I have purchased a set of Islamic prayer beads from one of our local shop owners. The set has ninety-nine beads, one for each of the names of God in Islam. These are not literally God’s names (as if we can call God Joe or Bob) but the attributes Muslims ascribe to the Holy, including the merciful, the shaper, the sustainer, the loving one.
In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, the people hoped to reach God and “make their name famous” as if God were a thing to be used for their own vanity. As a result, the people of the world were scattered into diverse cultures and languages, presumably each with its own understanding of God.
In part, this reflects the pre-scientific worldview, in which God exists somewhere above us. The people thought they could stand face to face with God just by erecting a tall enough building. But the story is also about the human need to own and control things. When so much is out of our control, the lessons of Babel are important for all of us.
We can all build Towers of Babel when we use God for our own purposes. We can use God to dismiss others, to assert our superiority, to divide people into those who belong and those who don’t. If we think God is a thing in a place, like the citizens of Babel did, we tend to decide that God is with “us” and not “them.”
That is why I like the Islamic notion of ninety-nine names of God. Each of those names is a reminder that God is a reality woven into the very fabric of being. God cannot be named or held or possessed but must ultimately be experienced as love, justice, mercy, peace, compassion, creator, and more.
What names might you find for God? To put it another way, where have you experienced the Holy in your life, even here in this place? When does God feel far away? How has the divine been close to you? These questions can tear down the Towers of Babel in our minds and bring us down to earth, where God lives every day.