Note: this essay was recently published in “Western Friend,” under the title “The Oldest Question.” My thanks to editor Kathy Hyzy for the plug, and the arguably superior title.
For those of you who have already read this essay in Western Friend and are just joining us here, please feel free to look around and check out some of my older posts — in particular the post where I explain what the Generous Grasp is, or one of the pieces nearest to my heart, What Have You Done?
What name shall we call you?
The first term that comes to everyone’s lips is still “God.” It’s an old and respected name, been around for time out of mind, especially in its Latinate variations Deus/Dios/Dio/Dieu. But such an old name has been abused so many times, and made many enemies. After all, it alienates roughly half your children, and “Deus volt!” (“God wills it”) turned loose the Crusades. It is not a name we can lightly set aside, but it bears with it so much weight of cruelty, tyranny, and abuse — this name will always serve us, but always uneasily.
To counterbalance “God,” some people call you “Goddess.” While it’s a useful offset to masculine takeovers of the language, Goddess is, frankly, just as alienating to half your children. Yes, it’s the half that’s gotten its way for so many millennia that perhaps it deserves a time in the doghouse, but as they say, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” We’re not looking for retribution in your name; we’re looking for something that all can embrace.
As a corollary to the above, we should also ditch “Father” and “Mother.” Besides, as a friend of mine once put it, no good mother would let her children starve while she had the power to prevent it. Apparently, and for whatever reason (I’m sure it’s wise?), you do. So you can’t be a mother alone, and any such name alienates you from yourself, from the parts of you that are not maternal.
We’ll also need to ditch the gendered pronouns. So long, “he” and “she.” You weren’t wrong, you just weren’t big enough.
This brings us to “it.” It is nicely gender-neutral… but in English it denotes not a person but an object. Now, some who follow you don’t really believe in your personality. To them you are a force. For them, perhaps, “it” would work, for “it” can also refer to ideas. However, can a force love? Can a force speak? Perhaps… but if a force has words and intentions and love, it’s rapidly becoming a person again anyway. Beyond this, “it” is still a term that reduces. To us English speakers it will always seem far, far too small to encompass you.
Some might argue for “they,” which is also nicely neutral, and would keep the trinitarians happy… but even if you have three persons, or nineteen, or 45 trillion, you work in such unity with each other that to refer to you in the singular helps.
For pronouns, I think, we’ll have to fall back on what I have been calling you from the first: you.
But a pronoun is not a name. Who are you?
Jewish teaching has it that we should not speak your name at all, for fear of using it improperly. There’s a lot to be said for that, but there is a difference between not speaking and not knowing. We need to learn your name in order to choose to say it or not.
There are the traditional titles, of course. “El Shaddai,” the Lord of Hosts or perhaps the Lord of the High Places. But we here are a more peaceful branch of your children, and even when the Host in question fights the kind of inward war that we do not “utterly abhor,” it is a phrase that will make some of us twitch. There is “Yahweh” (or Jehovah, when mispronounced), which is older still, but is the name given by a handful of faiths and will be forever associated with those. The same goes for “Allah,” a name which a great many means simply and truthfully “the One,” but to others that name carries a taint of fear, deservedly or not.
The Buddhists invented many excellent terms for your silences and your peace. But while you are indeed nirvana, you are more than just a state of our minds.
“The Dao” might work. I feel that, perhaps alone of the ancient names, it truly suits you, and perhaps better than any other embraces not one aspect of you but the whole. Unfortunately it does so by being obscure, complex, and nigh on impossible to explain. It may still serve, but I think it will always be a name to put to your riddles and your paradoxes, not a name for everyday.
While we’re on the subject of titles, we could mention the habit of humans to give you roles: Master, Creator, Guide. Or we could speak of adjectives: the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Prince of Peace. And we have Wisdom, which is both. But these, again, are limiting, although perhaps less than “Father” might be. You are Wisdom, but you are more than that.
The Hindus, aware of these distinct roles of yours, simply embraced it and decided that one name — indeed, one personality — would not be enough. They came up with hundreds of characters for you: Brahma at the top, in your aspect of creator; Vishnu, as your aspect of protector and preserver; Shiva as your destructive side. Such a system helps us to remember that you are all three; too often we gloss over that last part. But such a system also might lead us to forget that all three aspects are in fact aspects of the same being, and we might begin to revere each separately — and perhaps unequally. I know which of the three would get shortest shrift, and that would be unfortunate, for the end of things matters as much as the beginning. Likewise for the adjectives. You are Merciful, but you are also Deadly, and we would surely pick the names we preferred, not the names we need to remember.
But perhaps we should stop looking at the names we’ve given you, and start looking at names you’ve given yourself. Moses asked this exact question, and you gave a startlingly effective answer.
“I Am That Am,” it’s sometimes given, but there’s always one of those little notes down at the bottom of the page that rattles off half a dozen possible alternatives. Because basically you took the verb “to be” as your name, and that name can be put in so many forms. I Was What Was. I Am What Is. I Will Be What Will Be. Personally I like to translate it as “I Am Existence,” and “I Am What I Will,” meaning you are a) everything and b) whatever you wish to be. You are everywhere, in every heart and in every stone; and you are the perfect power, all capability. The ability to exist and the ability to decide are your greatest gifts to us, for they are closest to the heart of what you are.
Here is a name that can mean so many things, almost as many things as you can be, and is instantly translatable in all the languages of the world, and will never be the possession of a single culture or a single gender or a single class. Though it arose from a single faith, anyone and everyone can say “What Is.”
(There’s some evidence that you were simultaneously making a pun on one of your older names at the same time. I find this rather heartening.)
Such is the answer you gave Moses; and the answer you gave Job is, in fact, much the same, if longer and a bit more enthusiastic.
We Quakers have long been wrestling with names to call you, because what we call you shapes how we think of what you are, and that in turn determines so much of who we are. I think the name you spoke yourself could serve us well in that discussion, and may help us to welcome all who can speak that name without fear or pain. In fact, it might be of still greater use in helping us discover and understand our own names and our own identities.
Now, it’s true that I’m taking a name from a book that some people frankly hate and fear. I know that anything out of the Bible is going to frighten a lot of people. I hope that the flexibility of the name will appeal beyond that fear, and I hope such folks can consider the Bible a broken clock for these purposes: right twice a day.
It may be that I’ll have to fall back on just calling you “You” once again. And I know that any name, no matter how fluid, won’t work completely. One reason we have so many names for you, of course, is because even nine billion wouldn’t be enough.
But no name at all won’t do, either.