For what is basically the last Zoomtard ever, I thought it would be pretty cool to discuss a book I read earlier this month by one of Ireland’s leading young theologians on a topic that was completely fresh to me and turned out be hugely thought-provoking. It is even better that I know the author so I could use some questions she answered over email to help flesh out why you should seek this book out.

Máire Byrne is a young theologian who is an alumni of the university I attend, Maynooth College. She also blogs at BibleNerd. Earlier this summer her first book was published. It has the intimidating title, “The Names of God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: A Basis For Interfaith Dialogue.” Pretty much every author would finish that sub-sentence with a question mark. Audaciously (and justifiably) Byrne doesn’t because in this thorough examination of the names used for God in each of the three Abrahamic traditions, she manages to clearly outline a ground for shared understanding and fruitful dialogue between the camps.

The Names of God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

The goal of the work is:

to attempt to locate some sort of starting place for locating this common or universal language in order to assist interreligious dialogue in some way.

Having laid out her methodology she very carefully goes through the names of God in Judaism, Christianity and then in Islam. I want to write that it is an exhaustive study but that seems to suggest you’ll be exhausted by reading it. In fact, the book comes in at about 170 pages, is admirably laid out with clarity and Byrne has a lovely lucid style of prose. There are really lovely, intricate arguments phrased very pleasingly. During the section on the naming of God in the New Testament, Byrne had me questioning to what extent my theology is sufficiently theistic.

Earlier this year I read Miroslav Volf’s book on Allah and I still am wrestling with the arguments in that book. This book then comes as a more detailed treatment of areas Volf was just sketching out.

I asked Máire some questions over email last week to help flesh out this review. Firstly I asked her why are names so significant?

I’m obsessed by names, whether divine or human. I’m one of those people who think that the coolest present you can buy someone is a mug with the explanation of their name on it. We use names on a daily basis to refer to a other people-without them we’d be just a number or life would a confusing mess of “you over there!”. Think of all the money spent of “Naming you Baby” books and the fuss over little Miss Harper Seven Beckham. In our culture they can refer back to the past as in to be names after someone such as your grandparents. Names can also look to the future to be aspirational, what you would like your child to be-such as naming a child after a footballer. (One of my students is called Trafford. He is twelve, a Liverpool supporter, and in my opinion has a good case to divorce his parents). Different societies have different approaches to naming so it’s important when you look at a name you look at the culture it came from.

I joke with naive Americans that my name Kevin means cry-baby (from Caoimhín). In reality it means “handsome and beloved”, which makes the truth no less true than my lie. Each of the six Hargaden children were given Irish names. All of my nieces and nephews have been given Irish names. Our nationalism doesn’t come out in the voting booth but it definitely lingers in the names we give our kids.

But Máire then linked this interest in names to her study of the Bible:

When I began to study the biblical text in earnest, names just jumped out at me from the text, especially as they form part of the story or narrative-when a name tells you something about the person and their role in the story. Characters who do not have names (often female characters) are immediately taken to not be terribly important to the narrative. In terms of the divine names, they put a shape on what the human who is telling the story or writing a poem sees God to be to them. In the Hebrew Bible (where I do most of my research) there is a wealth of different names for God (I’ve counted 36 in the book of Isaiah alone), all of them portraying a different aspect of the nature of the divine that was important to the community who first produced the text or oral account. For example calling God “creator” or “maker” as a title or how the divine is at the very essence of our existence and of our world. Names show the progression of a theological outlook for the Israelites, for example is you refer to God as “Lord of Hosts”, then you are showing that your God, Yahweh, is the best of all those other gods, he’s the top f the pile and no one can compare to him. There’s no better demonstration of a developing theology than that simple name. You only have to look at how Judaism views the sacred name of God, Yahweh to see how important a name can be. A Jewish person will not pronounce “the name” or write it as it is seen as immensely sacred-to do this is setting up a relationship with the deity that can never exist-a bit like being over familiar to someone in authority. In the New Testament, we base so much of our Christian prayer life and view of God around the use of the term “Father” by Jesus to refer to God.

Máire’s extensive background as a teacher in a range of different contexts comes through as a real strength in this book. The way we name God obviously affects our spiritual life. I asked her what she thought comparative theology can offer the spiritual life of individual Christians?

What I liked immediately about comparative theology is that it works on a practical level and got me excited. And for a biblical theologian to get excited over what is essentially the brainchild of a systematic theologian, well, it must be AWESOME. We’re terribly mistrusting of systematic theology and its “footloose and fancy free” quotation of the Bible.

