Theological English (14): The Names of God

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?

To access all the videos in this course, use the drop-down menu “Theological English (Video Course)” above. The videos can be watched on Vimeo and YouTube.


Theological English (8): Connections – Alphabet

In this ninth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the order of letters in the alphabet and how this can be used to make word connections. It was foreign workers in Egypt in the second millennium BC who came up with the idea of using not hieroglyphs for writing (hieroglyphs represented words or syllables), but letters that represented individual sounds, a much more cost-effective way of writing, since you only need 20-30 letters to write down the different words, but hundreds of hieroglyphs. This idea was taken on by the Phoenicians, the traders of the ancient world, from where it passed to Greece and Rome, becoming the Latin alphabet we use today.

To access all the videos in this course, use the drop-down menu “Theological English (Video Course)” above. The videos can be watched on Vimeo and YouTube.

Turner and the Uncreated Light

The Uncreated Light is a very important doctrine in Eastern Orthodoxy that was first formulated by St Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century, but is intimately connected with the writings of earlier figures such as Gregory of Nyssa (The Life of Moses) and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (The Celestial Hierarchy). It is defined on Wikipedia as ‘the light revealed on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration of Jesus, identified with the light seen by Paul at his conversion’. The Wikipedia article goes on, ‘a completely purified saint who has attained divine union experiences the vision of divine radiance that is the same “light” that was manifested to Jesus’ disciples on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration’.

So Orthodox theology has it that, through a process of purification, a person can experience this light of God in this present life. There was a controversy about this in the fourteenth century, involving Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria. The latter contended that it was not possible to know God in this way, God is unknowable, but Gregory Palamas made an important distinction between the essence and the energies of God. That is, the essence of God cannot be known by his creatures, even in the next life, but we can participate in his energies, he is communicable to us through his energies, which we can experience in this life.

To experience this divine light, we have to leave behind the world of concepts. We tend to view the world as being full of objects – that is, we rely on our physical sight – and we rely also on our powers of reasoning. We observe and draw conclusions. But at some point we must leave the world of concepts behind in order to progress on our spiritual journey. The website The Ascetic Experience explains it like this: ‘When the intellect has transcended intelligible realities and the concepts mixed with images that pertain to them, and in a godly and devout manner has rejected all things, then it will stand before God deaf and speechless.’ The website goes on to describe the intellect’s proper state in very beautiful terms:

The intellect’s proper state is a noetic height, somewhat resembling the sky’s hue, which is filled with the light of the Holy Trinity during the time of prayer. If you wish to see the intellect’s proper state, rid yourself of all concepts, and then you will see it like sapphire or the sky’s hue. But you cannot do this unless you have attained a state of dispassion, for God has to cooperate with you and to imbue you with His own-natural light.

What exactly is dispassion? I always understand it as not giving in to our natural impulse to, say, get angry or lust after someone or covet property (which is a strange concept, anyway, since in the long run nothing belongs to us but the destiny of our soul). For me, it is as simple as curbing the impulses that cause unhappiness and arguments and disintegration, fragmentation of families and societies. But we cannot do this on our own. We need God’s help and simultaneously we must purify ourselves of the passions by participation in the Sacraments of the Church.

Some people (see the site Sacramental Living) connect the Uncreated Light with the light revealed at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the light that made Day (as opposed to the sun, the moon and the stars that were not created until the fourth day). Others connect it with the light in the Burning Bush, when God met Moses in the Book of Exodus (the fire that burns, but doesn’t scorch). A similar light is said to descend on the Holy Sepulchre on the night before Easter, from which Orthodox faithful light their Easter candles (known as ‘Holy Fire’). This is the light by which we will see in the heavenly Jerusalem, described in the Book of Revelation (21:23, 22:5).

The Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova, whose work I have described in a previous article, connects the Uncreated Light with the bright white light so often found in J. M. W. Turner’s paintings. I would like to look in particular at the painting Undine Giving the Ring to Masaniello, Fisherman of Naples. The display caption for this painting says that Undine is a character in German fairytale written by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and published in 1811. Masaniello (real name Tommaso Aniello) was an Italian fisherman who led a revolt against the rule of Habsburg Spain in Naples in 1647. So the caption – and, needless to say, all critics – focus on this background to the painting and how Turner might have got the idea from an opera, La Muette de Portici, or a ballet, Ondine, he had seen in London before carrying out the painting.

What both the display caption and the catalogue entry emphasize, however, is the ‘otherworldly light’, ‘that favourite white light of Turner’s’. Elenkova goes further and decides to give all her attention to the spiritual content of the painting rather than its historical context (which we are so prone to focus on and to pass on to our children). Let us look at the painting:

Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello, Fisherman of Naples by J. M. W. Turner (reproduced from

In the middle of the painting, we see a ball of light. In her poem on the painting, Elenkova connects this ball of light with the Uncreated Light that was revealed to Jesus’ disciples on Mount Tabor, and the figure of Undine to the right she connects with the Virgin Mary. Beneath the ball of light can be seen a hand reaching up out of the sea (we see very clearly the tops of two fingers with their nails), to the right of which (said to be a fish Turner added later on) is what looks like a face (the fish would be the left eye, above it there is some hair, below it the nose and lips), which the poet links to the hand of God and the first Adam respectively. This part of the painting would refer to the creation of the world, and we all know how Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and got expelled from Paradise, becoming subject to death and corruption.

On the other side of the ball of light, in the top left-hand corner, against a background of darkness, can be seen the figure of Christ on the Cross, arms outstretched, head slumped. Christ is the second Adam, the one who came to redeem us from our sins, to show us the way back to eternity, but this will be an eternity with knowledge, not a naive eternity in which we are prone to make the same mistake. We will have learned something from the experience of living on this earth for three score years and ten. That is why I always say you cannot go back to the Garden of Eden, to a state of blissful ignorance – our progress must be onwards.

So the ball of light in the middle of the painting is the fruit that the Virgin Mary accepts not out of disobedience, as in the Garden of Eden, but out of obedience, the seed that is implanted in her womb when she is overshadowed by the power of the Most High (Luke 1:35), the fruit that will repair the damage that was done and reopen the way to heaven.

On the left of the ball of light, we see what looks like a meteorite crashing into the earth (said by scientists to be one possible way that life arrived on earth), but look at the reflection of the meteorite in the black waters. It makes what looks like a cross.

Turner, as so often, was lampooned for this painting. Perhaps the critics even thought they could see the signs of approaching senility, since this painting, exhibited in 1846, is one of the last that Turner will paint. There is the suggestion that Turner’s choice of Undine and Masaniello as a subject may have embodied an attack on the Reverend John Eagles, one of Turner’s sharpest critics. Masaniello may have been chosen because of his rumoured friendship with the poet-painter Salvator Rosa. Masaniello’s real name being Tommaso Aniello, Turner may have been playing with the association of his own name with ‘ring’, of which ‘aniello’ is the Italian translation. Finley suggests that there is also an allusion to the French king Louis Philippe I, the object of a number of assassination attempts, while Wallace sees a parallel between Masaniello and Christ with the painting a reflection of Turner’s pessimism over the possibility of Christian salvation.

But what the painting contains is precisely a depiction of Christian salvation, from the first to the second Adam, from creation to redemption! It also provides a link between a scientific explanation of the arrival of life on earth and the Cross. When we focus only on external things, on the historical context, we are in grave danger of missing the point. Elenkova in her poems attempts to correct this physical vision, to offer a more spiritual vision of the paintings and their depth.

The most remarkable part comes at the end of the catalogue entry associated with this painting. When paintings were displayed at the Royal Academy in London, the artists were in the habit of spending a couple of days adding the final touches. The painter W. P. Frith describes how Turner and his neighbour, David Roberts, continued work on their paintings:

Both he and Roberts stood upon boxes, and worked silently at their respective pictures… ‘Masaniello’ was rapidly undergoing a treatment which was very damaging to its neighbour without a compensating improvement to itself. The gray sky had become an intense blue, and was every instant becoming so blue that even Italy could scarcely be credited with it. To this hour ‘Masaniello’ remains… with the bluest sky ever seen in a picture, and never seen out of one [my italics, note the heavy irony].

