What’s in a name? Think about all the possible things names do. They locate x, y, and z–I won’t call them persons or things because I want to include everything. In the social world we inhabit with our language and rationality everything and everyone has a name. Thus we can locate x, y, and z; define them; determine their status; examine them, even control them by use of their name. For some, perhaps for most, their whole reality is wrapped up in a package with a name on it.

If we can name it, we can sell it, play with it, manipulate it, make it into a weapon. Recall how Yahweh gave Adam and Eve the privilege and task of naming all the animals in the Garden of Eden. There is a legitimate place for names, but also naming is at the heart of control-the one who names the reality controls the reality.(For example, if we name a certain incident as “terrorism” then it seems to enable a warlike response; but if we named the same incident as a crime, well, then what we are limited to is some kind of police action.) Now in the case of persons, names mean even more. Most people live by and within a certain name: their national identity, their status, their self-worth, their position in the social order: wife, father, student, monk, priest, hermit, scientist, artist, etc. etc. We mistakenly believe that the name signifies our fundamental reality. This is so much a part of us that we never stop and reflect on this and question it in any way. Recall again the importance of names in the Bible and their consequences.

Now what if there is a whole other aspect of reality that is nameless, especially our personal reality. What if our deepest identity is actually without a name–and so “invisible” and incomprehensible to our rational minds. This kind of thing, this namelessness, seems to threaten our individuality which seems to depend so much on “being named,” and which seems so precious to us that we have this mirage that it is our very personhood that is at stake. But the intuition of namelessness is at the heart of the spiritual life, the contemplative life, the mystical life.   And everyone of us, no matter what kind of life we have lived, at death we experience this denuding of all names whatsoever. Instinctively there is this foreboding and fear because we seem to lose everything that we thought we were. The deterioration of the body seems to confirm this. I won’t go into how the various religious traditions address this issue, but within Christianity this whole thing can be summed up in one central phrase: “death and resurrection.” Unfortunately for too many Christians “resurrection” comes down to something crude like a continuation of our present identity and a kind of enhanced life. Pretty much like, “Hey, death is not real, it don’t happen; we just wake up and get our reward for believing,” or some such language of mythic rewards/ punishments. What is needed is a deeper reinterpretation of the notion of “resurrection” if we are to have a deeper Christian mysticism and contemplative life.


Now we need to really step back and take a look at this “namelessness” as an aspect of the Absolute Reality (which we usually name as “God”). Indeed, even to say this is to slip into the naming process. Now we are going to stay strictly within the Christian tradition, and here all these names are very important, not to be slighted, not optional/superficial designations– they carry a claim of ultimacy, finality, and absolute value: Trinity, Father, Logos, Jesus Christ, etc., etc. Given all this and given what I previously said about the importance of names in the Bible overall, it would seem that namelessness is not part of the Christian view of the Absolute Reality and even of the reality of the human person. Truly, when looking over the centuries and even to today, the primacy of the “named” in Christian theology and piety is upheld by many deep and pious theologians, monks, holy people, spiritual seekers, etc. You could say that at the heart of all their seeking is Augustine’s famous cry: “My God, who are You, and who am I?” It’s as if that call is a seeking of that one name that would encompass both of these poles of ultimate identity–not a bad intuition but mistaken–when in fact that call is really a first intuition into the namelessness of both you and the Divine Reality in your ultimate oneness. For those of us in the other camp, where namelessness has primacy, that deepest identity is beyond all names–yes, even the name of Jesus. In fact it is only in the perspective of advaita perhaps that these two identity questions become one, but this is something that we cannot name– there is only an awakening to it. And there is a long tradition, all the way from the Bible to Abhishiktananda, that, without losing the significance of the “named,” sees the “nameless” as primary and ultimate. Let’s take a brief survey.


The Old Testament.

Recall that fascinating account in the Book of Genesis where Jacob wrestles with this mysterious stranger(32: 23-30). Then they have this exchange: “So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”

So first we have here the named–the man called Jacob even gets a new name, Israel(like the person who enters monastic life!); and this is to indicate a deeper level of identity because he has been “touched” by God. Names are important here but also their fluidity is apparent, and the possibility of ultimate namelessness is hinted at. Now when it comes to the Divine Reality, it simply rejects the naming process. And this prepares us then for the ultimate such encounter with Moses and his calling to liberate the People of Israel from the bondage of Egypt(Exodus 3). Recall that, first of all, the Divine Reality does identify itself with human names: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac,…” Human names that we give to the Divine Reality are important, and for us they are needed and helpful as long as we are in history and as social beings with language and rationality. But Moses pushes toward the Divine identity, not satisfied with historical/social relations: “But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM Who I AM.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ ‘This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.’”

