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Virginia Stem Owens


Naming God

How should we address him?

At night, when I get down on my knees beside my bed and lean my head on my folded hands in the posture of prayer I was taught as a child, there's always a moment's hesitation while I fumble for the first word to launch into the cosmos, a name that will find the infinite mystery I want my words to reach.

Doubtless my attention to the question of what to call God has been heightened by the violent clash between partisans from the world's three major monotheistic religions. Muslims call upon Allah, ideally, five times a day. The Qur'an lists the ninety-nine names of God, e. g., "He is Allah, the Creator, the Originator, the Fashioner, the Exalted in Might, the Wise." The name Allah itself is the Arabic transliteration of the Hebrew Eloah (cf. Elohim, one of God's names in the Hebrew scriptures) or Aramaic Elah, meaning "Mighty One" or "One Worthy of Praise." But the Qur'an also says that Allah has names that he keeps to himself, an option I find strangely appealing.

Jewish prayers most often address God as "King of the Universe." Rabbi Yochanan, who salvaged the Torah when Jerusalem was destroyed in ad 70, instructed his fellow exiles, "Any blessing which does not include mention of [God's] sovereignty is not a blessing." During my nightly hesitation over what to call God, I often envy Jews that substantial prescription. On the other hand, while it seems appropriate for an acclamation, it lacks the kind of intimacy my Christian ears seek in prayer.

So what are my choices? Do I address myself to Father? If so, should it be preceded with Our or My? Should I say Lord, perhaps with a prefatory Dear, like the greeting of a letter? What about Jesus, Holy Spirit, or just plain God? If I say Father, is it because I am a child, seeking comfort and certain assurance? Do I say Lord because I feel strong enough to approach as an adult, yet humble enough to acknowledge servanthood? Can I, this night, transcend the barriers of time to experience the personal presence of the resurrected ...

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