Could Frith unwittingly have cottoned on to the very essence of the painting, that it contained a depiction of the Uncreated Light (remember the description of the intellect’s proper state as being ‘like sapphire or the sky’s hue’)? If we want to go through this life without being spiritually blind, it is imperative that we open our eyes to the kind of spiritual vision being offered by the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova in her forthcoming book Turner and the Uncreated Light and at least entertain such possibilities.

Jonathan Dunne,

Word in Language (17): Christ the Son of God

After the bread that is destined to become the body of Christ during the Orthodox Liturgy has been cut from the loaves that have been baked for this purpose, the bread that is left over from the loaves is divided into small pieces, blessed by the priest and distributed to the people after the service. This bread is known as antidoron in Greek, meaning ‘instead of the gift’. It is used by those who have received communion to help wash down any remaining traces of the body and blood of Christ, so that they do not remain in the mouth, and is received by those who have not received communion as a substitute – ‘instead of the gift’. One of the subdeacon’s duties is to cut this bread into small pieces so that it can be distributed by the priest.


I serve as a subdeacon in the Orthodox Church, and I often think of this unconsecrated bread as being similar to words, cut from the body of Christ and waiting to be sanctified or not by their use. That is, the words we bandy about in conversation or in writing are small fragments of the Word of God and contain the potential to be used in a sanctifying way, if our intentions are good and our mind is set on God.


It is as if the priest is distributing words to the people, who will then leave the church and go out into the street and use those words in what is hopefully a beneficial way. It is only an image.


But I would like to suggest that words, just like the environment, bear the imprint of the Creator and refer to him. My book Stones Of Ithaca contains numerous examples of stones from the beaches of the Greek island of Ithaca that seem to depict Christian symbols and scenes. Language is the same, and why should we be surprised? Isn’t Christ the Word of God, the Logos? Isn’t it logical, therefore, that he should be present in words? Or that words should speak of him?


I would like to suggest that this is so and we can find proof in language that Christ is the Son of God (and that Mary is his Mother). God is one essence and three hypostases (that is, three persons) – three in ONE. I would like to show how language confirms Christ as the Son.


Let us start with the progression that we saw in the previous two articles, AIO, the progression of the Greek alphabet and of human life. A represents the Creation (described in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis); I represents the Fall (described in the third chapter of Genesis), the era we live in; and O represents repentance, becoming aware of our sins and turning back to God, the aim of our life on earth.


In the Book of Revelation, at the other end of the Bible, Christ describes himself as ‘the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (Rev 22:13). This is one of his names – Alpha and Omega – and can be written A+O. Now it is curious that the three ways of escaping from the selfish demands of the ego, of moving away from the line that represents the ego in English (I), involve:


– making reference to a third point, God, and forming a triangle (Δ);

– deleting the I and forming a cross (†);

– treating the letter I as a number (1) in order to count down to zero (0).


That is, A+O. Christ’s own name, revealed in the Book of Revelation, indicates to us the path that we must follow. I don’t think any human could have invented this; it must be something contained in language itself.


We saw that A+O is found in the middle conjunction, ‘and’, because if we write ‘and’ using capital letters, we get AND or A ’N’ O. The reverse of AND is DNA, which implies that it is in our make-up to make this progression and to turn to God, away from the ego. Note how GOD and EGO are only a step apart in the alphabet (alphabetical pair d-e).


If we apply this progression AIO to the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14, AM, we find that AM becomes I’M becomes OM. I take this last word to be a reference to the Holy Trinity: O3, or three in One. But one of the ways of making word connections is by the addition of letters, and one of the most commonly added letters is h. So another way of moving away from the self-centred demands of the ego that we find in I’M is, instead of making the progression AIO, simply to add h to I’M, which gives us HIM. I understand this to be a reference to Christ. He takes us out of ourselves – actually, in many ways it is the reverse movement: he returns us to ourselves. We turn to HIM and in the act of worship we sing a HYMN (the coincidence between these two homophones HIM and HYMN is found also in LORD and LAUD).


