In this fifteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the importance of names. “Name” is “man” in reverse with a final “e”, and we read in Genesis chapter 2 that God brought the creatures to Adam so that he could “name” them – in effect, so that he could translate them and choose the right word. God didn’t ask Adam to make the creatures because he is not an author – he cannot create out of nothing. He, and the rest of humankind, are translators. So “name” is central to man’s role in this world. What can the names of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary tell us about their roles? And what meaning can we find in the names of people like Strauss and Grant Gustin, and countries like Ukraine?
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There is a very important distinction in grammar between countable and uncountable nouns. Uncountable nouns are generally concepts, things that have no boundaries, that cannot be circumscribed (a line cannot be drawn around them). Examples would be ‘love’ and ‘righteousness’. Countable nouns are nouns that can have a line drawn around them, they can be separated in our imagination from the rest of the environment. These nouns – and this is very important – are preceded by the indefinite article a or an. Examples would be ‘a house’, ‘a car’, ‘a person’. Compare the concept of ‘light’ with the countable noun ‘a light’. ‘Light’ is what fills the sky. ‘A light’ would be a single bulb – that is, it can have a line drawn around it and be contained.
When God created man in chapter 2 of the Book of Genesis, what he did was create a countable noun – a being separate from him (with its own free will). Of course, ‘man’ (here it is uncountable, it is not preceded by the indefinite article) is contained within God, he can never be quite separate, but ‘a man’ is allowed his own free will to make decisions, to believe in God or not, to love or hate, to react with kindness or anger…
The name that God reveals to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14, for me the most important verse in the Old Testament, is ‘I AM WHO I AM’ or simply ‘I AM’. Most of us would say ‘I am Jonathan’, ‘I am Rebecca’, etc. But God says only, ‘I AM’. There is no need for him to add a name because he is everything. Now in the study of speech sounds (called phonetics, the study of where speech sounds are produced in the mouth), the consonants, the hard sounds, so to speak, are divided into seven pairs, one of which is m-n. These two sounds are produced close to each other in the mouth.
If we apply this pair to the name of God without the personal pronoun, AM, we get an, the indefinite article. We can understand that from God came an individual human being, a countable noun. And if we put these two words one after the other, we get AM an – which is to say that God created a man.
The letter a is the first letter in the alphabet, it comes at the beginning, and so it is the letter I most associate with the act of creation (described in chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Genesis). What was the name of the first man? Adam. If we turn Adam around, we see that he was made (I have allowed fluidity to the final vowel so that a becomes e).
Adam’s partner was Eve. Here the dominant vowel is e. We are progressing in the alphabet. Eve resembles another word very closely: eye. Now we are drawing close to the vowel i because eye and i sound the same.
When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they didn’t heed God’s command, they turned away from AM and said I’m, they made this progression from the vowel a to i.
The reverse of man is name, and that indeed was man’s purpose in Genesis, chapter 2, when God brought him the creatures to name (not to make). Name, with the letters rearranged, spells mean (by naming the creatures, he gave them meaning) and amen (Adam agreed with God’s plan for him). In the Fall, however, together with Eve, he took the fruit and said not amen anymore, but mine. Again, he replaced the vowel a with the vowel i.
We live now in the era of the i. This is the vowel that is used to represent the ego in English: I. In the system we have at the moment, it is every man for himself. Yes, we may receive some help, but basically every person has his or her own money, his or her own address, and has to struggle, more or less successfully, to make ends meet.
Where do we go now that we have succumbed to the wishes of the ego, of the I? Well, if we treat the ego (I) as a number (1), there are two ways we can go – upwards (2) or downwards (0). We can start to count (the objects around us, all of which are countable nouns – this is how we package and sell them) or we can make the much shorter journey to zero (a word, by the way, that is very close to eros).
The Latin alphabet, the alphabet we use in English, counts up. The last letter of the Latin alphabet is Z, so in effect it counts from I to Z (1 to 2). This would reflect a more rational, self-reliant way of thinking, a view that treats the world as a way of making money.
As an aside here, I would like to ask why it is we teach our children the basic skills of writing and counting. Is it not in a sense to record what is in the world by writing down what there is and counting it? Are we not instilling this rationalistic way of thinking in our children from the very start (not to mention the huge emphasis placed in school on marks)?
The Greek alphabet, on the contrary, counts down. The last letter of the Greek alphabet is omega, which we can write O (it is a long o; there is also a short o in Greek, omicron). Greek is the language of the Gospel, so this would reflect a God-oriented way of thinking.
The other way of writing omega is W (this is how it is written lower case in Greek). If we put the three vowels I have talked about – the A of creation, the I of the Fall and the O of spiritual enlightenment/repentance/recognition – together, we get AIO. If we use the Greek way of writing omega, we get AIW.
Now what is very interesting is that this progression of spiritual growth that puts God (0) at the centre of the picture is found in the name of God himself: I AM. All I have to do is turn the W upside down. God is indicating to us the path that we should follow – we should turn to him.
What is the most famous aspect of the Old Testament, of the Jewish Bible? It is the law – Moses received the Ten Commandments when he met with God on Mt Sinai; the Jews are famous for their rules and regulations (Jesus is often criticized for healing on the Sabbath); and indeed Christ, in the New Testament, says that he has come to fulfil, not to abolish, the Old Testament law (‘not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished’, Matthew 5:18).
