The names of God—the idea of the infinite reflected in a nearly infinite number of images and words— was the subject of the day in my church this morning. Following are some remarks delivered there by yours truly.
I’ve been mulling the 99 or the 9 billion or however many names of God there might be. But I find myself coming back to what has historically been the most prominent of those names: Father. The male of the species.
The mystics might speak of the alpha and omega, the unmoved mover and the fathomless void, but in everyday parlance among the masses of humanity throughout history God has mostly been: a man.
At his best, a benevolent all-embracing father figure. At his worst: a raging avenger constantly threatening to lay waste to his creation.
This line of thought has been dogging me in the wake of about 9 billion recent news articles. They detail the activities of Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, even George Bush Sr. from his wheelchair.
It is a long, long list, these paragons of privilege, exemplars of take-what-you-want patriarchy.
My ear is now against his chest, I’m curled up in him, and I know, deep in my bones, despite the ocean’s clamor, that nothing bad could possibly happen to me.
It seems undeniable that biology has largely been destiny for most of recorded history. And men, being the bigger and stronger of the genders, have felt entitled to name themselves God, to create him in their ideal image as a craggily handsome bearded fellow in the sky.
And then to act as Masters of the Universe, moving its chess pieces around as they see fit.
Prominent among these chess pieces have been women, whose wails of protest at being overpowered and subjugated have mostly been unheard, ignored, disbelieved, repressed, smothered and dismissed. Time after time, century upon century. And more pointedly: life upon particular life.
Yet now, we seem to have reached a watershed moment, a cultural crisis point of me-too-ism. The true severity, the insidiousness, the depth and breadth of patriarchal privilege, have perhaps finally and fully been exposed. And it is not a pretty picture. It makes me want to emit an Old Testament wail on behalf of my gender:
“Oh Abba, what have you wrought?”
How do we even begin to make amends?
So I am thinking back to my own father. My first God, in a profound sense. My protector, but also my occasional harsh critic. One of the kindest, most sentimental people ever, but not without his own demons and private sufferings.
And a memory floats to the surface of him walking me into the ocean when I am maybe 4 years old. The waves are roaring, or so it seems. And I am frightened. Noting this, my father scoops me up into his arms—and then walks me in a little further.
Scared as I am, I’m also aware of an acute feeling of security. My ear is now against his chest, I’m curled up in him, and I know, deep in my bones, despite the ocean’s clamor, that nothing bad could possibly happen to me. I’m with my dad, and he is stronger than any ocean.
That’s a delusion, of course. But I would say a helpful and even necessary one as children learn to feel secure enough to someday venture out into that ocean on their own.
Fast forward eight or nine years. I’m in middle school, suffering through a two-week PE unit in gymnastics. I’m a basketball player, but parallel bars and long horses? I don’t think so!
As the day approaches to get graded on our long horse leaps, I’m at least as scared as I was in the ocean with my father years earlier. We’re supposed to hurtle ourselves off a springboard and up and over this high, 4-foot-long, hard leather horse.
I’m not the least bit confident I can make it without severely injuring myself and putting the family jewels at risk.
But there’s no way I can sissy out of it. You just don’t do that in middle school; it would be the ultimate humiliation. I’m a guy!
So I run, and I leap, and…there is NO CHANCE I am going to make it over. None.
Suddenly, a hand, an all-powerful hand, the very hand of God as represented by my coach, whom I deeply admire, descends from nowhere. With one powerful yank on my shirt this hand guides me all the way across and clear of the horse.
I never even see the hand, but eureka!—do I ever feel it! I land on my feet, still whole, still intact, not exactly in triumph, but definitely in profound relief and gratitude.
Godly male power has exerted itself, setting the world aright, acting when necessary, in perfect proportionality, to his child’s need. With a gentleness not in contrast to power, but as power’s deepest, most loving manifestation.
So while I’m thinking our world could no doubt benefit from a millennium or two or 10 of referring to God strictly as mother, as she, as the divine feminine, there would be tragedy, too, if among those 9 billion other names, we didn’t also remember—and even revere—the best and highest expressions of fatherhood.
Of the soothing voice from the whirlwind saying, “Here, let me give you a hand, my child. THERE you go…”
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tree photo near top of page by Andrew Hidas, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Whirlwind photo near top of page by Leonard J Matthews, Brisbane, Australia
“God Judging Adam” by William Blake, from the Musee Londres Tate Britain
I needed this today! There is such a flood of emotion in me, watching and listening to each new perp being publicly named; waiting for their response; shuddering at the denial (Roy Moore, eg) and appreciating even the small attempts at honesty (Louis CK).
But there is a part of me that is actually *quaking* in fear – waiting for the backlash.
Your reminder of some good elements of men, and fathers, was good to hear. And put me in mind of my own father, whom I loved dearly but *never* think of when I get so utterly bereft.
