…is that it’s casual:
It is one of the clearest symptoms of a culture that has become, as our so emphatically is, utterly trivial at its core. We are a Paris Hilton people who clutch at the power, but not the responsibility, of gods.
Those who make blasphemous statements or issue “Blasphemy Challenges” think that something is proven when God does not strike people with lightning. But that, of course, is because they know nothing of the God they blaspheme. The punishment for sin is typically the sin itself. Blasphemy does not result in lightning, but in lightening: you become a moral and intellectual lightweight. A culture like ours is now of such gossamer insubstantiality that almost anything can blow it away.
Here is the chapter on the Second Commandment from my upcoming book Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life. (It’ll be out in late January, but you can pre-order it at the link):
The Second Commandment: Hallowing God’s Name
Exodus is the Greek name for the second book of the Bible. In Hebrew it is called the Book of Names. That’s because, like Catholic encyclicals, the Hebrew books of the Bible are titled by the opening words of the book. And Exodus begins, “These are the names …
It is fitting that this title be given to Exodus, since Exodus is a book in which names play a huge role, in both the way they are emphasized and the way they are strategically deemphasized. Exodus pauses to tell us the names of the two earliest pro-life heroines, Shiphrah and Puah, who saved Moses and other Hebrew boys from the clutches of the population planners of the First Cairo Conference (see Exodus 1:15–20) who said, like modern population planners, “Just enough of me. Way too much of you.” Exodus 2:10 tells us how Moses got his name—a pun on the phrase “to draw out,” which owes to his being drawn out of the Nile and which also prophesies his role in drawing Israel out of Egypt. The book even disses the villain of the piece, the most powerful man on the planet at that time, by steadfastly refusing to name him anything other than “Pharaoh.”
But the most important name comes in Exodus 3: the divine name. When the voice speaks from the burning bush and Moses rather reluctantly answers, a perfectly Jewish conversation full of wordplay and dickering takes place. What is striking about it all is how Moses manages to combine reverence and awe in the divine presence that created him with a certain audacity. He asks for proof (as if the voice from the burning bush is not enough). He wheedles and cajoles and begs to be excused. He talks God into making his brother Aaron the spokesman. And in the end he asks, “Whom shall I say sent me?”
It is a question pregnant with a significance lost on us, because we do not understand what names meant to the ancient Hebrew mind. To them, the name was a deeply sacred thing. It was not just a label slapped on a thing so that one could call it something besides a thingamajig. A person’s name expressed their essence.
So in Scripture we repeatedly find names imbued with huge significance as a sort of key to the person’s inmost being. Isaac means “laughter,” and he springs from the laughter of his incredulous and joyful parents as the long-delayed promise of a son is wonderfully fulfilled (see Genesis 21:3–7). Jacob’s name means “deceiver,” and he rips off his brother’s birthright and cheats his father-in-law out of livestock (Genesis 27; 30:25–43). And when God changes Jacob’s name to “Israel” this too is true as the deceptive Jacob is transformed over time into “he who struggles with God” (Genesis 32:28).
In other words, to know someone’s name was to know him or her. To name, or rename, someone was to effect and reflect a fundamental change in who the person was. So when God reveals his name, he is revealing himself.
We experience a tiny glimpse of that intimacy when some figure we have known or revered as an august adult presence (“Mr. Smith, the math professor”) turns to us and says, “Call me Jim.” We sense it in a negative way when somebody who should know our name forgets it. It’s hard to escape the sense that they have forgotten us.
The Covenant Relationship
God’s revelation of his name is, therefore, an invitation to intimacy. It is also a profound revelation of who he is. Other names given to God in Scripture are basically titles that tell us some of his attributes. But “I am who I am” tells us who God is in his essence (Exodus 3:14). God does not have to reveal it, and Moses certainly has no power to make him do so. Yet God does so anyway out of sheer gratuitous love, and in so doing, he enters into a relationship with Moses and Israel whereby his people can call on his name.
Indeed, that’s the entire point of God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush. God’s purpose, which will not be thwarted, is to bring Israel not merely out of Egypt but into a covenant relationship with him at Mount Sinai. As we have already noted, a covenant is more than a contract; it is a bond of sacred kinship. Therefore, to make a covenant is to become family. So when God reveals his name to Israel, he is permitting the nation to call upon him as friend, ally, and protector.
This is a very significant step in a long process of graciously making himself vulnerable. It will ultimately lead to scourging, a crown of thorns, a buzzing cloud of flies around his naked and beaten body, and the sound of mocking taunts in his ears as he struggles for breath against the excruciating bolts of pain in his wrists and feet. Sinai is a major step forward in the drama, but it won’t really be over until the redemption wrought in Christ brings the last redeemed soul into heaven.
Because Sinai is a provisional covenant pointing forward to the new and eternal covenant in Christ, certain cautions must apply. God is making a covenant with a desperately dangerous species who will misuse every good gift he gives them, including the gift of his name. So he commands: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
To use the name of God is a solemn thing, not to be taken lightly. To swear in his name falsely is to call Truth himself as a witness to a lie. To invoke the name in a curse against the innocent is to call him who is Justice to be unjust and him who is Life to be death. Scripture is adamant that to do this is an extremely dangerous violation of the covenant.
Likewise, to treat the divine name as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot or abracadabra is to gravely insult the covenant, because God is God and not a genie who must make us rich or beat up our enemies at the service of our fleshly desires. He gives us the divine name so that we may know him. He will not let us use it to make him a bellhop for our pride, envy, anger, greed, sloth, gluttony, or lust.
