Running the ridge of hills behind my house, the Roman road connects Venta Belgarum with Corinium. That is, Winchester with Cirencester.
Uniquely, as far as I know, this Roman road incorporates a wide, gentle curve. As you head north-west, it rises through woods and opens on a wide view over Savernake Forest, the Kennet Valley, to the Marlborough Downs beyond. The hills round here are ringed with ancient earthworks, capped with barrows. And the fields below are littered with sarsen stones.
Late one night, I was driving home in a sudden rainstorm. As I crested the hill in my Seat Ibiza, a full moon emerged from behind a clot of cloud. And floating in the valley below, I saw a rainbow. But a rainbow bleached almost entirely of colour, an arch of graded greys. I pulled over.
What do you even call such a thing? A moonbow? Surely not; its more common cousin isn’t called a sunbow. Night-rainbow is clumsy and bland, and wouldn’t do justice to this apparition. How do meteorological phenomena get their names? For that matter, how does anything get a name? How does Venta Belgarum become Winchester? The pagan sarsen stones I just mentioned, it is said, have their name from ‘saracen’ meaning Muslim, and ‘Muslim’ to the medieval mind just meant ‘non-Christian.’
Names are mystically weighted in the Bible. God is unnameable. The name for God is not a name at all, it is an unsayable code, the Tetragrammaton: YHWH. Unpronounceable, the non-word is replaced in scriptural or liturgical language with Adonai (Lord) or just HaShem (The Name). Even the unnameable somehow has to be addressed or referred to. Names are an essential part of discourse, and this occasionally presents God with a little difficulty.
Part of Jacob’s wrestling match with God at Peniel is a trade-off over names. Jacob loses his old name and gains another. And his opponent refuses to give a name at all:
Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’Genesis 32:27-29
Jacob’s challenger has no name to give. Or if he does, it’s strange. At the burning bush, when Moses too asks God his name, God answers:
“I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”Exodus 3:14
Names are nouns. God’s name – if it is a name – appears to be a verb. God is saying: I am not Jane or Jim; I just AM. In fact, I am the ‘am’ in ‘I am Jim.’ Jim wouldn’t be Jim – Jim wouldn’t be at all – if I wasn’t the am for him.
Recently we’ve all become concerned with identity theft. Our bank details, our National Insurance numbers, our medical records, and holiday photographs are all stored online, vulnerable to theft or misuse. These are real anxieties. But I don’t think we should fall into the trap of calling it ‘identity theft.’ If someone steals my bank account details, I may lose some money, but have I lost my identity? Really, is that what we think? What a dreadful thinning away of personhood!
Names are different. Names are more than stealable pieces of information about us; somehow they are us.
Towards the end of The Crucible, John Proctor has been threatened, imprisoned and blackmailed into making a false verbal confession. But when he refuses to sign the deposition he gives his reason in these shattering lines:
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!Arthur Miller, The Crucible, Act IV
For Proctor, his name is the essential bearer of his identity. Even if you can lose your soul, it would still be you doing the losing.
Some philosophers of the last century, like Bertrand Russell, thought names were fundamentally descriptions. For Russell, a name is synonymous with the set of descriptions we associate with that name. So, the name ‘Aristotle’ when used in reference to the famous philosopher means ‘that famous ancient philosopher’ or ‘the tutor to Alexander the Great’ or ‘that bearded bloke from Stagira’ and so on.
Personally, I’m not convinced by Russell’s view. I don’t think names ultimately are descriptions; I think they’re more like claims. To know someone’s name is to lay claim to a connection with them, however distant. And conversely, having a name lays us open to the claims of others. Names individuate us, and implicate us, separate us from the rest of the world, and enmesh us in the rest of the world.
When the Word of God empties Himself to become flesh and be born in human likeness, the first thing that happens, even before conception, is the giving of a name:
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.Luke 1:31
And because he died for us God exalts Him,
and gave him the namePhilippians 2:9
that is above every name
Ultimately God lays claim to us all through that one redeeming Name in whom we are all implicated and known and loved:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;Isaiah 43:1
I have called you by name, you are mine.
May the unnameable God bless you today and always,
Colleen is a French musician, songwriter and composer-collagist. I’ve loved her music for a long time. It’s part jazz, part experimental pop; there’s a delicately beautiful bric-a-brac quality to everything she does. This is called Moonlit Sky and it perfectly captures the delicate, fleeting strangeness of that… whatever it’s called.
you spoke us into being through your Word,
and gave us breath by your Spirit
so grant us the grace to speak out forever
our own words of praise and thanksgiving.
Call us by our names,
claim us as your own,
even as you redeem us through your Son,
the Name above all Names,
Jesus Christ our Lord.