WHICH GOD? AN ENQUIRY INTO THE PROBLEM OF MEANING.
The three alphabets G, O and D, often designated “God”, are many times taken for granted as “understood”. God, as a word, is often used in discussions without any attempt at giving a working definition of the implied meaning or of the intended communicated meaning. It is often assumed that the hearer “understands” what the speaker means. Practical experiences1 have shown that when a speaker uses the word God, hearers often only capture their own positions, hence hear their own preconceived attributes and beliefs of the word.
Asking the question “which God?” in many settings has changed the countenance of many respondents physically, intellectually and emotionally. Answers to the question are often always hazy, uncertain and often very vague. The varied responses received included bewildered look of surprise, shock, amused behaviour of “what a naïve question”, spontaneous answer like “God, God of course” and “The Creator”. It is noted that “the creator” was affirmed by almost all respondents at a second or third repeat of the question “which God?” On further asking of the question beyond the third or fourth repeat, some expressed genuinely puzzled concern, often expressed in deep seriousness and emptiness as to what to say! A further repeat of the question, “Which God?” often meets no definable response2.
It is noted that satisfactory answers were never given as to be able to make a succinct distinction of any particular God, be it within religious, or between sects within a particular religion. This discovery makes the question more real and necessary for serious consideration, hence an enquiry in to the problem of what meaning is really conveyed to a hearer wherever the word God is actually used, be it in casually, religiously or in any other circumstance.
Generally the word God is mostly used with some options like god, gods, and not with such alphabet combination like GOD, GODS or Gods. In some conveyed context a different name may pop up – like Allah, but even on intensive probe the already expressed attitude mentioned above results.
But since the question is, “which God?” why is it that any of the alphabet possibilities cannot be a distinctive reality? For example, when two people of opposite faiths were asked to write their own God, both wrote “God”. When the two were asked to write the other person’s designation, they both wrote “god” but when asked if the content on their Gods are the same the answer is emphatic no! So the question is back to the start: which God? – as no distinctive meaning has been projected. When close sects are asked the question (like denominations within Christianity) the confusion and seriousness of the question always become more real. It is known that when language restriction, rules, and language technicalities are applied, especially in terms of the word content anticipated by the speaker and the word content applied or conjured by the hearer, the real problem posed by the question “which God?” becomes more frightening3.
III. The Question in History
A. Very long time ago
It is noted that this question had been asked from generation to generation in the history of mankind. It has been asked from virtually all religions, by all worshipers in one form or the other and at virtually all levels. The question of Moses to God at the burning bush is very apt. Since there are many gods such as the Dagon of the Philistines and Moloch of the Moabites, Moses must be able to identify which God is sending him to the people of Israel. Hence, “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?” Similarly, the biblical Mount Carmel contest easily comes to mind4. Other decisive calls like “choose you this day…”5 and “God … of the people Israel …”6 are akin to the question “which God?”
B. Some Examples
(i) Within Christianity
It is noted that Jonah’s story is an attempt to explain, “Which God?”7 The Saul’s – Paul’s “who are you Lord?”8 can be seen as “Which God?” History of the Christian Church is over-saturated with resolves on which God – even to the points of banning, condemnation and burning people at the stake in the face of the question.9
It is also noted that the God is “dead” or “alive”, the birth of God controversies and other similar controversies are all within the framework of the question, “Which God?”10. The question of the God-head, trinity, resurrection theology and even the sonship claims are all attempts within the “Which God?” dimension. It is equally called to remembrance that all the classic arguments (proofs)11 of the existence of God – be it ontological, cosmological, teleological12 and others – are more on the front line of the question “Which God?” as they all make the need for decanting more apt, and the problem of meaning more acute.
(ii) Within one Religion to another
The nature of theism, the monotheistic use of the word “GOD” or “God” and the theistic use of the word “GOD” or “God”13 made the problem of meaning hence the question “which God?” germane. Any consideration of the concept “God” within Christianity, Islam and Traditional Religions of the world forces out the question “which God?” if meaning “as said” is to match “as heard”. It is noted that if a concept of God or god as found in one religion does not match that of the other, then there is a difference! To distinguish one from the other, the question “which God?” must be addressed.
C. “Sunday School” escape route!
The shallow ways in which the real questions on God are washed away in the most Sunday School fashion are worth noting. When it comes to differentiating the God – gods and giving credence to the other person’s God –god system, the issue of “which God?” becomes often unavoidable. Attempts often used to escape such occasions include outright dismissal of the question, avoidance of the substantive issues in the question, over simplification; if not outright ridicule of the question and sometimes, plain declaration of the incomprehensibility of the question! It must be re-echoed that religion is the only field where the very incompetent is allowed to self – license himself or herself as whatever and allowed to fool, deceive or mislead the simple or the less matured people ….14
So in reality, escape, brushing aside, avoidance, oversimplification, and pretence are no solutions to the problem of meaning raised by the question “which God?” The problems in “which God?” are therefore serious issues that must be unavoidably considered if meaning is to be impacted between speakers of diverse languages, religions and faiths. This leads to the need for some principles of separating – decanting the “which God?” dilemma.
IV. Principles of Separation – Decanting
A. Content differential principles:
This simply says once the content of any two words are the same; the two words are the same. It implies that once the content of two issues are different, even if the same label is used for them they are different. In other words, same content – are equal but may not be exactly identical depending on the arrangement and emphasis of the content, while different contents imply completely different entities.
Some inclusion of part of one content in the content of another implies a sub – set of some kind. This is not to be taken as the same.
This illustrates a sub – set of some kind.
B. Common Letter Principle (language)
Same spellings and pronunciations may not be the same in meaning in all settings of use because of cultural / contextual variables! Thus the words are not the same. Problems of translation, interpretation, interpolation, equivalent meaning, nearest idea / concept or a completely new idea are all involved in the problem.
