When Herman Cain, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, announced the suspension of his campaign on December 3rd, his statement included the declarations, “I am at peace with my God. I am at peace with my wife.” He suspended his campaign soon after allegations were made that he had had a long-term extramarital affair. The subtext for the first sentence, then, is something like, “My God has forgiven me” or “My God knows me and understands me” or “My God will not judge me” or “My God will not condemn me.”
Similar declarations are made, often by politicians, in the context of a funeral eulogy in which the deceased is said to be at peace with “his God.” See the results when you google “ted kennedy” and “his god.”
A speaker may employ the possessive adjective “my” or “his” to modify the noun God to reflect the close relationship between a person and God. But I see three dangers in the use of this terminology:
(1) One danger is that the terminology suggests that the God of the deceased is somehow possessed by the deceased, indeed possessed to the exclusion of others. The juxtaposition of the two Cain sentences illustrates this danger dramatically. It is one thing for a man to refer to a woman as “my wife,” but very different for a man to refer to God as “my God.”
(2) Another danger is that the terminology is politically correct. The speaker using this terminology wants listeners to understand that he is not making any declaration about his own belief in God. Moreover, the speaker is not suggesting that the deceased’s God is necessarily the speaker’s or listeners’ God.
(3) The third danger is that the terminology suggests that the God of the deceased, while “his God,” may not be God as customarily understood.
I can illustrate these last two dangers with Google. A search on Google does not recognize the difference between a capitalized God and an uncapitalized god. So too, a speaker and a listener do not speak or hear capitalized language. Listen anew to Herman Cain’s declaration when we ignore capitalization: “I am at peace with my god.”
And listen to the eulogy: “The deceased is at peace with his god.” The three Abrahamic religions (named after Abraham of the Bible’s Book of Genesis), Judaism, Christianity and Islam, know the difference between god and God.
The Abrahamic religions confess their faith in a being they call God. (In Islam, Allah means “the sole deity.”
I will italicize God when referring to the one and only God.) The word God is capitalized because it is a proper noun, a personal name, for a divine being. In the Book of Exodus, Moses asks the divine being associated with the burning bush whom shall he tell Pharaoh directed him to demand the liberation of the Hebrew people. The diving being identifies Himself in two ways. One is relational and historical; He tells Moses He is “the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6) The second is by the type of being He is; He tells Moses “I AM WHO AM” (in Hebrew: Yahweh or YHWH) (Ex. 3:14).
He never gives Moses, or Pharaoh, a name other than that. It is a singular sort of name. It refers to God’s essence. The gods of ancient Rome, and Greece, and Egypt, and Palestine (Amorites, Hittites, Philistines, etc.) all had names, names like men and women, names like created things, like Jupiter, Mars, Zeus, Isis, Dagon, Tilla. (Famously, on his visit to Athens, the Christian Apostle Paul sees the statue of a god without a name, designated as “the unknown god.” (Acts 17:23) The title “the unknown god” may have been a “placeholder” for the many gods whom the Greeks did not know by name.)
There were indeed dozens, hundreds, in the pantheons of deities of these peoples. But the God of Judaism was unique. He told the Hebrews that He is the one and only god: “I am the Lord and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:5-6) “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deut. 6:4) And He will not tolerate any other god in their lives. The First Commandment of this divine being was that the Israelites neither recognize nor serve any other gods. (Deuteronomy 5:7)
Returning to the “my God” phrase used by Herman Cain: A proper occasion for speaking of “my God” is when one is addressing God, typically in a spirit of penitence:
• After a Catholic has made a good confession of sins, he or she makes “An Act of Contrition” which begins “O my God, I am heartily sorry. . .” In this context, the prayer is addressed to God, in sorrow, and is utterly private. The penitent is not declaring anything to the world much less that the divine being is somehow “his.”
• The spiritual autobiography of St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), The Confessions, in which he attempts to open the history of his soul is addressed throughout to “my God.”
• There is an occasion when Jesus said “My God.” While on the cross, just before expiring, He cried out – and the precise Aramaic words have come down through the centuries – “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” The words repeat those of the Hebrew language in Psalm (22:2): “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34) Muslims and Jews will not agree, but from the Christian point of view, Jesus is one Person (of two, the other being the Holy Spirit) who can rightfully refer to God as “My God.”
Thus, for a Christian, Jew or Muslim to speak to another person of “my God” or “his God” is wholly contrary to their beliefs and to the commands of God. There is only one divine being and He is called God.
Often we can better understand one set of things if we look at the alternatives. We may better appreciate the Abrahamic understanding of the nature of God by highlighting the differences between it and another religion. Let’s contrast it with the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (“LDS”), commonly called the Mormon Church. The Abrahamic religions believe in God who is non-physical (all-spirit), non-corporeal, and eternal – infinitely everlasting in, shall we say, both directions of past and future. I hasten to add that it is odd to mix the concept of time with the concept of eternity.
