Define Your Terms, For God’s Sake

What do we mean, fergawdsake, when we say that something must be done/undone/thought about/dismissed for this ultimate reason? 1 And who believes in God anymore? Well, lots do, and I suspect that more would want to, fashionable intellectualism aside, if only the idea of the Creator weren’t so polluted by fairy tale images, anti-scientific credos and rancid politics.

Here is one thing we might mean: when we do things at our most sincere, or our most urgent or beneficent or noble, we are helping God out, doing the (theoretical) Lord and Master of All Things a good turn. Well. This assumes that the Prime Mover needs a nudge in the right direction from one of the millions of species populating one little blue planet. That doesn’t make a lot of sense; it’s at least arrogant, if not delusional, to think that Something capable of fashioning a universe needs my advice or yours.

Or it could be this: we do things “for God’s sake” as an expression of obedience to divine authority. This idea gives the heebie-jeebies to the anti-faith crowd, and sometimes for good reason. Taken with several grains of humility, though, it is closer to the thinking of most conventionally religious people, and scores higher on the common-sense test than the idea that the Great Spirit needs our know-how. The thorny thing here, of course, is the implication that someone may feel he has certain knowledge of what an inscrutable Providence desires – among the welter of wildly differing and often just plain nutty views that theological certainty produces. I don’t mean to suggest that faith is useless, or that a degree of spiritual certitude is therefore impossible, much less to condemn as dangerous fanatics all those folks who feel they have had a glimpse into some lofty sense of order, into the Tao. Most sincere religionists use their convictions to lead more kindly and useful lives, not to hate or harangue or blow up others.

Still, the implications of doing what the Maker wants can be unsettling when there are so many useless or scary conceptions of what the Maker has in mind. In this regard, the best source of sanity I know comes from the Baha’i concept of God as an “unknowable Essence”, an utterly unimaginable Force (or Being or Reality or pick your favourite limiting label for the Illimitable). I love the opening words of Lao Tzu (Laozi) in his masterwork, the Tao Te Ching (Dao De

There is wisdom and and plainness and purity here.

Jing): “The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao, and the Name that can be named is not the true Name…” Whatever-It-is cannot be known directly, said Baha’u’llah, but we have had glimpses, reflections of the Ultimate in the persons of the great Teachers, Moses and the Buddha, Krishna and the Christ and on and on.

For God’s sake? Perhaps this is, simply, the best way to clarify that whatever is to be said and done isn’t for our own gain. I think this old phrase – which has lost most of what it originally meant, the fate of all thoughtless clichés – is meant to argue for purity of motive. It claims to reject selfish intent. When we say that words or deeds are “for the sake of God”, we invoke whatever is the direct opposite of egotism, narrowness, material ambition, the power grab and the vulgar mundane – which isn’t the worst definition of “God” that I’ve ever heard.


 (And how does it come about that people like me learned to say “for cryin’ out loud” as a somehow cleaner if even less comprehensible alternative to “for God’s sake”, or for JC’s, ferchrissakes? )?

Comment (1)

  1. Michael Freeman

    I was asked, one time, the following question: Does God need man to exist, or does man need God to exist? The answer is not easy for me. Maybe if I had an unconditional faith I could comprehend the irrelevance, or significance, of the question and its answer.
    “For God’s sake”. My mother used to say “for heaven’s sake”, and each shows exasperation at the simplicity of something recently exposed, and not an identification of something for the sake of heaven or God. Nor obedience to any divine being.

    I think that phrasing such as “for God’s sake” or “for heaven’s sake” is nothing more than the condemnation of our inability to be articulate. My mother once told me that a skilled speaker could berate and belittle foes and leave them smiling, and confused, just by choosing words wisely. I fear that “for God’s sake” has less to do with God, than it does us as lazy users of language — for heaven’s sake!

    I like the idea that the true Tao cannot be named and that the true Name cannot be named. It allows me some comfort in my confusion about the He that is but is unknowable. Maybe clarity comes not in the search for understanding, but rather in the understanding that the search is futile.

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