Assumed meanings are often heard in spoken word by the listener, which is often not the spoken context. The transcultural opposites of “p?l?” and “sorry” fit into this block.
C. Some examples
(i) The 3 Taiyes
Let there be three Taiyes in a class - one a boy, another a girl and the third a constantly sleeping pupil. It can not be assumed that the three are equal since each one answers “Taiye”. Therefore if a teacher in the class should call Taiye, the expected response will be “which one?”
(ii) The “Ounj?” analogy
If one is to go into a food canteen to ask for food, a reasonable dialogue must ensue before the buyer would be sold food. The dialogue is always as a result of clarifying which combination, as Rice, beans and fish are never the same as Rice,beans and goat meat! Amala with Egusi soup will never be accepted in the place of Amala with okro! The problem of “which one”, hence adequate clarification is usually taken very seriously at this level. While “ounj?” may be a general trade name, it will not serve the specific classification of Amala or Rice…
(iii) “?l?run kan ni a nsin” theory
It is a common theory to be told that ?l?run kan ni a nsin!, translated “We are all worshipping the same God.” This is very common in public and general / interdenominational services. But one can ask, are the contents of the ?l?run the same? One can easily say that the claim of one God may be very untrue!
One must define his God in terms of content, rules, expectations and limits fully before one God in one system belief can be equated to God from or in different religious systems.
D. Common areas as not equal to the whole
A common example is the claim that because God is creator in two different religions, then the God system in one is equal to the God system in the other! It must be clearly stated that, that God is creator in two separate religious systems does not mean all the attributes and properties of God in the two religions are exactly the same, hence God can simply not be the same in the two religious systems and the question “which God?” becomes very pertinent in their communication if real meaning is to ensue from the two. It is in recognition of this problem that some subtle distractions are often attempted in some religions. Examples of this abound.
(i) God of … XYZ. This is a common approach at distinguishing which God. ?l?run Abraham, ?l?run Obadare, ?l?run Oshofa, ?l?run kii ba a ti etc are found in this enclave.
(ii) The use of Allah in Islam as a preference to and as distinction from God in a general usage is of commendation in this regard.
(iii) The cultural attributes of god in Traditional Religion can not be waved aside with just a swing of the hand in this instance. God and the concept of God in Traditional Religions of the World must be known as unique and special to Traditional Religions although the same word G.O.D has been applied to a wide spectrum of poles. This brings with it a lot of notes of worth.
IV. Notes of Worth
A. The concept of God and the word God are not as simple as often popularly assumed.
B. Assumed sameness, while different contents are taken in are the main sources of confusion and conflicts especially in terms of meaning.
C. The content of the concept of God should be fully re – examined by all religious affiliates as to be able to know, note and express the commonness and areas of difference in their concept of God with that of any other, using the word “God”, if meaning is to be achieved.
D. Common areas should be promoted by all while uncommon areas in the concept of God should be played down, more so, if such areas are incisive, divisive and violate the rights of others. The “which God?” should bridge religious unity, harmony and candour in the space ship planet Earth – our world.
E. The question “Which God?” will ever remain if meaning is to be sought even in religious claims.
F. The alphabets G, O, D and their variations are a manner of speaking to be defined, computed, filed and proclaimed by individuals and bodies using them.
G. For clear communication and meaning, each user has the responsibility to define beyond any ambiguity what he / she implies by any form of the choice of the alphabets G.O.D… God or gods.
There is nothing further to say than that the question, “Which God?” still remains unanswered but it is believed that an enquiry has been put in place with particular reference to the surrounding problems.
Notes & References1. This experience is primarily that of the presenter in the course of interacting with the University Community - Students, Lecturers, and the religious groups, over a period of over twenty years (1980 – 2000).
2. This is the result of asking the question “Which God?” in many undergraduates and postgraduate Religious Studies classes and in many academic fora on religion.
3. An example is when the question is put to two different members of the same church, they agree that they are using the same word “God”; that what really forms the belief, expectations, reactions and content of the spoken word are not necessarily the same at all occasions.
4. The story of Moses is contained in Exodus 3, whereas that of Elijah and Mount Carmel is in I Kings 18:16 – 45.
5. Joshua 24: 15, Acts
6. Acts 13: 17.
7. The whole book of Jonah
8. Acts 9: 5
9. The period of the Great Councils around 250AD – 314AD (314 Council of Arles) up to even the Counter-Reformation are recalled with its many controversies on the person of Christ in relation to God, the homoousios debates, the Arianism debates and other. These are found in the many standard history text books like Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, Third Edition (Edinburgh, T & T Clark Ltd, 1970), pp. 106, 179, 286, 106, 119, 443, et al.
10. It was Frederic Nietsche who, perhaps, echoing Martin Luther, first uttered the idea that God is dead in his Thus Spake Zarasthura. See also, Johannes B. Metz (Ed.), New Questions on God (New York, Herder and Herder, 1972; Thomas W. Ogletree, The Death of God Controversy (New York, Abingdon Press, 1966), are few books in this light.
11. David Elton Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion. (New York, Harper & Row Publishers, 1957), “The Classical Proofs”, pages 91- 94, and John H Hick, Philosophy of Religion. (New Jersey, Prentice – Hall Inc., 1973), pp. 16 – 30.
12. Ibid, pp. 91ff
13. Frederick Ferré, Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion. (New York, Charles Scribner’s sons, 1967), pp. 120 – 126.
14. Timothy F. Jemiriye, Understanding Why: A Case for the Orthodox Faith – Background to Religious Thinking Volume One, (Ado – Ekiti,, Greeline Publishers, 2002), p. v.
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