This is a very important pericope, a central one for the development of Christian mysticism. So the Divine Reality allows for the naming process–it has its place as long as we are in history and in our social location engaging in relationships, including worship, prayer, service, etc. But at the very bottom of it all, or to put it better, at the heart of it all, the Divine Reality says NO, there is no name that can enter here, no name that is adequate to name me. So Moses meets the namelessness of God, and what is interesting is that this pericope is composed about the same time that the rishis of the Upanishads have this same intuition in their own language.

Now the whole Old Testament has numerous such pointers toward this namelessness, though obviously in a less intense way than here most of the time. The whole Book of Job can be read that way as one such pointer as it makes the case for the inscrutability of the Divine Reality. And of course the comparable namelessness of the human person is barely hinted at in all these texts, though that is present as well if you have the eyes to see it–thus the Upanishads are a bit ahead of these texts. It is not until we get to the New Testament that we truly meet the mystery of the human person embedded in the Mystery of the Divine Reality.


The New Testament.

Here the central name of Jesus is of utmost importance, and most Christians seem to think that this is all there is. Ok, the “named” does take on a heightened importance here, and there is a whole proliferation of names that seem to draw the boundaries of Christianity itself: the Logos, the Christ, Messiah, the Son of God, Father, Spirit, Love, etc. And then there are a whole bunch of secondary names like king of the Jews, Bread of Life, the Light of the world, the Good Shepherd, etc. It would seem that the “named” has the highest priority in Christianity; in fact to point to the nameless aspect of the Divine Reality looks almost “unchristian.” But perhaps things are not that simple. In another light perhaps the very person of Jesus points precisely to the truly nameless reality of that Ultimate Mystery which he does call “Abba”–and this name is used to indicate intimacy, his real oneness with this Unspeakable Reality–as Abhishiktananda was fond of pointing out, this was the Semitic attempt to articulate Advaita.

Jesus has a kind of dialectics of names: on the one hand he rejects the naming process from the devil in the Temptation in the Desert pericope; on the other hand, he invites Peter to name him–“Who do men say I am?” As I said earlier, this parallels and echoes the Genesis account where humans are invited to name their reality; here they are invited to name a manifestation of the Divine Reality. Note, this is a manifestation…and the naming process is fitting and necessary in the world of manifestation. (By the way, one can ask if the Divine Reality has other valid manifestations, does it not imply other valid names? Or is it all subsumed under this name as traditional theology holds?) But there is also a whole aspect of the Divine Reality that is unmanifest: “No one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son has revealed him,” etc. So, three things: 1. There is an unmanifest aspect of the Divine Reality; 2. Which Jesus calls “Abba” to indicate a mode of intimacy (perhaps advaita); 3. Which relationship he then “reveals” to us as our very own in our very humanity–not the essence of the Unmanifest, but that relationship of intimacy which has far reaching consequences. And this in itself becomes most manifest in that life as drawn out on the Sermon on the Mount (and one could say then literally lived out by the Desert Fathers!–without any theological language and the most minimal scriptural reference).

In the Gospel of John, which is replete with names, Jesus finally declares his advaita relationship with the Unmanifest, Nameless Divine Reality — “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Indeed. Here Jesus is connected to the Divine Reality as encountered by Moses in the Burning Bush—the Mystery of the Divine Reality, Nameless and beyond all conceptualizations and all schemes. In a sense here we are with Lao Tzu: The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Finally, when Jesus is on the cross, we again meet this dialectic of names. The soldier names Jesus as son of God; there is the deeply ironic sign, “king of the Jews.” But the crucified one is the ultimate symbol of the ultimate loss of all names. And the crucifix is this symbol within every Catholic church of that ultimate namelessness at the heart of the human-divine reality–that’s why I prefer so much more the crucifix rather than the bare cross which is more common in Protestant churches. The Resurrection, then, must be interpreted as being catapulted as it were beyond all names, not just a recovery of all names, which would be equivalent to resurrection as a kind of resuscitation, life continuing on simply in an enhanced mode. So Easter Sunday now joins with Good Friday as that one feast and one anamnesis of Jesus Christ and of who we are in that one namelessness.


