Truth and Meaning: Names of God

My door bell rang unexpectedly. I found three young women standing there. As they introduced themselves, I saw their name badges and recognized them as Mormons on their mission. I explained that I was a Unitarian Universalist minister, assuming that they would wish me a nice day and move on to the next house. But they showed interest and we began to talk.

After a few minutes, I invited them in. We had a delightful conversation for an hour or so. We respected and listened to each other. We discussed the Bible and the history of the Abrahamic faiths. We talked about the commonalities shared by most of the world’s religions. Then, one of them expressed her opinion about people uniting in religious belief. She spoke of the “one true god” (by which she of course meant the god of her religion) as the way for all people to come together in salvation. When she finished, I told her that I could agree with most of what she had just said, except for that phrase.

I explained that as long as people cling to the notion that their god is the one (and only) true god, or that their faith is the one true faith, then humanity is doomed to perpetual war and violence. Soon afterwards, they were on their way. I think I had done much to personalize my religious tradition for them, just as they worked to dispel some of the unfair stereotypes assigned to their faith.

Whatever your beliefs – even if you don’t believe in god at all – there are forces currently beyond our understanding. And while we continue to make great strides grasping the birth of the universe and the nature of the cosmos, I do not believe that we will ever completely know everything about everything. That is not a justification for the existence of god – it is merely acceptance that there are things that exist beyond human comprehension. Homo sapiens is not perfect and never will be. So, one can reasonably presume that our species will never have a perfect understanding of all existence.

If you grant that argument, then what do you call the mystery, the unknowable, the incomprehensible? Some people do not feel the need to call it “god,” or to name it in any way. But many people do find comfort in naming the wonder of the universe. In particular, people take solace thinking that behind the unknown lies a force of inherent goodness or order.

For Hindus, there are millions of manifestations of the Oversoul, and adherents are free to worship through whichever god most helps them make that connection. For Muslims, their one god goes by 99 different names, from the Compassionate and Merciful to the Giver of Life and Bringer of Death. Trinitarian Christians believe that god can only be understood as three persons that are distinct, yet one essence.

Over the centuries, far too many people have died because they did not share the same opinion regarding the nature of god or the manner in which we should hold god in regard. Hasn’t humankind reached a point where we can live together with people who do not share our particular belief about the wonder and mystery of the universe? Can we make peace with the notion that we have many names of god and that our differing practices do not justify prejudice and hate, violence and murder? Can we latch onto the common denominators of all religions to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person?