Blasphemy Depends Upon the Sacred
These days, of course, the names of God and Jesus are taken lightly every day. Much of this is inculpable, since many people have not the slightest idea that they are involved in a covenant with God (assuming they are baptized). On the other hand, as some sectors become more aggressively hostile to God, there are silly initiatives such as the recent Blasphemy Challenge, in which some Internet atheists urge their fan base to blaspheme and challenge God to strike them dead for doing so. What things like this illustrate is that the Western mind can’t help but live in constant debt to the God of Israel. For when Westerners blaspheme, it’s always the God of Israel they blaspheme and not Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, or Athena.
Here again we see that atheism, even in blaspheming, profoundly relies on ideas stolen from revelation. The blasphemer protests that God threatens his dignity as a person—never realizing that “personhood” is a concept invented by Christian theologians. The blasphemer feels the need to assert his individuality against the oppressive dictates of a nonexistent sky god—never realizing one of the “dictates” of that God is that the self is a good thing, while it is Buddhism, not Christianity, that says the goal of life is to annihilate the self. The blasphemer wants to assert the glories of sex against the God who said, “Be fruitful and multiply,” not against the gnostic demiurge who says sex is evil.
This is not to say that there is nothing sacred to your garden-variety Internet blasphemer. For instance, racial equality is a sacred thing; that’s why he doesn’t say the “N” word. The family retains some vestigial holiness, as do children. That’s why pedophilia and incest are still condemned and the crimes of Christian clerics brandished to attack the gospel. And the poor and homeless retain a certain sanctity due to the lingering cultural influence of the Defender of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (see Deuteronomy 10:18). That’s why we do not admire those who laugh at their plight.
But our culture does increasingly admire those who laugh at God. The comedy (and the tragedy) of this is that the creators of the Blasphemy Challenge actually imagine they commit an act of courage. Invariably, they posture as though Christians will lynch them for their brave insults to God, or the irritable old gentleman in the white beard will finally lose his temper and start throwing thunderbolts. Not knowing the first thing about the One they blaspheme, they have no idea what they are talking about.
What such people don’t get is that blasphemy, like all sin, is its own punishment. It darkens the intellect, hardens the heart, and further disorders the appetites. The result, as Jesus says, is that “from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12). In this case it means that a culture that blasphemes God is a culture that will soon sacrifice its lesser sanctities as well.
That’s because a culture of blasphemy ultimately has no defenses that can ensure permanent moral values. The generation that revels in shocking its parents’ bourgeois devotion to God today will discover that its sons and daughters will gleefully shock its bourgeois devotion to children or racial equality tomorrow. A culture of blasphemy will continue to “push the envelope” of transgression in more and ever more attempts to stab its deadened nerves back to life. It will laugh with relief today because the Old Man on the Cloud turns out not to be so scary, and it will continue “transgressing” by committing more and more outrages against fresh “taboos” tomorrow.
Don’t believe it?
- The BBC recently ran a gooey sympathy piece on a brother and sister in Germany and their “forbidden love.” So incest is already on the table.
- NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association) is making pleas for civil recognition of pedophilia as a legitimate “sexual orientation.” (Who can forbid two people from loving each other? The ancient Greeks saw it as a way of mentoring young boys. It just takes some getting used to, etc.)
- CBS’ 60 Minutes pioneered snuff TV a few years ago by showing Jack Kevorkian offing a victim, while 24 glamorized torture chic as it depicted the hero fighting bad guys with Gestapo tactic in the name of America and apple. It was, natch, promoted as “daring” fare.
Each fresh transgressive thrill demands something a bit tangier next time. Perhaps the day is coming when folks will watch live executions and gladiatorial combat on TV. For in the end the food of blasphemy is bread and circuses. A culture that despises the sacredness of him who is beauty, truth, and sacrificial love will eventually despise the sacredness of everything we currently take as self-evidently good and decent.
Blasphemy, like all sin, cuts a culture off from love and delivers only cheap thrills that leave us starving for true life. It makes the universe a cold, dead place. The apotheosis of this is the loneliness and coldness of hell. This is not some place God “sends” people because he’s a vain popinjay ticked about affronts to his ego. It’s a place to which people exile themselves because, despite God’s every attempt to love them (including taking a scourge, a crown of thorns, three nails, and a lance for them), they remain the pathetic sort of people who prefer to scrawl obscenities on the bathroom wall and congratulate themselves for their “courage.” Worship enlarges the soul; blasphemy makes it utterly small.
The sacredness of the name is therefore not an ancient superstition. The warning still holds, and the judgment still obtains. The judgment on a culture that takes God’s name lightly is that it becomes a lightweight culture, fit only to be taken lightly, as the Blasphemy Challengers so emphatically are. Today take God’s name seriously, as he takes you seriously. You can do that in two simple but powerful ways. The first is to honor God’s name by worshiping him in the sacrifice of the Mass, where the greatest act of honor to God’s name conceivable is done as the Son offers himself eternally to the Father in love and we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to the Father in and through Jesus. There is no greater way than that to hallow God’s name and keep it holy.
In addition, we can make our act of worship an act of reparation for all the insults given to God’s name. Jesus himself did this on Calvary when he took all the insults and blasphemies heaped upon him and said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We can likewise ask that even the blasphemies of the enemies of God, the cries of anguish, the confusion of the mind of fallen man, the despair, the hopelessness, the pain, and the rage of a fallen world be turned into life, blessing, peace and hope by Christ crucified and risen. That is what the Mass is all about and that is what Jesus has been doing for two thousand years. Today is the day he wants to do it through you.
 “Couple Stand by Forbidden Love”, Tristana Moore, BBC News, March 7, 2007. Available on line at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6424937.stm as of July 9, 2012.