Yahweh, I know you are near, standing always at my side.
You guard me from the foe and you lead me in ways everlasting.
– Dan Schutte hymn, based on Ps. 119:151
I believe in “God,” but why “god”? “God” is an abstract noun, whether singular or plural, capitalized or lowercase. Our faith heritage as Christians and Catholics trains us to hear the word with a diffused sense of a person, but it’s not personal. We capitalize the word to make our god unique. We talk about God as Creator, Redeemer, Comforter, Father, Son, and Spirit. Nonetheless the word remains a noun, a generic term for special beings. Nearly every human uses such a word, either in affirmation and praise of some god or in denial with dismissal or denigration of any god.
As a Catholic priest, I am increasingly uncomfortable talking about “G/god” and asserting that “I believe in God” or advising people to “pray to God.” The word is too broad and too empty, too abstract. At best, it points to something I know and experience, but it conveys nothing of what that something is, or, better, Who it is. It comprises too much and too little. It impoverishes us spiritually. Some say “my god is not your god,” while others say “we all believe in the same god.” Thus, believing in “G/god” doesn’t communicate much.
Why “God”? Why “Lord”?
Humankind needs a common term for what is a near universal experience: our deep sense that there is something greater than ourselves, some force behind all that exists, someone always present. My own sense of the divine has grown too rich to settle for “god-talk.” It is too impersonal, too emotionless, too much of a concept rather than an experience and a relationship. Constant use of the word leaves me feeling like a child who lacks the maturity or vocabulary to say anything more than “I want that,” hoping that someone grasps what “that” means. “God language” lacks content.
The same is true for another word we commonly use in our Jewish-Christian tradition to reference the divine presence we feel and believe in: “Lord.” This word has attained prominent status in our religious language because of a reverential decision made two-and-a-half millennia ago by the writers and translators of the Hebrew Scriptures. They opted never to use, in voice or text, the sacred personal name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob shared with Moses in the encounter at the burning bush. That name—Yahweh—never appears in the Hebrew scriptures, in most of our English translations, or in our liturgical texts. It is always transposed: in Hebrew to Adonai, in Greek to Kyrios, in Latin to Dominus, and in English to Lord. Most English Bibles format it in all caps as LORD to make sure we know it’s important.
We always read, talk about, and pray to “God” and “Lord.” Yet we are conditioned never to use God’s proper name. Those who have little sense of the biblical self-presentation of God can only wonder why in the world we believe in and want to entrust ourselves to an abstraction tagged “god” and a function tagged “lord.” Such terms hurt both our spiritual maturing and our evangelization of others. To believe in, pray to, and talk about god and lord, even if capitalized, seems today little different than “believing in science” or trusting a favored political leader, party, or system. This makes it easy for people to substitute science or political ideology for God as they go about their lives.
When we use abstract nouns or role words in prayer, we don’t know for sure to whom we are praying. There is no “you” implied with whom we can dialogue. Believers of any rich spiritual or religious tradition must move beyond such depersonalized god-talk. This includes us Catholics. To do less is to settle for remaining spiritual infants nourished by pablum rather than the solid meat of our heritage. To become adults in mature relationship with the One to whom our god-talk points, the One whom we are privileged to know in a personal way, we have to use a name. We must move beyond the abstract and functional verbiage of “God” and “Lord” to an experiential, personal, and relational language. We must begin to use the personal name given us by the One in whom we believe and to whom we pray, person to person, heart to heart. And that One’s self-given name is Yahweh.
Getting Back to Yahweh
When a fiery presence spoke to Moses from a bush and commissioned him to confront a Pharaoh from whom he had run away, Moses needed assurance. He asked for the fiery One’s name. The One first referenced the god experience of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but then gave Moses a unique name, YAHWEH. That made Moses’s encounter special, personal.
Yahweh is more than a God among many gods. Yahweh is a user-friendly and personal name. Its meaning is disputed but not impenetrable. The short translation is “I am who I am.” A fully articulated meaning is: I am who I am and whoever I need to be at any given time, in any given situation; and I am always there with you and for you. The name is rich, unique, even intimate; it is beautiful, pronounceable, memorable, and meaningful as most personal names are; it evokes faith and trust. Its meaning is mystical but not a mystery. It is a good name for the mysterious One to whom we pray.
Yahweh enables us Christians who believe that this One is a triune communion to pray still more personally to the three who constitute Yahweh. It’s the Trinity’s family name, if you will. We can relate as closely to Yahweh as we do to a family of friends named, for instance, “Smith.” Through baptism we are brought into that personal relationship; we become part of Yahweh’s family.
Knowing Yahweh by name can also help Christians experience a more intimate communion with the three we identify, reference, and address as Father, Son, and Spirit. These too are not names but words for mostly sexist roles. They leave out the Mother, the feminine. It might be more appropriate to address and reference them with non-sexist names, perhaps as Yah the generator, Yahshuah (aka Joshua/Jesus) the generated, and Yahruah the energetic breath of life let loose. Yahweh references the One, full, male-female energetic ground in which and from which the three members of the Trinity arise and relate, dance and play, love and give birth to all else that is, drawing us into the source of their energy: love.
With Moses, we can use Yahweh to name the Triune One who has chosen to relate to us, the Trinity to whom we pray. We can use it too in talking with others about our experience and understanding of our encounter and relationship with this three-dimensioned, personal divine presence.
Believing In and Praying to Yahweh
Yahshuah, the generated, become human as Jesus. He is our teacher of prayer. He didn’t pray to “god,” with or without a capital letter, or to “Lord.” He prayed to “Abba,” his generator in the human language of his time, a time when the whole of a person came from a generating man. The woman or mother was only an incubator for the male’s progeny. But in Yahweh there is no male or female, and we know in our time that without the woman’s contribution of an egg there is no generation. Yahweh is the fullness.
Jesus taught us to pray to his Abba as our Abba too. Jesus’s whole life was about doing his Abba’s will, proclaiming and working for his Abba’s reign. Jesus went about his life with a great sense that the Spirit, Yahruah, was with him as an integral and energetic partner—not as his advocate or lawyer, not as his comforter, not as his mentor, but as his life-giver, prompting and guiding and driving him. Jesus trusted that the Spirit would carry on his work for his Abba when he was no longer “on the scene.”
This suggests that our prayers should be addressed not to “God” but to “Abba” or “Yah.” In addition, we should endeavor to pray with Jesus/Yahshuah, and with an awareness that the Spirit/Yahruah is alongside us—indeed, inside us, working within and among us. This terminology can powerfully deepen a nonsexist grasp of Yahweh’s presence and reign, enabling Yahweh to take a threefold personal hold of us, especially when we pray.
Faith is not about knowing an abstraction. It is about relating to and trusting persons, divine and human. Persons have names, not just nouns that reference their existence or their roles. Capitalizing “god” is a weak gesture toward personalizing the One to whom we pray. In Christian theology there is no “person of God.” There are only persons who together constitute the One and render that One personal. God, even after years of catechesis, remains an abstraction.
Our faith as Christians, our spiritual sense of ourselves, and our intimate relationship with the Divine One will be greatly enhanced when we more intimately relate with Yahweh, the self-named fiery three-in-One who once encountered Moses. It is time we drop the abstractions and get back to Yahweh.
Bob (Bernard R.) Bonnot is a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, now retired, serving as the Executive Director of the Association of U. S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP).