The Most Beautiful Names

People with a high degree of spiritual enlightenment (regardless of religious affiliation) say the soul has no gender. The numinous has no gender. The divine, if there is such a thing, has no gender. Personally, I think gender is just one of the illusions we live within during our stay here on earth.

The Sufis, a divergent group of Islamic mystics, say the world was created from the ninety-nine most beautiful names of God. Ninety nine is just a number that symbolizes many, and “names” means attributes or qualities. They speak, for example, of “God the merciful”, in which “merciful” is one of the names of God. If the entire universe is formed of divine attributes, everything is made up of unique combinations of some, but not all, of these attributes. In this way the divine is the gene within the gene, and our genetic heritage stretches beyond matter.

All the divine attributes can be divided into two almost limitless categories: those that give us a sense of closeness with the divine, and those that keep us at a distance from the divine. Those that give us a sense of closeness include names like God the beautiful, the tender, the gentle, the loving, the merciful. Those that keep us at a respectful distance include things like God the strong, the wrathful, the judge, the violent. For Sufis the divine invites people to intimacy with itself, while at the same time reminding people of the importance of boundaries.

Think, for a minute, of babies being born, each with an individual, unique selection of divine attributes. These, and the ways that they combine with each other, will form their personality.

It seems that in civilizations run by People of Power (POP), all the qualities associated with keeping distance from God have been assigned to males, and those associated with feeling close to God have been assigned to females. If you’re biologically male, your caregivers, acting in the name of society, are going to squash all the divine qualities associated with closeness out of you, and try to squeeze into you the distance qualities, whether you have them in potential or not. And the reverse if you’re female.

In effect, in this view, society kills some of the divine in each of us as soon as possible.

This makes it almost impossible for people to be authentic.

It’s been too hard for women for too long, of course, and so there have been “women’s liberation” movements again and again. Women have only to find their god-given strength to start lobbying, maneuvering, fighting for the right to be accorded equal status, as human beings, with men.

Men, on the other hand, gain too much from their inauthenticity. Those who do not have the divine names of “strength” or “ferocity” or “leader” have to pretend to those qualities. That makes them brittle, and, frankly, dangerous in the way that men who have to prove themselves always are. In exchange, they get to set the rules of all the games, they get heard when women are not, they get to speak when women don’t get that privilege, they get higher pay, or they just get the job. A man who’s good at faking it can have a good life.

Too many women still fake it too, because no movement can liberate the individual from an internalized prison. Movements can only make change in the body politic, not necessarily in the psyche.

Some days I am beyond believing that whole societies, whole civilizations can prefer such fakery of their members to authenticity.

Can you even imagine a world in which some men can invite closeness by their natural warmth, empathy and willingness to listen? And a world in which some women can effortlessly command attention and respect because their intelligence and problem-solving skills make them the obvious leaders?

The Sufis also say that we each worship a god of our own creation. Since God isn’t out walking and visible to all, we have to conceptualize a God to worship. And we conceptualize based on what we’re familiar with. Mostly religious people conceptualize some version of their own fathers. If their own father was distant, cold, withholding of approval, quick to punish, well then that’s the God they worship.

I like a short passage from the biblical book of Hosea, in which the Jewish prophet has a vision of the divine speaking to him. The divine presence seems to say “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Is the divine not describing itself by the attributes of motherhood?

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