People who in ancient times tried to say something about God did not make any attempt to describe him, to say what he is in himself, but tried only to indicate what happened to a person when he suddenly found himself face to face with God, when he was suddenly illumined by Divine grace, the Divine light. All that the person could do was fall down in sacred awe, worshipping the one who is incomprehensible and who at the same time had revealed himself to him with such closeness and in such a miraculous light.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, quoted in Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. (London, DLT, 2002) 14.

Metropolitan Hilarion makes some interesting points on the associations that the word “God” has in different languages:

In languages of Germanic origin, Gott has associations of falling to the ground.

The Slavonic and Russian Bog is related to the Sanskrit bhaga and means “dispensing gifts.”

Here we find God expressed in terms of the fullness of being, perfection and bliss. These properties, however, do not remain within God, but are poured out onto the world, onto people and all living things. (14)

The Greek word Theos, from which the Latin Deus and the French Dieu derive, has a more complex evolution of associations. For Plato, it meant “to run” because it was associated with a multitude of gods and it was only with the Septuagint that the word was applied to the one God. Saint Gregory the Theologian developed a different etymology from that of Plato and claimed that the name Theos derived from the verb ethein, meaning to be set alight or to burn. Saint Basil the Great links it to God placing (tetheikenai) and beholding (theasthai) all things, the latter of which is also picked up on by Saint John of Damascus.

I am the most linguistically challenged person around, so will have to take Metropolitan Hilarion’s word on this. But I find it significant in pointing out the associations that words have in different cultures.

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