What’s in a Name

There are many different approaches to a name, and they manage to cover the entire spectrum. I think they are covered in the fantasy universe perhaps even better than by contemporary sources, so I’ll use extensive examples.

In Harry Potter, it is well known that the name of Voldemort is reduced to “He who must not be named,” by the general people… But by people of greater power and renown, such as Dumbledore, he is just Voldemort (or even further reduced to his original name; Tom). It is not a that a name has power, Dumbledore patiently explains, it is that people give it power.

In The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan paints a different picture. You are your name; your name is you. To invoke the true name of the Dark One, Shaitan, is nearly akin to casting a spell, drawing his attention to you. The name Shaitan is not truly a taboo to the lower of people, but it is in this universe that the most learned only are the ones who truly understand the nature of a name. In the first book, it is an ignorant yokel is said to have invoked the name of the Dark One, to prove that it holds no power, and what follows is dark fortune for a long time (crops failing, livestock dying, family coming down sick). It is clear to Robert Jordan that a name holds even more power than it is given by the people, the name is the root of the thread that is weaved into the pattern of destiny.

Why are these two diametrically opposed views even able to exist in our world?

That question is one of philosophy that I’ve barely heard discussed, but more and more there are people around me who mention it. It is Jewish tradition, well known, that you are never to utter the name of God. Further, when speaking of God, highly observant people will write “G-d”, so as to avoid digitally uttering the name of God.

The name is incredibly powerful, invoking it something that one must never do without full conviction.

In contrast, the name of God to most people is barely something worth considering. I do apologize, as I know the following curse is viewed by highly observant Christians as the worst thing a human can utter, but I do have to paint an illustration. The average person will say “Goddammit,” with almost no force, no conviction, a throwaway barely thought about.

In the real world, then, we have both Harry Potter style naming present (the ability to say Goddammit at all, without fear of repercussion being the evidence), and Wheel of Time naming (Those who read the word “Goddammit” feeling as though the world has been profaned).

Which world do we live in?

That is a question that is philosophically weighty, as it says thing about religion that cannot be merely bandied about haphazardly. I cannot tell you for a certain which world we live in, but I can tell you my beliefs.

I believe we live in the world of Harry Potter (not the fantastic elements, though I would hope most readers understand what I mean) as far as naming goes. I believe a name has no power but the power we give it, and that does allow for the Jewish (and some Christian) use of the word G-d, for to them the name has been given a great charge.

That being said, I do not believe the name (certainly to me, personally) has any power. One cannot invoke the name of God to me, and hope that I will give whatever is said more weight. If something is said to have “the weight of the Word of God,” behind it (The Bible. I am talking about the Bible here), I think it should be subjected to every bit as much scrutiny as any word published by a scientist (for the sake of popularity, I’ll reference Dawkins in this column).

It is expected of me, by YECs, that I should believe the Word of God because it has the weight of the Creator–but what does that mean?

We don’t know much of God except by the word of the Bible, and the Word of the Bible uses the name of God as a talisman. The disagreements between myself and the YEC crowd stem from the disagreement of the power of God.

What is God? Well, of course, He is God. Tautological though it may seem, the name, the word, conveys meaning to a degree, but it does not contain power.

Perhaps the meaning of the word contains power; the sum definition of God? That, I suppose, is for the reader to decide.

It is at this point that I have to step back in fear, for things that have been told to me by a good friend whose religious views I have seldom fully understood make some degree of sense–but while he would ascribe a strong power behind a name (I think?), we would disagree on this point. It is only through his context, though, that I am even able to discuss these things.

I am a very young mind in this arena of philosophy, though, and I know there is much I don’t see. Do you think a name holds power? If so, please let me know. Tell me why.

I know I am ignorant in this field, and certainly my knowledge of Jewish tradition (extra-biblical tradition, specifically) is lacking. I read a short essay on why the name of God is held in such high esteem, and I still can’t say I fully understand it all.

It is here that I must assure you that I understand why you hold God in high esteem, but God is a concept far greater than a name.

There is a much longer essay stuck between the lines here, an essay about words themselves. The religious friend I just mentioned would likely be very proud of that statement, it is something I learned directly from him.

Why does the name G-d mean less than writing God? They both refer to the exact same concept. Do you think an omniscient God is not aware of what G-d means?

The rule is that the name of God must never be written where it could be profaned, but is writing G-d not profaning the name before it could be profaned by others? Does that not count? Why doesn’t it count?

If I wrote the word God, then scratched out the “o” and changed it to a dash, that would certainly count as a defacement. But if I write the dash before I ever wrote the “o” it isn’t?

Such an odd set of rules, rules that seem very arbitrary and designed not by the mind of God but by the mind of humans. I understand, of course (from the essay I wrote) that writing G-d is a human construct, not of the Bible, but is born of the fear that someone, some day may deface the name (which, as per Deuteronomy) must never be defaced.

To write, though, “the unutterable name”, a synonym for YVHV (the name of God), still refers to that same name. So why doesn’t defacing the words “the unutterable name” count as defacing the name of God?

What is the meaning of a primary name, and other names? Certainly, to people of strong Jewish conviction, “the unutterable name” is an alternate name for God… But what makes a name “alternate” and another name “primary”? It seems to me to be more human rhetoric at work, where humans have no business working.

Of course, Muslims take that to another level, where the words used to describe God cannot be profaned (altering a Qur’an, or burning a Qur’an, of course, is punishable by death). What gives that very arrangement of words so much power? All of the words of the Qur’an are present in some form elsewhere, so why does that mere configuration have the weight of death? Is this at a higher level than that of the name of God? A lower level?

What is it that makes these things what they are?

I do not know. If anyone has any resources, or any advice, or anything that can help me understand, I am very open to it. I am sure people more knowledgeable than me could tear apart my views simply, or find flaws in my logic quickly, so go at it. I am not opposed to it at all.

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