The Christian Mystical Tradition

Here we will briefly consider two voices from this tradition: Pseudo-Dionysius and Eckhart. One of the most important figures in Christian mysticism at its origins is Pseudo-Dionysius, about whom I had written earlier. PD, as I will refer to him, wrote several works, one of which was called On the Divine Names. This is a subtle and sophisticated reflection on the “named” aspect of the Divine Reality and the nameless. He enshrines within the Christian mystical tradition the fundamental importance of the nameless with regard to the Divine Reality. A few quotes: (translated by Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem)

“ Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process. Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being. Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name. It is and it is as no other being is. Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence…. Now as I have already said, we must not dare to apply words or conceptions to this hidden transcendent God. We can use only what Scripture has disclosed. In the scriptures the Deity has benevolently taught us that understanding and direct contemplation of itself is inaccessible to beings, since it actually surpasses being. Many scripture writers will tell you that the divinity is not only invisible and incomprehensible, but also ‘unsearchable and inscrutable,’ since there is not a trace for anyone who would reach through into the hidden depths of this infinity.”

PD again:

“It might be more accurate to say that we cannot know God in his nature, since this is unknowable and is beyond the reach of mind or of reason. But we know him from the arrangement of everything, because everything is, in a sense, projected out from him, and this order possesses certain images and semblances of his divine paradigms. We therefore approach that which is beyond all as far as our capacities allow us and we pass by way of the denial and the transcendence of all things and by way of the cause of all things. God is therefore known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and through unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things…. This is the sort of language we must use about God, for he is praised from all things according to their proportion to him as their Cause. But again, the most divine knowledge of God, that which comes through unknowing, is achieved in a union far beyond mind, when mind turns away from all things, even from itself, and when it is made one with the dazzling rays, being then and there enlightened by the inscrutable depth of Wisdom.”

So here perhaps we meet a hint of the awakening of advaita within the Christian perspective. And of course it is necessarily connected with the deepest awakening to the namelessness of the Divine Reality, being plunged into the depths of the Mystery of God and the human person.


And one last quote from PD:

“And the fact that the transcendent Godhead is one and triune must not be understood in any of our own typical senses. No. There is the transcendent unity of God and the fruitfulness of God, and as we prepare to sing this truth we use the names Trinity and Unity for that which is in fact beyond every name, calling it the transcendent being above every being. But no unity or trinity, no number or oneness, no fruitfulness, indeed, nothing that is or is known can proclaim that hiddenness beyond every mind and reason of the transcendent Godhead which transcends every being. There is no name for it nor expression. We cannot follow it into its inaccessible dwelling place so far above us….”

And now for some quotes from the Late Medieval period as the apophatic, mystical tradition unfolds. This time we will quote Louis Dupre as he comments on Eckhart:

“What I find at the deepest level of myself is nameless, so nameless, says Eckhart, that God Himself in entering that depth loses His own name. ‘Back in the Womb from which I came I had no god and merely was, myself.’ ‘Womb’ is capitalized here and ‘god’ is not capitalized. The Godhead is before it is named: Being as such has no names. Even the creature in its essence must remain nameless in the pure core of its divine Being. Here I do not will or desire anything beyond what I am…. In my uncreated Being I rest, untrammeled even by God. In its ultimate identity Being is what it is or, as Adonai said to Moses, the One Who is. Only in my creaturely existence does ‘God’ confront me. ‘God’ is the name that man invents after a long religious history. First he conceives of the gods, then of God. But that pure Being, Eckhart’s Godhead, remains beyond what we so confidently name ‘God.’ ‘God’ belongs to the order of manifestation. And so do all his revealed names, even the most sacred, revealed names of the Divine Persons. For Eckhart the Godhead precedes the divine hypostases of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Being surpasses all divine names. “

“To reach that primeval poverty, my poverty, which for Eckhart is also God’s poverty, is the goal of the mystical journey. To attain it, the soul must abandon not only its possessions and its self-will, but also its creaturely identity and even its ‘God.’ In his most radical sermon, ‘Blessed Are the Poor,’ Eckhart admonishes, ‘If one wants to be truly poor, he must be as free from his creature will as when he had not been born.’ We must become totally detached from that individual existence to which we are so attached. We know that this little self is insignificant, but we think we better hold on to it anyway, since without it, we may have nothing left. That is precisely the self we should surrender, according to Eckhart, if we are to partake of the wealth of God’s own poverty.”

