Having been raised Roman Catholic, I was taught that God was the almighty, creator of heaven and earth. Jehovah’s Witnesses consider the use of the name Jehovah vital for proper worship. In Islam, Allah is the supreme and all-comprehensive divine name.
Confucianism, Chn and Zen Buddhism and more broadly throughout East Asian philosophy and religion in general, Tao signifies the primordial essence or fundamental nature of the universe.
In the foundational text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, Laozi explains that Tao is not a “name” for a “thing” but the underlying natural order of the universe whose ultimate essence is difficult to circumscribe. Haitian Vodouists believe in a distant and unknowable creator god, Bondye. Baha’is believe the greatest of all the names is “All-Glorious” or Bah in Arabic.
Just from my own study and a few swift moments of cursory research, I have discovered six different and distinct words various religious groups use to describe a similar, if not identical, phenomenon. How many more names are there? I don’t know. How many more different religious groupings are there worldwide?
The point I want to make is that just as hundreds of languages have sprung up all around the world since the beginning of human beings, there are probably just as many names for the mystery which eludes us all.
Can any one religion claim the name they use is the “one and only true name”?
No more than they can say their turn of phrase for greeting someone is the only correct way to do so.
So what’s the big deal? The big deal isn’t in the name; the big deal is in whose interpretation of the unexplainable mystery is right, according to whomever is making the claim. Because along with the name comes the freight. Think of the name as the engine on a train and the interpretation of what it means as the rest of the cars. Some interpretations have a lot more cars in their train than others. Whoa! Imagine having to wait at the railroad crossing for some of those trains to go by.
So now that I, as an adult, have given up my childish ways and grown into Unitarian Universalism as a full-fledged agnostic (a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality is unknown and probably unknowable), I have found my own words and concepts, not one of which refers to a deity.
I do, however, submit to the mystery of which I am a part and which encompasses me completely. I like what the Lakota Sioux refer to as Wakan Tanka, the term for “the sacred” or “the divine.” This is usually translated as “the great spirit.” However, its meaning is closer to “great mystery” as Lakota spirituality is not monotheistic. Neither is mine.
Who now will be the first to vilify me? Surely there are those who still clutch a little too tight to the reins to let me have my way without a least a roll of the eyes or a wag of the finger. Why? What could I have possibly done to harm them? I have not and do not vilify their choice. Isn’t one of the tenets of any religion: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”?
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is a commonly quoted part of a dialogue in William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet,” in which Juliet argues that the names of things do not matter, only what things are.Terry Zander is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Olympia. Perspective is coordinated by Interfaith Works in cooperation with The Olympian. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Interfaith Works or The Olympian.