Your Name for God

27I’ve never read the Old Testament cover-to-cover, and just for “fun” I thought I’d do it.  Once.  I’m enjoying the experience of reading it through rather quickly, not stopping to dig deep, because the speed gives me a sense of an arc to the story, a big picture that I don’t get by reading the scriptures topically.  For instance reading through 1 and 2 Samuel I’m noticing for the first time how many wars David fought; he was constantly at war with the Philistines, the Ammonites, the Amalekites, the Syrians, and he’s under personal threat from Saul in early life, and Absalom in late life.

Then for another reason I was reading in Psalms, which if they weren’t written by David were at least sort of contemporary to him, and was struck by the language some Psalms use to describe God.

Psalm 3: 3 – Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me.
Psalm 18: 2  – The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer… my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.
Psalm 24: 8  – Who is this King of glory?  The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.

Psalm 59:16  – Thou hast been my defense and refuge in the day of my trouble.

Psalm 61: 3  – For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy.

Psalm 91: 2  – I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

This probably isn’t a new insight to many of you enlightened readers, but I thought, the image of God as a fighter doesn’t speak to me, but, of course God is a shield/fortress/defense/tower to David!  He was fighting wars all the time and that’s what he needed God to be!

Then I recalled the news of last March, that Eliza R. Snow was gang raped in the Missouri conflicts of 1838, and wondered as others have, if this experience gave rise to her seeking God as a Mother, and writing “O My Father.”  It’s an unanswerable question (unless some unknown journal surfaces in which Eliza exposes her thinking on this), but personal experience and our own sensibilities tell many of us that we’d wish to take comfort in a mothering god after such a harrowing experience.

I also remembered a wonderful poem of Emily Dickinson’s, “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church.”  She was famously reclusive, maybe agoraphobic in modern terminology, and her God was a companion in a place where she could be comfortably solitary.

The common criticism for focusing on the aspects or attributes of God that speak to us is that we are simply making God in our image, ignoring or blinding ourselves to the fuller truth of God’s nature.  I think this criticism can have merit, but when it’s made it is necessarily comparing one person’s God to another’s, assuming the one under criticism is too narrow, while the one held as the standard, or orthodoxy, has transcended the narrowness of making God in our own image.  But I don’t think any of us, individually or collectively, are actually capable of that transcendence.

I would like to acknowledge the unfathomable vastness of God, and our inability to fully grasp that vastness.  This doesn’t have to mean God is foreign to us, it can mean believing that God reveals the parts of him/herself that we have the capacity to know.  Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso wrote,

“I have always been struck by the Jewish teaching that God is like a mirror, and everyone who looks into it sees a different face.  After all, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each looked into that mirror and saw different faces and so called God by different names.  For Abraham, who went forth on a divine promise to become a great nation, God was Protector.  Abraham’s God was known as Magen Avraham, Shield of Abraham.  For Isaac, who was bound to an altar and who only at the last moment was saved from his father’s knife, God was Awesome One.  Isaac’s God was known as Pachad Yitzhak, Fear of Isaac.  For Jacob, who left his home to travel to Haran, afraid of his brother’s wrath and uncertain of his future, God was Mighty One.  Jacob’s God was known as Avir Ya’akov, the Power of Jacob….

We learned the one name for God given by a woman in the Bible.  This is recorded in Genesis, when Hagar was sent into the wilderness pregnant with her son, Ishmael, and she despaired.  Then an angel of God spoke to Hagar and revealed her son’s name would be Ishmael.  At that moment, Hagar offered her name for God, El Ro’i, the One Who Sees Me…

Jewish tradition teaches that there are over one hundred names for God.  Still, we tend to limit the way we call on God to just a few names such as Father, King, or Lord.  Yet if, as the midrash states, God speaks to each and every individual and each person hears as he or she is able, I wonder what would happen if each person would look directly into God’s mirror.  What would be his or her name for God?” [1]

In some ways the god I was taught at Church has failed me.  The god who hands out blessings like treats for obedience doesn’t actually exist.  The god who withholds the Holy Spirit if I fail to make myself “worthy” doesn’t actually care that much if I’m doing it all right, god lets the Spirit speak to me in spite of my many failings.  The god who is a man presiding over his silent wife turns out to be a construct of earthly men making god in their image, and this god is too limited to reflect the reality of the human family as it really exists.  The white man with the big white beard turns out to be the result of holding up the wrong mirror, at least for me.