I should point out that Máire has only ever been encouraging of my pathway into being a fly-by-night scoundrel of a systematic theologian and has never made this dreadful and utterly unjustified accusation to me in person. I’d surely respond by citing something that Paul or someone said in one of his letters and I can’t remember the exact words but the overall gist was that I am right and she is wrong!

I always feared (ignorantly) that comparative theology was a hodge-podge soup of nothingness engaged by ivory tower academics. This book clearly puts that delusion to bed. Máire expanded for me on the merits of comparative theology:

I have to stress that comparative theology is nothing like comparative religion-similar names but an entirely different philosophy. Comparative religion compares religion. You can simply put (and textbooks do this) any religions you wish to compare into a grid and read along the columns to assess the religions under such headings as “Deities” “Religious practises” and “Belief in the Afterlife”. It’s like a kind of “top trumps” for religions (now there’s a card game….) which has the essential flaw that one religion (usually the religion of the practitioner of the “grid”) will be the “control” religion that the others will be compared against-the religion that will ascertain what “headings” are used in the comparison.

Comparative theology is so much more successful as it doesn’t make you put aside your religious view point and examine a religion from a quasi “neutral” zone. It allows you to step up and say “I’m a Christian, I’d like to look at Islam as I’m very interested in it but I’m quite happy where I am thank you very much”. You don’t have to constantly assert that you’re all about The Truth and Christianity-the method quite happily presupposes that you’re studying other theologies from a firm belief system of your own.

The second step is what excites me most-you can actually learn more about your own faith and your own understanding by seeing how your views and faith “compare” with those of other faiths-simply put your look at your faith from the perspective of another and learn more about your own faith through the process.

To illustrate-I teach the book of Genesis year in, year out and every year I stress the importance of looking at the biblical text. Every year I get my students (after having assigned a close reading of the text as “homework”) to write down how God created the world. Statistics are now at about 60% will realise that there are two creation accounts in the Bible, the other 40 will have “thought” they read the text but in reality stuck with the childhood telling they are (over) familiar with.

In future classes I turn to the smug 60% (there’s no rest in my classes) and get them to talk to me about how they see God being portrayed in the text. We brainstorm the usual ideas of creator, powerful etc. To this day no one has ever commented on the idea that God had to have a rest on seventh day. No one has ever asked what God did to rest (though we’ve had lots of great ideas when we’re explored it further; yoga, XBox, napping on the sofa…)

Until my students went and looked at another theological idea of the deity, for example in Islam where the view is that Allah could never have rested as this would have shown a weakness a deity would never have possessed-Allah is above such human weakness, they would not have “shaken up” their view of what the creation text actually means-looking at something with a fresh a different perspective.

I love this. There is a great ground for inter-religious dialogue that isn’t motivated by some ideology that says that at base we all believe the same things. It isn’t a basis for inter-religious dialogue that is really just proselytism in disguise. Learning from others teaches us about ourselves. In some way, I am ashamed to state such basic thoughts as new learning but I suspect (from our knowledge of other sacred texts and religious traditions) that this hazy ignorance is widespread.

My basic point here is that I think this book deserves a wider readership than it is likely to get. I encourage you to read it. It is well written and thoughtfully laid out and an interesting idea explored with finesse. But it is actually a book that will spur more than just ideas (although it does that too!). Here’s Máire on how comparative theology has enriched her own spiritual life:

On a more personal note-comparative theology helped me to look at my perception of the Trinity. I used to think that I was all over the theological side to it (I’ve enough theology degrees so I must understand it!!) but when I began to use comparative theology in reverse, i.e. to explain what I believed to another belief system that doesn’t have a trinitarian theology (Islam) I was flummoxed. I didn’t have the language to explain what I held to be core and vital to my belief system. I could teach it I could pray it, but I couldn’t make sense of it to someone who wouldn’t buy the “see here, look at this handy clover leaf growing by my feet” method. I needed to understand the Trinity in the sense of what it meant to me, how it anchored my life and my beliefs and how I held it to be true, not what a book said it was or what was taught to me. I would never have had that personal “shake up” if I had not engaged with comparative theology.

Inter-religious dialogue is not some marginal effort that the church can get round to once its fixed the important things (like the font styles in its marketing campaigns or the length of songs
in Sunday worship). It is an essential aspect of loving the world we live in. Byrne’s book is fascinating in itself, as a treatment of the names of God and what they reveal (the differences as well as similarities between the three traditions) but is also a catalyst to engage in serious, open minded dialogue with those different from ourselves.

Track it down.

Your Correspondent, Concentrating on the real enemies; monogamous gays and stem cells