“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This famous line from Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, reminds us that names don’t matter nearly as much as who we are.
But this doesn’t keep us from using names as a shortcut to making assumptions about each other. Speculation on the connection between names and outcomes dates back further than recorded history.
However, scientific research on whether our parent’s choice of name helps determine our future role in society is primarily credited to a study published in 1948 by two Harvard Professors. The research offered evidence that men with unusual names were academically less successful and more likely to exhibit symptoms of psychological neurosis than men with more familiar names.
In The New Yorker magazine, award-winning author Maria Konnikova summarized some of the research that’s taken place since this original research was conducted. One of the more disappointing studies found that names influenced the selection of candidates for positions more than credentials. Specifically, the research showed a racial bias among resume reviewers giving less credence to claims made by individuals with names that sounded like a person of color.
The bottom line, humans use names as shortcuts. And sometimes, these shortcuts have life-altering effects despite the overwhelming evidence that names offer almost no insight into our identities. A rose, by any other name, still has a distinctive fragrance.
Names are one of the many things that children learn at an early age. Parents teach their children how to write their names, which becomes a critical skill later in life. Children learn functional nicknames for those closest to them, such as mom, dad, and grandma. It’s culturally rare for children to address the adults close to them by their actual names.
And then we become adults. A time when we learn to address each other by labels. Often, our label is also our name. But we frequently label each other with titles that reflect our role and usually our position of relative importance. Some of us are doctors, and a few are judges. Each label is a shortcut that conveys information while missing attributes most relevant to what it means to be human.
For many of us, labels leave us with the pressing question, “Who am I, really?” This question presses upon us as we realize that labels are temporary shortcuts. While our souls long for eternal existence.
Moses is one of the prominent names found in scripture. His story is located in a book called Exodus. This label represents God’s intervention in human affairs to free enslaved people. Moses encounters God when he discovers a bush on fire in the wilderness.
God said, “I am who I am.”
God recruits Moses to lead people who do not know him to freedom. When Moses asks God for a name that he can offer to the people that substantiates his authority, God refuses his request. There is no name that isn’t a stand-in for something finite. Therefore, no name sufficiently acts as a shortcut for God, was the implication.
Instead of a name, God instructs Moses to tell the people that “I am” sent him. This label was later claimed by Jesus Christ, and it stuck for Christians as one of the many labels used to refer to God’s identity.
What God said was passed along as a story from generation to generation and first written in ancient Hebrew. The transliteration is written as hāyâ. This ancient Hebrew word, sometimes translated as an English expression, appears over 3,500 times in the Hebrew texts. Most often, the term simply implies that something exists with no other qualifications.
The story of God instructing Moses to tell the people I AM sent him is interpreted in numerous imaginative ways. Perhaps Moses was to simply tell them that God exists. Yet hāyâ is a plural form and usually points to the future, leading some, particularly Jewish scholars, to translate God’s instructions as “Tell them We will be who we will be.”
Barnabas Piper writes, “Our lives are based on a promise of ‘not yet’ fulfilled through Jesus’s life for those who continue on in belief.” And our belief that God keeps promises makes it possible for us to live with the unsettledness of not yet. We find peace in the assurance that God has our back despite counterarguments.
God chose the name Jesus Christ for us to have a shortcut label that reminds us that God knows everything about the challenges of living in not yet. And through Christ, we learn much about God’s trustworthiness. But we can never know, or even imagine, all there is to know about God. At least not yet.
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Content for this series is based in part on:
Barnabas Piper. Help My Unbelief: Why doubt is not the enemy of faith © Barnabas Piper, 2020. Charlotte : The Good Book Company.
Maria Konnikova. “Why Your Name Matters.” © The New Yorker, December 19, 2013. Retrieved from: link