Around the Internet you often see people spell God as G-d. I believe this is done as sign of respect based upon the Jewish practice of refusing to speak the name of God.
As most are aware, in the Hebrew Bible God gives his name in Exodus 3.13-14a:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”The name given in verse 14 is יהוה in the Hebrew and is rendered in English as YHWH. YHWH is sometimes called the Sacred Tetragrammaton (a tetragrammaton being a word with four letters).
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM."
In the Hebrew Bible YHWH is the proper name of God. And as a sign of respect for the name observant Jews will refrain from pronouncing it aloud though, from what I understand, they may write the name.
Which brings me to G-d.
The word God is generally used to translate the Hebrew words El and Elohim. Elohim is not the proper name of God. In its plural form Elohim is translated as "gods" and, thus, is used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to both YHWH and to Canaanite deities.
This raises two questions I have about G-d. First, Elohim isn't the proper name of God as is YHWH. So why not spell God in full? Why G-d? Second, as I understand it, the show of reverence for YHWH is not speaking the name aloud. Writing it is permitted. So why say God aloud but not spell God? Seems backward.
But these are quibbles. If someone wants to show respect to God by spelling G-d then kudos to them.
For this post I'd like to push on and talk a bit about another way of spelling God, the difference between God and god.
The general convention is to spell God with a capital G. This signals that we are talking about the God of the Universe. God, capital G, has monotheistic overtones--we are talking about the one, true and only God. Conversely, little g is used--god--to refer to false deities or polytheistic deities. When you spell God as god you are showing that you don't think the god you are writing about is real. This is why Christopher Hitchens chose to use a lower-case g for his book title "god is Not Great." Hitchens was signalling that he didn't think God was God.
Now, in many of my recent posts I've been resorting to the spelling god. I do this, for example, when I'm talking about idolatrous conceptions of God. In my last post interacting Peter Rollin's book Insurrection I talk about his argument that for many Christians god is a deus ex machina. And in that post I extensively used god to indicate that this view of God--god as deus ex machina--isn't really God. I'm using the spelling to make a visual discrimination between true views of God and false views of God. God versus god.
But here's what I'm wondering. Who has a true view of God? No doubt I think my views of God are more truthful than those expressing deus ex machina views of God, but what does "more truthful" mean here? Aren't my views just as false, idolatrous and self-serving?
Here we run up against the difference between positive and negative theology, cataphatic and apophatic theology. Positive theology speaks to what can be properly said about God. This is what we tend to think of when we think about theology. It's the theology of church, this blog, and the seminary. It's a theology of words.
Negative theology is the theology of the mystics, the theology about that which cannot be said of God. It takes its cue from statements such as this from St. Augustine: "If you understand it, it's not God." It's the theology of the ineffible and inexpressible. A theology of silence and the failure of words.
One of the contentions of negative theology is that in a very important sense every spoken claim about God is a lie, a falsehood. To illustrate this, consider the following statements:
God is a father.These are examples of positive theology, linguistic attempts to say something truthful about God. But are they true? Well, sort of. There is truth in each statement, but in important ways each sentence is also false.
God is love.
It's easiest to see this with the first sentence. Is God a father? Well, yes, in a certain sense. Given our understandings of "fatherhood" God is like some of those things. But we also know that this is just a metaphor, that God isn't really a male. For example, we find ample maternal images of God in the Bible as well. So we know God is genderless. God is a father. But God is also a mother. And at the end of the day God isn't really either.
So let's make it more difficult. Is God love? Yes. But then again human love is a dim window on divine love. There are aspects of God's love that we don't understand. Paul speaks to this in his ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13: "Now we see in a glass darkly but then we will see face to face."
Now let's get really abstract. Does God exist? Yes. But then again not the way we understand existence. In our minds things that exist are objects. If unicorns exist this means that we can locate an object in the world somewhere that fits the description of a unicorn. But if we can't find this object then the unicorn doesn't exist.
Okay, if God exists is God an object? Here's a way to get at that question: Are there two things in the cosmos, God and the universe?
Does God + Universe = 2?
No. God isn't an object that can be counted alongside other objects. So in a key sense God doesn't exist. Not in the way we understand existence.
In short, you can't say anything about God--God is father, God is love, God exists--without speaking a falsehood. God foils all attempts at verbal description.
Which is why many consider silence to be more truthful about God. That negative theology is superior to positive theology.
I tend to agree. Which brings me back to god.
According to negative theology every time I speak of God I am really speaking of god. The word God is more false than true. And if that's the case should I not signal that I'm telling a lie? For example, I'm more than willing to use god to describe the deities of others but what makes me think I can use God to describe my understanding? Isn't spelling God in reference to my own deity the utmost in hubris?
What I'm basically saying is this, shouldn't every spelling of God be god? Not to say you aren't trying to point to the one true God, but spelling god is a sign--to yourself and others---that anything you say about God is inherently limited, fallible, contaminated, self-interested and idolatrous.
Shouldn't we all opt for god over God and G-d?