The word law contains the same progression, AIW, and is clearly related to the name of God in Exodus, I AM.
What of the New Testament then? Is there any indication in language to support the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (who he says he is)?
In John 14:6, Jesus says to Thomas, who has asked how they are to find the way to heaven, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
Here we find the third word that is related to the progression AIW: I AM – law – way. The letter y is the semi-vowel that corresponds to i, they are often interchangeable. Note that Jesus says, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ We could rewrite this, ‘No I comes to the Father except through me.’ That is, each individual I must pass through him.
And so we find that the whole purpose of the spiritual journey in this life (AIW) is found in the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14 (I AM), is found in the law that Jesus came not to abolish, but to fulfil, and is found in Jesus himself, who is the way.
There are many other confirmations in language that Jesus is the Son of God. Let us take the word Messiah, which is a combination of the name of God, I AM, and she (the Virgin Mary). I have written about these confirmations in my book Stones Of Ithaca.
But there is one other confirmation that Jesus is who he says he is that I would like to include here. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him and declares, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ Jesus is the sacrificial lamb who will be sacrificed on the Cross to atone for our sins. He will take our sins upon his sinless self. He will take the blame for our sins (lamb and blame are clearly connected, as are words like balm and psalm).
But let us look a little more closely at the word lamb (the last letter of which is silent). Again we see the name of God, I AM, in the first three letters.
The whole of the Bible can be reduced schematically to: I AM – law – way/lamb. Here we find a spiritual map, so to speak, an indication of the road we must take, which passes not through counting the objects around us and dealing in them (often to the detriment of the environment and of our fellow man), but in placing God at the centre of our lives and acknowledging him.
We have been placed on this earth, we’re not really sure how, except to say that we emerged from our mother’s womb after a gestation period of nine months. When we emerged, having survived in water, we took a breath of fresh air and thus became suitable for the environment we now inhabit. Once we had breathed in, we could breathe out and we joined all the other creatures in translating the environment around us.
It is important that we understand this concept of translating the environment around us. We generally look down on translation. It is second best to the original. It contains mistakes and isn’t as good as reading the original text. The translator’s name is hidden, eclipsed. When we need a translator, that person is essential, but we soon forget about them afterwards. Perhaps because the translator takes control away from us, we cannot access the original language ourselves and so we must rely on the other.
But translation goes further than this. The person who sits down and writes the original text is also translating – translating their experiences, the stories they have heard, the knowledge they have acquired, the words they have learned, their understanding of conversations. And they translate all of that on to a piece of paper. The way they write it one day will not be the same if they write it on another day, so the text is susceptible to their mood on that day and the environment around them (any disturbances). Creativity is a fragile thing.
And while they are doing this, they are translating the air by breathing, translating the food they had for breakfast that morning, translating (making sense of) any conversations they may overhear. Everything in this world is translation because nothing begins or ends with us.
The same might be said of our thoughts. Do they truly originate with us? Or are they placed in our minds to see what we will make of them, how we will react? I believe that the only thing that is ours, strictly speaking, is our reaction, how we choose to react – whether we choose in a given moment to show love or hatred. This also is translation because our reaction, our choice of words or deeds, is like choosing the words with which to represent a text in another language. Again, it will not be exactly the same on one day as the next.
Air passes through us. Food passes through us. Even life passes through us – the life we receive from our parents and pass on to our children, precisely because we are not the authors of life. Even trade, the desire to make money, involves things passing through our hands. They do not begin with us, we do not come up with the raw materials, more often than not it is the earth that does that. We change them in some way (a process that normally involves packaging) and pass them on, fixing a price as we do so.
But we would prefer to think of ourselves as authors. We lay claim. We say this piece of land, this object, this product is mine – because I paid for it, because I got here first. Once we draw the line and say something is mine, we open ourselves to conflict, because it is a false assumption. We don’t own the land we live on, someone else made it, and it wasn’t us. We don’t own what the earth produces, we certainly didn’t invent the seed that gave rise to the crop.
If you fail to recognize the other, then what the world contains, even other people, are fair game, you might think, a potential source of profit. But this is a corrupted way of thinking. We should use what is placed at our disposal for the good of others, not to make a profit.
This claiming ownership is really making ourselves out to be the source of what is around us, and only God can do that, the same God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus, chapter 3, and sent him to free the Israelites from bondage to the Egyptians. When Moses asks, naturally enough, on whose authority he is to do this, who he is to say has sent him, God replies, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ This is the name of the one who sent you.
In Greek, this phrase is translated ‘ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν’, literally ‘I am the being’, and the last part of this phrase – ‘ὁ ὤν’, ‘the being’ – is included in icons of Christ Pantocrator, since in Orthodox tradition it is the pre-incarnate Christ who appears in the Old Testament. The letters are written in capitals: O WN.
Not only do these three letters spell three words in English – own, won and now – not only do they spell a number if we rotate one of the letters – ONE – they make clear, as all of language does, who the author is, who is the one that can lay claim to ownership. The rest of us are just passing through.