By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
One of the most commonly broken commandments is the second: “You shall not invoke the name of the Lord, your God, in vain” (Ex 20:7). Why is that? Why is it so easy to trivialize the name of God, especially when the Bible suggests this commandment, the second in its list of 10, is so important? Perhaps it is because we do not really understand the word “God” or are somehow insensitive to its meaning.
For centuries, Christian authors considered the word “God” as the most precious part of language, and in a different way so did some pre-Christian authors as well. For them, the word points to what is most marvelous about our experience; it points to the ultimate foundation of reality. Thus the word offers, as it were, a spiritual “horizon” within which everything can be rationally seen as existing, true, beautiful and good. Just like everything we see with our eyes is perceived within the boundless horizon of physical space, so too every finite thing is rationally recognized to exist, and to be true, beautiful and good, within the infinite horizon of the transcendent being of God. For certain pre-Christian authors, “God” named the whole of being in relation to which everything – every part – found its meaning; for Christian authors, “God” names the transcendent Creator, fundamentally distinct from all things and yet still the one in relation to whom all things find their meaning.
One way to appreciate the connection between God and existence, truth, goodness and beauty is to recognize that these are not “parts” of creation, for they “stretch” across to define the whole (cf. Wis 8:1). If they are at all, they are everywhere. But no one thing among the vicissitudes and ambiguities of creation can make all things (including itself) exist, be true, good and beautiful, simply because no “part” of anything can determine the “whole” as a whole. What defines the whole as a whole comes from a higher principle.
As an analogy, consider a pointillist painting, such as A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. While each dot of the painting is indeed a part of the beauty of the whole, no one of them nor any collection is what ultimately causes this whole beauty – for you could take any one of those tiny dots away without even noticing a difference. It is the higher principle, the creating and organizing principle, in this case the “transcendent” artist, who is responsible for the beauty of the whole, as he grants beauty to each dot by setting it in its relationship to the others.
So, what happens when we break the second commandment? When we do not use the word “God” to indicate what it really means (that is, when we use it “in vain”), we speak and think in a way that ignores or outright denies the transcendent artist responsible for all existence, truth, goodness and beauty. We lose sight of the “horizon” within which creation and history can be rationally affirmed as existing, true, good and beautiful. When we deny God for who he is, that is, when we deny his transcendence, we deny the foundation of all things. When we trivialize him, we pull our idea of him down and think about him as a “thing” among other things, one more “part” of what we now imply is a senseless, chaotic and ugly mess. When we trivialize the name of God, we are likely not very far from other forms of cynicism and vulgarity.
I once heard a lecture by an elderly bishop and theologian. Listening to him, I became moved when, at a certain point, he choked up as he read a citation from St. Augustine, which ran something like: “And what do we say, when we say the word God? In these three letters, just one syllable, we utter all we hope for.”
Let us not trivialize our hope! Let us bow at the name of God, the author of all existence, truth, goodness and beauty, and the giver of “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17). It is he who upholds all creation and history; and it is in his name that we ground and express our hope that at the end of time there will be meaning, value and glory shining from the destinies of all things.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.