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The Third Commandment: What’s in a Name?

God as the Ultimate End

Part of a series on the Ten Commandments.

During this trying season of “Coronatide,” my family of four has been watching more TV than normal. (To be honest, until about three years ago I had scarcely seen a full season of any single series, ever, including in the pre-internet age.) Just recently, we finished the first season of Netflix’ Stranger Things. It is much to be commended: the plotline is smart; the suspense is taut and effective; the 80’s kitsch is totally on point (as this 47-year-old author is in a position to confirm).

Yet, when we began the series, I was taken aback by the “vulgar” language. Above and beyond the usual culprit words, the expletive “Jesus” pops up three times in the first episode, once from the lips of nerdy, prudish Barbara, and twice from studly teen heart throb Steve.

While viewing the show with my wife, my twelve year old, and my sixteen year old, I found myself thinking back to my childhood, to the discussions that took place (in the evangelical household of my parents) about “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

Like my father before me, I absolutely forbid my daughters to say “Jesus” in the style modeled on Stranger Things. This I have made clear to them over the last few years. Yet when it comes to this particular profanity as well as the seemingly more benign “Oh my God,” I strive to show them why it is that Christians down through the ages have insisted that such language ought to be avoided.

Indeed, what does the “third commandment” — as it appears in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 7 — actually mean? As I strive to show my daughters (and the parishioners I seek to shepherd) the Stranger Things usage makes sense only in a post-Christian culture, and so the original prohibition must strike at a much deeper level than the thoughtless expletives we habitually mutter (as spiritually harmful as those are).

As a clarifying thought experiment, imagine the land of Narnia of the C. S. Lewis children’s stories that bear that name. Virtually all creatures in the land know who Aslan is. His “name recognition” is maximally high, and all who know him — apart from a few sinister characters who have consciously aligned themselves with the forces of evil — love and respect him. The peace-loving denizens of its festive (if threatened) culture in general stand in reverent awe of him. Thus, it is almost unimaginable that anyone in Narnia (again, with a few diabolical exceptions) would use the name “Aslan” as a swear word. Narnia, to wit, is not a “post-Aslanist” culture.

While the Western culture my children and I inhabit is drastically different than Narnia in the relevant sense, the culture of the ancient Hebrews (I believe we are invited to imagine) is not. For us, it makes sense, in a certain way, for someone to say “Oh my God,” when he stubs his toe; for the contemporaries of Moses, however, it did not.

If we want truly to grasp the force of the third commandment, therefore, we must probe more deeply than the superficial level of conventional prohibitions and mores.

The first thing to note is that the Hebrew noun shêm (normally translated as “name”), in the context of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament, extends beyond just what someone is called to such notions as reputation. A good example of this usage is Ecclesiastes 7:1 — “a good name is better than precious ointment….”

To put it as pointedly as possible, in the Old Testament imagination, nothing could be more important than to protect and promote the reputation of YHWH (especially when relating to the other nations and people groups outside Israel’s borders). Nothing could be more important than reinforcing the truth that the God of Israel is the absolutely ultimate good. In the idiom of the premodern Latin-speaking West, he is the summum bonum.  (Of particular note in this context is that the specific circumlocution used to avoid pronouncing the holy name of the LORD was, precisely, “the name,” although this convention might date to a more recent provenance, such as the early rabbinic period.)

An unbreakable corollary to this absolute commitment to God’s reputation is that God must never be used as a means to some other end. We don’t appeal to God in order to get something else. Not riches, not health, not eternal life. To do otherwise, that is, to turn God into a kind of talisman deployed for personal or communal benefit, is to treat God as penultimate or worse. When we use X to obtain Y, it is Y that we really care about; X is mere utility, inferior to the object of desire.

When a Christian business owner in the Bible Belt South plasters an ichthus (fish symbol) on her business card or website in order to garner more customers, this religious symbol (tied to God’s “reputation”) becomes mere tool employed for the sake of the real object of desire: more customers (which amount to more money).

Incidentally, note once again the important role of culture here. The more “post-Christian” a local culture in the West is, the less successful the “ichthus on the business card” tactic will be. While one can still witness this strategy in certain “red state” cultures, it would probably not “play well” at all in, say, Greenwich Village or downtown Amsterdam.

When Aristotle ranks the various kinds of goodness in a hierarchy, his ordering is utility pleasure beauty, in that sequence. (My undergraduates, assuming Christians to be prudes, are often scandalized when they realize that for Aristotle, and for Christians after him, pleasure is regarded as superior to utility.)

Is God pleasurable? Yes. Is God useful? Quite. Yet as the people of God we are forbidden to embrace him merely because we crave pleasure. Likewise, any attempt to use God as a means to some other end is forbidden. A football coach is not allowed to pray to God in order to win a football game. A candidate for political office may, by no means, appeal to God (or God blessing America) in order to bolster his chances of winning an election.

At the end of the day, the only legitimate reason, the only faithful motive, to exalt God, to claim God, or to worship God is that he is beautiful, that he is ultimately glorious. In this sense the Christian liturgy is a “glorious waste of time.” It is not utilitarian or gratifying in the sense of bodily pleasure. And as for the Christian liturgy, so also for the Christian life as a whole.

God is an end in himself. Indeed, he is the end of all reality.

To pretend otherwise is to diminish God’s reputation, to tell lies about him, as if he is “second fiddle” to physical health, or career success, or whatever. And this mistake, according to the Hebrew scriptures (rightly understood), is what it means to violate the third commandment, to take God’s name in vain.

Fr. Matt Boulter is the associate rector at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, and recently completed a PhD in medieval philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland.


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