“Inevitably we will become discouraged about our efforts to comply with the requirement of absolute poverty. More seriously, we may feel that we have disappointed God. But for Eckhart the soul that still worries about the quality of its relationship with God has not become truly poor. Indeed, it must give up all ambition to acquire any knowledge of God…. As long as we are still concerned about finding a place for God in ourselves, we are not truly poor. God must create His own place in me. Indeed, Eckhart insists, eventually we must free ourselves of the ‘God’ we know, for that is still a private possession.”

“That ultimate poverty is also the true humility. Too often we confuse humility with false modesty. We secretly hope that if we accuse ourselves of imperfection, God may contradict us, assuring us that we are not all that bad. But God will not contradict us, for the imperfection is real and goes to the core of our existence. That existence itself needs conversion. [Here Dupre is echoing the sentiments of many Sufi mystics, like Rabia]….   The meaning of this humility and this poverty is not simply that of being a means to an end. It is not motivated, as many think, by the idea that by giving up ambition and possession now I shall be compensated for it later. Rather than being a means, poverty is a method of giving way to God. Since to be united with God is simply to be devoid of oneself, poverty and humility are the goal! For Eckhart God means absolute emptiness and poverty.”

“In poverty and humility I abandon all that I have and even let go of what I am, in order to reach the uncreated core of my being–God’s own creating act. God himself dwells in the absolute poverty that knows no possession, not even that of a name. As we move more deeply into that divine poverty, we shall be less and less inclined to place labels on God or His creatures…. Only through Gelassenheit do we reach the point of nowhere in the midst of all movement, the nothingness at the heart of all being. We cannot even actively seek it. For if we know what we are seeking, we shall never find it. As Thomas Merton wrote: ‘Don’t try too hard. Don’t be too much concerned about your own perfection and progress from day to day. Once you become aware of yourself as seeker, you become a possessor. You’re lost. But if you are content to be lost, you will be found without knowing it, precisely because you are lost. For you are at the last nowhere, which is where God is.’”


A few comments:

  • Dupre is a lay Catholic philosophy teacher, and his talk was given at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani. You can talk like this to monks, but I wonder how this kind of language would have gone over with the average lay Catholic audience? The Church teaches a watered-down spirituality mostly, where it emphasizes morality, virtuous living, praying to Jesus as if he were some entity “out there,” engaging with the “saints” for intercession with God, etc., etc. In very little of this do we hear or feel Augustine’s anguished cry: “My God who are you, and who am I?”


  • We find here the real meaning of the religious values of poverty and humility. They are both symbolic and initiatory into the nameless depths of our being in the Divine Mystery. Not the kind of external exercises that Merton once termed “making faces in the mirror.” Namelessness is the ultimate poverty and the ultimate humility and it is something in which you and the Divine Reality share as one.
  • So here we see a hint of an awakening to Advaita within the Christian context. We plunge into the abyss (as Abhishiktananda puts it) of our inner depths, losing all our names as we enter there (no wonder it is a scary place for so many); and there in the ultimate poverty of our utter namelessness–so well symbolized by the bodily poverty of the sannyasi–and the infant Jesus!!–we awaken to a pure and unspeakable awareness in which even the Divine Reality has lost its names and we dwell now not “as two” in the world of names, and not “as one” as if that were another name; but…here Eckhart’s language is best: “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”


  • Recall the Rinzai Zen Master with his demanding and challenging koans. When you come in for your interview you better come up with an “answer” that shows you have seen into the koan…or you will get whacked with a paddle! So in a sense every Christian should be made to answer: Who are you? Show me! If you come up with some name, whack!! No, you must not give a name; a name does not answer a koan; it’s only another word. And THEN: Who is this God of yours? Show me!! If you give him a name, WHACK!! Ouch!!!