Naming Divinity

Ursula K. LeGuin has a very short story entitled "She Un-Names Them" in which Eve removes the names that Adam has hung on all the animals, hands him back her own name, and leaves, walking away into unlabeled, unruled Creation.

Another perspective on naming is offered by Ed Sanders in his essay "Green Economics":

I don’t think it’s enough
to want to protect it.
You have to study nature
down to molecular specificity.

Learn to name
the plants, the bark,
the algae, the species
in such intricate detail
as to surround them
with your fierce
protective poetry.

These two writings capture two sides of the act of naming. LeGuin’s focus is that naming gives the namer a sense of control over the named—a sense of control that may be misguided and unhelpful. That sense of control over nature may be the foundation stone for the fairy-castle illusion that our society has built: that we are separate from, above, and in power over the rest of nature.

Sanders, on the other hand, focuses on the intimacy and awareness that is gained when we learn the names of things. I often take novices into the woods, and it is striking how much more they perceive when they have learned the names of things. Instead of being surrounded by an inscrutable mass of green, they begin to see individuals—because they have learned their names. "Look, here’s some wild ginger!" "You see the bloodroot?" "There’s a whole lot of jewelweed here; watch out for poison ivy." They don’t see everything but they see much more, and sometimes they wonder about the names of the creatures they haven’t met yet. They ask, they look in their books. They notice more and they care more.

Once, on a hike with a friend who was going to co-lead a seminar called "Writing into the Wild" with me, we disputed just this point. She argued against identifying plants for our seminar participants because nameless wonder was a better, truer way of knowing the wildness of the woods. Names would merely mediate, distance, and give that illusion of control that was contrary to the very idea of wildness. I argued that learning the names is like being introduced to any new acquaintance: the beginning of attention and connection, the beginning of relationship. It is almost impossible for humans to perceive something for which they have no names, I claimed.

We never resolved our dispute, but I now see it as a miniature version of a more embracing conflict in my life. If I am torn between naming and not naming the Carolina wren, the kudzu, and the mica in the woods, how much greater the tension about naming, or un-naming, the great creative Mystery to which I give allegiance?

Lao-Tse tells us, "The name that can be named is not the eternal name."

Towards the end of my "atheist age," someone in my Quaker meeting shared with me a quotation about atheism’s being an essential developmental stage for a believer. "Huh?" Atheism, he explained, is the stage in which the mental image of divinity is destroyed, and this destruction makes room for the experience of a divinity different from your fantasy of the divine. I’ve thought a lot about this since then. I think it may be what is behind the prohibitions against making "graven images" in Judaism, Islam, and some parts of Christianity—it is too easy to confuse our own (mental or graven metal ) constructs with whatever might really be there. That seed of insight sprouted a poem I called "Smashing the Idol." For me, it was a declaration of independence and a new beginning:

F i r s t
I don’t believe.
And if there were such a god,
honor would oppose him,
not worship him.
Even if he held all the cards,
the heavy artillery
and the keys to hell,
I would join the Underground.
I would study that god,
learn his weaknesses
and fight him, even without hope.
I would not be alone.
No. There are others.
We would fling ourselves at that god,
no single one of us, perhaps,
denting his mighty armor.
But over the ages, perhaps,
even Jehovah would go down,
buried under our tiny souls
like a bull elephant under sand.
And then we might begin.

N e x t
I cannot call you "God."
That word was stolen
by an iron monster
with iron feet
who sewed my lips shut
with wire.
I may listen for you in the barrens.
I may press my ear into the earth.
I may sit silent so that I can hear.
But you will have to have another name.

I tried other names. Mother names, Goddess names, aboriginal names. But whenever I spoke the name of the great cosmic Whatever, I felt inauthentic, as if I were acting a role or taking a pose. I wonder if this comes from my intensely churched upbringing, where religiosity was so mixed with power and manipulation. Perhaps in my deepest places I believe that whoever claims to be on a first-name basis with divinity is ipso facto lying, self-aggrandizing, a hypocrite, and not well-intentioned. Perhaps I believe this even when I myself am claiming that acquaintance.

An interesting case of this discomfort with naming the divine is in the phrase "Great Mystery." I knew a Seneca teacher by the name of Gray Eagle. In prayer, Gray Eagle addressed himself to "Great Mystery." That phrase, simply as a phrase, exactly represents what I understand to be at the root of all being: a mystery, a great one. There is nothing wrong with the meaning of the words, and yet I felt queasy using them. "Oh, Great Mystery"—I felt like a little girl trying on her mother’s shoes; they didn’t fit. Is it because there is, for me, something unsound about the act of naming divinity, the point where the great mystery becomes "Great Mystery": a name, like Joe the Bartender, a shorthand expression for everything that boggles the mind when we take the time to think about it? Does the naming, the shift into capital letters, take away the need to think by representing everything we once thought? By having a handy, bite-sized name for something huge and complex, do we give up our responsibility to relate to that something and then simply relate to our name for it, our image? Or, speaking of relating, is it just that people who comfortably toss off names for the divine (and in the vocative case, no less!) simply have a clearer sense of personal relationship with . . . Whatever?

When I was in nursing school, I invited my roommate and her tiny toddler, Sara, to my capping. Sara sat peaceably through the first part of the ceremonies, but as the stream of white-clad women began to trail solemnly across the stage to be capped, a sweet voice from the audience demanded loudly, "Where’s my Donna Glee?" In that mass of strangers, Sara was interested in exactly one—her, Donna Glee. She had not heard her parents or me use "my" in that claiming way. She found that word on her own. That little "my" can carry both the power of possession ("it’s mine, I own and control it and, by the way, you don’t") and the care of relationship ("my Donna Glee"). In the same way, naming seems to be a coin with two faces. On the one hand, naming seems to be almost a prerequisite for human relationship: can we get to the I-Thou if we don’t have a name for Thou? On the other hand, we name our children, our pets, and the lands we "discover" as we claim possession and control.

In "The Rule of Names," another short story dealing with this theme, Ursula K. LeGuin tells us, "To speak the name is to control the thing."

Is it possible to relate to a nameless divinity? Is it possible to refrain from the fantasy of owning or controlling a divinity we name?

If shying away from naming divinity has to do with turning away from a kind of idolatry, then it is relevant to consider that idolatry is not the making of images but the "rendering unto" the images that which is due to their source. By analogy, the speech act that we call "naming" would not be the problem. The trouble would come when we "render unto" the signifier the awe and respect that is due to the signified.

In the Christian fundamentalist world in which I was raised and still move about, that is just what happens in the taboo against "taking the Lord’s name in vain." Saying "Oh, God" is a sin because the syllable "g-o-d" is the name of divinity and must be rendered the same awe and respect that is due divinity itself.

"Taking the Lord’s name in vain" is so coupled in my mind with the taboo against swearing that it’s hard to imagine what it meant before that interpretation. The Jerusalem Bible phrases the commandment: "You shall not utter the name of Yahweh your God to misuse it" (Exodus 20:4). There’s more than one way to misuse a name: to hurt, to lie, to wield power over, to create conflict, to tangle and tear the web. Could the ultimate misuse of the name be to attach to it the reverence that is due to, is the natural consequence of, touching divinity itself?

Donna Glee Williams

Donna Glee Williams was formerly active in New Orleans (La.) Meeting and now attends a worship study group in Waynesville, N.C. She creates and leads weeklong, intensive learning adventures for spiritual renewal of public school teachers. She writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction; her recent work includes articles on mentoring and education about the Holocaust. © 2002 Donna Glee Williams