Does God Have a Name? (Genesis 3:13-17)
Buddha says God's name is interconnectedness. Jesus says God's name is love. Confucius says God's name is harmony. Physicists say that God's name is energy. Taoists say that God's name is creativity.
Callie says that God's name is Dog. Callie is the dog on the right. She thinks that all people, including human beings, are made in God's image. She says that we are all called by Dog to become our better selves, whatever genes were given us and whatever the circumstances of our lives.
Callie says that we all feel Dog's calling within us but sometimes we hide from it. She calls this "sin." She says that some of us hide from Dog's calling by being too arrogant but that some of us hide by not being assertive enough. Callie is a feminist dog and she has often been abused by alpha-males. She feels very badly for other female dogs -- bitches -- who have been victimized by men. But knows that this does not relieve her of responsibility. But that some female dogs sin by failing to speak their minds and take their place in the presence of alpha males. You can't be a victim forever, she says.
Callie is interested in post-alpha living for all creatures, where they treat one another as equals. She knows this state of affairs will not arrive all at once or once and for all. Still it is a regulative ideal to which she feels drawn. Callie is Jewish. She feels the presence of the divine as Justice.
We asked Callie where she gets the courage to speak truth to power and she says from Dog. Dog is neither male nor female, but sometimes Dog appears in her dreams as a gorgeous bitch: a self-assertive and strong woman who takes guff from no one. This is a little shocking to some of her male friends who prefer to speak of Pure Dog as Lord. But she thinks they always imagine Lord as a male deity: a king-like figure who "lords" things over people in authoritarian ways. She encourages them to lighten up a bit. "The Lord is a spunky Bitch and lots of other interesting things," she says. "Dog is a a Hag, too." Callie has read a lot of Mary Daly.
One day she was having a conversation with the horse next door. The horse's name is Zhu. Zhu is a Taoist. Zhu said that Callie's perceptions are somewhat colored by her species and that Dog could as easily be called Horse. "Wouldn't it be better to say that the divine reality has dog qualities and horse qualities?" They entered into inter-religious dialogue. They started talking about a religion called Hinduism which says that God has many names and faces, each appropriate to different to people. They began to woder if Judaism and Taoism weren't just branches of Hinduism, but they left the matter there, because they weren't very interested in isms.
The matter became more complicated when waterfall entered the picture and noted that, in truth, the divine reality is named Falling Water. At first Callie and Lin were a little non-plussed. Surely God must have eyes and a nose, they thought. How could God be alive if God lacked organs for seeing and smelling.
But then they remembered some Chinese philosophy and some ancient Biblical teachings, both of which say that the whole of creation is animated or breathed by the living spirit of God. Waterfall agreed with them and explained that she was indeed alive, albeit in a different way. "Even the rocks that I flow over are alive in their way," she said. Remember that the many nations of the world include rocks and rivers, not just plants and animals. Let your inter-religious dialogue be an eco-religious dialogue. Listen to the it all. To her point she shows them some images from the photographer and theologian Thomas Jay Oord. GO "I think he sees the aliveness of rocks," she said. "They say he is influenced by a philosopher named Whitehead."
There eco-dialogue draws to a momentary conclusion. Maybe the divine reality is the breath of life," said Callie. "Maybe we need to be a little less dog-centered and horse-centered and even waterfall-centered." Let's suppose that the divine reality has many names, each of which help different creatures feel the breath. Who knows, maybe even the human beings have their names. Let's just hope that they remember us as they develop their names.
They began to think about the things that human beings create. They talked about the buildings that humans create and also the music they create. Is the breath of life in a building, too, they ask? Is it in a piano and the music it creates? Zhu proposed that the breath certainly is in the stable they create for her, and Callie added that she hears to the breath of life in some sounds: especially a good strong bark. They opened themselves to the possibility that some human creations might have breath in them, too. "Let's call is heart or soul," says Callie. Then of course they ask what, for them, is the central question: Do the hearts of human beings have divine breath, too? They were hoping that, somehowe, the breath of life within daffodils and buildings and rocks and music might also be found inside humans who feel the breath. "Maybe they can even hear the breath," says Callie. Maybe the call it the Calling.
It was at this stage that they met a young man named Moses, who was a member of a human tribe. Moses was struggling with these questions, too. At this point in his life he was not especially concerned with the different nations -- the dog nation and the horse nation and the waterfall nation -- but rather with the possibility that his own small clan, the Hebrews, might form their own nation. Is there a God for the small ones, he asked himself? Is there a God beyond the alpha-male called Pharoah?
Fortunately we have a written account of Moses' struggle, which is worth sharing. It does not emphasizes the dogs and horses and rocks and daffodils, but it is not opppsed to them, either. It leads to the idea that human fulfilllment lies in dwelling in creative harmony with other people and the Ten Thousand Things. The Jewish name for this harmonious living is shalom, which is often translated peace but which could as easily be called the fullness of life.
Voice and Vision
The Bible views God as profoundly personal. God is alive, moving in history, challenging injustice, and luring humans forward by visions of what life can be like in a world of justice and peace, what the Hebrews called Shalom.
