Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Birds, Orcas, and Other Stuff

A friend and I have vastly different reactions to the song, "God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale" which we sing occasionally in worship. She hates it; I like it - both for the same reason. As she puts it, "That song doesn't actually say anything. It just asks questions." To which I respond, "Yes!"

The question, to be precise, is phrased with the words, "How can the creature say ...?" I would even prefer to the questions to be phrased, "Can the creature say ...?"

My question resists the spirit of the times. We think we can say anything, that we can name anything, that we can describe anything. After all, we're nominalists, whether intentionally or not. We imagine that words are just words and that we know enough of them to capture anything that we encounter and to describe it well enough.

Not so, according to the Scriptures. In the second creation story, God brought each of the animals - created out of the same dirt that yielded Adam (the 'groundling') and whatever Adam named it, that is what it was. In that case, humanity was indeed invested with the power of naming. Naming, in fact, seems to be a way of exerting power or controlling (see the New Testament stories where Jesus evokes the name of a demon before casting it out.) But, humanity is not so empowered in every case. In Exodus 3, there is an intriguing conversation between the God who calls and Moses, who was called. Moses asks, "What is your name?" to which God answers, "I am who I am." It is a fabulous non-answer. Moses doesn't know what he is asking. Perhaps other gods can be named and invoked and called into action by human tongue, but not this God. This God is the calling God, the naming God, the one who is in charge - not Moses. There are limits to human naming.

I suspect that the limits to human naming go beyond our encounters with the divine. We certainly are empowered to name. But, perhaps 'naming' is a gift that is given to us, not an ability that we own inherently. Perhaps, in some cases that are not the divine essence, but inspired by the divine nonetheless, we encounter our limits of naming.

After recently hearing some experts trying to say what, exactly, the "occupy wall street" movement is all about and where it is going, I began to wonder: Is it the arrogance of our age to imagine that we can name the meaning and trajectory of a movement, while it is still moving? Perhaps we should just say - at least for now - "It is what it is." And leave it at that.

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