The Names of God

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Our rector, Fr. Bill Breedlove, led an Advent day of reflection in which he described in some detail four images of God. How do we see God? Is our God the remote, celestial dwelling Great Other? Is our God the down in the dirt God of Brokenness? Is our God the demanding, Santa Claus checklist God of Perfection? Or, finally, is our God the passionless, sterile God of Law? Is God some of the above? None of the above? All of the above? More than the above?

Fr. Bill’s thought-provoking series of meditations provoked a lot of reflection on my part. Please don’t attribute any of my wild meanderings that follow to him directly.

The point is that God, in our minds, can be all of these and more. How we perceive God in the ordinary fleeting glimpses of our minds molds how we relate to ourselves, to God and ultimately to others and to all of creation. In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptizercalls for metanoia. I have often heard it described as turning back or making a dramatic turn in our lives. This morning I read a commentary which says that metanoia really is a call to rethink our lives. As we rethink our lives, we also rethink God.

A closer reading of the scriptures should tell us that our God is a wild, feral God who is and has been totally unpredictable. Who would have intervened to take the part of a bunch of slaves in Egypt and lead them forth to the wilderness where they would be purified for the Promised Land? Who would have intervened by sending Jesus to live the ultimate self-emptying—unconditional, non-violent LOVE. Yes, God is, has been, and will continue to rewrite the “rules.”

Reading the mystics who have tried to describe personal encounters with this wild, unpredictable, and feral God should tell us that God is above words, phrases and descriptions—theological, philosophical or otherwise. Ultimately, we are describing a personal relationship with a God who is not a person because personhood chains and confines the God of mystery in the fetters of our categories. All our labels for God are simply fingers pointing to the moon.

The divine spark within every human person from the beginning of creation drives people to search for God when, in fact, the Hound of Heaven is searching for them. We and our ancestors have spun our wheels searching for God when God is actually searching for us.

God is beyond all naming. Consider the pantheons of the Egyptians, Sumerians, Indians, Greeks, and Romans. Numerous names for god or sub gods. Krishna has 108 names. Mohammad had ninety nine descriptors for God. The Hebrews learned that God had one name—the enigmatic YHWH, I am who I am. Could it be that confining God to one name beyond all names allowed them to tame the wild God and confine that feral God to the Ark of the Covenant and eventually the Temple? Christians living their experience of the Risen Cosmic Christ soon sentenced him to life in creeds and dogmas.

Yet, we still long for the Living God. Believing that God is above all names and descriptions leads us into what Thomas Merton called the Palace of Nowhere (no-where, now-here). Our relationship to this God is paradoxical because we are at-(n)one-ment with God. In the Palace of Nowhere we simply abide in the presence of the God of Love. Love is God’s self-expression in the cosmos and in our hearts. I keep thinking of Dorothy Day’s profound statement:

We have all experienced the long loneliness [dark night, desert, wilderness, fear of God, the abyss, emptiness] and we know that the solution lies in love. We find love in [God and] community.

We ended the day with Holy Eucharist and lunch. As I entered the church for Eucharist and continued to reflect in a muddled, confused manner on what Father Bill had said, the scales fell from the eyes of my heart. I wrote:

God is no-thing.

Get on then being no-thing

And you will be [the image of] God.

The Eastern Church focuses much more on divinization than we in the west do. Basically, God became human so that we might become divine. The divine spark of stardust that lies buried deep within our hearts is the stamp of God upon our being, Merton taught us that the separate false self is really a myth. The false self is all about ME. It blocks and hinders the emergence of our true self—our face before we were born. Only by sitting in silence—God’s primary language—can the divine spark refine the gold of our self image allowing our true self to emerge from the cacoon. Being present to the Presence that is Love incarnate in the universe divinizes us.

Back to the no-thing. The Kabbalah—Jewish mystical sect—has an interesting concept. Tzimtzum is the concept that God had to empty the Godhead in order to make room for creation. In a similar vein, Paul tells us in that beautiful hymn that Christ emptied himself–kenosis. Kenosis is the emptiness that fills, the poverty that is abundance, the death that is life. We then have to empty ourselves and become what we are meant to be. We empty ourselves to make room for others and creation itself.

We sit in solitudinous silence so we can be open to the cosmos. Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican mystic, bids us to let go of our thoughts and concepts about things so we can experience, that is “sense,” the things in themselves:

Those who do this, discover that they have lived in a stuffy world, While [sic] their inheritance was a world of morning-glory, where every tit-mouse is a celestial messenger, and every thrusting bud is charged with the full significance of life. (Evelyn Underhill (2010-02-08). The Complete Christian Mystic: A Practical, Step-By-Step Guide for Awakening to the Presence of God (Kindle Locations 273-274). Kindle Edition.)

Underhill’s statement struck a chord in my heart. Hence the picture of the titmouse on my bird feeder. When I observe the titmouse all else fades into oblivion. It is just me and the titmouse in silence. Merton wrote to the dawn crier bird that his celestial messenger proclaiming daybreak.

Our only true relationship to the unnamable God comes when we stop naming and empty ourselves to be present here and now. Life in God is about subtraction, not addition. On the mundane level this should be a warning about the consumerism of the Christmas season. Life is about falling down instead of climbing up. As AA proclaims, “Let go and let God.”

Be empty. Be still. Know that I am God beyond all names.

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