Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Exod. 20. 7.
THE CORPSE-FAT CANDLES burn blue. The thing that lies bound on the black altar struggles and whimpers faintly. Within his mystic pentacle the dark priest stands, eyes burning under his hood, intoning the sinister invocation of his creed, the reversed Lord's Prayer. Deeper in the shadows of the velvethung room, the huddled worshippers echo his words in harsh whispers.
"Heaven in art who Father our ..."
The air in the room is drowsy with drugged incense : the shadows seem coming alive, quivering with power. The priest raises his knife, chanting the magical names of God.
"Aglon Tetragram 'Vaycheon Retragsammathon Eryona Onera El Eloe Zelioz Ramathel Shaddai Elohim ..."
The knife descends. The worshippers breathe raggedly in horrid expectation.
"Messias Soter Emmanuel Sabaoth Adonai ..."
The sacrifice on the altar stares up with wide, terrified eyes. The priest speaks the ultimate magical name, that which sums up in itself the seventy-two divine names of power. "Shemhamphorash ! " he cries, and cuts the throat of the bound child on the altar.
Incredible that anyone should so misuse the name of God? Yet it happened : two thousand years ago in Judea and Rome and Egypt, two-hundred-odd years ago in France at the court of His Most Christian Majesty Louis XIV, and even today in dark comers of great cities and dark backwoods farms. Belief in the magical powers of names dies hard-witness the present popularity of numerologists, who will turn your name into numbers for you in the approved style of the medieval Kabbala and will tell you whether the result is propitious or unpropitious. Witness too the advertisers' successful trick of selling you their most doubtful wares - anything from toothpaste and diet fads to theories of psychology or government - by labelling them with the great and magical name of Science.
We can only guess how the belief in word magic began, for it is as old as language. The savage called his friend's name, and saw his friend turn and answer : what more natural to conclude than that the name itself in some way compelled an answer? Just so did Adam in the Garden name all the beasts and thus establish himself as their master. At the beginning of history we find men thinking that possession of the real name of anything-man, beast, city or God-gave them power over the thing itself. The city of Rome had a "real" name, kept secret by the priests lest an enemy learn it and use it for hostile magic; kept secret so successfully that we do not know it to this day. The God of the Hebrews had a "real" name, too full of power for men to write it or speak it: for a while only the high priest was allowed to invoke it, once a year, in the privacy of the Holy of Holies. Eventually even he dared not utter the sacred syllables, and so the Name is lost to us--scholars have spent fruitless years trying to reconstruct it.
And we can only guess, likewise, at the end of word magic; for the end is not yet. At this moment there are men solemnly discussing whether their government is a "real" democracy. There are literary critics writing whole books to prove that someone they dislike isn't "really" a poet, psychologists attacking an opponent by arguing that his theory isn't "really" scientific, biologists tearing their hair trying to decide whether an almost indetectable micro-organism is "really" a plant or an animal, doctors inspiring awe by assuring patients that their bellyaches are "really" gastritis (the Greek word for bellyache) or their cracked wits "really" schizophrenia (the Greek word for cracked wits). None of these learned labels tells us anything about the object and its nature; they are concerned only with vague shades of definition in the arguers' minds. And behind all such gobbledygook lurks the mind of the simple savage, imagining that by naming a thing he acquired power over it. To students of language, words are no more than the arbitrary, crude, and at best inadequate, labels we attach to things for our own convenience. But to believers in word magic the label is the thing, and a rose by any other name doesn't smell like a rose.
The more powerful the object, therefore, the more powerful its name must be; and what is so powerful as the dread name of God? "Thou shalt not take it in vain," is a misleading phrase to modern ears, for the original point was that one couldn't take it in vain, in our sense. That is, if one called on God by his right name, however casually, things started to happen! Clay figures came to life, enemies withered away, an ageing mistress recaptured King Louis' love. Even Satanists, calling up the devil, use the name of God to control him; the Black Mass must be celebrated by a duly ordained priest with a properly consecrated wafer. Jews of the eighth century B.C. thought that the Name would bring down fire from the sky. Jews of the Middle Ages wrote in the Sepher Hasidim, the Book of the Pious
"One may not say that the invocation of God's name obliges him to do the will of the invoker, that God himself is coerced by the recital of his name; but the Name itself is invested with the power to fulfil the desire of the man who utters it."
And do not many contemporary Christians feel that using the Name casually in conversation is in some way an insult to, God?
Thus the Third Commandment is not just a nice-Nellyish warning against profanity. It is much more like the sort of warning you see around power plants : "Danger-High Voltage!" For the ancient Hebrews seem to have thought of God almost literally as a live wire. 2 Sam. 6, relates how Uzzah, who touched the Ark unwarily while trying to keep it from falling, was struck dead by the indwelling Power. The implied moral seems to be: Be careful how you touch God-he's dangerous!
