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Scottish Identity and the G-d of Israel: an orthographic error that speaks louder than words

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What does the Scottish Referendum on Independence have to do with Jews and their G-d?

Is it about Politics? Or Theology? Or Political Theology? Or Theological Politics?

I bet you will never guess. It is about . . . orthography. Yes, you read it correctly! It is about uppercase and lowercase letters that speak louder than words.

In March 2020, the Inter Faith Theological Advisory Group (IFTAG) of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland organised the inter-religious conference Crossing Boundaries of Faith – Towards a Christian Theological Understanding of Inter-religious Ritual Participation: Challenges, Risks and Opportunities. The conference took place in Glasgow. The focus of my paper Responsible Reading of Sacred Scriptures of the Religious Other was a critical analysis of Scriptural Reasoning, the Program of the University of Cambridge. In this light, I thought that an exploration of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s publications, and in particular, the Grosvenor Essays would be a useful exercise. I was hoping to find some examples of responsible readings and writings about the religious other. I did not anticipate encountering any issues of theological orthography; of ‘uppercase’ and ‘lowercase’ theology.   

The series of Grosvenor Essays, published by the Doctrinal Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church, was inaugurated in 2004. While browsing its online library, the title The Church and Scottish Identity caught my attention. The cover page informs us that this special issue was prepared in the lead up to the Scottish Referendum on Independence. I thought that an exploration of Scottish identity at the intersection with the religious other, including the Jewish tradition, could have provided useful references for my research.

When I opened the contents page and read the sub-title ‘god of Israel’ (see below), it felt like opening a matrioshka and finding other pieces within it.

At first, I thought that the lowercase ‘g’ in the phrase ‘god of Israel’ was a typographical error; it could not mean anything. But I could not shake off the thought that I was about to come across something unexpected. The study of the essay reveals a narrative-within-a narrative; a story of a ‘god of Israel’ (a lowercase ‘g’) inside a story of the ‘God of the Church of Scotland’ (an uppercase ‘G’).

Why do these miniscule and majuscule letters matter and what message does the ‘inner narrative’ convey?

A short reminder of Orthographic Rules would be a helpful exercise, since uppercase and lowercase letters play a major but ‘silent’ role in the interpretation of this essay. The Guide for the Capital Letters produced by the University of Sussex notes that ‘religious terms, including the names or titles of divine beings, are capitalised’. Furthermore, it explains: ‘the word god is not capitalized when it refers to a pagan deity. For example: Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea’.

A quick glance at the text (two extracts from which are reproduced below this article) reveals that the authors of the essay have drawn a line between the ‘god of Israel’ and the ‘God of the Church of Scotland’ by (mis)using the above orthographic rules. It cannot be incidental that the authors refer to the ‘god of Israel’ with a miniscule ‘g’ every single time it appears in the text, to be exact, 18 times (see the yellow highlights below). The narrative of a lowercase ‘god of Israel’ is masterfully woven into the main narrative of Scottish religious identity.

Citing the Tetragrammaton, the sacred Name of God, without a capital ‘G’ is a capital offence (pun intended), committed twice in this essay, which also quotes the passages of Psalm 137 and 2 Kings 5 (pp. 39-40). The limits of this article do not permit us to go into detailed analysis, but a few points below illustrate the problem of this editorial choice.   

In Jewish thought, a name represents the essence and reputation of the one being named. For this reason, God’s Names are treated with enormous respect and reverence. Many manuscripts reveal that Jewish scribes would often leave a gap in the text when they got to the Tetragrammaton, and a different scribe, one trained to do this particular task, would come along and insert the Tetragrammaton into the text. Early manuscripts, including some from the Dead Sea Scrolls, feature the Tetragrammaton in the Paleo-Hebrew letters. These scribal habits reveal how seriously the Jewish community takes the transcendent and awe-inspiring sacredness of the Tetragrammaton. Even English translation is perceived as too holy to spell out the word ‘God’. Orthodox Jews inscribe it as G‑d, L‑rd and Alm‑ghty. In religious literature, as a rule, not only the Names, but even pronouns referring to the Deity of a Monotheistic religion, are capitalised.

Ironically, and in contrast with the above, the authors apply this principle only to the God of the Church of Scotland. They refer to the God of the Church always with a majuscule ‘G’ (see the green highlights below). Furthermore, all Deity-signifying words such as ‘Father’, ‘Son’, ‘Holy Ghost’, and their pronouns (His, Him), in addition to other sacred notions – Eternal Life, Majesty, Kingdom, Resurrection, etc. – are capitalised throughout the text (see the blue rectangles below).

In short, this publication, without saying it explicitly, demotes the ‘god of Israel’ to the level of ‘pagan gods’ and juxtaposes it with the ‘Almighty, all-wise, and all-loving God of the Holy Catholic or Universal Church’; the uppercase God!  The first citing of the word ‘God’ with a capital ‘G’ in the context of ‘God’s ultimate rejection of the nation of Israel’ only adds insult to injury (p. 43).

Thus, the essay places two fundamentally different concepts, which lie between a lowercase ‘g’ – ‘god’ referring to any pagan god – and an uppercase ‘G’ – God signifying the God of the Bible – at the centre of theological discourse between the ‘god of Israel’ and the ‘God of the Church’, between Judaism and Christianity, wrapped in the narrative of Scottish Identity.   

The statement of the editorial committee – ‘the essay is not an official document of the Scottish Episcopal Church’ – cannot shift the responsibility of its authors. It is unlikely to reduce feelings of embarrassment inflicted upon the Scottish Episcopal Church by the writers of the Grosvenor Essay No.10.

Shockingly, the authors are fully aware of the implications of their chosen orthographic style when referring to the Divine Being in the Christian and Jewish traditions. This is evidenced by their own differentiation between the two notions in the following quotation: ‘gods and not a living God’ (p. 73), a lowercase ‘g’ signifying a pagan god, and the uppercase ‘G’ reserved for a ‘living God’.

This constitutes a deliberate affront not only on Judaism, but on Christian sensitivity as well. The juxtaposition of the G-d of Israel with the God of the Church, and the decision to signify the former with a lowercase ‘g’ as opposed to an uppercase ‘G’ exclusively retained for the latter, is not only bad theology and heresy, but also a misrepresentation of the G-d of the Hebrew Bible, and an insult to the G-D OF ISRAEL. It is an orthographic error which exposes a deeply engraved and problematic mind-set towards the religious other and their sacred ideas, which is obvious even to a non-native speaker/reader.

It is deeply regrettable that the narrative of such theological significance blended so ‘invisibly’ into the narrative of Scottish identity without cognizance of the highly acclaimed and respectful editorial board. The unacknowledged and unresolved expressions of controversial attitudes towards the religious other undermine interfaith dialogue at its core. It may also diminish the prospect of mutually beneficial inter-religious relationships.  

Go mbeannai Dia Duit!

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Dr Thea Gomelauri is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and a former Chevening Fellow at the University of Oxford.  She is the member of the British Association of Jewish Studies, and serves on the Board of the Oxford Council of Christians and Jews.
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