Skip to main content

Peter on Names

Image: Courtesy Oddworldly
I’ve decided to try spelling it “G*d.”
I once saw a Jewish author do that. It was thirty years ago and I no longer remember who the writer was, but I recognized at the time that he was echoing the practice the ancient Hebrews had of never speaking the name of the Holy One. I think that practice came partly out of a deep, visceral nervousness about too lightly invoking a Name of such Power, but I think also it was a way of reminding themselves of the transcendent and ineffable nature of their God. YHVH was father to His children, but He was also creator of the universe, and it was an awfully big universe even back then. You could call Him Papa, but you always knew He had a special secret name besides; a Name that spoke of infinity and eternity and thus would never fit on a human tongue.
I’m probably projecting more onto ancient Hebrew theology than was really there. Modern Christian ideas about infinite-and-eternal-God may descend more from Aristotle than from Abraham. If so, please forgive the error, but bear with me…whatever the history, I think what I’m saying is still true in the present.
Names. As a Pagan, names are less of an issue. The Gods we worship as Pagans all embody the Divine, God-beyond-God, Ain Soph Aur, or whatever you want to call it. As God-stuff reaches down through levels of the Tree to touch the lives of us mortals, it particularizes and takes on personalities. We call Them by names. The names may be traditional or coined on the fly, but I don’t believe any of them are the True Names of the Gods. My sense—just an intuition I’ve picked up along the way—is that the True Name of a God is not something a mortal can hear…at least, not and still stay mortal.
It was incredibly liberating to me to become a Pagan and a polytheist, because it meant I could build a relationship with the Divine again without having to go through a church and a Bible about which I had developed some profound misgivings.
[nb: I worry that this paragraph will offend Christians. That is not my intention. I worship alongside Christians even today, and many of the Quakers I most admire and seek to emulate are Christian. But the path that G*d set me to walk led me through Hell for a few years when I was younger, and I cannot talk about my relationship with G*d if I am too polite to describe what I saw of Christianity from the perspective of one of its damned souls.]
The Christian God also exists on many levels of the Tree, but Christians (and monotheists in general) cannot differentiate between the levels. The Creator of the Universe is the same as God the Father is the same as Jesus Christ is the same as the Holy Spirit that inspired Paul is the same as the Word of God is the same as the Bible is the same as any right wing Bible thumper… As a Christian (and I was a very committed and devout Christian for many years) I hit an impasse where I couldn’t pray to God or even think about God without being overwhelmed by all of the evil done in His name. Christians come up with some very creative ways to try to get their God off the hook. It’s not my purpose here to argue with them—only to say that the first time I prayed to “Goddess” instead of to “God” was the first time I was really able to cut myself loose from all the butchery and hate and conquest and enslavement that has followed like a shadow behind the message of love and salvation.
Names. If a Celtic Goddess and a Middle Eastern God share some common divinity, it’s at a level where there are no names—a level so transcendent that it’s beyond any possibility of personal relationship. Above the level of the Gods, Pagans will speak in very abstract terms like "the divine," or "the ultimate reality," or "the ground of all being." (Some Pagans at least. I don’t speak for us all.) God at that higher level is much more like a force of nature than a personal deity.
And that was fine until I became a Quaker.
My experience of the Divine in Quaker worship is both very like and very different from my experience in a Pagan setting. The experience of the Horned God in a Wiccan circle often feels to me like hands laid on my shoulders by Someone very large (a proud parent, perhaps?) standing behind me, or like a cloak draped over my shoulders and enveloping me in warmth and strength. The presence of G*d in Quaker meeting is every bit as intimate, but somehow less personified. The difference may be as simple as Quakers doing corporately what a Wiccan priest or priestess will do individually. In a Wiccan circle, even if everyone present were covered with God or Goddess, each one’s experience would be more individual and each aspect of the divine presence might take a different name. The Light that covers a Quaker meeting doesn’t seem to want a name. It’s close enough to the human level to touch us, but still universal enough that it feels right to say things like, “There is that of God in everyone,” when I would never talk about “that of Herne” or “that of Athena” or “that of Jesus” within everyone.
After spending enough time talking with Quakers, even a Pagan Quaker will start using the word “God” just because it’s convenient. It’s the word everyone else in the room is using. It’s a single syllable, unlike any of the other terms that come to mind. And it does encompass most of what I want the word to say…but it makes me uneasy. As an ex-Christian worshipping alongside Christians, in a religion that has its roots in Christianity but includes both Christ-centered and non-Christian members, “God” is a really loaded word. It’s very hard to say “God” without someone in the room hearing “Jesus.” So it came to me a few days ago to start writing “G*d,” as I once saw a Jewish author do, as a way of avoiding the pitfalls of using THE NAME.
Names. I keep coming back to the theme of the limitations of language for describing the ineffable. Paul was swept up into the Heavens, given a tour of the Celestial Spheres, and then plunked down again on Earth to try to describe what he saw using a language that evolved to communicate about hunting and fishing and sewing and cooking… You might as well try to write “I love you” in Fortran. How can we ever communicate with clarity about our experience of G*d? I don’t have an answer to that. What I have is a message that someone delivered in meeting on the morning that I started writing this post:
"Live up to the Light that thou hast and more will be given thee."


