Naming Things

The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, Ch. I (tr. S. Mitchell)

As Christians, we get very used to names. Jesus is spoken of as having “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2.9) and it is in his name that we are taught to pray. The Jesus Prayer is sometimes referred to as “The Prayer of the Name.”

What does Lao Tzu mean by saying that the source of all being cannot be named? I think that this has to do with incarnation, again. The birth of Jesus gave not only a human face to God, but a human name. (The name Jesus is the Latin form of the Aramaic/Hebrew name Yeshua (Joshua) – a common enough man’s name in Jesus’ time.) God, according to the account in Exodus, told Moses that the only name he could use of him was “I AM” (3.14), which sounds to me suspiciously like “The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.”

Time and again the presence of God is perceived as light. Jesus described himself as the Light of the world (John 8.12) and Quaker terminology is full of references to the Light. For instance, George Fox wrote in 1648,

Now the Lord God has opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine Light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the Light of Life, and became the children of it, but they that hated it and did not believe in it were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light, without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures, though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it. For I saw in that Light and Spirit, which was before Scripture was given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that Spirit, if they would know God or Christ or the Scriptures aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by.

(Quaker Faith & Practice, 26.42)

It seems to me that light is perhaps the only metaphor (if it is a metaphor and not the literal truth) that will stand for that which is before all things, and within all things, and in which all things hold together (Colossians 1.17) and can only be known by its own revelation of itself, and can only be what we call God. The Light is indeed unnamable – but it is as its spark is met in each of us (Galatians 2.20) that it has a name, and a face, and a human voice.

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