TS Eliot has a poem, ‘The Naming of Cats’ (Old Possums Book of Practical Cats), suggesting that a cat 'must have three different names’. The first is ‘the name that the family use daily’, such as Tabby, and is shared by many cats. The second is ‘a name that’s peculiar, and more dignified’, such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat, which surely only ever belonged to one cat. The third is ‘the name that no human research can discover’, but ‘the cat himself knows, and will never confess’. How like God. He too has three different names. What light does this throw on our understanding of God?
Any discussion about religion, be it in school or university Common Room, pub or club, is always liable to drift into a heated debate about whether you believe in God. All the old arguments, for and against, will be trotted out and when ennui sets in those who believe will go on believing and those who reject will go on rejecting.
The question rarely addressed is which God (or whose God) we are talking about. God, after all, is a generic term. Yahweh is the God of the Jews. Jesus, in popular parlance, is the God of the Christians. Allah is the God of the Muslims and Hinduism has lots of gods.
The First Name
Christians will argue that there is only one God and that is the Christian God. But are not these other gods just as real for their followers as the God of the Christians is for them? And are not all their roles at least similar even if different? Could they not perhaps simply be other gods with other shrines, a question sharply raised by Barbara Greene and Victor Gollancz in 1962 with their book, God of a Hundred Names?
Can anyone honestly overlook the fact that even among Christians there are ‘other gods’ aplenty? The god of the altar, the god of the sacrament and the god of the moral majority whom Christians worship on a Sunday is a very different god from the one most Christians worship the rest of the week and both gods may be very different from the one revealed in Jesus Christ. Did not Paul say as much when he wrote about ‘principalities and powers’, and ‘the rulers of this world’, and so on? Is not even the Prince of Darkness 'another God'?
Suppose ‘God’ is simply the first name of the Cat. It’s the name we all know, clear and recognisable whether we spell it out with a few additions or alternatives such as Deity, the All Powerful, the Mighty One, and so on. We all know them. We all recognise them.
The Second Name
The second name is the unique name given to a particular cat that is different, possibly because of the way he arrived on the scene, or because his requirements were different, or the way he behaved was novel. That ‘something’ which distinguishes him from all the others, leading Jews to Yahweh, Christians to Jesus, or Muslims to Mohammad, all to emphasise but also to appreciate the differences within the commonality.
Jesus, a Jew, for example, had a different attitude to the Gentiles from many who were content with Yahweh. A man, he had a different attitude to women. An adult, he responded differently towards children. He touched the lepers, saw the blind, heard the deaf and went out of his way to relate to the alienated. A regular attender at the Temple and the Synagogue, he was not slow to challenge the whole existing religious order and then go out and claim to communicate with God in the mountains and in the beauty of nature. And for those who missed the point of all this his followers distilled the essence in the words of the Magnificat with phrases such as, ‘He has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree . . . he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away’ and so on.
Yet despite popular parlance, there is no hint in contemporary Christianity that this is a new God. Christianity is adamant that the God who comes in Jesus with his life of humanitarian love and forgiveness is entirely one with the God of power and might. But from that point, for Christians, there is no doubt that God has a different name — a distinctive name and there is no other like him.
The Third Name
Time to go back to Eliot.
‘But above all and beyond, there’s still one name left over
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover —
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS and will never confess.’
Most cat-lovers know only too well that you can never ‘own’ a cat in the way that you can own a dog. In a peculiar way the cat is never ‘yours’. Eliot’s poem seems to underline the point, and it is less than helpful when devout religious people in all faiths unwittingly convey the idea that we ‘own’ God. He’s ours. We’ve sorted him out. We can call him by his name, when in fact there is a third name for God that we can never get at.
‘Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will.'
God in all his fullness is not unlike mountains. Always there. Always the same, yet always undergoing change, so gradual that nobody ever lives long enough to see all. Always a tremendous drawing power, and yet always beyond our grasp, as every true mountaineer knows and will not knowingly take advantage of them. So too Browning, when he said,
‘Ah, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for?’
This understanding of God goes back to the very beginning of Jewish history. Names were important. So that when God called Moses to go and deliver the Children of Israel from Egypt Moses had to ask the vital question,‘When I say the God of our Fathers has sent me’, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say? And God’s answer is a bit of quite untranslatable Hebrew: translators have made the most of it with the peculiar phrase, ‘I am who i am’ or ‘I will be what I will be’ or (if you like) ‘Guess who’ For here is a God who is saying, ‘The full reality — the full name — you can never know’.
An Old Egyptian prayer said much the same.
'God is hidden, no man knoweth his form,
No man has searched out his similitude.
He is hidden to gods and men.
He is secret to all his creatures.
No man knoweth a name by which to call him.
His name is hidden. His name is secret to all his children.
His names are without number.
His names are many; no man knoweth the number thereof.'
(Quoted in Greene and Gollancz, God of a Hundred Names, p 5)