Moses has just encountered the voice and vision speaking through a burning bush. He is awestruck, but still has some questions. Perhaps, he’s stalling for time to collect his wits. Or, perhaps, he really wants to know who is behind the burning bush. Is the energy good or evil? Will it help him or hurt him? And, so he simply asks, “What’s your name?”
Naming was and is a big deal. In the ancient world, names revealed the character of a person. Jacob, for example, was named the “trickster” and, for most of his early life, he lived up to his reputation. To name something is to have a degree over it. That’s why Jacob wants to know the name of the personage with whom he’s wrestling. But, who is this voice in the burning bush?
The voice remains elusive – “I am Who I am” or “I Will be What Will Become,” or simply “I am” or “Becoming.” No words can fully describe the voice, and this is good, because a god who can be fully known is not the divine of the universe. Lao Tzu once said “the Tao that can be named is not the Tao.”
Though the voice and vision, the Holy One, moves through all things, giving them life and breath and vision, no one thing can describe the God of the Universe. Those who speak of God must always maintain a respectful silence and humility when it comes to identifying our words with the Living God beyond words. Again we are reminded of Taosm: "she who knows does not say and she who says does not know."
Becoming, Living, Visioning, and Creating – perhaps, that is enough. But, the voice becomes more specific – “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” The Voice beyond our comprehension is known by relationship. God is not aloof, but a God who listens and responds. God has heard the cries of the Hebrew children and will deliver them from captivity. God is known by the quality of God’s relationships – faithful, surprising, innovative, liberating, loving, and making a way where there is no way.
Today, we know that, even among humans, God is called by many names in many languages and traditions. The multitude of names is a good thing because it reminds us that as good as our names for God may be, God is more than any name. It also invites us to learn from the many names of God, and grow in our understanding and humility of the One who gives life to all things and inspiration to all holy paths.
From Bland Oneness to Harmonious Oneness
In using the word "One" as a name for the voice and vision within the bush, it might seem as if we are speaking of God as an undifferentiated unity lying behind the voice and separate from it; or as a speaker behind the voice who is doing the speaking. The subject-predicate mode of grammatical expression encourages this way of thinking. We can imagine the "One" on the analogy of a sentence and then imagine "calling" and "seeing" as predicates which happen to belong to this subject. We could then imagine that, even if the predicates were withdrawn, the subject -- the One -- would remain itself. A lonely cosmic dancer devoid of any world to dance with.
But we Whiteheadians propose that no actuality -- not even God -- is best understood this way. We human beings are not lonely cosmic dancers who happen to interact with others; we are within our very being acts of experiencing who, from the very outset, are interacting with others. When we were embryos within the wombs of our mothers, we were interacting embryos. Our oneness included a relationship with manyness.
And so it is in biblical perspectives. Rarely if ever is the Lord of the universe understood as a self-contained One who exists apart from a world. Even in the first creation story this One exists in relation to a watery chaos -- a tehom -- which has creativity of its own, and which is just as real in its way as is the One who calls it into forms of order and novelty. In the Bible the One seems to be Asian in spirit: a relational one, a one whose oneness depends on a many. In JJB we are making the case that, for East Asians, Oneness is more like harmony than blandness. It is more like the harmony of many ingredients in a hot pot, all of which make the whole richer; than like the homogeneity of a single substance, vanilla pudding, which is all of a single flavor. Don't get us wrong. We love vanilla pudding. Bujt when it comes to divine Oneness we propose that it is more like a Hot Pot. God is the Broth and we are the actualities nourished by the Broth. And the Broth is nourished by us, too.
A One who is Many
The philosophy of Whitehead simultaneously invites us to recognize that the One who gives life to all things is also a Many whose very life is partly composed of the world and its relations with the world. The Great Becoming includes the many-ness of the world within its ongoing love. This is the fundamental insight within the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. To think Trinitarianly is not to draw a diagram in one's mind and talk about three distinct persons who are somehow connected; it is to reccognize God is love, and that love is always a felt relationship: that is, a relationship in which one actuality feels and is affected by others. In Whiteheadian terms, the Pure Becoming is also Pure Empathy. God loves us.
Whitehead's philosophy also invites us to recognize that the voice and the vision -- the calling and the seeing, the nurturing and the knowing -- are themselves dynamic and adaptive, changing at every moment, which means that we might better speak of the Voice as callings and the vision as lures for feeling.
We may be tempted to reify words such as Voice and Vision – especially if we use upper-case letters – and forget that the life of faith involves trust amid the process of living, not grabbing onto words and names. Indeed, the very names for God are lures for feeling, too. They do not simply point to something beyond ourselves; they also point to dispositions within ourselves: that is, to our own capacities to live with courage and creativity and love. If people use the name “God” to foreclose this capacities, then the name itself becomes blasphemous, a violation of its deeper meaning.
In these circumstances it may be important to not-name or to be free from names. This is the wisdom of apophatic spirituality in the West and in all cultures. Yes, the “name” of God may be in a word sometimes. Deus..Allah...Amida...Krishna...the One...the Many.
But many times the best name for God is not verbal at all. It is an act of loving kindness, a moment of hope, a gesture of support, a sigh too deep for words. In the sighing the name appears, not as a fixed object in the imagination, but as a breathing which gives life and hope. Some names are best left unspoken, except in sighs and deeds.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He can be reached for lectures, seminars, and retreats at firstname.lastname@example.org