According to the LDS, however, every world has a set of god-parents, male and female, with bodies. The god of Earth likewise consists of two beings, two parents. The god-parents of Earth were, at one time, created/made/generated by another set of god-parents. We proceed backwards from the god-parents of Earth, to their parents, to their parents, infinitely. (And when the saints of Earth go to heaven, they become god-parents of other worlds.) There is no god who was not created by another. Thus, all gods have a beginning. There is no Supreme Being and there is no moment when the first matter came into being. Matter is eternal. There is no creation ex nihilo (from nothing).
Is Mormonism Christian? Mormons call themselves Christian. There are a great many denominations that call themselves Christian. They are Christian in the very large sense that they hold some positive beliefs about Jesus Christ. According to David B. Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia (2d ed. 2001), there are 33,820 Christian denominations. (The number is inflated to the degree that Barrett counts the same denomination in, let’s say, 15 countries as 15 denominations.)
We might distinguish between those Christians who adhere to the outcomes of early church councils such as that held in Nicaea, in current day Turkey, in 325 A.D., and those who do not. During these councils, there were great contests between Christians on the issue of the nature of God, what kind of being Jesus Christ was, whether Jesus truly suffered, whether Jesus truly died, and how Jesus is related to God.
The council of Nicaea produced a creed called the Nicene Creed. It states that God is “the Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” It also included language – language that has been in recent news because it has been re-translated into English for use in Catholic worship services (the Mass) – that Christ is homoousios (a Greek word for “consubstantial”) with the Father. According to this definition of “Christian,” Mormons are not.
And now to Christmas. What and who was the boy named Jesus born on that day? Mormons say he was born of the Father. They leave open the possibility that the god-father of Earth had physical relations with Mary to impregnate her. Christians who adhere to the Nicene Creed reject this.
Nicene Christians assert that, in the words of the opening chapter of the Gospel of St. John, Christ “in the beginning was with God” and “All things came to be through Him, and, without Him, nothing came to be.” (John 1:1-3) Nicene Christians assert that Christ was “begotten, not made,” that He became enfleshed in Mary’s womb. Nicene Christians do not know the mechanics of how Mary conceived Jesus. They only know that no mortal man was His father and, further, that God, Who is all-spirit, was.
Nicene Christians are the beneficiaries of a tremendous tumult – of tears, of accusations, of prayers, of riots in the streets by laity as well as clerics, of disputations, and of exhortations. Over decades. Throughout the Roman/Byzantine/north African world. When the Council of Nicaea declared that Jesus Christ is God, it was, and remains, as mind-boggling, as revolutionary, to adherents of an Abrahamic religion, as the Abrahamic belief in one, supreme god, was in the ancient world! What Jews and Muslims adamantly reject, Nicene Christians proclaim – as Christmas.
Jesus called God His “Father.” And Jesus is “the Son of God.” What fatherhood and sonship means in their divine relationship is impossible for us to understand and it is difficult to employ human language to elaborate. If it were easy, there would not have been great contests requiring church councils and the declarations of winners and losers.
Indeed, adherents to the Abrahamic religions know that God is unknowable. We can consider the experience of three men who thought and talked a lot about God:
• St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 A.D.) developed his “proof” for the existence of God: “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”
• St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.), the great Christian theologian, who is designated by Catholics as a “Doctor [that is, Teacher] of the Church” had a spiritual experience toward the end of his life. He was celebrating Mass on December 6, 1273, the Feast of St. Nicholas, when he had an exchange of words with Christ. After this, he said all of the many tomes he had written were “like straw to me.” He changed his routine and stopped writing.
• St. Augustine, another Doctor, wrote his Confessions in his late 40s, about 13 years after his conversion to Christianity and while he was serving as bishop of Hippo, a provincial town in North Africa In the opening paragraphs, he spent a few sentences meditating on the attributes of God. He ended the meditation with “What can any man say when he speaks of You? . . since even those who say the most [about You] are speechless.” (Bk I.4)
On this subject, the following two books by Rev. David B. Burrell, may be helpful: Exercises in Religious Understanding (1974) and Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (1986).
Let’s summarize. If a person belongs to one of the Abrahamic religions, he or she can address God humbly as “my God.” But if he or she knows that a deceased is also a member of one of the Abrahamic religions, God cannot be referred to as “his god.” God is not a Roman house god that belongs to an individual or family. There is but one God, one God for the entire human race. Only God is god. The birth Nicene Christians celebrate on Christmas Day does not derogate from this belief, but only adds to the mystery of who God is.
Spero Columnist James M. Thunder practices law in the Washington DC metro area and is a former prosecutor.