One of the more frequently appearing, and theologically emphasized, names of God in the Hebrew bible is generally translated “I am that I am”, or sometimes “I am that is”. The point, I believe, is generally taken to be that the transcendent God cannot be truly described in human language. A second name of God, YHVH, often thought of in Judaism as in some sense the “most holy” appellation, is not even pronounced. One of the reasons offered for this is that a transcendent God cannot be truly named in human language, and the silence of the highest name of God serves as a reminder of this unbridgeable gap. Even the word “transcendent” here is misleading: a label that futilely attempts to express existence beyond the possibility of labeling. I in no way mean to offer any of this as a proof text for what follows (the very idea of a proof text would undermine my entire point!), merely as a frame for what I’m trying to communicate in a way that people may find orienting.

Reading and reflecting on this website, among other materials, I’ve been struck by how much of the tension between different perspectives /branches of Quakerism (not to mention branches of Christianity, and of religion in general) arises from fundamentally impossible attempts to capture ultimate things in human language. I can’t find the source right now, but I believe someone once wrote that the essence of idolatry is mistaking the symbol of a thing for the thing itself. It seems to me that this applies to religious language pretty much by definition, and is possibly more common in the modern world than all other forms of idolatry combined. {I should say that the word-concept “idolatry”, itself, is subject to the same difficulty, and I don’t mean any of this to be accusatory, only thought-provoking.}

What do I do when I “listen for God” or “wait on the Light”? I do that which I do with that with which I do it.

There’s nothing wrong with using our limited human language to try to haltingly communicate with our fellow humans about what’s happening in all this, but it only works to the extent that we are using word-symbols as signifiers of an ultimate to which others also have direct access, not because the word-symbols actually name or describe that ultimate. When we start getting attached to the particular symbols we’re using, to say nothing of judging (either favorably or unfavorably) those used by others, then we’re almost certainly deep in mistaking the symbol for the thing.

The same fundamental issue applies to the reading and interpretation of scripture. These are complex symbolic networks, whose meaning is necessarily less definite than that of the individual word-symbols of which they are composed, which are far from absolute themselves. Beyond that, most or all of these networks have been filtered through intermediary agents, translated across symbolic systems, and then (appropriately) attempt to address those very ultimates for which all symbolism is least adequate. Here, again, the symbols may help us communicate amongst ourselves about, and hopefully connect to, ultimate things to which we have other access. The symbols themselves, however, are not the things, nor can they truly name or describe them.

I hope at least some of this is meaningful to at least some readers! If not, well, one might argue that that’s a less direct way of making the same point. :)



Views: 298

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Hello, Aaron!  It seems to me that the "scandal" of Christianity is the claim that the great I Am  broke into human history and expressed Himself through a concrete human person, Jesus Christ.  Isn't this what the Incarnation is all about?

Hi, Bill, and thanks for taking the time to respond!

As regards your question, I'm not sure, and I wonder if the answer depends on just how "primitive" one wants to get. It's not clear to me how Jesus understood his role, which I suppose I'd consider the most primitive of all Christianities. My impression was that the idea of the Incarnation coalesced somewhat later, and it's not really what stands out for me, although what I find most powerful in Christian scripture is probably different from what moves many folks. Even within the "scandal" of Incarnation, though, I'd say that what it truly means for God to "express Himself through a concrete human person" transcends human language as much as any statement about the ultimate. 

In the interest of integrity (of the full disclosure variety), I'm not a "Christian" as the term seems to be used, although I may be a "Quaker". In any case, I deeply appreciate the purpose and content of this website, as I understand them, and definitely don't want to devalue or disrespect traditional experiences of Christianity or Quakerism.



The central point which that Name hints at, to anyone attuned to seeing it this way, is that God is (among other things) what you might call 'raw existence': "That which knows/says 'I am' in every sentient being."

The argument from created-world to Creator doesn't quite work, because anyone can imagine things simply existing for no particular reason.

But if you realize how utterly strange it is that we do exist-- that there exists consciousness of anything at all whatsoever-- then the incarnation of that Existence is evidently the Life that lives in everybody; and it becomes unimaginable that anything at all could exist without it.

Jesus says pretty clearly that we are all "children of" That. What he says makes sense in that context: that he realized in his historical life that God was living as the very Life in him, as well as being the very Life in everyone else around him.

The difference between him and them (and us!) would be in how clearly he knew this. Not like a person "knows" something they've been taught-- but the way a person knows something from working it out himself, from seeing it in operation, from having an intuitive sense for using/responding-to it.

The ethical wisdom and the miracles would follow from that perspective.

Hi Forrest,

Your perspective seems to have much in common with my own, but part of what I was trying to suggest in my post is that there is a necessarily high degree of ambiguity in these matters, due to intrinsic limitations of both the symbolic-linguistic material we are interpreting, and those that we are creating, none of which can or will ever truly represent the essence we are trying to express. This ambiguity of symbolic representation leaves room for a broad spectrum of understandings and representations very different from my own, all of which may meaningfully reflect direct encounters with the same inexpressible reality. It seems to me that a primary focus on that underlying reality, facilitated rather than displaced by our inevitably limited symbolism, is the key to real convergence.



Reply to Discussion


Support Us

Did you know that QuakerQuaker is 100% reader supported? If you think this kind of outreach and conversation is important, please support it with a monthly subscription or one-time gift.

You can also make a one-time donation.

Latest Activity

William F Rushby left a comment for Olaf Radicke
"Welcome, Olaf!  "
1 hour ago
Olaf Radicke updated their profile
7 hours ago
Diane Kerchner liked QuakerQuaker's group Plainness & Simplicity
10th month 21
Diane Kerchner liked William F Rushby's discussion Recapturing Initiative for Conservative Friends
10th month 21
Rainer Möller posted a blog post

Quakers unto the Civil War

My personal impression is that Quakers, like all abolitionists, enthusiastically took part in the…See More
10th month 19
Rainer Möller replied to William F Rushby's discussion 'Two Narratives in American Society'
"Following this review Macaes' seems to say that before our times, when "Liberalism"…"
10th month 19
William F Rushby replied to Howard Brod's discussion 'Why do Liberal Friends not Record Ministers or Spiritual Gifts?' in the group Liberal Quakers
"I think there is a relatively small elite at the top of the power structure of unprogrammed…"
10th month 18
Forrest Curo replied to Howard Brod's discussion 'Why do Liberal Friends not Record Ministers or Spiritual Gifts?' in the group Liberal Quakers
"The main Quaker hierarchy today are those who learn to manipulate "Quaker Process"."
10th month 18

© 2020   Created by QuakerQuaker.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service