Along the Way: No-name God

“I have recently had the opportunity to revisit the fact that in Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam, God is nameless. I began thinking about this again when I read Moses’ request to know God’s name, and God said, “The only thing I am going to tell you is that I am” (Exodus 3:13-14).

Why did God respond to Moses like that, and why do world religions make the point that God is nameless? Well, for starters, God does not tell us why, but we are right to assume there is a good reason (or reasons) for denying the request. I believe one reason comes out of the contemplative tradition with its understanding that words limit things and people…and God. In that paradigm wordlessness is the highest form of spirituality—the greatest act of reverence on our part when it comes to God.

But I think there is another reason, and it is the one which has burrowed its way into me this time around. God is nameless to keep our egos at bay. When we can name something, it is a short journey to think we “know” it, and when we arrive at that state, it is easy to take our knowledge and turn it into certainty, control, and censoriousness.

Think of it like a signature. If someone can write my name the way I write it, they can become forgers. So too with God. When we know God’s name, we can use it all over the place, “cashing checks” we claim God signed. That’s what the ego does, and there is no better or higher name to use than God’s name to justify what we’re saying and doing.

Sadly, we are seeing God’s name ascribed to things that have little, if anything, to do with God.
We are seeing “of God” signed onto attitudes and actions that bear little, or no, resemblance to God. It is what taking God’s name in vain means. It is egotism (certainty, control, and censoriousness) putting God’s name on things that are antithetical to God. It is spiritual forgery.

So, God responded to Moses and said, “All I am going to tell you is that I exist—I Exist.” That ‘s what God tells us because it’s all we can handle without going off the rails, becoming “overly righteous” (John Wesley’s term)–too religious, spuriously spiritual. A no-name God preserves Mystery, evoking wonder and keeping us humble. God refuses to be named for God’s glory and for our good. God is nameless to keep us from using a name to do harm to ourselves and others.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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