The Name of God

God said to Moses, “I AM who I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” [1]

I have come by my unfolding understanding of God honestly. It's altogether likely that any of the concepts or beliefs which I perceive as being novel results of my own contemplation are merely retreading the theology of great and even ancient mothers and fathers of the Church. I have not read even a sliver of the whole wealth of experience I have inherited as a Christian. In part because I was dissuaded or deflected from engaging with it due to my isolated Evangelical upbringing which sought to differentiate itself from its history. In part because I am a finite person and untrained in philosophy. I picked up Duns Scotus recently and couldn't decipher a single sentence.

But that's not to say my beliefs are only my own. Every once in a while a phrase, a sentence, an idea will pierce through the Venetian blinds of my own limitations from one of these great lights and I'll curl up like a cat in that sunbeam for a while. I hold on to phrases like "All shall be well," "God as the ground of all being," and other reductive soundbites that comprise my consciousness of what's 'out there.' And from these pieces, even the ones I misinterpret in ignorance, I have filled in something which I find meaningful.

For "in him we live and move and have our being" [2]

I admit the majority of my knowledge of Paul Tillich is via his Wikipedia entry. I found him by tracing back one of those beams of light: "God is the ground of all being." I have heard this phrase uttered in many conversations and different contexts. Tillich, if my casual research is to be relied upon, was of the mind that secular philosophy was a helpful partner to theology in terms of discovering a greater Truth. Philosophers could help to illuminate questions and begin answers to human existence; theologians could help to name those answers and connect them with divine revelation. In Athens, Paul appears to be of a similar mind. "In him we live and move and have our being," a unique piece of scripture, is actually an idea cited from a Cretan philosopher.

It is from the general thrust of these ideas that I begin to emerge into a new theological space. For most of my life I conceptualized God as a Being. In my highest attempts at philosophy I would even specifically use that word, "being," as a shorthand to embody how little I understood of God's nature. When used in such a way, calling God a "being" seems to be reduction to less than a "person" or a "spirit." The word admits that if God is a "being," we know so little of it (and we must use the neuter pronoun at this level of reduction) that we cannot further qualify its "being" (or "entity") with a more specific descriptor. And I believe this genericizing and reduction, at least on my part, was due to deep insecurity about the implications of calling God a "Lord" or a "he" or even a "god" at all. I don't distrust that insecurity, even now. For as much as reducing God to "a being" removes much of what we have to hold onto as humans, reducing God to a "he" confines "him" into a smaller and more immovable image, whether it be masculinity or imperialism or even the tribal implications of deity. And these boxes imply the exclusion of their others (femininity, victimhood, humanity) which are both harmful to people who embody these categories, but also theologically incongruous with Scripture itself. Hence our head-scratching over God being "fully God and fully human;" our perception of this as a contradiction has its foundation in our belief in God as a distinct "being."

In this case, the theological transition is both trivial and cataclysmic: remove the article. Now contemplate God not as "a being" but as "being." I derive my guidance on this from Acts 17, from my ignorant picture of Tillich, and also from the guidance of a new theological lens which I was graced with through mediators such as Richard Rohr and Sue Monk Kidd: panentheism.

Folks in my tradition would be so quick to caution against pantheism after reading the previous paragraph that they would probably skip over the distinctive "en" in the word, even with emphasis, and fear the worst has been confirmed. I admit that I think the pure linguistic similarity between panentheism and pantheism is unfortunate. Their proximity implies alignment, which while true in some respects, undermines the importance of the distinction.

As Sue Monk Kidd helpfully illuminates:

To see the Divine as encompassed by the universe is pantheism; to see the Divine as expressed by but also larger than the universe is panentheism, a middle ground between pure pantheism and pure theism. [3]

While I chafe a bit at the moderate implications of "middle ground" as some sort of compromise, I do think the definition helps us to recognize that in panentheism, God is actually conceived as more encompassing than either alternative. For if God is only the universe, God is finite. If God is only an infinite being separate from the universe, God may be infinite, but God is not all-encompassing. In panentheism, God is both.

That recommends us well to the idea from a naive 'bigger is better' perspective, but it's still difficult to see how this theological distinction makes a difference in how we understand God. For a while I wrote off panentheism as an impractical curiosity. In part I worried about how my relationship to God, which I had only begun to start to foster intentionally, would be affected by shifting my conception of "him" to such a different plane. Would I now have to consider myself in relation to "the universe?" Could I any longer even refer to God as a person, as a "he" or even "they?" Even without engaging with this question, my prayer became confusing and frustrating. Even the suggestion of a greater reality had made an impact. Of course, God was never truly any more distant.

