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by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Getting God's Name Right

In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge (included in Letters and Papers from Prison), theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks why he is instinctively drawn more to religionless people than to the religious--an affinity he feels in his language, in the naming of God before these two groups of people. He does not, in the letter, answer his own question but rather describes the differences: when he is among the religionless, the name of God emerges easily in his speech, but among the religious, the name tastes plastic, feels forced, and induces in him a sense of dishonesty. What Bonhoeffer describes seems sadly to persist today. It corresponds to my own experience, especially where public forums are concerned.

I don't know whether Bonhoeffer assumed the "why" of this preference to lie within himself or in the two societies themselves--the religious and the religionless--as each placed upon him different requirements for acceptable dialogue and communication. I think, in fact, that the cause is a combination of both, since I feel myself to be different in the contexts of different communities. But I would like both to assess the differences as I have experienced them and to suggest one cause. For simplicity's sake, I will restrict my thoughts about that cause to the variant expectations of the two communities.

The secular world is not, in fact, my family--not in the most intimate sense. Nevertheless, when in formal, public speech before that world I name God, that name comes from my lips naturally, spontaneously, and full of substance. When I speak of God, God is--because the secular world permits me to use God's name in what may be called a signifyin' way, according to the apt expression from the black ghetto community. I need do no more, I can in good faith do no less than signify.

The Christian community, on the other hand, is my family intimately and spiritually. We confess one God. Yet, when I name that God formally before that community, I often find myself checking the ...

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