Where there is power, however, men will try to use it for their own ends, good and bad. For a long while Jehovah was not conceived as either good or bad; he was only Force-the lightnings playing about the cloudy head of Sinai. And just as today we employ the force of atomic fission alike to kill or cure, so men used Jehovah. Father cursing fractious children, priest hoping to cure a leper, desert raider lusting for the wealth of an unsuspecting city-they called upon the Name, and the Name, they thought, obeyed. Few enterprises were too black or too bloody for its help.
Then the Third Commandment came crashing down on the heads of the black magicians. The Lord was a lord of righteousness; he was not to be invoked for evil ends.
Whether this realization came gradually or suddenly, it was new and devastating. For what was prohibited was the misuse of power. Modern churches try to prohibit this also; but, let us admit it, with little hope of success in a materialist world. Yet the ancient Hebrews, God-inspired, tried and up to a point succeeded.
Up to a point only; their literalness defeated them. If the name were the only source of power that God had given us, tabooing the Name might well prevent power from being misused. Yet even then there were other power sources. There was the State, for instance, by means of which Ahab stole Naboth's vineyard and some modern Governments tax their small businessmen out of existence or herd their peasants into collective farms. There was the sword; there was money. And, among shaven-headed Egyptian priests or bearded, disputatious Greek philosophers, there were the first stirrings of a new and terrible magic-the manipulation of the power of God inherent in matter, the manipulation that we call science.
As time wore on, indeed, these powers of man took precedence over the power of God. In Christ's day, though the original name was still mystically taboo, new names of God were accepted as perfectly harmless; the rose by another name had ceased to be a rose. Men called upon Jehovah constantly to witness that they'd be beggared if they paid one shekel more for that camel load of spices-called upon him by all manner of indirect Oriental epithets, such as Him-Up-There, The Old One, and You-Know-Who. "God strike me dead if I'm lying!" they said, and lied. The misuse of power had given place to the contempt of power. It was of this sort of swearing, with its implied disbelief in the God of righteousness, that Christ warned : "Swear not at all."
Today, with two thousand years of additional practice, we have invented many new ways of breaking the Third Commandment. We still misuse God's power and we still despise it; we call upon God to justify our sins; we commit the ultimate blasphemy of not calling upon God at all. Many churchgoers think of the Third Commandment as meant primarily to forbid casual profanity. Yet casual profanity is perhaps the least of our offences against it.
It is true that we often speak of God too lightly, making an empty noise out of the most real and profound of human experiences, substituting a meaningless verbal habit for a serious concept of the Almighty. Profanity does not insult God-a man cannot insult God; but it does cripple man. Significantly enough, no one swears by God so readily as the professed atheist.
The mealymouthed among us have confused the issue by extending their notion of profanity to cover anything that frightens them-and what does not frighten them? They dare not speak irreverently of the devil, whom God forbid that we should reverence; they dare not call bodily functions by their right Anglo-Saxon names. Until recently the word "syphilis" was unprintable, and today there are still some magazines that think twice before printing the word "cancer." Among the mealymouthed, the objection to swearing is mainly that, "It's so unrefined ! " Their whole psychology was neatly summed up in an advertising slogan of a few years back-"Spit is a horrid word!"
Perhaps the objection to plain Anglo-Saxon is partly an unlucky hang-over from the days when Latin was the language of educated men, and only the common herd spoke "the vulgar tongue." Modem English retains a double vocabulary, with polysyllabic Latin and Greek synonyms for most of its blunt, short words, and those who shudder at "spit" and "sweat" have no objection to "expectorate" and "perspire." Here belief in word magic persists in its most ridiculous form, as if an offensive subject could be covered by a perfumed label! But how disastrous a refinement it is that classes the name of God in such a sense among the unspeakables!
The casually profane, however, are seldom guilty of anything worse than carelessness and light mindedness. What about the misusers of power, the black magicians?
Dark comers of cities, dark backwoods farms; but nowhere else, surely? Only the most primitive Pennsylvania hexerei, the most degenerate Hollywood occultism, calls upon the Name of Power for such purposes nowadays. The rest of us have long since ceased to conjure with the power of the Name, for the very good reason that we don't believe the Name has any.
Yet if the Commandment was meant to forbid the misuse of power, we have our own ways of breaking it. The ancient Hebrews, inexperienced in science, thought power lay in the pronunciation of certain syllables. Modem man knows better. "I cannot," says Goethe's Faust, translating The Gospel According to St. John, "I cannot value the Word so highly ... I shall write In the beginning was the Fact."