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and God's love--outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion [...] For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. [4]

What finally began to draw me out of confusion was further reflection on the theology of the Gospel of John. John uses a powerful metaphor of light and darkness throughout his spiritual recounting of his time with Jesus of Nazareth. John saw the world in shades of shadow and illumination, with Christ as the source of illumination in the world. In John, and in the Bible as a whole, you don't find the all-embracing seeds of pantheistic, universal acceptance. Some things are good, some are evil; some things endure, some things pass away. John ties God exclusively to the things that endure, the things that give light. And that light reveals that the shadows were never real at all.

Thomas Merton has been a source of wisdom and guidance to me from the start of my journey. Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation lives up to its title, in particular. Although I didn't necessarily understand all that he was saying at the time, the seeds were planted, and many have since grown into real understandings. One of these seeds is the quote above.

In Merton's conception, sin and nonexistence are bound together. By the light of this concept, I was also able to better understand John's metaphor of "shadow" and "darkness." For Merton and John, there is an empirical reality and there is a spiritual reality. As children of the Enlightenment we are conditioned to believe in the former and reject the latter. The Church cannot reject the latter altogether, so it has either pushed it out to the afterlife or reduced it to "mystery." But in John, life in the Spirit is "True life." In Merton, the self that is hidden in God is the "True self." Far from secondary, the Spiritual reality is the only reality. Everything else is a fleeting deception - or 'sin.'

This distinction helps me to better embrace panentheism and, at least for now, helps to reconcile my insecurities and confusion about the nature of God.

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. [5]

When God announces a name in Exodus, "I AM," I see this as carrying two profound truths:

  1. God is being; God is all that "is"

  2. God is not what is not - by providing a name, God makes a distinction between being and non-being, and identifies with the former

The profundity of God's own name still, I think, holds secrets for us today.

In conjunction with the universality of God in panentheism, this distinction between existence and nonexistence, light and darkness, works backward to help us define being itself. Whatever God is, that thing (or concept, or idea, or virtue...) is. And whatever God is not, that thing is not. And we call that which is not, 'sin,' or 'darkness.'

For this world in its present form is passing away. [6]

From this point onward we require a way to illuminate this distinction. The world we live in is full of sin - meaning it is full of deception, shadows, things which are not. So, paradoxically, it is not in fact 'full', since these things are illusions. In seeking God we are seeking to detach ourselves from those things which are "passing away," even those things which actually were never part of the greater spiritual reality, and therefore in a sense never were at all.

John seems acutely aware of the need for the wisdom to distinguish. And in John's theology, this is the role - not of the Bible - but of the Spirit.

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. [7]

That critical recognition of the Spirit of God as the arbiter of Truth is one of the major missing pieces in the tradition I was formed in. We really did place the Bible in that role, reducing Truth to a single created object. The book is holy; that needs no qualification. But we missed the greater reality. Over time the focus and expectations placed on the Bible warped us into an isolated, fixated, static faith. In some sense we cut ourselves off from the vitality and dynamism of God, although we could not truly sever ourselves from God who encompasses all things.

The Spirit mediates our understanding of God by providing us with a direct spiritual connection to God. But what does it mean to be in connection to a panentheistic God? That was the question that baffled me when I first encountered the concept. The implication is that we are in communion with not only the 'Universe,' like pantheists, but even a greater reality which encompasses the universe, and even ourselves. Given, that is, that we define the 'universe' as those things which truly spiritually exist. That is to say, we are not in communion with sin; with those things which God is not and which therefore are not. And in that way we may consider the role of the Spirit in helping us to distinguish between what is and what is not like so: if we contemplate something and recognize in it the same Spirit which we recognize in ourselves, then we know what is in that thing. Not to say that the whole of the thing is, but that what we see in it that is the Spirit is our revelation of what is real about it. And of course, in order to do this, we must first recognize the Spirit within ourselves.

My discovery of my identity begins and is perfected in these missions, because it is in them that God Himself, bearing in Himself the secret of who I am, begins to live in me not only as my Creator but as my other and true self. [8]

Merton wrote extensively in New Seeds of Contemplation about encountering and embracing the True Self which is in God and is God. Without a framework of panentheism, this may seem like absurd new-aged blasphemy. But if God encompasses all, then we are also in God; or at least, what is real about us is in God. The work that remains is to put "to death" the "false self," and to recover our real life as reflected only in the reality of God. To Merton, this describes the process of becoming a Saint. Not that all Saints somehow reflect only one unified truth about God, but that each Saint has done the work of casting off the falseness of their worldly identities (their sin) and embodying their true self, which is in God, yet is also still them. It is distinct but also encompassed in the Whole. This is one practical application of panentheist Christianity. We find the framework in which we can begin the personal journey of becoming the part of God which is our true self.

