My barber once kept in his shop a goldfish named Fred. Being given a name did nothing to identify Fred’s nature or reveal his character. (I assume Fred was male only because of his name, not because anyone knowledgeable about such things had sexed him.) Certainly it did nothing to change his experience of being kept on display in a glass globe with no privacy, or of being deprived of the company of others of his species. But naming Fred allowed the shop’s owner and customers to project all kinds of thoughts and feelings onto him and draw him into their world, their reality.
Fred came to mind as I was thinking about this day on the church’s liturgical calendar, a day most congregations in the mainstream Western Christian tradition observe as Trinity Sunday, when pastors and preachers like (but most of them, I believe, not very much) to talk about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – or in the old days, Holy Ghost. Those aren’t the only names we’ve given to God, of course. The Hebrew scriptures gave God names like the appropriately unpronounceable YHWH, along with El Elyon, El Shadai, Rose of Sharon, and others. The Christian scriptures added Theos, Kyrios, Pater, and several more.
A decade ago Joyce Rupp gave us Fragments of Your Ancient Name, a book of meditations on 365 names for the divine taken from scripture and a wide variety of other sources. Many of them I found surprising, some shattered old (and orthodox, i.e., commonly held) preconceptions utterly. Rupp reflects on names like You Who Question Souls (Leonard Cohen), Snatcher of Fire (Laurens van der Post), Perpetual Becoming (Jean Markale), You Who Live Next Door (Rilke), Core of Community (Acts of the Apostles), Desire of the Everlasting Hills (Litany of the Sacred Heart), Door (John), Desired of All Nations (Haggai), and 357 more. It’s quite a list.
A famous Indian fable, retold by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) in his poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” describes six men, “to learning much inclined,” who heard about the elephant and went to satisfy their curiosity about the creature by meeting it firsthand. Trouble was, all of the men were blind. The first felt the elephant’s side and proclaimed, “God bless me! but the Elephant / Is very like a wall!” The second felt the tusk and was sure the elephant was like a spear. Another, grasping the animal’s tail, knew the creature was like a rope. So each in turn formed an opinion, and the six disputed about the elephant’s nature, “Each in his own opinion / Exceeding stiff and strong, / Though each was partly in the right, / And all were in the wrong!”
Back to Trinity Sunday and Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Considered one of the central Christian affirmations about God, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity appears nowhere in the Christian scriptures and didn’t become commonly held belief until the early church father Tertullian defended it in the third century. As settled as the doctrine is in the established Christian church, it seems to me a lot like the result of blind men trying to describe an elephant. Instead of naming God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we might as well have named God Fred.
There’s great power in naming. It lets us simplify, organize, and, most importantly, tame and control, which is precisely what we’ve done in naming the divine mystery Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or its what we have tried to do and think we have done and have failed to do. When we name God, even using names as nearly universally accepted as those of the Trinity, the result is not taming and controlling but masking and distancing. God remains wild and undefinable as ever. Every name for God is an attempt to bring God into our world, our understanding, our reality, and bind God up with all our projections. A name for God may record a little of our limited experience of the divine mystery in that moment. It also traps us in the past and opens the distance between us and that mystery in the present moment. Better to clear our minds of all thoughts, all history, all names, and open ourselves in perfect silence to the ineffable reality in which we live and move and have our being.