Naming God

by Duncan Reyburn

I know it may seem a like an odd thing to suggest, but what if having faith might be a bitReyburn_Portrait like having aphasia. Aphasia is a condition causing some people to struggle to communicate. It gets in the way of their ability to use and understand words, but it doesn’t affect intelligence. They know, but cannot say. People with aphasia will battle to connect with others through conversation or reading or writing, depending, of course, on the type of aphasia. With expressive aphasia, for instance, the sufferer will have a good idea of what she wants to say but will find it tricky to get it across.  With receptive aphasia, a person can hear or read or write but will lose the message along the way. I know it’s a medical condition and its existence raises all kinds of questions, but it’s also an apt metaphor.

Faith, to me at least, seems like something between expressive and receptive aphasia. It lingers between our experience of God and our desire to transfer that experience. In this between, we find communication difficult, if not impossible. Obviously, since the word God is “by its nature the name of mystery,” as G. K. Chesterton once noted, it is not all that surprising we have this trouble. It’s sometimes said the unnamable is omninamable, but what does that really mean? Does it mean God, the truly unnamable, can be a tree or a piece of moldy cake or anger or the way shadows are cast on Charlie Chaplin’s hat and moustache in the movie City Lights? Does that mean mystery, this mystery we call God, is known by innumerable names?

Why this matters should be obvious: the way theists name God is going to drastically affect the way they understand God, and, in turn, is going to affect how they relate to pretty much everything. If God is named as the patriarchal God of voluntarism, for example, we will believe he can do whatever the hell he wants to.  We would also then have to accept that he has the ability to call even the worst evils out there good. If God is named as possessing unadulterated sovereignty, then whatever horrors happen must be ok and we shouldn’t get too mad about them. If God is named as the impotent, weakling God of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, I’m sorry to say, we have to believe we’re alone here, fending for ourselves with no redemptive hope to which we can cling. If God is named as Nietzsche’s dead God, perhaps all of our conceptions of meaning and groundedness are flawed and misguided. Naming God may be impossible, but it still seems unavoidable. We seem to desperately need linguistic anchors to guide our understanding and our actions; therefore, it would help if those linguistic anchors were at least pointing us in the right direction.

I cannot help but think of the theologian who arguably spent the most time grappling with this problem of naming God: an obscure 5th and 6th century mystical writer who gave himself the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite—after the character mentioned in the biblical book of Acts. In his book The Divine Names, Dionysius stretches and bends language as far he can, but ultimately—if a ludicrously simplistic summary of his work may be allowed—arrives at the conclusion that more or less agrees with where I started this thing: faith is a lot like aphasia. It is impossible to name God perfectly or appropriately, or to contain God or set linguistic limits on the Divine. Perhaps surprisingly, in the process of undoing and being undone by language, Dionysius gives God more than a few names. For someone so reluctant to name God, he comes across as being rather verbose. It is, in a way, a verbosity that wears itself out; it is a wordiness that arrives at wordlessness, awe, wonder, and worship.

As Dionysius weaves his way through the strain and struggle of wrapping God up in a net of words, he nevertheless discovers more than a few ways to discern Divinity. He discovers, not the clean lines of the God of voluntarism or pure sovereignty or of the conceptions of God offered by Nietzsche and Pullman. Instead, he finds a mystery within the mystery. It is the mystery of God’s providential love. It is this same mystery which Tom Oord digs into in his The Uncontrolling Love of God—I almost wrote The Uncontrollable Love of God—which I think gets at the same thing. It’s a risky business, trying to explain the unexplainable, but Tom does a fine job of pointing out what many theologians fail to do. He points out if God is love, as he is defined in 1 John 4:8, and if this love is essentially kenotic, then God cannot in any way be aligned with evil, which is most manifest in the world as being coercive and controlling. I’m not going to recount Tom’s arguments here, but I do want to offer a brief thought on what I have experienced in reflecting on his book.

For reasons too complicated to go into here, I remain as uncertain of precisely how God’s providence works as I am of how best to name God, even while I can see which model/s of his providence make the most rational sense—for the moment, that is. I remain closely aligned with Dionysius’s healthy respect for the ways in which our language—and our rationality and our aphasiac faith—fails us. I especially think Tom’s suggestion to seriously consider what God cannot do—he cannot deny himself, be unloving, be domineering—is worth pondering endlessly, not so faith becomes a defeatist dance of passivity and negativity, but so it becomes more deeply committed to the positive aspects of existence.

God’s providential love becomes something on which to meditate more than it becomes something to solve; it is something that can persuade and lure us to act. Because the primary issue, ultimately, is not what love cannot do—although this is certainly an important aspect of understanding providence. Rather, what is most important is what love will do; what lengths it will go to in order to make goodness a pervasive reality in the world. It will meet us where we are, in our failings and brokenness and suffering. It will even work in and through our aphasia—where we know God, not just as a concept or as a name, but as the unknowable reality through which we live and love and move and have our being.

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