Naming the Divine

December 28, 2019
starry sky with low mountians and trees in silhouette

This morning (April 10, 2019), the first-ever photos of a black hole have been taken. To say they are awesome is an understatement. Working together across the planet, scientists have captured images of a black hole that is 50 million light years away and has the gravitational force of 6.5 billion solar masses (6.5 billion times the mass of our sun). As my oldest son summarized, “It looks so simple yet is also the embodiment of insanity!”

Insanity—because it is so much farther away and so much bigger than our minds can imagine. I remember sitting at a World Scout Jamboree with 40,000 Scouts and realizing that my mind could not grasp 40,000. So how am I to make sense of 50 million light years or 6.5 billion solar masses? Unfathomable! Insanity.

We worship the Creator of all of this—black holes, galaxies, and supernovae—in a universe that is so large it is beyond our comprehension. Here we sit on little old planet Earth, a speck in this system, upon which we are tiny motes of being. Psalm 8
comes to mind, which asks of God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

How do we begin to name and describe the One who has created this universe? We’ve been noticing, in the submissions to Gathering, that many writers are using just “God” in their prayers, as in “God, we pray that you…” (They’ve been edited by the time you see them on the page.) It seems that we have gone from almost exclusively using “Father” as an address of the Divine to using a variety of images to now using just “God” to address the divine in prayer. We’re curious about why this is. What has happened to the wonderful images and descriptions, from the Bible and beyond?

In a prayer, “God” seems too diminished a name to use for the Creator of the Universe, for an entity who creates black holes 50 million light years away. It also has something to do with the word God being one syllable that is quickly passed by, making the address of God a flippant moment. Even “O God” makes us pause a bit longer to consider the wonder of the Holy One.

In discussing this trend at the recent Gathering Advisory Board meeting, we talked about the process each of us uses for writing prayers. We shared how we reflect on the scriptures, consider the names and adjectives used for the Divine within the passages, pray and ponder the message of the scriptures, and then choose a name for the Holy that communicates an aspect of God.

Gracious God. Holy God. Compassionate God. God who protects us like a mother bear. God who welcomes us as a generous father. Light-Giver, Love-Bearer. Creator of Black Holes and Supernovae. Sacred Ground of Our Being. Divine Whisper. There are many names for God, names that point to something that is “Wholly Mystery, Holy Love” (A Song of Faith, 2006).

In the early 1900s, hymnody and prayers began to turn toward the image of a loving God who was present with us, rather that a judge sitting on a throne far away. This theology of imminence, reflecting the words of Revelation 21—“See the home of God is among mortals”—was a helpful turn from the harsh and fearful God. Has this theology of God’s imminence gone too far, now diminishing God? “God, we pray…” almost sounds like a “Hey, you!” when used to refer to the Creator of the Universe.

Perhaps it is time to find a new balance in which we celebrate the God who is lovingly present, ready to wipe away our tears (Revelation 21:4), while not diminishing the power and awe we should feel in the presence of the One who creates black holes and galaxies, the One of whom we should ask, trembling, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, Divine Creator of the Universe?”

Susan Lukey, Editor