Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Question of Grammar

Should pronouns referring to God be capitalized? (For example: "God will do whatever He wants.") No. There's your quick and easy answer from a real life English professor: me.

But maybe you want to know why. First, it's ugly. That should be enough.

But there's more. Let's take a look at some examples. Let's say you're a religious person writing about God. You write something like the example above: "God will do whatever He wants." My thought as a reader is stop preaching to me. Rather than getting across whatever message you're trying to get across, you're simply condescending to me, invoking some capitalization trickery to show me that your point is valid and mine isn't because your God is Big.

Let's say you're a religious person writing about God and you write the same example, but without the capitalization: "God will do whatever he wants." A reader will be more willing to read more from this person. No disrespect has been shown to God or to the reader.

Let's also imagine that you're a non-religious person writing about God. "God will do whatever He wants." The condescension of the religious person has become the mockery of the non-religious person. The "He" may as well be in quotation marks as the mocker prances around the room. In both situations, using non-caps allows people to write to each other in a civilized manner.

More important, you can write in a more objective manner. I consistently (well, when I have time for proofreading) correct my student's papers when they summon the capital pronoun. "God placed a rainbow in the sky to show that He will remember His promise." Is there anything less academic? I've never seen anyone do it for Zeus. "Zeus transformed into a swan so He could have sex with Leda." In an academic situation, the capital pronoun tells us too much about your personal life and takes away your credibility as a dispassionate critic.

C.S. Lewis argued that you should use capital pronouns for God based on the idea that it's a nice little grammar convention that prevents confusion (i.e. that you will be certain what the pronoun is referring to). But C.S. Lewis was a man who always employed what seemed like good common sense simply in order to get what he wanted (God love him).

He, like others, wanted to show "respect." Seems an odd way to show it, but I do understand the impulse. I suppose, then, that this kind of capitalization is allowed (reluctantly) in one situation: a religious person writing to an audience of religious people. But even in that case, you should know that what you are doing is "preaching to the choir." You're saying "Isn't God great?" and your readers are saying "Surely He is" and you're saying "Kind of comes across as an empty religious cliché, doesn't it?" and they're saying, "Yes, but don't it make us feel good!" Et cetera.

So there you have it. If you want ugly, condescending (or mocking) sentences that discredit your arguments and makes your words seem hollow, go ahead and capitalize. But don't be surprised when Zeus strikes you down with His thunderbolt.

BONUS GRAMMAR (in case you didn't know): Capitalize the word god only when it is used as a proper name: "Our god is named God."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Two Ways of Looking at a Tree

Consider these two stories:

Story One: A prince is born supernaturally out of the side of his mother. His father, the king, never allows him to leave the palace, preventing him from seeing old age, disease, or death. But the prince makes it outside one day anyway, and the gods allow him to see these things, which makes the prince want to learn more. The prince sits beneath a tree and declares he won't leave it until he gains the knowledge he wants. A supernatural snake encourages him to do so, declaring that this will be the day he will enjoy the divine fruit. While demons try to prevent the prince, the gods encourage him. Eventually the prince gains the knowledge he wants and becomes enlightened about the nature of suffering. He is now able to help others to do the same.

Story Two: A man is born supernaturally from the ground and then a woman is born out of his side. Their father, a god, shelters them from all suffering within a garden, not allowing them to experience shame, bodily pain, hard work, or death. There is a tree that can give them this knowledge, but their father forbids it. A supernatural snake encourages the woman to eat the fruit of the tree anyway, telling her that she will gain knowledge if she does. She eats from the tree, shares the fruit with her husband, and they become aware of themselves and experience shame. Their father curses the snake, makes the woman (and all women) suffer in childbirth, and makes the man (and all men) experience hard work. They are forced out of the shelter of the garden to eventually age and die (as will all mankind as a result).

The first is the story of the Buddha and the Bodhi tree. The second is the story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They are both essentially the same story (birth from side, sheltering father, encouraging snake, tree of knowledge, recognition of suffering), but with one major difference: in the first one, the knowledge tree is good; but in the second, the knowledge tree is bad.