On Names, Naming, and Being Named

14 Apr

“I’ve told you. A Namer has to know who people are, and who they are meant to be.”

A Wind in the Door

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door is not one of my favorite books, largely because it focuses more on philosophy than on dramatic action. But, whatever its dramatic pull, its focus on names fascinated me. L’Engle writes of an earth and a little boy, Charles Wallace Murry, being attacked by the Echthroi (“those who hate,” according to the book). The only way for Charles Wallace’s sister Meg to save him is by learning to Name–an act of creative love that protects the identities of the Named. The cherubim in the story, about the Echthroi: “War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming–making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.”

Thus said the storyteller. The philosophers, on the other hand, have attempted to be more specific. J.S. Mill argued that the names refer directly to those who carry them. While Mill’s definition works in many contexts, there are some exceptions: for example, the name “Charles Wallace Murry” refers to a person who does not actually exist. If Mill’s theory of names is to be followed directly, then the name Charles Wallace Murry is attached to nothing–which is clearly not the case.

Bertrand Russell and others tried to compensate for Mill’s weaknesses with the descriptive theory of names–that is, names are attached to the description of a person or thing, not to the person or thing itself. Yet the descriptivists had their own weaknesses. If names refer to one thing, descriptions can refer to many things. “Meg’s little brother” describes Charles Wallace. It also describes her other brothers, Sandy and Dennys. Also, descriptions can be attached to the wrong thing: calling Charles Wallace Meg’s cousin, for example. But making that descriptive mistake would not “un-Name” Charles Wallace.

A third group of philosophers, attempted to avoid the mistakes of the first two name theories, adopted the causal theory of names. In causal theory, names are attached to a person or thing by another person. After the original naming, others borrow the name to refer to the person or thing. And thus the name and its object become identified with one another. But this theory, although it avoids the mistakes of the other two, does not fit perfectly, since names can be changed. Byzantium became Constantinople. Constantinople became Istanbul. Istanbul may become something else, given a thousand years.

Perhaps the only conclusion to make, without running into all the difficulties of the philosophers, is that Naming is a mystery.

But it is a mystery known by a Namer. One of God’s first acts was to give names. “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5, ESV). God continued naming things as He created. Naming was the culmination of God’s creative acts. And then God gave man the authority to name.

“Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field” (Genesis 2:19-20, ESV).

Since God gave man that authority, man has continued naming. And, like other gifts of God, man can abuse the privilege. But naming in and of itself is a good thing–another proof that humans are made in the image of God. Animals do not name.

But, however great our pleasure in naming, in exercising our creative power, humans are first and foremost creatures. Greater than our need to name is our need to be named.

“To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17, ESV).

How many of us have read those verses, wondering what that name will be? Under sin’s curse, like the Mr. Jenkins of L’Engle’s writings, we do not fully know who we are. Our true selves were lost in the Fall, and we now assume that the way we are is the way we were supposed to be.

Only one person knows differently; and that he is our creator should be no surprise. What other person could know “who people are, and who they are meant to be”?

But God’s creative acts are not complete; that is, He is still changing those of us who have repented of our old ways–those new ways gotten through the Fall–into Christ’s likeness. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:18, ESV). God is, after a fashion, still creating us. And part of the culmination of that creating will be when He names us. Not with the changing and uncertain names of the philosophers, but names with the fullness and knowledge of the one who sees through the dark veil woven by the Fall.

George MacDonald asked, “Why know the name of a thing when the thing itself you do not know?” We can rest in remembering that the God who knows all things is the keeper of both.


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Posted by on April 14, 2012 in Fantasy


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