“I am who I am” – Naming the unnameable God

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…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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7 Responses to “I am who I am” – Naming the unnameable God

  1. Terry says:

    I’m with you mostly, Harvey, but I’m hesitant to endorse this bit:

    [quote]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.[/quote]

    I’d suggest that a theology or doctrine falling short of reality isn’t necessarily wrong, even though it’s probably not comprehensive. To choose one example as an illustration: the doctrine of the Trinity must necessarily fall short of the reality of God, but it isn’t necessarily wrong (at least, not in principle; particular accounts of the doctrine (e.g. modalism) may well be wrong, but this can only be said on the basis that other accounts are presumed to be right), and it doesn’t necessarily mispresent God. It just can’t encompass the totality of who God is.

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    • Yes, fair point, particularly about the doctrine of the Trinity. I suppose it depends partly what you mean by ‘wrong’, but maybe it’s better just to stick with ‘partial’ or ‘incomplete’.

      So I would say that the Trinity is a good doctrine, but for me it’s quite an exceptional one – a deeply mysterious and counter-intuitive idea that flies in the face of rational logic. For me it’s really rather like the “I am” statement – an idea that initially seems almost meaningless or anti-meaningful, but which as a consequence is productive of almost endless meaning.

      So what I like about the doctrine of the Trinity is that (in itself) it doesn’t try to pin too much down or over-explain – it just says that God is one and God is three, that the Father is God and Jesus is God and the Spirit is God, and doesn’t try to make sense of that.

      I would say that the Trinity is only a model or a picture, because that’s the level on which we can understand. So to some extent it may not be ‘right’ in the sense that maybe God isn’t really like that – it’s just the best way that we have of understanding him. But I’m very happy to be wrong on this!

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      • Terry says:

        ‘Partial’ and ‘incomplete’ are good terms in this context; I’m partial to the word ‘provisional’, which for me captures the essence of theology. If theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’, then we must always be prepared to entertain the possibility that previous doctrinal formulations are inadequate (again, not necessarily ‘wrong’), and so whatever we hold to be true now must be provisional.

        To continue using the Trinity as an example, I can well imagine a particular model or expression of the doctrine being proved inadequate or even wrong; this is where provisionality must be accepted. But I can’t imagine a fresh revelation of God that would lead the Church suddenly to reformulate the doctrine in order, say, to accommodate a fourth person of the Trinity, or to endorse a binity. Doctrines are an attempt to consolidate the experience of the Church (understood as a vibrant body of believers rather than a monolithic institution) in the light of the data of Scripture – and so while the doctrine of the Trinity makes sense of certain biblical passages and (at any rate) of the early Church’s experience of Jesus in relation to the Hebrew Scriptures, and can be formulated in a number of ways, it cannot be formulated in an infinite number of ways, lest the doctrine itself become meaningless.

        But I guess we’ll disagree on certain things in this respect. When you say that the doctrine of the Trinity ‘just says that God is one and God is three, that the Father is God and Jesus is God and the Spirit is God, and doesn’t try to make sense of that’, I would actually believe that that contention is the attempt to make sense of God. The doctrine itself is a bit more than a model or a picture, although the doctrine can accommodate models and pictures of the Trinity. Again, the precise expression of this has to be provisional, but I would suggest it’s not wrong.

        And now I’ll shut up, because I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with any of this. 😀

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        • I guess this is where it shows that you’ve actually studied theology academically, whereas I’m just coming at it as an interested amateur!

          Lots of very interesting points there… I think I would slightly disagree that the doctrine of the Trinity is inherently trying to make sense of God – again, depending what you mean by that. Like saying that light appears to behave both as a wave and as a particle – this is an observational statement, but in many ways it doesn’t make sense of light; rather it makes light more mysterious. We say it because it seems to be the case, not because it makes sense or clarifies things.

          I would still slightly defend the word ‘wrong’ though, albeit only in a limited sense. As a student of English, I would contend that words cannot help but misspeak and mislead, even if only slightly and unintentionally. So whenever we attempt to put an idea about God into words, we introduce an element of misunderstanding alongside the understanding. And at the best of times, talking of God in human language is a bit like trying to translate quantum physics into Teletubbie-speak.

          As a rather poor example, I speak of God as ‘he’ because that’s the convention and I don’t have a better pronoun. But it inevitably conveys some false ideas of human maleness.

          Also I would say that ‘provisional’ can, in a sense, be ‘wrong’. In GCSE chemistry you learn a particular model of atomic chemistry (electrons in ‘shells’) which is useful at that level of understanding (it enables you to perform basic calculations), but is actually ‘wrong’ – it bears no real relation to what’s actually going on. At A-level you have to completely discard it in favour of ‘orbitals’, and maybe at degree level you discard that in turn. So a doctrine can, I think, be wrong in one sense but still useful, because it’s the best picture we can get at our current level of understanding.

          I suppose the key thing for me is that a doctrine is a picture of God, not God himself. I don’t think that God = the Trinity; the Trinity is just a model for helping us get something fairly important about God.

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          • Terry says:

            I appreciate where you’re coming from, Harvey. And I’d agree with you on most of these things. I guess we differ on the accuracy – if that’s the right word! – of our words. Many within the tradition would go the apophatic route you seem to be advocating and say ‘talking of God in human language is a bit like trying to translate quantum physics into Teletubbie-speak’. I’d agree – to an extent. I just have a strong conviction that however provisional or incomplete our statements are about God, by God’s grace our words do become a capable vehicle for conveying truth about God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that our doctrines and traditions are divine self-revelation.

            I’d also agree that God does not equal the doctrine of the Trinity; nonetheless, the doctrine (as a basic arrangement of related ideas or concepts) does point accurately to God’s triune being (or the being of the triune God). So while I suppose particular formulations of the doctrine would constitute a model or a picture of God, the doctrine itself testifies to some kind of grammar of the Trinity that’s more fundamental.

            Grief, I need to re-read a load of stuff about models, language, etc. I haven’t thought much about this kind of stuff for at least a decade!

            By the way, instead of using ‘he’ for God, you could just use ‘God’. It’s inelegant, but, as far as I can tell, it’s increasingly common. Use of the word ‘Godself’ is not unknown; nor is use of ‘Goddess’ or ‘G*d’, to avoid masculine connotations.

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            • I’m apophatic all the way, me! Along with apopleptic, apologetic and apathetic.

              Actually, I do broadly agree with you that ‘by God’s grace our words do become a capable vehicle for conveying truth about God’. Just with a bunch of provisos and caveats.

              I like the idea of ‘a grammar of the Trinity that’s more fundamental’.

              I’ve tried using ‘God’ for ‘God’, but it does just become very cumbersome… and even ‘God’ is arguably misleading. ‘G*d’ I quite like but it looks a bit like a swear-word, and ‘Goddess’ just seems to be bringing in an equal but opposite error to ‘He’. I’ve also experimented with ‘[God]’ or ‘]God[‘ but I’m not convinced. I think we probably have to accept that there’s no completely adequate, non-misleading way of referring to, er, God, but maybe that’s okay so long as we’re aware of that.

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            • PS I’m a tiny bit Epiphytic too. But only at the Full Moon.

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