewise the “calf of molten metal” would not have fooled those Israelites if they had not been desperate.  But the falsest gods of all are bound to look and sound very like the God we worship. 

The ancient Jews considered the name of YHWH too sacred to be pronounced.  Vowels are not written in Hebrew, so in time no one remembered how the name of God should be pronounced if it were to be pronounced.  Modern scholars surmise that it was pronounced Yahweh, but no one can be certain of it.  Likewise YHWH could not be represented in images of any kind, nor likened to anything in the visible world.

What meaning can we find in this today?  Perhaps, among other things, this: the refusal to liken God to anything in the visible world can also be seen as a refusal to identify God with any status quo, whether in one’s personal life or in the life of a people.  God is the one who “goes before us” (see Deut 1:30) and leads us into the future.  In Hebrew there are no past, present and future tenses as we know them in European languages, and so the name “I am who am” in Exodus 3 is equally well translated “I will be who I will be.”  God does not follow us, or adhere to our agenda, or confirm our status quo: the God we worship is the one who goes before us. 

We are quite capable, we know, of creating a false god out of our needs, our fears, our desire to punish.... Such a god will surely follow us, and agree with everything we think and say, and be perfectly obedient to us at all times.  We will be able to use that god as a way of crushing other people, or silencing them, or making them feel that they are outsiders.  False gods are always very busy doing our work, because they are our creatures and we are their creators.

The word ‘God’ is a ‘good’ word, and so it provides perfect cover (like the word ‘love’) for all kinds of shameful attitudes that need a good place to hide and a respectable name for their banner.  We can never forget “Gott mit uns,” but we have to bring everything to our own door: I have to see if I am only using the name of  God to give a kind of ultimate patent to my own preferences.  If I have a conservative cast of mind, my god becomes a conservative, and we offer praise and thanks to each other for everything that is stopped.  If I am a liberal, we give our joint blessing to everything that moves.  But the Scriptures tell me I am not to judge myself (nor anyone else) against any foreground features that are stopped or moving, because only God is my judge, and everything in my life is shown up against that ultimate background.  God is my judge.  God takes no responsibility for anything that I do, nor can I for anything that God does. 

Is this a totally hands-off God?  Not hands-off, but transcendental: the God who cannot be manipulated and used by anyone, the God who can only be invoked in prayer, not in anger, not in self-righteousness, not in command.  The God who made heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in it.  And the God of grace.  Grace... which feels just like chance, which cannot be organised because it is for no reason; grace which is gift and no part of commerce.  Only the transcendental God can prevent me from turning my life into a business, a shop, paying in and paying out and balancing the two.  It is beautiful that God is my judge.  If God were not my judge I would be at the mercy of the smallest-minded and most partial of all judges: my dear self. 

“No one has ever seen God,” Jesus said (John 1:18), but false gods are easy to spot.  They are very like ourselves - or rather, like some part of ourselves: our fear, our hatred, our ignorance.  A false god is too small and couldn’t engage us fully.  Practically all of the objections to God that you hear are about a limited or false god.  We have to read the mystics to find out about the transcendental God. 

See Martin Buber’s famous passage on the word ‘God’ in ‘Wisdom Line’ last October; it is relevant to your question.  Take care, Fergal. 


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