Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
These words are spoken by Juliet in Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Julie Act II scene ii. The play exposes many truths about the human condition. The most important of which, I would argue, is how the wild passionate expression of love, met with the confining nature of human being’s contrived differences, leads to tragedy. After all, the only reason they could not love each other was because one was a Capulet and one was a Montague. What is in a name?
Today was just another typical day for any typical Catholic. I received a thorough breakdown on Malaysian Catholic communication systems as they originate from the Vatican, through their ultimate manifestation at the parish level. This system was then cross-referenced by a conversation about a Muslim government’s methodology of media control, and self imposed policies for preservation of Catholic media licensing.
Jump to the next office. Here an associate of the National Office for Human Development and I discussed the Archdiocese’ progress in moving Catholic parishes beyond St. Vincent DePaul Societies toward integrated, just response, at all levels of society. Most of this conversation surrounded the application of Gospel principles to a world which has changed in social structure and economy, since the rise of industrialization and technology.
Move on to the Catholic schools office, where I got a quick run down of how Malaysian Catholic schools are now state schools owned by the Church, but run by the state. Then to the curriculum office where we discussed the paradigm shift of religious education as it has moved out of Neo-Thomistic, Dogma-centered Catechesis to integrated Cristo-centric praxis, from a cross-cultural perspective, influenced heavily, through necessity, by inter-religious dialogue.
While in the car, I get a quick refresher course in macro-economics, as a founding member of the Catholic supervised finance co-operative for Malaysia tells me how the historical development of the co-op in Malaysia. Before I left Chicago, I was playing the role of George Bailey in A Wonderful Life five times a week, so I understand the theory of how it all works. The community gives money so that low interest loans can be given out to the community members. I was George Bailey in a play, but this man is the real thing. He’s here making life better for simple people, making simple loans, to make simple improvements to the quality of life. Because of him, the poor of Malaysia are able, through organization, to have homes, small businesses, and even send their children to college.
Quick! Got to run off to the only Malaysian Catholic HIV/AIDS and Drug Rehabilitation named Welcome Community Home. I get a quick run down of how the Catholic principle of the dignity of the human person has caused mere individuals with no other training than love, to begin a clinical rehabilitation center currently serving over seventy drug addicted men, as they live, and die with HIV. No problem.
Wait. Stop. I just realized. This isn’t the typical day for a typical Catholic. This is an extraordinary day! For anyone!
But what stood out the most in this extraordinary day was a moment in which I was perusing a catechetical textbook for children, and the book had the name “Allah” in the title of the cover.
“Is this a Catholic textbook?” I asked. “Of course.” The Archdiocesan director of Catechesis replied.
“But it says, ‘Allah’ on the cover.” “Of course… that’s the name for God.”
“This would never fly in America.” I thought. In the United States, “Allah” is a word used to refer to the name of God, strictly in the Muslim community. A Christian in the United States who says, “We make this prayer in the name of Allah.” would be perceived of as a cowardly relativist, who had no religious conviction, and was denying that Jesus truly was the Son of God, sent to save us from Sin.
The name of God is so controversial, that it has heightened the division between the followers of God, even as we say God is beyond names and beyond description. For example, the normative way Christians refer to God is “Father,” because Jesus called God “Father.” (Actually Abba, which is better translated “daddy” or papa”) This is the normal way, but not the exclusive way. The writer Luke says in Acts 17:28 that St. Paul refers to God as “The one in whom we move and live in and have our being.” (a feminine image of pregnancy.) The Jewish scriptures refer to God as a nurse made (again female). Yet somehow, calling God “Abba,” all of a sudden means that God has a gender. Who knew!
Christians believe in the Trinity, which gives three names to the three persons in the one God. In the Muslim Koran, it says that Allah has ninety-nine names. St. Thomas Aquinas instructs that we must use many names for God, because God is beyond our imagination. If we limit God to one name, it will place God within our imagination, rather than beyond. The Jews also have many names for God, including Adonai and YHWH (vowels removed out of respect for Jewish tradition).
Most peculiar to the Hebrew/Jewish tradition is the use of the world “El” in their scriptures. “El” means “God” and is often recognized at the end of names… Israel (He who wrestles with God), Michael (Light of God), Gabriel (Messenger of God). But when “El” is referred to as God, it usually comes with a title. Elohim (God of the Universe), Elshadai (God Almighty), etc.
It isn’t a big stretch to move your mouth from the sounds “El” to “Al.” Southerners in the United States have done far worse things in their pronunciation of the English language. But this slight adjustment of pronunciation is exactly what happened when Palestinian name for God (“El”), changed slightly to become the Arab name for God, “Al.” This slight change of tonal sound is what produced the normative name for God in the Islamic world, “Allah”.
But here in Malaysia, Allah is not reserved only for Muslims. It is also the word that Christians use for God. “Of course!” they say, “Because Allah is God!”
“I know that, and you know that, but have you told the Muslims that?” I asked.
“Oh they get angry and complain sometimes, but we have fought in the courts that it is our right to use this word. We actually have documentation that show that early Arab Christian communities referred to God as ‘Allah’ before the prophet Mohammed was even born.”
“What!” pretty much sums up my response. So much energy has been put on highlighting our differences, when those differences are actually a part of our historical commonalities! There is a legitimate Christian rational to use the name Allah in prayer. It isn’t relativism at all! At least if you ask the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, and are in the Malaysian context, praying to “Allah” is within the Christian tradition.
As I finished my day, I attended Mass at St. Jude’s parish in Rawang. This simple church is a pilgrim site for many who have sought St. Jude’s intercession for hope and healing. St. Jude is the patron of hopeless cases. As Mass began, you could hear the Muslim call to prayer from the local Mosque. It was a rich counterpoint to the priest invoking us to pray “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
If you have downloaded Google Earth on your computer, you can see my pictorial of St. Jude’s parish by clicking here. You can also view the pictures I borrowed of Welcome Community home in Batuarang, which is a home caring for drug addicts dying of HIV/AIDS.
Sometimes imagining that the world can find peace seems hopeless. I imagined all the places in the world, where encounters between those who name God “Abba,” and those who name God “Allah,” and those who name God “Adonai,” results in terrible violence. I used Mass tonight to ask St. Jude to intercede for our hopelessness, that we may have the wisdom of the Capulets and the Montagues at the end of Romeo and Juliet, before calamity strikes us. I pray that we might realize, that though names give us our calling and identity, names are, after all, only names.