In a previous post, I imagined a conversation about the names of God in which Christians or Jews are dialoguing with Muslims.
A fond memory I have involves such a dialogue. Every spring for Lent I take my confirmation class for a weekend to Chicago, the big bad city, to mix with the natives. For blond blue-eyed white kids growing up in small-town Republican America, it is an eye-opener. We stay at the guest house of the Focolare Movement (a Roman Catholic movement that is open to people of all religions, and those with none). The movement’s deepest spiritual insight is akin to that of Mother Theresa according to her recently published letters. The focolarini embrace “Gesù abbandonato,” the Jesus abandoned by his Father on the cross, and seek to love the world from within that embrace. On Saturday, we work on a mission project, often at Bethel New Life (founded by a salt-and-pepper, predominantly African-American ELCA Lutheran church, and no, I’m not making this up), in a neighborhood that is being transformed block by block and house by house by the tenacious efforts of people of faith. Our supervisors are Black and Hispanic. For many of my kids, it’s the first time they’ve felt what it’s like to be outside their turf and in the minority. On Sunday we worship in a black megachurch, often Trinity UCC (the one Barack Obama came to Christ in). We are usually the only whites in attendance. When the time comes to pass the peace and greet one’s neighbors in the pews, my kids get ardent hugs from big mammas and strong handshakes from impeccably dressed men. Strong perfume is in the air, the ushers wear gloves, the two-hundred strong choir brings down the house, and there is dancing in the aisles.
If possible I like to fit in a two or three-hour slot of inter-religious dialogue. It’s fun to visit a synagogue. My kids are as good as warm bread, and tend to ask the most naïve questions, like, “Why don’t you believe in Jesus?” It’s fun, I admit, to see if the rabbi is up to the question. I have heard amazingly thoughtful responses.
I well remember a visit to a mosque. Arranged with the help of the focolarini, who have excellent contacts, we were greeted with tremendous warmth by the imam and members of his congregation. A black Muslim congregation that connects with mainstream Islam, the imam introduced Islam in direct and experiential terms, and answered questions with delight. Then he had some teenagers of his flock, their younger siblings and mothers watching, witness to their faith. The joy and pride of the Muslim teenagers as they talked of their faith was palpable, and formed a vivid contrast to the sullen teenagers of Christian upbringing, one can only imagine, who walked the streets just outside the mosque’s door.
“We have told you what Islam means to us, and why we are Muslims,” said the imam next. “Now tell us about Christianity, and why you are Christians.”
I about peed my pants. I knew my kids had never had to respond to questions like that. In small-town Wisconsin, everyone (supposedly) is Christian, and it’s not polite to ask such questions.
They rose to the occasion marvelously. All year long I was sure they weren’t listening to a thing I said. Now they spoke of their faith in personal and direct language, and earned the respect of their Muslim peers.
The conversation I’d like to overhear one day goes like this: “99 names your God has? That’s awesome, but our God has more names than your God.” “Really? Let’s hear it.”
That conversation will never happen unless the people who say they believe the Bible tells us who God is learn a few, at least a few, of the names God is given therein.
I chose the names I will list in an upcoming post for a variety of reasons. Some I picked because they strike a chord within me; others because they express a side of the biblical witness which is often ignored. Others still, because I wanted to reclaim a traditional method of reading Song of Songs. I try to cover the theological bases.
I will be expecting my Hebrew students this year to learn the names, or some of them, by heart. So my choice is governed in part by the exigencies of teaching Hebrew grammar. That’s weird, I know, but there you have it. I also tried to develop the list in a way that is easy to memorize.
I leave the names un-vocalized. A student of Hebrew must learn to read un-vocalized text. If she doesn’t, there are no two ways about it; she doesn’t know the language.
She may know her way around a Hebrew grammar and dictionary; she may know how to analyze a Hebrew text. But she doesn’t know Hebrew. ‘Know,’ as in ידע, and I mean the full range of its meanings.
For starters, of course, a vocalized list may prove helpful. I will provide that, too.