10/07/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

ReNaming God, ReNaming the Climate Crisis

For millennia, many readers of the Bible (including me) have experienced the moments when the Voice pronounces a new Name to Moses as among the moments that move us most deeply -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually.

This changing happens twice in the text. Why?

The first time is at the Burning Bush. After God commissions Moses to lead a movement to free the Israelites from slavery under Pharaoh, Moses starts out by assuming he will speak to the Israelites on behalf of "the God of your forebears." But he warns God that they will ask: "What is the Name of this God?"

The Voice responds by proclaiming the future-liberating Name in the future tense: "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, "I Will Be Who I Will Be." (Exodus 3:13-15.) This Name is already a spiral, in which the words go back to the beginning in order to go forward. By implication, the name keeps going into the continuing spiral of a future always becoming: "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh asher Ehyeh asher Ehyeh..." We do not ignore the past; we draw on it without getting stuck in it.

With this Name, "I Will Be Who I Will Be," the Israelites and all human communities could change history. They could end slavery and create freedom as a "politics." They could end constricted awareness ("mochin d'katnut") and open broad awareness ("mochin d'gadlut") as "spirituality." "Min hametzar karati YAH: Anani bamerchav YAH -- From the Narrow Place I cried out to You, Breath of Life; You answered me with broad openness, O Breath!" (Psalm 118)

Then from the Burning Bush the Voice adds both "Ehyeh" "I Will Be,"as a short form, a nickname, and "YHWH" as Its/Her/His additional Name.

For two millennia (mostly post-biblical), Jews have been using "Adonai"("Lprd") as a substitute, and as a result bequeathed "Kyrie," Dominus," and "Lord" to Western languages. Especially during the last forty years or so, there has been a good bit of turmoil about this top-down, masculine naming of God. Is this a short-range phenomenon, or is something more profound happening: Is God's Name changing now, as it did at the Burning Bush?

If we physically pronounce "YHWH," we discover it is physically a Breathing. (That pronouncing as a breathing is why it is important to be aware the correct transliteration is "YHWH," not "YHVH.") So I have been voicing "YHWH" as "Yahhh" (one of the ancient names of God, as in "Hallelu-Yahhh, Let us praise the Breath of Life") and translating it as the Breath of Life, the Breathing-Spirit of the world, the Interbreath of life.

In Exodus 6:2-3, Torah describes the second time when the Voice tells Moses that the new Name is "YHWH." Now Moses is in Egypt, and his first try at liberation and at organizing "Brickmakers Union, Local #1" 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?

Midrashically, I suggest that Moses, since the Bush and during his first effort in Egypt, has been careless about using the new Name. He has often been using the old one, on the 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. 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 when the world is turning upside down or inside out, God must be differently named. Because if "Alz ist Gott," 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 as in Moses', the world is being transformed. The entire web of life as the human race has known it for our entire history as a species is radically changing and at least the whole web of mammalian life, including human life and civilization, is under great strain.

We must ReName God, to be truthful to the changing reality and to teach ourselves to act in new ways.

And that is why I have been urging us that in our own generation, we must get to know God, to grok God, 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 balance of what we breathe out and what the trees breathe out -- the balance of CO2 and oxygen.

So what we call the "climate crisis" is a crisis in the Name of God. We should be saying so. If we are to do as Torah demands, heal our deeply wounded planet from impending disaster, I think we must do as Moses learned to do and ReName God.

I think 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 -- the scientific Truth and the spiritual Truth-- and that is the Call.

With a sacred but outdated Name, we will, like Moses when he first returned to Egypt, fail at the task before us.

For years, I have encouraged prayer communities to breathe the Name as YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh and then to use "Yahhh" instead of "Adonai." And then I have said that anyone who feels deeply God-connected through the use of the "Adonai" which they have recited, chanted, sung a thousand times should -- for God's sake! -- keep on using what connects them.

But I have come to think this is an inadequate teaching. I am now intending to say all this, and then to add my understanding of why Moses failed at first and why the Voice had to insist on the new Name. And I will invite people to keep that challenge in mind as they voice their own response to the Voice.

What we call the "climate crisis" is a radical disturbance in the balance of what we breathe out and what the trees breathe out -- the balance of CO2 and oxygen.

Let me say again: What we call the "climate crisis" is a crisis in the Name of God. We should be saying so.

Just as we ReName God, we must rename the climate crisis. It is not an academic specialty, a political debate, an economic puzzle. It is the deepest spiritual challenge we have ever faced. With all the passion and compassion that our forebears brought to face the Plagues of Pharaoh, "religion" today must face the Plagues of modern Pharaohs and name the Pharaohs of our generation what they are: idols. They pretend to see but blind us, pretend to breathe but choke us. Those who worship them will become like them -- dead.

Idolatry -- or joy in the Interbreathing of all life? "God's Crisis."