Maria Oswalt,

What in the name of God is God?

  • June 1, 2023

In the last few years, I have developed an increasing reluctance to use the word “God.” It’s not that I have stopped believing in God or that I no longer like God or that I would rather not discuss God.

Words must have clear, fixed meanings for language to communicate what we want to say. Language works because we know what words mean, and those with whom we communicate have a similar understanding of those words. Meanings can, of course, evolve over time, and words can have secondary meanings. 

They can also have metaphorical meanings. The word “cloud,” for example, generally refers to a visible mass of condensed watery vapour floating in the atmosphere high above the ground. But in the hands of the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, the word implies that God is not someone or something that can be grasped or fully understood. At best we can abandon our reliance on the divine attributes as a path to encountering God and, through contemplative prayer, hope to catch a passing glimpse of the divine.

I like this approach, although it has problems. How can we love, praise and worship a Divine Being who is so ephemeral, so totally beyond human comprehension?

The notion of God as a cloud of unknowing is, however, made concrete through the incarnation of the Son of God in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of God’s revelation to humanity. Jesus not only shows us God’s way, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Revelation, however, does not eliminate the unknowing. Rather, it should help us enter a personal relationship with the Divine Awesomeness.

Judaism tries to break through the constraints of language with its seven names of God, names so sacred that, once written, they cannot be erased — YHWH, Adonai, Shaddai, Elohim, El, Tzevaot and I AM that I AM. This approach seems to acknowledge any name we give to God — or G*d — limits God by reducing God’s name to the level of other nouns.

But is “God” a noun? Perhaps the sacred name is a verb. In our era, the dynamic takes precedence over the fixed. So, the notion of “God” as a noun is derided as being static. God is better understood as action, movement or process. 

This response gives me pause. Surely, the Divine is not either/or but both/and. God is eternal, God is movement, always creating and loving. 

Then there is the issue of pronouns. One good reason for using pronouns to refer to God is that it implies that God is personal as opposed to a thing. One bad reason is to suggest that God is a man ... or a woman. I have accepted the use of the pronoun “He,” even though for many it implies endorseing God as a male hierarchy. I don’t understand God as either male or a hierarchy but rather as an infinite outpouring of self-sacrificing trinitarian love. But if you object to using the male pronoun, I do not have a good rebuttal.

In his recent book, The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets: Then and Now, Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev translates God’s name as the Living Presence. Ward-Lev states that when Moses asks God for His name, God gives a response — “I will be what I will be” — which both makes clear that God’s nature cannot be limited by human language and assures Moses God will be with God’s people throughout time. So “the Living Presence” may help us overcome any anthropomorphic notions of God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “We must continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God — ‘the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable’ — with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.”

To be Catholic means to encounter God in Jesus Christ through word and sacrament, but also to be a mystic, to yearn for a relationship with the Inexpressible. Whatever words we use to talk about God should heighten our awareness of the divine incomprehensibility rather than deluding ourselves and others that we grasp the fullness of the Living Presence.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at 

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