In Matthew 20:28, Christ says to his disciples that the Son of Man – Christ himself – came ‘not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a RANSOM for many’. Again, I think we can find proof for this in language, because if we ignore the first letter of RANSOM (r), we find that the rest of the word contains the name of God in Exodus, AM, and SON. Of course, the letters are jumbled up; spiritual knowledge is always hidden in some way. But it is not difficult to make out. I think the word RANSOM wishes to confirm what the Word is saying, and to confirm who he is: the Son of God.


We find another connection to the name of God in Exodus in John 14:6, where Christ says, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’ If we write the name of God in Exodus I AM and turn the letter M upside down, we will see a clear similarity between I AM and ‘law’ – the law of the Old Testament, which found its spiritual fulfilment in Christ – and between I AM and ‘way’ (y is the semi-vowel that corresponds to i): I AM – law – way. Language confirms what Christ is saying. This is why he goes on in the same verse to say, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ He is the way to I AM.


We find further proof of this connection between the name of God in Exodus and Christ in the appellation that John the Baptist gives Christ when he sees him approach in John 1:29: Lamb. The word ‘lamb’ (and note that the final letter, b, is silent) contains ‘I am’.


So in ‘way’ and ‘lamb’ we find two clear indications that Christ is the Son of God. Again, I would point out that no human could have invented these words so that they would reproduce the name of God in Exodus, I AM. This has to have come from God, to be ingrained in language, just as we saw AM in the name given to the first human, ADAM (both words contain the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet: AO, or AW if we write omega according to Greek usage).


In Orthodox tradition, all appearances of God in the Old Testament are by the Logos, so it is Christ who interacts with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eve and it is Christ who appears to Moses at the burning bush. For this reason, the Greek Septuagint translation of the name of God in Exodus – O WN – is included in icons of Christ, in the beams of the Cross inside the halo around his head. Search for an icon of Christ Pantocrator, and you will see what I mean.


O WN actually means ‘the being’. That is how the name of God, AM/I AM, is translated into Greek. O WN spells three words in English – OWN, WON and NOW – and it is easy to see the relevance of these words to Christ: he claims us as his own; he has won; he is with us now (Emmanuel).


By rotating the W, we can connect O WN to the number ONE, and I think this is because in his Incarnation, becoming visible to us, Christ represents – follows the will of – the Holy Trinity, three in ONE.


We have seen how these three letters O WN can be written O WH, which spells the question words WHO and HOW. Christ is the answer to both these questions, which we can only ask when we have made the progression AIO. That is, we have gone from asking WHAT in Creation (What is this creature? What should I call it?) to asking WHY (Why should I do this? Why should I believe you?) in the Fall to asking WHO/HOW in a state of repentance. We count down from the ego and realize that the answer we should be seeking is a person, and if you want a person to be the answer to the question you are asking, then the correct question is WHO? This was Pontius Pilate’s mistake when he was standing in front of that very person and asked him, ‘What is truth?’ Truth, he failed to understand, is not a thing, it is a person. The irony of this situation is staggering.


Now WHO sounds the same as HU, which is the root in Sanskrit of our word ‘God’. To show that Christ is the Son of God, the fulfilment of the Old Testament law and prophets, we see that WHO (O WH) is a progression from WHY, which contains the letters of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton: YHWH. And finally if we combine WHO with another name of God in the Old Testament, EL, we find that the two names together spell WHOLE. With the coming of Christ in human form, his birth, teaching, crucifixion, descent into hell and resurrection, we are made WHOLE. We are given that possibility, for our broken form, human nature, to receive wholeness, to return to God. That possibility was not available to us under the Old Law.


