Friday, April 23, 2004

Why I believe in God: His Name

I don't know that this will be a series. To answer the question in full would take a long series of posts, and likely several years, but when I was discussing it with my small group on Monday, I explained how God kept surprising me with his "fittingness" (I checked: it's a real word). As I learn more about God, as I glimpse more and more of His mystery, the better everything fits in place, and the more I can say, "Of course, that's exactly as it should be." In some ways, it's like a scientific theory. A good theory should not only explain what we've observed, it should predict what we haven't observed yet, and new, even unexpected discoveries, should follow the theory, sometimes leading us to say, "Of course. We should have expected that." Here's one example, from my youth (I was probably 12 at the time):

I was pondering the question of why we call God "God." "God" isn't a name--it's not even a title--it's a classification. It's a hazy one, to be sure, having been applied to a wide range of immortal (and semi-immortal) beings with authority and influence over mortal events. Of course, I don't believe in any of those gods: Zeus, Odin, Moloch, or the like. And that, I suppose, is the reason why we simply call God "God." If there are lots of gods, you need names to tell them apart, just like we need names to distinguish us. But if there's only one god, he doesn't need a name, because there's no one to distinguish him from. Oh, that's no reason not to give him descriptive titles, which are peppered all through the Bible, titles such as the Lord of Hosts, the God who sees. All descriptive, none necessary to distinguish him. How cool, I thought. Of course God doesn't need a name.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered God did have a name. Not a title or an appellation, but a formal name that he's claimed for himself. We know it by it's Latinized form, Jehovah, but the Hebrew, which was by the first century never pronounced aloud, is YHWH, also called the Tetragrammaton. The pronunciation would be something like Yahweh. If you have a King James Version Bible, everyplace you see LORD (in all caps), it's substituted for the Tetragrammaton (similar to what the Jews would do whenever they encountered the name while reading the scripture aloud). That discovery was disheartening to me. I suppose no one else will appreciate this, but in my mind it may God less, closer to the hundreds of national gods worshipped by the peoples appearing in the Old Testament.

That is, until I learned what YHWH meant. The name appears very early in the Bible, and is commonly used for God in Genesis, but it isn't until Moses asks God what he is called that we get an explanation:
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.
(Exodus 3:14)

God's name means I AM. And suddenly I found my logic trumped. Not only does God not need a name, he doesn't even need a classification. It is enough that he exists, as he is the only thing which exists independently, self-subsistently. He is the origin of all other existence. God is, and the simple declaration of that fact is name enough for him.

I've found that most people are mightily unimpressed with this story: it doesn't prove anything. There are, in fact, other, less profound interpretations of what YHWH means. For me, though, it was an "Aha!" moment, one that showed me that God was greater than my expectations, greater than my philosophy predicted. But if God is real, if he is what I think he is, then isn't he greater than my imagination can predict? Only when the truth is revealed to me can I recognize its appropriateness. Going back to my scientific theory analogy, it's one more piece of evidence, unexpected but congruent with the theory: God is, and he has spoken to us.

Update: (4/26) I changed the name of this post from "Why I believe in God -- A small part of it, anyway" to "Why I believe in God: His Name." I figured a better name was worthwhile.

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