What’s in a Name?

“I don’t believe in God.”

I’ve heard this so often in 12-Step meetings, that it no longer surprises me. I just wait for the inevitable, “but I do believe that there’s Something out there that’s bigger than me.” Somehow, the name “God” has gotten to be confused with some childhood image of the Big Man Upstairs with a long, white beard, sitting on some throne surrounded by angels, cherub-babies, etc., while He points His fingers randomly at folks and says, “You go to hell!” Am I right?

If we want to grow in understanding, we’ve got some relearning to do. We have all grown up with the notion that our names for things are somehow synonymous with the thing itself. There’s a “cat.” That’s a “dog.” I live in a “house.” She’s a “woman.” I don’t believe in “God.” Yet, even Shakespeare got the idea that the name is not the same as the thing: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Most of us labor under the illusion that language is descriptive — that is accurately depicts for our minds something that’s really “out there” from us. In fact, all language (all ‘naming’) is constitutive of our realities. Our minds are not passive “objective” observers of anything. We are creative, inventive creatures and we use that creativity to slice and dice and interpret everything we perceive, everything we think, everything we feel, and everything we imagine.

It’s not that there’s no “out there” out there, it’s just that we can never see it as it “really” is, because we have our own viewpoint and our own experiences that create the lens through which we see everything. We falsely assume that everybody experiences the world the way we do, and that we all speak the same language. In fact, we do not. It’s actually quite amazing that we can understand one another at all; what understanding we do share derives from what amounts to a pool of common experiences.

Our assumptions about how knowledge and language function can blind us to the recognition that our “common pool of experiences” is culturally-determined. For example, we take it for granted that the existence of God needs to be proved, because what’s “real” for us is what’s directly observable (and God isn’t). In the Hindu culture, the existence of God is obvious, because the existence of the world is constantly changing (and therefore ‘unreal’). What we assume that we “know” depends on how we understand “knowledge.” Ordinarily, all these factors operate in the background, far from our consciousness.

So, let’s say a few words about “God”, shall we? Let’s bring some of these unconscious assumptions forward. The ancient Hebrews did not comprehend the world as we do. In some ways, their understanding was more realistic than ours. They used the same word, ‘dabar,’ to mean both the ‘thing’ and the ‘word.’ They understood better than we do that naming something changes it in the same way that, in terms of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the presence of the observer changes an observation. For them, your knowing the name of something alters your relationship with it. And, in fact, giving something a name expresses a certain power over that thing. That’s the underlying meaning of the passage in Genesis where God brings animals to the Human to see what s/he would name them.1 To give someone/something a name means to exercise power over it — to tame it2.

Here is the remarkable thing about the God of the Hebrews — something that many neither understand nor appreciate — that little dialogue in the book of Exodus between Moses and God establishes a unique relationship between humankind and the unnameable Transcendent. Moses is graced with the knowledge of the Name of God.

Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”3

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה — ‘ehyeh ašer ‘ehyeh — employs the “causative” form of the verb ‘to be.’ Some have interpreted it, “I cause to be what comes to be.” In the next sentence, it is IAM — יהוה (‘Yhwh’ or Yahweh) — Who sends Moses and thus reveals to him the Name of the Unnameable.

From time immemorial, humanity has struggled with this incredible dichotomy: the Unknown and Unknowable in some fashion has established a relationship with humanity and human consciousness. In plain terms, God’s hands have been “soiled” by getting involved with humans. The Name has been revealed and a bridge built between the Unknown and the knower that, in some way has granted the knower power over the Unknown — so much so, that there’s even a Commandment given to Moses that forbids humanity from abusing that power: “You shall not take the Name of Yahweh your God in vain.”4

What’s in a name? Just everything! The whole connection between ourselves and what lies Beyond is encapsulated in just a Name. It’s no wonder that, from the moment mystics grasped the import of naming the Divine, they sought to keep that Name sacred. What was (and is) at stake is nothing short of the connection between God (regardless of how we ultimately choose to name God) and humanity.5


1Genesis 2:19
2“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world….”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
3Exodus 3:13-14
4Exodus 20:7
5The Hebrew people would not allow that name to be pronounced aloud. In fact, when the pronunciation of the Hebrew language was fixed using the diacritical marks (the little dots and dashes above and below the letters), they used the impossible combination of the vowels from “LORD” (“adonai“) with the consonants from “YHWH” to form the impossible combination, “Yahowah,” so that, when they were reading the text and came across the Name in that form, they would remember NOT to pronounce it.

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