[This article is reproduced here from the original on my blog.]
I am not my name. I am not my face. I am not my thoughts, my feelings, or my physical body. Those are all things I have
, but none of those things I am.
So, who am I?
Identity is famously difficult to define. I can answer, "I am David Gregg," but do you know who I am because you know my name? I am not my name. It's a great deception to think you know a person when you know little more than a name and a face. At parties you can say, "Oh, yeah, I know David," because we have been introduced, but in the naked meaning of the phrase "I know him," just how true is it? When you ask me, "Who are you?", the best and most truthful thing I can do is shrug and say, "I am who I am." I cannot tell you who I am—I cannot describe my identity to you in words—but if you take the time to get to know me, you will learn who I am, by experience, in relationship.
Now, let's consider a scenario.
A man enters into a wildly unexpected encounter with the true God in a land and time full of pantheons and patron deities. They speak and presently God gives the man a mission to speak to others on His behalf. Bemused by the unusual request and the very odd circumstances he has found himself in, the man musters the courage to ask the Almighty Shaper of Worlds a question! He asks, "But—and don't get me wrong here, I know you are God,
God—but... who are
you? Uh, if I am to speak on your behalf, Lord, who should I say sent me? Are you Ra? Baal? Are you Dagon, Chemosh, or Anu? Who are you, if you will excuse my asking?" To this, God wisely responds, "I am who I am." "Certainly. ...But who is that, Lord?" the man sheepishly dares. "That is the question of the ages, son. You'll just have to find out. You think you will know who I am if I give you a name? You think your people's many problems will be solved if they simply switch the word-name of deity in their prayers, when their hearts are so far from me? No. A name will not help you. If I give you a name, you will think you know me. And you will not try to know me as a person if you think you already do. What you need is an invitation to know me. So, when your people ask you, 'Who is this god you speak for?', tell them, 'I asked Him the same thing, and He said, "I am who I am."' And when they ask, 'And who is that?', as you have, perhaps they will begin to seek the answer to that question themselves... and come to know me—who cannot be known in a name."
God's "I am who I am" was, above all else, an invitation to get to know him. It may have meant other things when God said it to Moses; the language experts say it may be translated more than one way. Perhaps God also meant for us to understand that He is the self-existing source of all things from "I am that
I am," but I strongly suspect that those metaphysical determinations about the nature of God's existence and essence were secondary (though nonetheless present) to the more immediate question, "Who is God?" Much more is involved in that question than the problem of God's makeup as deity. That is better asked by "How
is God?". "Who
is God?", on the other hand, has more to do with God's identity, which is a question of person
, not merely of substance.
What good is a name, if you don't know the person? "I am who I am" is as much an invitation as it is anything else. Who is God? He is who He is. Who is that? I guess, you'll have to find out. And there is no other way to that knowledge than by relationship, through experience, as has been true for every other person you know.
Juliet: Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Romeo: I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptiz'd;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am.
(William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet", Act II, Scene II