J is for Jesus
Not that there is much choice; in the Divine Alphabet, what else might “J” stand for? “Jehovah,” I suppose, although that’s an odd word made by putting the vowels of Adonai (Lord) into the unpronounceable Yhwh. “Just” would be true and is highly fitting. “Jolly” would be comfortable, evoking images of Saint Nick and perhaps C. S. Lewis.
But nothing beats a personal name.
You’re on a crowded sidewalk, and you hear someone say “Hey, you!” You ignore it, as you should. The speaker is probably not talking to you, and if he is, you probably shouldn’t talk back. But if your name is Victor, and you hear someone say “Hey, Victor!”—then you will stop, and turn, and look.
Someone who knows your name is someone who has a relationship to you. Of course, it might not be much of a relationship—it could be nothing more than that your name has been retrieved from a computer database. Do you remember? Before there were computer databases and cheap ways of making impersonal letters look personal, we would get mail addressed to “Occupant” or “Resident,” with letters inside addressed to “Dear Neighbor” or even “Dear Sir or Madam.” The sender did not pretend to have a relationship with us; our letter was but one of hundreds or thousands identical pieces of mail; and it would have conveyed phoney-ness to suggest the sender knew us by name. (Here is one more way that technology pretends to create a real human connection that is, in fact, more insidious than the impersonal formality it has replaced.)
But set aside the misuse of someone’s name. Misuse points to what remains true: to know a person’s name is to have a claim to access to that person, a claim to a relationship.
“God” is not a personal name, not, in fact, a name at all. It is like an algebraic “x” that stands for whatever it is that is responsible for the being of the world. And there is no more reason for us in the world to think about God than there is reason for the characters in a novel to think about their author.
What we have learned about God, however, is that he has spoken to his human creatures, from time to time, in many and various ways, over many centuries. In particular, he spoke to certain individuals who became the founders of a new people, a nation that was especially his.
Which is why “A is for Accessible” and “I is for Israel.” God has always wanted to have a relationship with us. When Israel was formed, God told Moses his name—a name he had withheld prior to that time, withheld famously from Isaac in his wrestling-match through the night. That name, Yhwh, is not to be pronounced, and is special to his special people.
But in the fullness of time, God became a man, human just like us, one creature amongst others. When that happened, God took on a new name. This new name is one that is special to all people everywhere. And it is to be pronounced by anyone who wants to call upon God.
Michael Ossorgin, one of my tutors at St. John’s College and a Russian priest, used to smile at a rather common thing. You swing a hammer but miss the nail and hit your thumb. The first word that escapes from your lips, although it sounds like swearing, could be, might be (I remember his smile): a prayer!
“Jesus!”—the name of God that is available for anyone who wants to call upon him.
On the Web. In Coronatide, one catches up a bit on journals. In last summer’s issue of The New Atlantis, Ian Marcus Corbin writes of the improbable success of Moleskine notebooks. That success is related to something about us that cannot be replicated on the Web (and thus it resonates with our unhappiness with online replacements of personal meetings). “Hands and faces, pen and paper, particularity—these things are perennially germane for flux-treading, body-having, mark-making creatures like us.” Corbin, writing a year before the Virus, presciently goes on: “Those of us who recognize that we and our neighbors need these things should be thinking intentionally and concretely about how we can turn back toward each other.” The article is not long, and is, like much of The New Atlantis, a thoughtful refuge from high-decibel polemics. https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/analog-anchors-for-the-online-adrift