In the addition of letters, one of the most commonly added letters is h. Remembering the correlation in phonetics and in the alphabet between v and w, we will then see that WHOLE contains LOVE. It is love that makes us whole, that enables us to enter into relationship. Relationship is intrinsic to the Holy Trinity (there are three persons), and so it is intrinsic to us as well, because we are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26).


LOVE, by the addition of the same letter h, can be found in OTHER (phonetic pair l-r, alphabetical pair t-v). Love necessarily involves the other, unless all you are going to do is love yourself. I don’t think we are meant to do this. True love – true healing – involves relationship. I am healed by others, by letting them into my life and by revealing myself to them. I have a family, I was lost without them, but that same love – that same self-affirmation (as opposed to the self-destruction brought about by sin) – can be found with a complete stranger if our gaze is at once directed towards each other and towards him (the third point I talked about with reference to the triangle). OTHER is connected to the Greek word for ‘God’, THEOS (alphabetical pair r-s), and this is the meaning of Christ’s saying, ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40), but we have lost this meaning. Very often we see our neighbour as a threat to our peace, we turn away from them or eyeball them with aggression. Our lives are separate – we have no common reference. It is a common reference that brings peace.


And LOVE is connected with another word in language, which again goes some way to proving that Christ is God. If we apply the phonetic pairs l-r and v-w and the alphabetical pair d-e to LOVE, we find WORD. We read in 1 John 4:8 that ‘God is love’ – Christ is the Word, and WORD is connected to LOVE, which seems to confirm this.


In the beginning, God the Father created the world through the Son on the basis of the Holy Spirit. Again, we will find confirmation in language because WORLD is a combination of LORD and WORD. We find WORD not only in LOVE, but in the WORLD we inhabit. We also find him in the SUN that illuminates our lives and enables us to grow crops, that is to survive, because there is a clear correlation between SON and SUN. It is the Son who enables us to eat. I am not saying that the Sun is Christ himself, but there is clearly a connection between the two words, which implies a scientific connection as well.


We find confirmation of this connection SON-SUN if we apply the phonetic pair b-p to LAMB, which gives us LAMP. Christ says as much in John 8:12: ‘I am the light of the world.’ Language confirms it. His name confirms it, because CHRIST contains LIGHT (phonetic pairs g-k and l-r, addition of s).


He also enables us to breathe. When we discussed the Trinity as three in ONE, we saw that God the Father is no one (O1), God the Son is oxygen (O2) and God the Holy Spirit is ozone (O3). The Holy Spirit is commonly likened to a wind (a word, by the way, that contains the first four numbers – 0, 1, 2 and 3 – if we rotate two of the letters in WIND) – that is, breath, which is represented in language by the letter h. If we combine this letter for the Holy Spirit, H, and the chemical symbol for oxygen, O2, we get water: H2O. Christ also enables us to drink.


The two chemical symbols combined, O2 and O3, can be found in MOON (again, we need to rotate the letters to get the numbers 2 and 3), so it seems that Christ reflects his own light and enables us to see at night.


Language, and the environment that surrounds us, are permeated by Christ. Look around you, and you will see a million crosses. The Cross is like a stile – it enables us to cross over to the other side, to escape our own isolation, to walk over the line, to make a bridge that will carry us where we want to go. Language will help us. Once we enlist its support, it will provide the content of our prayers – at least until we no longer need words. Language, in this sense, is repetitive. It can be boring, but we are rubbing away the hard outer casing of our hearts, so that we can enter there and find God’s kingdom.


In the end, perhaps the name alone will suffice, coupled with an expression of assent. There is one city in the world that is claimed by the Abrahamic religions: Jerusalem. It was here that Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection took place, and it was not far from here, in Bethlehem, that he was born. This is where Christ taught in the temple when he was only a child and sweated tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his ultimate sacrifice on the Cross.


Take the word JERUSALEM and apply the alphabetical pairs l-m, m-n and r-s. That is, take the letters l, m and r in JERUSALEM and advance one step in the alphabet. What two words do you get? This, for me, is proof that Christ is who he says he is.


Jonathan Dunne,