We of the twentieth century are aware that the power of God is expressed primarily in his works, not in a name men have invented for him. The question to be asked of us, then, is what use we have made of his works.
A very effective use, judging by the newspapers. Our biologists have bred germs that could poison our enemies. Our chemists have developed gases that could choke our enemies. Our physicists have triumphantly split the unsplittable, and thereby annihilated our enemies. Our psychologists have learned how to enslave our enemies' minds-and our own.
What judgment shall be passed upon us, if the true meaning of the prohibition is : Thou shalt not use the power of God for evil ends? Wherever science has given one man control of another man, science has broken the Third Commandment.
Nor can we limit ourselves to condemning the sins of the outer world. We of the churches often gather our robes away from contamination, and thank God that we are not as other men. We don't despise God's name; in fact, we call upon it constantly to justify ourselves. How few parents, annoyed past bearing by a young child, can resist the facile, "God will punish you ! " How few strait-laced churchwomen, outraged by the shamelessness (and popularity) of the town's bad girl, can keep from secret satisfaction at the thought of the divine judgment awaiting her! If we object to meat-eating, we declare that God is vegetarian; if we abhor war, we proclaim a pacifist Deity. He who turned water into wine to gladden a wedding is now accused by many of favouring that abominable fluid grape juice.
There can hardly be a more evil way of taking God's name in vain than this way of presuming to speak in it. For here is spiritual pride, the ultimate sin, in action-the sin of believing in one's own righteousness. The true prophet says humbly, "To me, a sinful man, God spoke." But the scribes and Pharisees declare, "When we speak, God agrees." They feel no need of a special revelation, for they are always, in their own view, infallible. It is this self-righteousness of the pious that most breeds atheism, by inspiring all decent ordinary men with loathing of the enormous lie.
Nor is Pharisaism confined to individuals. Whole nations practise it; many a campaign of looting has been proclaimed as a holy war. And whole churches, indeed all the churches, have fallen victim to it at one time or another; from the pathetic backwoods sect of hysterics to the pomp and majesty of Rome, all have at one time or another claimed to hold a monopoly in God. The Protestants who are at times overeager to see the mote in the Roman Catholic eye might do well to look up their own ecclesiastical history; they will find there such things as the seventeenth-century Kirk of Scotland calling for the massacre of women and children in God's name.
"Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord ... And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you : depart from me, ye that work iniquity." There has been only One who always spoke for God.
One stranger way of misusing the name of God is the modem trick of not using it at all. Many, though their hearts may ache for a faith, have so many painful associations connected with the very word "God" that they cannot bear the sound of it. The too stern father, the too fatuous Sunday school teacher, the too simpering religious picture, the too dull sermon-all have combined to give the divine name overtones of boredom, disgust and disbelief. "One word is too often profaned for me to profane it!" some moderns might say, as Shelley said of the word "love." And so they substitute for the Name all manner of evasive phrases-First Cause, Life Force, Cosmic Oversoul, Universal Law. A dangerous attraction of such phrases is that Causes and Forces and the like aren't gods of justice-they may have made you, but once that's done, they forget all about you and don't keep tabs on your little habits. Usually, however, the reason for believing in a Life Force rather than a God is less sinful than silly. Question a Force enthusiast, and ten to one he will say, "I can't believe in a God-an old man with white whiskers sitting on a cloud !" As if any Christian above the level of infant or imbecile ever did believe in a God of that sort !
Here we have a new type of word magic-the Name, once tabooed because it was so great, is now tabooed because it is so small. Those who think to make their concept of God larger by talking of Ultimate Principles and such are in reality only making it vaguer; they are reducing the good, wise, and loving being to an abstraction incapable of goodness, wisdom, or love -and indeed of being too! Offhand it would seem as if there were no harm in a man's inventing his own name for the Almighty, yet in practice rejecting the word almost always leads to rejecting the reality. For words do have one sort of magicthey have a magical power over the operations of our thinking. When we drop the word "God," we are on the way to losing touch with the truth behind it. There is no virtue in not calling upon him on the ground that he isn't there to answer.
Thus a necessary corollary of the Third Commandment must be : Thou shalt take the name of the Lord thy God in earnest! We who have used the Name for unhallowed ends, from necromancy down to getting our own way in a family quarrel; we who have misused the power God put in flesh and coal, in wood and waterfalls, in solid matter and in empty space; we who have called upon God to bolster up our own vanity, or have not called upon him for the sake of soothing our prejudice -we are all black magicians, and, like Elymas the sorcerer, we have been struck blind for our sins and now grope in mist and darkness. Habitually, day after day, we have taken God's name in vain. Let us, if we can, teach ourselves to take it in earnest. It is high time.
|Chapter 2||Table of Contents||Chapter 4|