Many Names and One God


Some say that God is infinitely distant, totally incomprehensible, absolutely different from anything human minds can conceive. So much so, in fact, that this God might just as well not « exist » in the sense that we understand « existence » and its various modalities.

Others think that God creates, speaks, justifies, gratifies, condemns, punishes, saves, in short actually interacts, in various ways, with the world and with human beings.

At first glance, these two lines of thought are contradictory, incompatible.

But there is yet another hypothesis: the possibility of a God who is at once infinitely distant, incomprehensible, and at the same time close to men, speaking to them in their language.

Some texts describe forms of interaction between God and man. In the Book of Exodus, for example, God says to Moses:

« There I will meet thee, and I will speak with thee from the mercy seat between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the Testimony, and I will give thee my commandments for the children of Israel. « (Ex. 25:22)

How can we justify the use of these words: « from », « upon », « between »? Are they not, inasmuch as they indicate positions and places, rather strange for a divine Spirit, who is supposed to be disembodied?

According to Philo of Alexandriai, God thus indicates that He is « above » grace, « above » the powers symbolized by the cherubim, i.e. the power to create and the power to judge. The Divine « speaks » by occupying an intermediate place, in the middle of the ark. The Divine fills this space and leaves nothing empty. God mediates and arbitrates, placing Himself between the sides of the ark that seemed separated, bringing them friendship and harmony, community and peace.

The Ark, the Cherubim, and the Word (or Logos) must be considered together as a whole.

Philo explains: « First, there is the One who is First – even before the One, the Monad, or the Principle. Then there is the Divine Word (the Logos), which is the true seminal substance of all that exists. And from the divine Word flow as from a source, dividing, two powers. One is the power of creation, by which everything was created. It is called « God ». And there is the royal power, by which the Creator governs all things. It is called « Lord ». From these two powers flow all the others. (…) Below these powers is the Ark, which is the symbol of the intelligible world, and which symbolically contains all the things that are in the innermost sanctuary, namely, the incorporeal world, the « testimonies, » the legislative and punitive powers, the propitiatory and beneficent powers, and above them, the royal and creative power that are their sources.

But between them also appears the divine Word (the Logos), and above the Word, the Speaker. And so seven things are enumerated, namely, the intelligible world, then above it, the two powers, punitive and benevolent, then the powers that precede them, creative and royal, closer to the Creator than to what He creates. Above, the sixth, which is the Word. The seventh is the Speaker.»ii

The multiplication of the names of God, of His attributes or His « emanations », is attested to in the text of Exodus just quoted, and is confirmed by Philo’s interpretation.

The idea of a One God to whom multiple names are given (a « God myrionymous », i.e. God « with a thousand names ») was also familiar to the Stoics, as it was to the followers of the cult of Isis or to the followers of the Orphic cults. Among the Greeks, God is at the same time Zeus, the Noos, or « the one with many and diverse names », πολλαίϛ τε έτεραις όνομασιαϛ.

We also find this practice, multiplied beyond all measure, in the Veda.

For example, Agnî has been called by the following names: “God of Fire”. “Messenger of the Gods”. “Guardian of the domestic hearth”. “His mouth receives the offering”. “He purifies, provides abundance and vigour”. “Always young”. “His greatness is boundless”. “He sustains and protects man”. “He has four eyes”. “He has a thousand eyes”. “He transmits the offering to the Gods with his tongue”. “He is the Head of the sky and the umbilicus of the Earth”. “He surpasses all the Gods”. “His child is his rays”. “He had a triple birth”. “He has three abodes”. “He arranges the seasons, he is the son of the waters”. “He produces his own mothers”. “He is called the Benefactor”. “He is born by Night and Dawn in turn”. “He is the son of strength and effort”. “He is the Mortal God ». “Called Archer”. “Identified with Indra, Vishnu, Varuna, Aryaman, Tvachtri”. “His splendor is threefold”. “He knows all the hidden treasures and uncovers them for us”. “He is present everywhere”. “His friendship delights the Gods, everything animate or inanimate”. “He is in the home of the singer, priest and prophet”. “He is in heaven and on earth”. “He is invoked before all the Gods”.

Both the God of Moses and the God Agnî have one thing in common: they have many names. No matter how many, in fact. What is important is that these two Gods, who are both ‘unique’, do not have just one single name. Why is that?

Perhaps no single word, no (however sacred) language, is worthy of bearing the name of God. No spirit, either, is deemed worthy to think about God only through His (many) attributes.

iPhilo. Q.E. II, 68

iiPhilo. Q.E. II, 68