The Role of Theology in Transforming Society

In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for millennia God has been primarily understood as Lord, King, and Judge. Mystics have understood God as suffusing the world with Divinity, but for most worshippers and believers the basic Lordly metaphors have not changed.

In recent decades, feminist and other movements have challenged the masculinity and hierarchy of the “Lord” metaphors. While pressure for change has come from social movements so that it might seem that the direction of change is from society into the religious communities, the pressure itself suggests that the critics believe that the metaphors we use for God can themselves not only reflect but help initiate social change and transformation.

There is a major biblical story that, from within religious tradition itself, suggests that the metaphors for describing God – God’s “Name” -- do have a major impact on society.

At the Burning Bush (Exodus 4), the unquenchably fiery Voice tells Moses that the world is about to be transformed: Pharaoh’s power will be dissolved like powder in the Sea, and slaves will become a free people.  And the Voice says that to accomplish this, Moses and the people must set aside the old sacred Name of the Divine and call upon the Voice through a new Name: YHWH.

But we actually can’t call upon this Name. There’s no way to “pronounce” those letters, with no vowels. (It is not “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.”)  And for a couple of millennia, Jews have been strictly taught not even to try pronouncing it but instead to say “Adonai, Lord.”

That response had a deep impact on Christianity: “Adonai” became in Greek “Kyrie,” in Latin “Dominus,” in English “Lord.”
There is in the biblical story a second time when the Voice tells Moses that the new Name is “YHWH.” It happens in Exodus 6: 2-3. Moses is in Egypt, and his first try at liberation and at organizing “Brickmakers Union, Local #1” (a wonderful insight by A. J. Muste)  has miserably failed. This time the Voice explicitly says that the Name by which He/She/ It was known to the forebears — El Shaddai, the Breasted God, the God of Nourishment and Nurture --  is no longer the Name for use in the liberation process.

Why this second Voicing of the new Name, this time with a explicit rejection of the older name?

The story is hinting that Moses has, since the Bush and during his first effort in Egypt, been careless about using the new Name. He has often used the old one on the warm-hearted assumption that his listeners would be more comfortable with it.

But the old Name cannot inspire a new sense of reality.  That’s why Moses has failed, the Brickmakers Union has collapsed. So this time the Voice makes it absolutely clear: “Stop already! I am YHWH, not El Shaddai, even though your forebears knew me that way.”

The point is that if the world is to be turned upside down or inside out, God must be differently named. Because God IS different when the world is different. And because human beings cannot deeply absorb, “know,” “grok,” the newness of the world and their own crucial need to act on that newness unless they are challenged to ReName God.

In our generation even more than in Moses’ day, the world is indeed being transformed. The entire web of life as the human race has known it for our entire history as a species, including human life and civilization, is under great strain.
If we are to be truthful to the changing reality and to teach ourselves to act in new ways, we must ReName God. That means renaming not only in the literally religious vocabulary, but in the  vocabularies of science and politics.

Most essential is ridding ourselves of the Top-down, Pyramidal, Imperial, Pharaonic model of reality and the vocabulary that supports it, and affirming instead interwovenness. “Ecology” not only in the biological but also in the political / economic/ cultural worlds.

In religious vocabulary about God – what we call “theology” -- perhaps the most powerful change we can make in our own generation is through actually “pronouncing” the Unpronounceable Name that came to Moses. Not substituting the Hierarchical Name “Adonai, Lord” but “pronouncing” the Name by simply breathing --  YHWH with no vowels. God, Reality, as the Interbreath of Life, the ONE that keeps all life alive, that intertwines, interbreathes, the trees and grasses and ourselves.

We breathe in what the trees breathe out;
The trees breathe in what we breathe out:
We breathe each other into life:

What we call the “climate crisis” is a radical disturbance in the Earth’s atmosphere  -- its Breath -- that has thrown out of balance the mixture of what we breathe out and what the trees breathe out — that is, the balance of CO2 and oxygen.  Human action is sending more CO2 into the atmosphere  than Mother Earth can breathe.

If we hear the YHWH as the Interbreathing of all life, then that Name Itself is now in crisis. God’s Interbreathing Name is harshly wounded, and it will take our action to heal the Name.  

We cannot begin the healing so long as we refuse to Name the wound. Using the old names, names of “Lord” and “King” and domination, is like trying to heal a seriously wounded person by treating someone else.  We  can only begin the healing by reclaiming the Truth of the Name, the Breath within the Name.

Just as we calm ourselves by breathing mindfully as individuals, so all humanity must learn to clear the Life-Breath of the planet by a collective calming, shared mindfulness. That requires not just action by many individuals in their individual lives, but public action by communities and polities to heal the wounded Interbreathing.

In religious communities, this means teaching again and again and again that “Lord” and “King” do not speak the truth of our lives, and motivating religious folk to use the Name of God that actually can move the religious to heal the wounded world in which the Name is Interbreathing. That change can make a difference, since in many societies (including the USA) the explicitly religious have considerable clout in shaping or preventing social change.

 In biological ecology, this means that the human species may have more power than any other life-form over the living network, but it is itself part of the network, inextricably woven into it. “Stewardship” is part of the truth, but not the whole of it.

In politics, this means that when one stratum of society elevates and isolates itself and acts as if others were irrelevant to its success, the society, the economy, the polity stop working. Massive depressions, runaway inflations, revolutionary upheavals, civil wars, genocides are the result.

And the “political” and “biological” worlds are not isolated from each other. When Pharaoh oppresses parts of his human society, the earth itself writhes in agony. When BP for the sake of its profits denies elementary safety precautions to its workers, not only do they die in a preventable explosion, but the Gulf of Mexico is poisoned by the resulting oil blow-out. And the reverse: Scorch the Earth by burning fossil fuel, and thousands die in the Philippines from the most powerful typhoon in recorded history.  

“Science,” “politics,” and “religion” fuse into a single truth.

If we are to do as Torah, politics, and science all demand, heal our deeply wounded planet from impending disaster, we must do as Moses learned to do and ReName God.
We must rid ourselves of the old Name -- Adonai, Lord, King, dominating Dominus – and address Divine Reality as the Interbreathing Of All Life.   That is the Truth, and we are Called to say it.
With a sacred but outdated Name, an outdated way of understanding our world, we will, like Moses, fail at the task before us.
Interbreathing, not OverLordship, is how our world now works. Now Is. And will be.

For Moses, the new Name made possible both resisting Pharaoh and shaping a new kind of society.

For us, it means both resisting the modern Carbon Pharaohs that are bringing new Plagues upon our planet; and shaping a new society in which we are constantly aware that all life is Interbreathing, that we are interwoven with the eco-systems within which we live – that indeed, YHWH, the Breath of Life, is ONE.


* Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., director, The Shalom Center <>; newest books,  a revised edition of Seasons of Our Joy (Jewish Publ Soc, 2012) and Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011). See also Waskow, “Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah,” in Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (Elliot N. Dorff and  Jonathan K. Crane, eds.; Oxford University Press, 2013).


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