“God” is not God’s name

God language can tie people into knots, of course.  In part, that is because “God” is not God’s name.  Referring to the highest power we can imagine, “God” is our name for that which is greater than all yet present in each…

Proposing that “God” is not God’s name is anything but blasphemous.  When Moses asks whom he is talking to up there on Mount Sinai, the answer is not “God,” but “I am who I am,” or “I do what I do.”  That’s what the word “Yahweh” means.  When the Hebrews later insisted that it not be written out in full, they were guarding against idolatry: the worshiping of a part (in this case the word-symbol for God) in place of the whole (that toward which the word-symbol points).

So it was for the biblical Jacob, who wrestled for life and meaning with a mysterious heavenly messenger.  When dawn finally broke after a nightlong struggle, Jacob demanded to know his adversary’s name.  “Don’t worry about my name,” God replied.  “It is completely unimportant.  All that matters is that you held your own during a night of intense struggle.  You will walk with a limp for the remainder of your days.  Yet that is simply proof that in wrestling for meaning you did not retreat, but gave your all.  Therefore, though my name is unimportant, I shall give you a new name, Israel, ‘one who wrestled with both divinity and humanity, and prevailed.'”

-Forrest Church in The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology (Beacon Press: 2009), p.3



The most ancient shrine described in the Bible was a rock.  As the story is told in Genesis, Jacob founded the shrine because of a dream.  Traveling alone, he fell asleep one night in the mountains, with his head resting on a stone for his pillow.  Perhaps it was one of those bright nights when the stars are thick and close, like a spangled quilt thrown over the earth.  He dreamed he saw a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels climbing up and down.  “This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven” he exclaimed when he woke.  He set up the stone to mark the place and named it Beth El – the House of God.  Another night, on another journey, Jacob tossed and turned in fear that his brother, whom he’d wronged, might kill him.  An angel came in the darkness and fought him.  Jacob survived the fight but limped ever after, and he gained a new name – Israel, which means “one who struggled with God and lived.”

The divine-human encounter is the rock on which our theological house stands.  At the heart of liberal theology is a mysterious glimpse, a transforming struggle, with the oblique presence of God.  “Theology” literally means “God-talk” and derives from theos (God) and logos (word).  But talk of God is tricky business.  The same Bible that tells of Jacob’s marking stone also warns, “Make no graven images of God.”  God may be sighted by a sidewise glance, sensed in a dream, felt in a struggle, heard in the calm at the heart of a storm, or unveiled in a luminous epiphany.  But the moment human beings think they know who God is and carve their conclusions in stone, images of God can become dangerous idols.  In Jewish tradition, God is ultimately un-nameable, and some never pronounce the letters that spell out God’s unspeakable name.

In liberal theology, at the core of the struggle with God is a restless awareness that human conclusions about God are always provisional, and any way of speaking about God may become an idol.  This is why not everyone welcomes talk of God.  God-talk has been used to hammer home expectations of obedience, to censure feelings and passions.  It has been invoked to to stifle intellectual inquiry and to reinforce oppression.  For many people the word “God” stands for conceptions of the ultimate that have harmed life, sanctioned unjust systems, or propelled people to take horrific actions “in the name of God.”

-Rebecca Ann Parker in A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press: 2010), p.23-24