But in broadening our understanding of God in this way, I don't believe - as I worried when I first grappled with panentheism - that we must abandon our conceptions of God as a person. For many reasons I have struggled recently with gendering God as "he." While one facet of that does tie into this theological discussion, the primary reason is a growing understanding of the connotations that naming God as masculine can have for feminine and non-binary people. So my tendency, even in this essay, is to avoid gendered pronouns and to always attempt to refer to God directly - or else resort to some linguistic contortionism to that end. It's a sort of compromise.

If nothing that can be seen can either be God or represent Him to us as He is, then to find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness [...] And since God cannot be seen or imagined, the visions of God we read of the saints having are not so much visions of Him as visions about Him; for to see any limited form is not to see Him. [9]

While I still retain this practice, I don't necessarily believe it represents the logical conclusion of panentheism. I do think it still represents an empathetic manner of writing. But on a personal level, there are reasons I may refer to God as "he" - or "she."

For one, as I discussed, my true self is in God. As a cis-gendered person, I am fully comfortable identifying as male. I don't think that my true self must necessarily be 'more than' male, either. It is helpful for my spiritual growth to connect with a masculine God, in the same way that it is helpful for a female person to connect to a feminine God. My intention is to live out a true and spiritual male existence (which doesn't mean exclusively masculine, but does involve identifying myself as male). So in that way, God to me can often be "he."

We can (and I think should) relate to God as a person, as an entity, even though I have just spent so many words explaining how that is not "true." For God's enveloping nature doesn't just encompass the universe and the created world, and doesn't just encompass you and me as people. God also encompasses our understanding of God. Again, with the distinction: only insofar as our understanding of God relates to Truth. In other words, God truly is the God we imagine her to be, except in the ways that our conception of that person is a lie.

For instance, in ancient parts of the Old Testament, God is conceptualized as an almighty warrior. This is how the tribe of Israel related to God as a person. It's not the only way, of course - which ought to be a big hint - but it is certainly a predominant one. There are parts of that conception of God which are true, and in them we find the spiritual gifts of insight into God's character, even in such a primitive image. But there are parts of that conception which, if you'll allow me, are false. They arise from the assumptions and influences of the context of those wandering people, victims and perpetrators of violence, who still truly believed that power was truth and domination was a legitimate manner of proving it. And the falsehoods in these conceptions of God did not prevent their adherents from communion with God entirely. Even in a false conception of God - which every finite conception must be - God is present in the truth of it, and therefore God is present. "A little yeast leavens the whole dough." [10]

Jesus arrives in the world to deconstruct the truth and the lies of our conception of God. He emphasizes compassion and omits domination in his interpretations. And he does so not by explicitly redefining who God is, but by teaching in metaphors, parables, hyperboles, and actions. As John says, Jesus is "a light shining in the darkness." But Jesus' work is also finite. The greater gift he brings is the Spirit, who completes the work by mediating the truth to us. Through the Spirit we can continue to refine our understanding of God as a person, even as we grow in our understanding of God as reality itself. Our conception of the personal God may be like us, or may not be. We may meet God in different ways for the purpose of different spiritual meanings. But the guidance of the Spirit will help us to understand the ways in which our God-person is true and the ways in which it is false. It allows us to meet God as "God our Father," while reminding us that God is not only Father but Mother, and more besides. Yet that doesn't make the Father less real or forbid us from seeking him as we know him. What it does do is forbid us from eliminating God our Mother or scorning those who seek her there.

As a heterosexual cis-gendered man, it's easy for me to be comfortable with the names and personas my fathers have assigned to God for the past millennia. Even in exploring these ideas, which stem and grow out of things I do completely believe to be true, there is an ever-present voice which questions: what if I'm wrong? What if, as our patriarchal Church has often said, God really does identify specifically as male? I suspect these ingrained fears will haunt me for some time. But I rest, sometimes uneasily, on grace. I am still in the process of learning to trust the Spirit with my heart, not just my mind.

I hope these ideas may be helpful to whoever reads them in their own journey. In a true sense, they are not my own; they arose from my contact with others who are further along than I am, and therefore they arose from my contact with God in others and in myself. I suppose that is to say, I believe these words are of the Spirit. Let the Spirit who is in you confirm or deny them and the Truth continues to unfold within us all.

Grace and peace to you.

  1. Exodus 3:14 (NIV)

  2. St. Paul, quoting Cretan philosopher Epimenides, Acts 17:28

  3. Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, 2016 edition, pp 186

  4. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 2007 edition, pp 34

  5. 1 John 1:5 (NIV)

  6. 1 Corinthians 7:31 (NIV)

  7. John 16:13 (NIV)

  8. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 2007 edition, pp 41

  9. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 2007 edition, pp 132

  10. Galatians 5:9 (paraphrase)