So a small question for you – who is God?
Last time we looked whether God might ever say “I am Charlie”. This time I’d like to look at an almost equally famous and maybe even slightly more important “I am” that God apparently did once say…
Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’
God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM [or I will be what I will be]. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:13-14)
So then, who is God? It’s a fairly fundamental question, not just to theology but (I’d argue) to everything. But as we might expect, it’s not one with a simple answer. Or rather, it’s one with so simple an answer that at first sight it seems meaningless.
God tells Moses that his name is ‘I am’ (or ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be what I will be’). What on earth does this enigmatic statement mean? What can we usefully learn about God’s nature and character from such a tautology?
The basics: Shut up – I’m God
On the most basic level, it sounds like a simple rebuff: ‘Stop asking questions that you won’t understand the answer to’. Viewed this way, it could be a bit like a parent’s answer of ‘because’ (or ‘because I say so’) to their offspring’s ‘why?!’ of protest, or to a toddler’s endless unanswerable ‘why?’s for information.
Or similarly, it could be a reminder of who’s in charge, who’s setting the terms of the conversation: ‘I’m the Daddy; there’s a time for discussion, but now’s the time to listen.’ Or in other words, ‘I’m God; you’re not; that’s all you need to know for the moment’.
If so, it wouldn’t be the only time in the Old Testament that God speaks in this kind of way. ‘Be still and know that I am God’, as the author of Psalm 46 puts it – or to paraphrase slightly, ’Shut up – I’m in charge’. It’s essentially what Jesus said to the storm on Lake Galilee – ‘Peace! Be still’. I’m God – quit messing about and arguing back.
Or look at God’s climactic speech to Job. Job spends chapter after chapter complaining against God, and demanding that God answer his charge. But when God finally does, he doesn’t give an answer. Instead, to paraphrase again, God says something like ‘Look Job, you haven’t got a clue, and you wouldn’t have a chance of understanding if I did explain. I’m God, I’m beyond awesome, so stop wasting words and get on your knees.’
Who is God? He’s God. What else do we need to know; what else could we actually understand? He’s the Boss, the Daddy, the Head Honcho, the Big Cheese, the Numero Uno. Of course he’s a lot more than that, but that’s the basics; Theology 101.
But I think ‘I am who I am’ actually means a whole lot more than that…
The paradoxical God – unknowable but known
For starters, God’s self-revealed name is a whopping great paradox. One way of reading it is ‘My name is No name’. Or at least God is The One Beyond Naming – literally the Name above all names. No name is great enough for God, no name could be adequate for his beyond-describable Reality; no word or words can sum him up. He is ineffable.
“Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not” is the title of an Arctic Monkeys album, but it could equally be a gloss on “I am that I am”. We try to describe God, to list his attributes, and in some ways we have to, but we have to know it’s never quite right, never quite the whole truth – because anything we can imagine must be lesser than the full reality of God.
So some Christian mystics have instead opted for the ‘Way of Negation’ – approaching God through what we can’t say or know about him rather than what we can; through his unspeakability and unknowability. By this idea, we’re only really able to speak of God in terms of who and what he is not rather than who he is. So in this sense, and in line with my fave philosopher-theologian Peter Rollins, God’s “I am” rather becomes “I am (not)”.
All our theologies and doctrines are wrong to an extent; they must always fall short of the reality. Whenever we try to say something about God, we can’t help but misrepresent him because God is always better and greater and more real.
In this sense then God is unknowable – we certainly can’t comprehend the fullness and wonder of all he is, nor ever put it into any kind of description or explanation. Yet, paradoxically, he is also knowable, for he makes himself known to us. Though he is beyond naming or knowing, he gives us a nameless name by which we can begin to know him.
And crucially this knowledge of him cannot be merely intellectual, for ‘I am’ is not primarily an intellectual statement. Rather it has to be personal (not to mention poetic and paradoxical). This is the kind of truth, the kind of knowing, that matters most. God makes himself known to us personally and experientially even if we’ll never understand him intellectually. Our best response to God then is not analysis but awed wonder at his utter God-ness.
Personality and presence
The more we look at the phrase “I am”, the more meaning we find in what at first looked meaningless.
So the ‘I’ implies personality and rationality – and indeed relationship (for the ‘I’ is addressed to a ‘You’). God is not an impersonal force; he is a thinking, speaking, feeling, acting and relational being. (It also sidesteps the gender question; God is ‘I’ not ‘he’ or ‘she’, though I’m using ‘he’ throughout for convenience.)
And the ‘am’ further implies that God is current and present; he is here, now. He is in the present tense, in this moment, acting and speaking and calling – to us. It implies reality and presence; that God is real not merely imagined, and God is truly with us.
‘I am’ can also paradoxically imply that God has always been. As Jesus put it, ‘before Abraham was, I am’. It breaks the logic of grammar and time, because God is greater than these things – than anything in the universe, including time and space and existence itself. He could equally say ‘before time was, I am’.
When atheists say that God does not exist, we can actually agree. God does not exist, for existence is an attribute of contingent things, of created beings, of substances we can describe and quantify, things which have beginnings and ends. The infinite God stands beyond or behind all this. God does not ‘exist’; he IS.
So above all, God is; he always is, always has been; he alone is the eternal, pre-existent one upon whom all else depends for being and existence. No one else can simply say ‘I am’ and that be enough, because only God is the source, the ground, the necessary being; the beginning and end.
The Unnameable God?
There is a tradition that we should not speak or spell out the name of God, or YHWH – “I am”. This may come partly from the old, magical idea that to name something gives you power over it. And while I don’t accept this idea, I can see something in it. Once you name something, it’s all too easy to feel that you really know it or understand it or have a handle on it. Something named easily becomes something tamed, something familiar, something owned even. And surely God can never be that.
Yet at the same time, God does make himself close and even familiar to us, does put himself in that place where we can relate to him and so disrespect him. In some senses, perhaps he even chooses to make himself undignified and vulnerable to us. It’s another of the odd paradoxes of God that we’ll probably never understand – the sovereign servant, the vulnerable almighty, the familiar unknowable. He is who he is and who he will be, not who we think he should be… of which more next time.
To be continued…