Morgan said…
Mmmm. Thank you. - Stasa
Jillian said…
I have a Jewish pagan friend who used G-d for a long time, then did some serious thinking about the meaning of different punctuation symbols, looked at G?d and G*d for a while, and finally settled on G!d.
Chas S. Clifton said…
It seems to me that any variation on "God" brings with it all the Abrahamic baggage. Is that what you really want?

Why not just say the Divine or the Big Mystery or whatever?
Yewtree said…
Hi Peter (waves to Chas). I can't say "God" because it sounds too male-gendered and authoritarian and all those things I originally rejected in Christianity. Luckily Unitarians don't go in for gendered language for the Divine; they tend to say things like "Spirit of Life" instead.

My HPs told me long ago that vowels were feminine (because expansive), and consonants were masculine (because contracting), so that's why Hebrew is not written with vowels. So I dislike the omission of the 'o' in God. I like the exclamation mark, though!

Margaret Starbird (author of "The Goddess in the Gospels") calls it Godde - which is fine for writing it but doesn't sound much different when you say it.

I prefer Ain Soph Aur or the Tao, as I think it is quite impersonal (though it may be true, as some Christian theologians say, that our persona, our 'I', springs into life before the Great I Am).

I've been having conversations with a Sufi friend recently, and she tells me that Allah includes both male and female aspects.

Popular posts from this blog

Peter on Grief and Communities

Well, that was unexpected. For the last year, ever since my mom's health took a sharp downturn, I've been my dad's ride to Florence Congregational Church on Sundays. That community has been important for my dad and the weekly outing with me was something he always looked forward to and enjoyed, so I didn't mind taking him there. It meant giving up attending my own Quaker meeting for the duration, but I had already been questioning whether silent waiting worship was working for me. I was ready for a sabbatical. A month ago, my dad was Section-Twelved into a geriatric psych hospital when his dementia started to make him emotionally volatile. I had been visiting him every day at his assisted living facility which was right on my way home from work, but the hospital was almost an hour away. I didn't see him at all for three weeks, and when I did visit him there, it actually took me a couple of seconds to recognize him. He was slumped forward in a wheel chair, lo

There is a Spirit Which I Feel

I was always a "rational use of force" gal. For most of my life I believed that the use of force--by which I meant human beings taking up arms and going off to war to try to kill one another--was a regrettable necessity. Sometimes I liked to imagine that Paganism held an alternative to that, particularly back in the day when I believed in that mythical past era of the peaceful, goddess-worshipping matriarchal societies . (I really liked that version of history, and was sorry when I stopped believing in it as factual.) But that way of seeing reality changed for me, in the time between one footfall and the next, on a sunny fall morning: September 11, 2001. I was already running late for work that day when the phone rang; my friend Abby was calling, to give me the news that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. So? I thought to myself, picturing a small private aircraft. Abby tried to convey some of what she was hearing--terrorists, fire--but the mag

What Do You Mean, Quaker Pagan?

"What do you mean, Quaker Pagan? You can't possibly be both!" Every now and then, we do get a comment on the blog that, if politely worded, does drive at basically that point. Usually the critic is a Quaker and a Christian, though I have certainly heard similar points raised by Pagans. Let me state a few things up front. Peter and I both do consider ourselves Pagan. Neither of us considers ourselves to be Christian--I never was one, and Peter hasn't been for decades. And we do consider ourselves to be Quakers... as does our monthly meeting, which extended us membership after the normal clearness process. We consider ourselves Quaker Pagans. (Why not Pagan Quakers? Pure aesthetics; we think the word order sounds better with Q before P.) Here's the argument for why Peter and I can't possibly be both: 1. Paganism is a non-Christian religion. 2. Quakers are a Christian denomination. 3. ERGO... Yes. We've considered that argument, oddly eno