Jul 19, 2021
NAMES OF GOD
There’s an ancient apophatic treatise called “The Cloud of Unknowing,” [SLIDE 1] that’s all about how difficult it is to describe the unknowable mystery of God, and that’s how I’ve felt about my task today. How can we describe the Alpha and the Omega, that which exists beyond all human understanding? How does a person take the wordless experience of contemplative prayer and try to explain or name it? The “Cloud of Unknowing” begins with a prayer: [SLIDE 2] “Goostly freende in God, I preie thee and I beseche thee that thou wilt have a besi beholding to the cours and the maner of thi cleeping.” And I am going to use that prayer in the hopes today that I can “clepe” or name my experience of God.
Many of you know that I am a birthright Quaker and that this has influenced my understanding of God and the names for/of God. Because of this, I have a very “Cloud of Unknowing” mystic association with the Divine. I lack language to even describe God because my family’s variety of Quakerism deeply rejects received tradition, in favor of what’s called continuing revelation, or direct experience of the Divine. Early Quaker leaders would say God has come to speak to his people himself. So I didn’t even own a Bible until I was in college. I’d heard and read and sung many names for God--the “wonderful counselor,” “Lord of Hosts,” the Lamb. But I did not have a specific name I spoke when I went to Meeting for Worship.
But just because you don’t have a name to speak does not mean that voice doesn’t speak to you. I was taught to sit in silent prayer and wait expectantly for God to call to me. Sometimes that meant a word or phrase in the mind. Other times it was a nudge or a hunch, and others, extreme nausea, shaking, an incredible reluctance. I’d have to discern, then, whether this “speaking to me” was intended for me alone or for the larger group. This speech was unrehearsed, spontaneous. If it was for the group, you rise and speak; if it just for you, you keep listening and waiting until you discern what you are being called to do.
To be called is to have a vocation, and as I reflected on this, I went to the OED and looked up the term. [SLIDE 3] Vocatio is Latin and for things having to do with speech—voice, vocal, vocabulary. And vocation has traditionally been used in an ecclesiastical sense, such as when someone is called to serve the church, and later, comes to refer to an occupation or a career. [Slide 4] Vocatio is what happens to St. Augustine when he is having a dark night of the soul, weeping in his backyard when he hears the sound of children playing and shouting, “tolle lege! Pick it up and read!” And it’s this shouting voice that ultimately spurs Augustine’s complete conversion. He picks up the Bible, and he reads.
As these textual examples likely attest, I am a poet and a medievalist by vocation, and so when I reflected on these questions what came to me also was an Old English poem “Caedmon’s Hymn.” [slide 5] Caedmon is an illiterate cowherd, and introverted; he lives in Whitby in northern England, and at a monastery nearby there’s an abbess called Hild. His “Hymn” is the first recorded poem in the English language, which the Venerable Bede includes in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Composed orally in the 7th c and written down in the 8th, the text looks like this. [slide 6] There’s narrative, and then the poem. The Old English is on the left and the translation is on the right. The gist is this: Caedmon is so shy that he leaves a gathering—what the Old English calls a “beorscipe” or beer party—instead of improvising and performing poetry. He hides in the barn and falls asleep amidst his cows, [SLIDE 7] at which point he hears a voice that calls him by name. Even though Caedmon is the least likely candidate to be a poet, the voice hails him: “Caedmon, sing me something.” Caedmon protests, he says, “I just left the beer party because I can’t do that,” and the voice says, “yeah, nevertheless, you must sing.” The voice uses imperatives: Caedmon has no choice, even though he’s reluctant. He must sing. And then what emerges is incredible poetry on the Creation story, so innovative and inspired that Caedmon’s entire life is changed and centuries later we are still reading and thinking about this poem. [HYMN recitation: slide 8 and slide 9]
[slide 10] Caedmon uses many names for God. There are eight in total, which is a lot for a poem that’s only nine lines long. God is called “heofonrices weard,” “meotodes,” “wuldorfaeder,” “drihten,” “halig scyppend,” “moncynnes weard,” “frea aelmihtig.” [slide 11] He is the protector of heaven, the measurer, the glory father, the holy shaper/creator, the guardian of mankind, almighty free one.
For me, the weirdest and least recognizable is “drihten,” which is an Old English word that is often used for God, and generally means “Lord. It resonated because it made me think about my own use of “Lord!” as an exclamation. [slide 12] But note the parallel meaning in Latin: “dominus,” which is where we get the verb “dominate.” In a hierarchical society like 7th c. Britain, it might make sense to call God the ultimate dominator. But as a 21st c. someone in a female, disabled body, I have all too often been on the nasty receiving end of domination. I have intimate experience being bullied, ignored, transgressed by people and systems that are bigger than I am, and which use their size to dominate. When I looked up “dright,” that sense of violent abuse of power intensified. This is a term used to refer to massed armies, a multitude of warriors processing, “the Lord of hosts.” [slide 13]
This warlike meaning was not in keeping with my own, experiential sense of God as the force that nudges me. While that force may have commanded me, it is never violent. More than this, the times when I have felt led by God to speak or preach, out of worship, have been about questions of justice, equality, the end of violence, about the love that passes all understanding. When I think of God, I think of abstract nouns like integrity, equality, simplicity, pacifism—not names but practices of living that require a kind of uncomfortable but necessary estrangement from the ways of the world, not the march of a powerful army bearing down on the enemy. And while an army of men and weapons might be incredibly concrete and real, and peace a mere ideal abstraction, we also know that abstract nouns do have force in the world. Love, after all, is something we cannot touch or hold in our hands. But we know in our bones what love can do and mean and make possible.
“Drihten” and “lord” make their meaning from inequality and domination. Yet Galatians 3:28 tells us, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” There are no hierarchies in God’s love or God’s way of calling us to live, even if those hierarchies might persist in our society and in the language that we use to name the Divine. We are equal before God, no matter the bodies or histories or languages we are born into.
[slide 14] As I sat with these questions, I found myself returning again to Caedmon being compelled to make poetry out of dark nothingness. Despite the eight names Caedmon gives to God in his “Hymn,” the voice that compels him is … nameless. It’s “some man” who comes and stands near him, who hails and greets him and calls him by name. [slide 12] Caedmon is known by this voice. And despite Caedmon’s protestations, his reluctance, the man continues to gently nudge him: “nevertheless, you must sing.” Caedmon doesn’t have a choice, but he is not being dominated or forced; he is being led to do the thing he has not yet imagined for himself. The voice says: “sing me frumsceaft,” “sing to me about the Creation story.” In other words, create poetry about Creation itself, become a maker in the way that God is a maker. Use language to invent a world, Caedmon.
[slide 15] Perhaps the point here is not the names that we might call God, in all of their ineffectiveness, their inadequate grasp. Rather, it is that God knows us and calls us. He uses our names, plucks us out of the crowd, does that thing with his fingers where he invites us to come sit close. What matters is not how we define God but how God defines us. God asks that we do what he/she/they tells us to do with our lives and our gifts, no matter which worldly societies believe we are less than, believe we shouldn’t speak, believe we are not worth listening to. Out of an empty dream, a cowherd is called to shape language into poetry and his life (and all of English literature) is altered.
What matters, therefore, is hewing to what God demands of us even when—especially when—those demands may estrange us from where and who we’ve come from. It is not about how we address God but how we pattern our lives with integrity, following God’s call. So maybe we should think of God less as a concrete noun, and more as a directive verb, demanding of us our best selves, urging us to contribute to meaning and beauty and justice, leading us into the places where we least expect to go but are most vitally needed.