I would like to ask, like David and Eliza, who do I need God to be?  I would like to join Emily in asking, what God do I have the capacity to know?  What if I took Rabbi Sasso’s question seriously and asked myself, what is my name for God?  How is God speaking to me now, in the place in life where I am right now?  Novelist Toni Morrison has said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”  I love that, and I take it to be relevant for more than just books.  There is a God I want to know, so I must find ways to look into God’s mirror and see.

Have you held up God’s mirror and been surprised by what you saw?

[1] Sasso, S.E. (2007) God’s Echo: Exploring Scripture with Midrash. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press. Pg 49-50.

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10 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    LOVE this post, Emily. I couldn’t agree more — I think we humans do tend to construct God in ways that resonate with us. Sandy Sasso has some wonderful children’s books that make this point and the points you mentioned. What is God’s Name? is the book I’m thinking of, in which all different sorts of people call God different things based on their own experience (The nurse calls God “Healer,” the farmer calls God “Source of Life,” the dad calls God “Father,” the mother calls God, “Mother,” the lonely child calls God, “Friend,”). I think she and you have hit upon a profound truth about the reasons we depict God/name God the ways we do. And that makes me feel even more strongly that we need all sorts of different people in church leadership — so that we will have numerous models and constructs of God, ones that are different and that resonate with different people and their diverse experiences.

    • Emily U says:

      Yes! We absolutely need diversity in church leadership! I think we won’t know what wisdom we’ve been missing until we experience that diversity.

    • Liz says:

      Yes, THIS. Diversity in church leadership, in depictions of Deity in art/song/verse, in how we interact with one another. A friend once said that she hopes that her daughter will learn from Relief Society that there is more than one way to be a Mormon woman. But this will only happen if we embrace diversity and encourage people to tell their stories as ways to illustrate the many different-yet-positive ways there are to be Mormon women.

  2. Jason K. says:

    If you haven’t yet read Lauren Winner’s book “Wearing God,” I suspect you’d enjoy its exploration of different scriptural figures for God (including feminine ones). Thanks for a great post!

  3. Emily U says:

    Thank you for the recommendation, and thanks for reading!

  4. Karen says:

    I love this, Emily. Lots to think about. It really rings true to me, even as I think about what I’ve needed God to be at different points in my own life.

  5. spunky says:

    This is brilliant, Emily. I’m quite sure that Mormons do not have the corner on the perception of God, though I am not sure I see my reflection in God. That is likely due to my own issues involving Mormon gender issues, particularly the assigned roles of women, and my inability to fit them. Feeling like less of a human makes it hard to see God, at least for me. But I like this idea that you have, and have been pondering how I can try to find God. Thank you for making me feel like there is some hope in my personal search.

  6. Andrew R. says:

    I think that the fact that we view God as an exalted Man and Woman sets us apart from the rest of Christendom. For the vast majority of all other religions God is not tangible, is not really gendered at all – I tend to use “amorphous blob” to describe It.

    For us God is a Father, or Mother, or Parents – with an older Brother as well. We are co-eternal with them, and each other. And that to be a uniquely eternal entity of a god you need to be two – Male and Female. Whom and how you communicate with “God” doesn’t matter. I believe that what the Father knows and experiences so too does the Mother, and vice versa.

  7. Ziff says:

    Great post, Emily. I particularly love your list of the gods that turned out to not exist, or at least to not work for you. The hander-out of treats (and punishments) is definitely the one I learned best, and I’ve similarly found it less useful.

  8. This is a beautiful post! I love Hagar’s name for God. She was enslaved and abused, treated as property, and she needed God to see her. No one else saw her as a person. It reminds me of this post by Deborah, about Christ asking others to see this woman:

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