‘I am who I am’ – God’s eternal identity

Thinking Anew

Save Wood Quay march in Dublin, Saturday Septmeber 23rd, 1978. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

In the 1960s Dublin Corporation decided to build a new headquarters on a four-acre site known as Wood Quay. It caused huge controversy because the entire plot was a major archaeological site, the very core of the Viking settlement of Dublin over which Brian Boru had lost his life in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Public opposition was widespread as seen in the Save Wood Quay protest march in Dublin in which 20,000 people took part in September 1978.

A related concern was the risk to the adjoining Christ Church Cathedral, another part of that same Viking heritage. There would have been serious trouble had the cathedral been damaged. Another important religious building is in danger in tomorrow’s gospel reading. Jesus and some of his followers are leaving the Temple in Jerusalem when one of them comments on the magnificence of the building.

The response of Jesus sent shockwaves far and wide: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

That happened about 40 years later when Roman soldiers sacked Jerusalem, an event commemorated to this day on the triumphal arch of Titus in Rome. The importance of the Temple to the Jewish people cannot be overstated because it was the focal point of their religious identity, a statement in stone of their conviction that they were the chosen people of God and could not fail. Several of their prophets however insisted that special status was conditional and had moral obligations attached; social justice and religious integrity mattered – details that did not seem to register. Centuries earlier Jeremiah had warned against false assumptions: “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!”

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Nonetheless they insisted that God was exclusively on their side and they could not lose. That idea of exclusivity is not confined to Judaism; it exists within Christianity, notably between denominations, each claiming to know God better than anyone else.

But the more global we become and engage with a diversity of human spirituality expressed in other religions the less satisfactory claims to exclusivity appear to be.

Brother John Martin Sahajananda, a Benedictine and one-time prior of an Indian Christian ashram, suggests that the kingdom of God involves going beyond artificial boundaries and seeing one God, one creation of one humanity. He argues that Christians have built walls and in the name of Christ have divided humanity into Christians and non-Christians. Believing that we need a truer understanding of God he turned to scripture: “When Moses asked God his name, God said ‘I am who I am’. That was God’s eternal identity, going beyond time and space. But God also told Moses, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’. Thus, Moses could recognise God as the God of his ancestors. I think this is a profound revelation because it manifests two aspects of truth: the eternal truth and the historical truth.

For me, all religions have arisen out of historical manifestations of the eternal truth. Each religion has developed unique answers to specific questions by listening to the eternal truth. That unique questioning and answering is like climbing a hill and discovering at the summit that many other people have been climbing from different directions…The starting points are different. The eternal truth comes first. It is greater than any religion.” The temple referred to in the gospel reading was almost brand new in the time of Jesus. Herod began construction around 20 BC, and this took 43 years. Many centuries earlier King Solomon had built an equally impressive temple and in his prayer of dedication said: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have built.” I Kings 8.27. The wisdom of Solomon.