A good reminder. Thank you.
Thank for sharing this, Jeanette. We are in turbulent times, with a kind of fascination-horror dynamic that accompanies each day’s exposure to the news cycle. As I’m writing this my phone buzzed with a blurb from Time mag about yet another woman saying the elder George Bush groped her when she was 16. I’m concerned, too, that the cumulative weight of these will lead to a kind of fatigue and backlash, but jeez, is this a moment of cultural reckoning for us, or what??
I’m very glad this stimulated good memories of your own Pop. Precious, sustaining ballast in rough seas…
There is no question that men are too often the source of violence instead of graceful power. It seems like many men have envisioned themselves as benevolent gods since history began. Even the Eden story implies that God expected a lot more from Adam than Eve. He is the first one that is held responsible for eating the wisdom fruit. But he rejects the idea that he was weak or wrong. He had his reasons for eating the smart apple.
The woman, whom God created to help him, betrayed him by persuading him that he should share the fruity feast with her. While, the consequences for their disobedience were apparently doled out equally on them both, the dye of denial has been cast: man was not as guilty as the woman. She was the reason that Adam f **ked up. From that point forward male power has played a very mixed role in human history. It almost seems as if men can’t win for losing. If by using his power to stay on top, he causes people, at least some of them, to feel comforted and safe then he is a hero. If he fails to bring to others what they want, the hero might well become a monster.
But here’s the rub. Many men will fight to be right, even when they’re wrong. Thus as the human race evolves, it becomes increasingly difficult to please women, not to mention other men, and what about God “Himself”, because they all want some respect for their own views of life. I imagine that Cain, one of Adam’s boys, might have something to say about trying to be “the man,” and competing with a snot-faced younger brother who’s trying to muscle in on Cain’s status of being head of the family. I can hear him shouting out in a rage, “what the hell do you want from me? I try to do my manly job of being in control, and then get condemned for doing what I was created to do.”
But I can imagine that Abel also has his manly reasons for offering the sacrifice that he knew would please God Father more that his elder brother’s did. This is a kind of paradigm that describes the source of much of the violence experienced by humanity throughout history.
Modern men, a significant number of them, feel conflicted in the role of being powerful in a world that confuses power with practical superiority. Unless men can grasp the paradox that the great power is best expressed with great humility, he will likely become a monster. While mankind has made great advances throughout the millennia, men still have a difficult, in some cases impossible time acquiring the needed consciousness to humbly stand strong, and understand that violence is the antithesis of strength.
Thanks for that, Robert. I found myself reminded of the old joke about never getting into an argument with someone who buys their ink by the barrel—namely, newspaper owners. In the case before us, males had the physical power, the quills and the parchment, and they wrote the story of themselves, starring themselves, directed, produced, marketed and acted upon by themselves. Women have been paying a heavy price ever since, their wily Eve having ruined everything for that innocent and defenseless Adam.
Men, of course, have suffered in their own way, as you suggest, getting all confused about what true power is and how to wield it. We seem to be coming around just a bit, though, inch (by grudging!) inch. Human survival may well depend on our continuing progress.
Wow… where did you find that video?? LOVED IT! Paul Mealor… Celtic choral music at it’s haunting best… well outside my rock n’roll/americana wheel house… listening to his “A Tender Light” as I post this – so my first comment is a collective “THANKS BRO” for music/videos you often post w/your reflections… This whole deal of “the Father” and names of God to the mystical hand of a gym teacher saving your sorry ass… too much… I really loved Jeanette’s comment, which instantly brought up thoughts of my Dad, who was so far beyond the cultural norms in terms of being so comfortable with his female/nurturing side – it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I fully appreciate what a cool guy my pops was, “Theodore Charles Feldman” – we called him “TC” or Top Cat – totally mellow, a positive paranoid – sure the Universe was out to do you good if you would only attend and allow it… the religous story line never moved me very deeply (Adam & Eve – Cain & Abel etc), for whatever reason, but as I became more aware of the “gender issues” in our culture/world – and how deeply they are embedded in our cross cultural DNA (women are on the short end of most sticks one might name) – I have a far deeper appreciation of what an amazing man my father was… thanks to you, Jeanette and Robert for your thoughts… “A Tender Light” indeed…
The video was an easy find Kevin—our choir sang the piece during our service, I was entranced, so just went looking for it on the ever-reliable You Tube!
Damn, sorry I missed out on the Top Cat! As in so many areas, it’s heartening and important to remember that most men are not abusers, most fathers are not unfeeling dolts, most people of whatever color are not caustic racists, and most human beings are, on the whole, good and kind people who mean well and try their best with what they have. It’s too easy sometimes, given the reach and imprint of modern media, to sink into dark surly despair about the state of the world. Therein lies nothing but…more despair, which never solved nothing for nobody.