What is your favorite name for God?
Our tradition teaches that the Holy is beyond our understanding; that it cannot be fully described with human language. In fact, the most accurate biblical description for God may be the one spoken to Moses as he witnessed the burning bush. Moses wants a name to bring back to his people to explain who will be leading them out of slavery in Egypt. But the force we so often call God refuses, saying simply:” I am what I am. I will be who I will be.”
Some believers embrace the unknowability of God, finding blessings in mystery, in the absence of language. Still, many of us, like Moses, long for a name, or even an adjective, or a verb: something that will give definition to our conceptions of the divine. In search of the mystery that is God, we have come up with more divine descriptions that can possibly be counted. You can find them in scripture, mystical writings, poetry, liturgy, songs, and beyond. Each of us may have our own favorite names, the ones we most often use in prayer, the ones that resonate most deeply with our hearts. Wonderful. But which ones should we use when we are all together?
This year we are spending one Sunday each month exploring the music that we sing together at church. Today, we’ll talk a bit about the formation of our Black Hymnal, the New Century Hymnal, published in 1995.
As this hymnal came into being, the social movements that had begun to move through our culture decades before were finally being felt in theology and religious practice. Civil rights, Disability rights, Gay rights, Feminism & Womanism, Ecological activism: all of these movements challenged the cultural assumptions of the mostly white American Protestants who made up the United Church of Christ.
If you compare the New Century Hymnal to its predecessor, the Pilgrim Hymnal, you may notice several shifts. The New Century Hymnal draws from a far wider range of cultures, Christian movements, and time periods. Its hymns address new issues, like social justice and stewardship of the earth. The New Century Hymnal shows more respect for the practice of faiths other than Christianity. It eliminates instances in which the word “men” is used to represent all people. It begins to shift descriptions of people in other ways, too, in response to racism and ableism, as they were understood by the editors at the time. But what the New Century Hymnal is most known for is its language for God.
The first hymn of any hymnal is telling. The New Century Hymnal committee chose “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise.” This hymn, which we sang at the beginning of our service, acknowledges the unknowability of God, while using a wide range of adjectives and images to describe the divine: most blessed, most glorious; unresting, unhasting; with justice like mountains high soaring above.
In seeking the broadest possible description of God, and address shifts in theology, the hymnal committee “identified words, phrases, and theological implications in hymns” to revise, retranslate, or eliminate in well-known hymns (Companion, 8). These words & phrases included those that emphasized the maleness and hierarchical power of God. Singing a very familiar and beloved hymn with these kind of alterations can be jarring, as some of us experienced at Christmas. However, the hymnal committee was convinced that the way that we speak and sing about God should reflect what we believe. Perhaps they also considered how our singing shapes our belief, and the beliefs of those learning these songs for the first time.
The hymnal committee did not simply seek to eliminate what it found problematic, however. More than anything, it sought to diversity our imagery for God, to reflect in song the variety that already existed in the bible and beyond. In the words of the hymnal companion, it is “a hymnal boldly committed to a spirit of inclusiveness. It welcomes and celebrates the diversity of all the people of God as surely as it confesses the mystery of diversity within God the Holy Trinity.” The preface to the hymnal proclaims: “One of the great gifts to our time is the spirit now moving among us calling us to affirm the fullness of God, the goodness of creation, and the value of every person. The search for language and metaphor to express that breadth and richness marks this book.”
Remarkably for the time, that breadth and richness included female imagery for God. Let’s sing together #467, Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth.
Now, you may be wondering, “Why is it appropriate to use female imagery for God?” After all, if we acknowledge that God is not male, and we try to avoid using too much male language for God, we must surely also know that God is not female. God is not a person; human gender does not apply to God. Yes. And, in an absence of gender indicators, we often allow our deep training, our subconscious bias, to go undisturbed. If hearing the name “she” for God surprises us, this is a helpful indicator that it is good for us to use it, among many other names, to loosen the hold of the male description that is embedded in our religious tradition.
There may be a better pronoun for God, however, if we need to use a pronoun at all; one that has emerged since the publishing of the New Century Hymnal. Many have suggested that “they” is the most appropriate pronoun for God. The singular “they” has become a popular option for those who find themselves outside our gender binary system. If we’re describing God, “they” has an additional layer of meaning as it reminds us of the three persons in our trinity. “They,” then, might describe any mixture or absence of genders; it can suggest both unity and multiplicity. I’ve used this pronoun for God before; listen for it again later in the service.
But back to the music! The majority of the more unfamiliar language in this hymnal is not female. It is often described instead as expansive, encouraging us to stretch our brains to grasp a bigger understanding of that “I am what I am, I will be who I will be.” One hymn that beautifully captures this is God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale, #32. Let’s sing it together.
Beloved: this hymnal represents change, and change can be hard. It is hard to accept alterations to things we already know and love. It is hard to learn to love entirely new things that disrupt our assumptions or stretch our imaginations. But this year-long exploration of hymns has taught me that hymns are always being revised, and new songs are always being written. In fact, there is a wonderful quote in the preface to our Pilgrim Hymnal that reads, “Each generation responds to the call of Christ in its own distinctive way. There is need for periodic revision of our hymnals.”
I give profound thanks for the folks who came together to make this book, and to the mysterious, unknowable God who inspired them. This hymnal was the first of its kind, as far as I know, anywhere in the world; certainly it broke ground here in the United States. It has impacted the hymnals that came after it in other denominations, and it continues to challenge us, 25 years after its publication. It invites us to broaden our minds and hearts to more fully grasp the immeasurable, awe-inspiring force of Love at the center of our faith. Treasure your favorite names for God, whatever they are; and see if you can find some new ones, in the pages of this book. Let’s sing together, Bring Many Names, #11.